I was first introduced to the work of Ian Morris last summer. Somebody suggested that I read his book Why the West Rules for Now, which attempts to explain the differential rates of human social development between East and West over the past 12,000 years. I wasn’t expecting much: I generally prefer narrowly focused historical works, not ones that attempt to cover the whole of human history. But I was pleasantly surprised. Morris definitely has a knack for synthesising large swathes of historical data and presenting compelling explanatory narratives. I was particularly impressed by his social development index, a tool for measuring the historical level of social development across different human societies (something explained at great length in his book The Measure of Civilisation). I also enjoyed Morris’s futuristic leanings: he ended the book by speculating about future trends by drawing lessons from the historical ones.
Since my initial foray, I think I’ve read every one of Morris’s ‘popular’ books. His most recent one — Foragers, Farmers and Fossil Fuels — is probably my favourite. Although it may be the flakiest in terms of the empirical data used to back up its central thesis, it is nevertheless the one that comes closest to my own research interests. The book takes the standard Marxist view* — that social values are determined by material culture — and extends it in an effort to explain three different value systems that have dominated human history. The central thesis is that the values expressed and enforced by human societies are primarily a function of the techniques they use for energy capture. There have been three main techniques for energy capture over the course of human history — foraging, farming, and the use of fossil fuels — and hence three main value systems.
The thesis is simple in its general outline, but there is a great deal of complexity in its defence. Morris acknowledges that the three value systems he describes are ‘ideal types’. Actual historical human societies vary greatly in the particular values they express. Nevertheless, he maintains that these variations can be grouped into these general types — exceptions to the categories often tell us something important that reinforces the utility of the general category. And, as in his other books, the real strength of Morris’s work is his ability to assemble a wealth of data on the different types of society to back up his main claims. If you want a readable and well-researched overview of human social evolution, this is about as good a book as I have read on the topic. It also contains critical rejoinders to Morris’s claims, along with a further response by him, so it is not one-sided.
That’s all by way of introduction. In this post, I want to do something relatively modest. I want to describe the three main value systems that Morris identifies in the book. I cannot hope to do justice to the detail of Morris’s actual account — you will need to read the book for that — but I can hope to share what I think is an interesting way of categorising and understanding human society. This is a useful exercise for me because I am hoping to use some of Morris’s insights in my own work about future governance systems and their values (more on that another time). In what follows, I’ll go through each of the three types of society and describe their value systems.
1. Foraging Societies and their Values
Foragers capture energy by hunting and gathering. That is to say, they hunt and kill wild animals, and they gather wild plants. They then consume both to supply themselves with the calories they need to get through the day. They also use animal and plant products to build the shelters and clothes to enable them to survive in different climates. Foraging societies vary considerably (some ethnographers refer to the ‘foraging spectrum’) but most of the variation is explained by differences in geographical location. For example, in tropical climates, most energy is procured from plants; in colder, polar climates, animals are the main source of energy.
Foraging societies share a number of key features. They are generally small groups of people and they move about a lot. Modern foraging groups usually consist of tribes of up to around 500 people, but most individuals spend their days with two to eight closely related people (Morris 2015, 30-31). Foraging groups are close knit, linked by kinship relations. Foraging communities have very low population densities, typically less than one person per square mile. Foraging societies that buck these trends are able to do so because they live in regions of relative abundance, i.e. the local animal or plant population is sufficiently abundant to support larger groups of people.
What kinds of values do foraging societies have? Let’s start with a definition. For present purposes, I’ll define ‘values’ as biases in behaviour and understanding. This is a descriptive definition, not a normative one. A group of people can be said to value X if their behaviour is biased in favour of X, they try to punish or discipline people who deviate from X, and if they express approval or fondness for X. This descriptive approach to values fits with the perspective of Morris’s book. How do we know what foragers value? Morris admits that the evidence isn’t great. There are three main sources: (i) archaeological evidence, which is usually silent about values; (ii) ancient historical accounts, which are usually biased; and (iii) modern ethnographic studies. The latter are the best source of data but they have to be treated with some scepticism. Modern foraging societies have been exposed to farming and fossil fuel societies. This is likely to ‘contaminate’ the set of values they espouse. They are not like their historical predecessors who never encountered farming or fossil fuels.
