An Interview with Ian Morris, author of Foragers, Farmers, and Fossil Fuels: How Human Values Evolve.
In your book you look at the evolution of human values over tens of thousands of years. Can you briefly say why and how values change? Isn’t morality universal and unchanging?
The answer to the last part of this question is easy: yes and no. I say yes because in one sense, morality certainly is universal and unchanging. Our human values are the outcome of millions of years of evolution. Animals that were born with genes that predisposed them to value fairness, love, honor, decency, and a host of related virtues tended to flourish, while animals that did not value fairness, etc., tended not to flourish. As a result, a disposition toward these prosocial attitudes spread through the gene pool, and almost all humans share these same core values. The reason I also say no, though, is because the ways people have interpreted fairness, etc., have varied wildly through time. Few historians dispute this; but fewer still have seen that what causes values to change is not the deep thoughts of philosophers but the most basic force of all–energy. As humanity has moved from foraging through farming to fossil-fuel use, we have found that different levels of energy capture call for different kinds of social organization, and that these different kinds of organization favor very different interpretations of human values. To foragers, fairness often means that everyone should receive equal shares of food, respect, and other good things, but to people in farming society, fairness often means that people should receive very different shares, because they are felt to deserve different shares. Men deserve more than women, the rich deserve more than the poor, the free deserve more than the enslaved, and so on through too many categories to count. Foragers and farmers feel the ways they do not because the former are all saints and the latter all sinners, but because it would be almost impossible to run a foraging society like a feudal monarchy and almost impossible to run a farming society as a band of equals. Foragers who lean toward equality and farmers who lean toward hierarchy itend to outperform and replace foragers and farmers who do not. In our own age of fossil fuels, values have continued to mutate. We tend to believe that fairness means that everyone should receive somewhat equal–but not too equal–shares of food, respect, and other good things. Anthropologists who spend time in foraging or farming societies often feel as if they have stepped into alien worlds, where values are upside-down; and people from most periods in the past would have felt exactly the same way about us.
In our current Fossil Fuel age of values, you argue that violence and inequality have diminished greatly from past periods. That seems very counter-intuitive. Can you elaborate?.
A lot of people today are nostalgic for a simpler, vanished, preindustrial world, and there are ways in which they are right to be so; but not if they value peace, prosperity, or (on the whole) equality. Across the last fifty years, social scientists have accumulated data that allow us to measure wealth, inequality, and rates of violence in the past. The results are surprising–so much so that they can seem, as you suggest, counterintuitive. Foraging societies tended to be quite equal in wealth, if only because almost everyone was desperately poor (by one calculation, the average income was the equivalent of about $1.10 per day). They also tended to be very violent (by many calculations, more than 10 percent of foragers died violently). Farming societies tended to be less violent than foraging societies (5 percent rates of violent death were probably not uncommon) and not quite so poor (average incomes above $2.00 per day were common); but they were also massively unequal, regularly having tiny elites that owned thousands of times more than the ordinary peasant Fossil fuel societies, by contrast, are the safest and richest the world has ever seen, and are also more equal than all but the simplest foraging groups. Globally, the average person earns $25 per day and stands a 0.7 percent chance of dying violently, and in some countries progressive taxation has pushed income inequality down close to levels not seen since the simplest foraging societies (even if it is now again on the rise). In every era before AD 1800, life expectancy at birth averaged less than 25 years; now it is 63 years. Despite all the things we might not like about our own age, it would have seemed like a magical kingdom to people in the past..
What are some of the ways our values might change as we move away from a reliance on fossil fuels?
No one knows what the future will bring, but there are plenty of signs that we are rapidly moving beyond fossil fuels. I argue in this book that changes in the amount of energy humans harvest from the world pushes them into new kinds of organizations which in turn favor different interpretations of core human values; if this is right, we might expect the 21st century to see the biggest and profoundest transformation in values in history. The industrial revolution released a flood of energy in the 19th and 20th centuries, which favored societies that evolved toward democracy, rule of law, peace, freedom, and gender equality; the big question is whether the 21st century will see these trends going even further, or whether it will see them going into reverse. The answer, I suggest, is that it all depends. There are signs that in the short term–roughly the next generation–we will see increasing inequality and increasing acceptance that such inequality is right, along with increasing instability and violence. In the medium term–the next two or three generations–we may see the values of the fossil-fuel age go into overdrive; but in the longer term–say the next century or so–the transformations may become so massive that it no longer makes much sense to speak of human values at all, because what it means to be a human being might change more in the next 100 years than it has done in the previous 100,000..
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File created: 11/4/2014