With those limitations in mind, Morris investigates the values of foraging societies in four main domains: (i) attitudes toward violence; (ii) political inequality; (iii) wealth inequality; and (iv) gender inequality. He uses the same four domains in his analysis of farming and fossil fuel societies. Here is a brief summary of his interpretation of the data:
Violence: Foraging societies usually have a ‘middling’ attitude toward violence. They view it as a necessary means toward solving certain types of social and inter-tribal conflict. In support of this, Morris cites evidence on rates of violent death in foraging societies. Most such societies are small, but the rate of violent death seems to be far higher (per capita) than it is in modern fossil fuel societies. To be clear, it is not that members of these societies favour or condone violence; it is simply that they acknowledge situations in which it is acceptable, e.g. violent raids on rival groups, cycles of tit-for-tat revenge killings and so on.
Political Inequality: Foraging societies are generally flat in terms of political inequality. They do sometimes adopt leaders, but these are often temporary and they favour consensus decision-making. Some studies — such as Richard Lee’s study of the !Kung San — show how foraging societies try to reinforce the lack of political hierarchy. If anyone tries to assert authority over the group, other members of the group resort to mockery, ostracism, blunt criticism and, in extreme cases, exile in order to prevent them from being successful.
Wealth Inequality: Foraging societies are generally flat in terms of wealth inequality. The Gini coefficient — which is a way of measuring inequality of wealth distribution with 0 representing perfect equality and 1 representing perfect inequality — for foraging societies averages at 0.25, which is relatively low (by comparison with farming and fossil fuel societies). There are good reasons for this: resources are scarce and often shared among group members in a form on ongoing reciprocal altruism; and foragers move around a lot and are consequently unable to accumulate much material wealth. There are some exceptions to this (e.g. groups in Sungir in east Russia and North America’s Pacific Coast) but this is usually when foragers live in regions of abundance. ‘[N]o subgroup within a foraging society has ever set itself up as a rentier class that owns the means of production’ (Morris 2015, 38).
Gender Inequality: Foraging societies have some noticeable gender inequalities. There is usually a gendered division of labour — men hunt and do most handicrafts; women gather, prepare food and do some handicrafts. It is also usually taken for granted that men should be in charge in such societies. This is arguably because men are the source of meat and violent protection and women have to bargain for these things. That said, the gender hierarchies are not steep and, compared to farming societies, foragers tend to have more relaxed attitudes toward premarital virginity and marital fidelity.
I have summarised all this in the image below.
2. Farming Societies and their Values
Farmers get their energy from domesticated plants and animals. In other words, instead of moving around to find a natural environment that enables them to survive, they try to manipulate and control their environment in order to supply them with the energy they need. Farming societies tend to be much larger than foraging societies, sometimes growing to encompass empires of millions of people. They also tend to be static, expanding out from some stable geographical core.
There is huge diversity in farming societies. Morris suggests that one useful way to think about it is to use a three-pointed star to visualise the different types of farming societies. At one point, there are the horticulturalists, who are effectively just slightly more sophisticated foragers using food cultivation techniques. They have limited supplies of domesticated plants and animals and continue to live much like foragers. At the second point, you have protoindustrial nations/empires, which are very large social organisations using complex methods of domestication and having elaborate legal and bureaucratic systems. They were still standing at the dawn of the fossil fuel age. Then, at the third point, you have commercial city states like ancient Athens or medieval Venice, which were urban centres of trade and commerce for farming communities. At the centre you have what Morris calls ‘peasant societies’ which are the ideal type of farming society. Peasant societies are noteworthy for one main reason: they consist of a large underclass of agricultural labours who do the main business of energy capture, and then a ruling elite. This already tells us something interesting about the values of such societies.
The history of the agricultural revolution is fascinating and is recounted in some detail in Morris’s book. He explains how the domestication of plants and animals first arose in certain geographical regions (the Lucky Latitudes) and how farming then spread from those regions. He also explains the differences in average hours worked when you compare farming societies to foraging societies. I won’t go into that historical detail here. What is noteworthy for present purposes is simply how farming enabled a massive ramping-up in our ability to capture energy from our environment. The most successful foraging societies typically captured about 5,000 kcal per person per day. The most successful farming societies peaked at around 30,000 kcal per person per day. This enabled much larger populations and much higher population densities. This forced innovations in social organisation, which in turn led to a shift in values:
Violence: Farmers have a somewhat ambivalent attitude toward violence. Farming societies require a great deal of cooperation and coordination among the peasant class in order to ensure adequate energy capture. They consequently tended to shun interpersonal violence as means to resolve disputes. The state, either a ruling God-like king or a political class, were deemed to be the legitimate users of force. They could use force to pacify peasant labourers and conquer new lands. That said, there were violent uprisings against the state if it was felt that it was not exercising its power legitimately.
Political Inequality: Farming societies have steep political inequalities. People within such societies are often obsessed with rank and class. That said, there was much more innovation in political organisation across farming societies than there was across foraging societies. The classic political organisation involved a God-like ruler (often explicitly recognised as a god) sitting atop a ruling aristocracy, propped up by a large peasant class. Some societies adopted a more bureaucratic or democratic leadership, though there was often movement back-and-forth between modes of political organisation. Alleged exceptions to the steep hierarchy often prove the rule. Athens is usually the go-to example. It was a democracy — indeed, the birthplace of democracy — but only for a privileged group of wealthy male land- and slave-owners. Athens was also unique insofar as it was a commercial trading port situated within a broader farming society.
Wealth Inequality: Farming societies have steep wealth inequalities. Indeed, virtually all farming societies relied upon slavery. A large underclass of forced labourers was used to prop-up an elite and often extremely wealthy upper class. The Gini coefficient in farming societies averaged at about 0.48, which is higher than what we currently have in the Western world. Morris gives some vivid examples of this. The most interesting is probably that of C. Caecilius Isidorus, a wealthy Roman, whose will survives to this day and contains a list of all the property he owned. It included enough cash to feed 500,000 people for a year. Owning property became important in these societies because it was one of the primary agricultural resources. Laws were put in place to protect such ownership. People could now accumulate wealth, keep it in their families and use it to further distinguish themselves from others.
Gender Inequality: Farming societies have significant gender inequalities. Morris argues that this is down to the gendered division of labour that emerged early on in agrarian societies. Possibly because of men’s generally greater upper-body strength, outdoor activity (tending to animals and crops) became men’s work whereas indoor activities (food preparation, home care, childcare) became women’s work. Farming societies could support a lot more people and so women started having more children. This consequently led to women spending more of their adult lives involved in childcare related activities. They had little time or opportunity for anything else. This in turn created systems of norms that reinforced the gendered view of the world. Because of the importance of family and property, societies became obsessed with female sexual purity and fidelity.
A simple way to think of the values of farming societies is in terms of the ‘Old Deal’. This is something that is described at length in Morris’s book. In essence, it was a general theory of who belonged where in the world. The idea was that there was some ‘natural’ order in society. Some people belonged in certain roles (e.g. slaves were best-suited to be slaves; kings were best-suited to be kings). The caste system is the classic instantiation of this worldview. Attempts to deviate from this natural order were treated with suspicion and hostility.
3. Fossil Fuel Societies and their Values
Fossil fuel societies get their energy from…well…from fossil fuels. The vast majority of us (certainly anyone reading this blog) live in fossil fuel societies. These societies got started in the mid-18th century in northern Europe. The invention of the steam engine is usually pinpointed as the spark that ignited the fossil fuel revolution. This was the first major revolution in energy capture. Subsequent revolutions emerged with the invention of electricity, combustion engines and, eventually, non-fossil fuel energy sources like nuclear power.
Unlike the farming revolution, the fossil fuel revolution did not start in several different places at several different times. It only started once. The reason for this is that once the fossil fuel method of energy capture was mastered, the social systems that mastered it managed to project their power globally, eventually colonising much of the known world. This is explored in great detail in Morris’s earlier work Why the West Rules for Now. There is diversity in the organisation of fossil fuel societies — we see that to some extent today — but as Morris points out there have really been two major forms of social organisation: liberal forms, that prioritise individual freedom and autonomy and facilitate democratic politics; and illiberal forms, that prioritise top-down control and often limit political participation. The 20th Century competition between liberalism, fascism and communism suggests to Morris that liberal forms are generally more sustainable.
The rise of fossil fuel societies brought with it another massive ramping-up in energy capture. Where farming societies peaked at around 30,000 kcal per person per day, industrial societies in the West were averaging over 230,000 kcal per person per day by the 1970s. That number is continuing to grow and energy capture is equalising between the East and West. This has in turn facilitated much larger populations and much higher population densities. The largest cities in farming societies tended to have around 1 million people living in them. Today, the largest city in the world (Tokyo) has over 38 million people living in it.
We have much more evidence for the values of people in fossil fuel societies. We live in such societies and so we have a sense of their values ourselves; we can infer the values from social and political organisations; and polling groups such as Gallup regularly conduct worldwide surveys of these values. Indeed, there is possibly too much evidence to categorise. There is also complexity in the picture because many societies inherit pre-existing value systems (particularly the values from farming societies) via their cultures, laws and institutions. Nevertheless, Morris argues that there are some clear trends emerging:
Violence: Fossil fuel societies are opposed to violence. There is very little tolerance for interpersonal violence (Morris cites poll data where the majority of people claim to be total pacifists in their daily lives) and increasingly less tolerance for political or state violence. There is some recognition that this is necessary, but it is generally to be avoided at all cost. The antipathy toward violence is reflected in some studies which suggest a declining rate of violence across the developed world (Pinker’s Better Angels of our Nature being the most famous work on this topic).
Political Inequality: Most fossil fuel societies are politically flat, at least in theory. There is no God-given, normatively validated political ruling class. There may be de facto political elites, of course, but most people express opposition to this idea. Furthermore, most regimes express fealty to the idea that everyone is equal before the law and is entitled to the same rights and protections. Indeed, the transition to fossil fuel societies has often been marked by opposition to pre-existing Old Deal political hierarchies. The most notable form of opposition was probably the abolition of slavery and the rejection of the view that some people naturally deserve to be slaves.
Wealth Inequality: Fossil fuel societies have an ambivalent attitude toward wealth inequality. Some regimes have tried to stamp out such inequality through forceful redistribution (communist regimes being the classic example of this); others tolerate it in an effort to incentivise economic activity. Morris suggests that the compromise position that has emerged in liberal Western societies seems to be winning out across the world: equality of opportunity is encouraged, but not equality of outcome. State taxation and redistribution is then used to correct for the worst excesses of wealth inequality. He also cites data suggesting that the most sustainable level of wealth inequality for fossil fuel societies seems to be a Gini coefficient of between 0.25 and 0.35. Since 1970 the Gini scores within Western countries have been rising, but global wealth inequality has been falling.
Gender Inequality: Fossil fuel societies have become intolerant of gender inequality, though it has been something of a struggle. Morris argues that the technologies supported by the fossil fuel revolution eventually broke down the rationale for the pre-existing gendered division of labour. Muscle power was no longer so important; brain-power became key. Contraception allowed women (and men) to control the number of children they had. Various other technologies reduced the burden of housework (e.g. automated cleaning equipment). Of course, gendered stereotypes and attitudes remained long after the dawn of the fossil fuel age (and linger to this day) but there is widespread recognition that they are undesirable.
I should note here that the chapter on fossil fuel societies is one of the longest in Morris’s book and he explores the nuances and the evidential basis for his claims about values in a lot of detail. I’m skipping over virtually all of that in my summary.
As I said at the outset, I think that it is an interesting way of describing and categorising the evolution of human values. And as set out by Morris, it seems to fit the data, but I’m not well-versed enough in the empirical minutiae to dispute what he says.
By way of conclusion, I should say something about why Morris thinks that these changes have taken place. Obviously, he thinks that the changes in techniques of energy capture are the root cause of the changes in values, but he does have a more elaborate explanatory framework. I don’t have time to cover it in great detail here, but in broad outline it all hangs on the relationship between energy capture and population size and density. In essence, he thinks that changes in energy capture encouraged changes in population size and density, which in turn forced changes in social organisation, which encouraged experiments in different value systems. Social organisations that adopted particular sets of values tended to do better than others who adopted alternative values, which eventually led societies to settle down into the general patterns outlined above. This sounds vaguely plausible, but of course it is very difficult to test.
I want to close with one final image, taken from Morris’s book. This is his ‘reductionist, simplifying and doubtless distorting’ attempt to compare the value systems of all three societies. It focuses on the different attitudes toward violence and inequality in those societies (i.e. whether they view violence or inequality as good or bad things). There is something interesting about the patterns this diagram reveals. Take a look:
Did you notice the pattern? Farming societies are relatively more different than fossil fuel and foraging societies. They are, in a sense, the societies with values most alien to our own. Morris suggests that some of the contemporary clash of civilisations can be understood in terms of cultures that continue to cling to agrarian value systems in the face of fossil fuel imperialism.
Morris has some interesting speculations about what all this means for the future as we transition to a post-fossil fuel society. I have some thoughts on this too. I hope to outline them another time.
*Morris doesn’t explicitly endorse the Marxist view in his book - he relies more on the work evolutionary theorists like Boyd and Richerson - nevertheless there is some affinity with the Marxist view.