Farmers, foragers, and us

By Razib Khan | October 8, 2010 4:41 pm

At the Overcoming Bias weblog Robin Hanson has been ruminating on the shifts in human values and behaviors driven by transitions in modes of production. In particular, the dichotomy between foragers (hunter-gatherers) and farmers. Last week I pointed to Eric Michael Johnson’s review of data which indicate that modes of production may influence the normative marriage system. It is often stated that in most societies the ideal family system is for a polygynous household. This despite the fact that in total numbers those who hold these values are now the minority of humans, and even within these societies most men do not maintain a polygynous household. Johnson’s method is what I will term as “thick,” he began from the bottom-up from detail and made some tentative generalizations. Hanson’s method is relatively “thin,” starting from some general truths his process seems to be to generate a sequence of inferences and entailments from the coarse aspects of human history and nature which he takes as givens.

Here are Hanson’s posts:

Two Types of People
Fear Made Farmers
Why Towns Conform
Forage vs Farm Future

Some general thoughts:

I believe that focusing on the shifts between modes of production is essential in understanding both human cultural and biological evolution, and their interplay. I first started asserting this about six years ago. My tentative thesis is that in our modern age the conflict between “traditional” and “Western” values is to some extent really be a conflict between “traditional” and “more traditional” values. That the individualistic ethos of the modern West, which puts less emphasis on the elaborate norms imposed from identity-groups, is a “throwback” to small-scale societies.

I came to this opinion mostly because of love. The ideology of romantic love has been thoroughly fleshed out in the modern West, and to some extent put at the center of our values in terms of what should matter in a relationship. This is not so in many societies, and was not so in the West in the pre-modern era. But, I believe that the core basic instincts and sentiments from which the ideology of love emerges are innate, and have their antecedents deep in our evolutionary history as a species. Even in societies which discourage romantic love as determinative in cementing a pair-bond the cultural myths still allude to tragic lovers. The impulses must be channeled, constricted, and marginalized, but they remain. The rise of social and political egalitarianism in the 18th and 19th centuries destroyed the power of kin-lineages which were the most self-interested opponents of individual love and choice (a very general illustration of this were the anti-miscegenation laws in the United States, which were passed to preserve the racial purity of the white race, at the expense of the preferences of a minority of whites).

I believe that to a great extent class is a major parameter which we need to take into account when making these assertions about the spirit of the age. In much of the world the norms of traditional societies were enforced and policed only among elites, who were the guardians of the culture. The solemnization of marriage by religious authorities or secular institutions was more a feature of elite unions in the pre-modern age by and large. If property and honor were not at issue, as was less likely to be the case among low-status individuals, marriages of personal choice were no doubt possible. Though in this case there is the confound that choices were generally available only to elite individuals who were then constrained by norms, while low-status individuals who may not have been constrained by norms had little freedom of choice operationally.

The modern age has two countervailing trends. The rise of liberal individualism, and, the spread of traditional values which emphasized a restriction of choice. The latter is a function of the rise of egalitarian cultural awareness, nationalism, and economic surplus. For example, societies where women are ideally segregated and kept apart could only implement this for elite clans which had the economic surplus to afford the removal of their women-folk from the labor force. Low-status individuals may have had to mobilize the whole family, women and children, just to maintain survival at subsistence.  In rural areas of Saudi Arabia women reputedly drive and work as a throwback to older economic necessities (in particular in the Hijaz), but the modern Saudi state can subsidize the leisure of its people. Sex segregation and the employment of a whole class of drivers for women is possible in such circumstances. If Saudi Arabia became poor, there would be no surplus to fund a whole class of religious police, and the poorer folk would no doubt have to mobilize their women-folk for economic production to survive.

History moves in cycles, but it also moves linearly. There is a long debate whether hunter-gatherers were wealthier and healthier than farmers, on average, or whether they were as poor and unhealthy (tellingly, few people argue farmers were on average wealthier and healthier). The literature is mixed in this area. I lean toward the proposition that hunter-gatherers were somewhat healthier than farmers because of a greater diversity of diet, and possibly more variance in population because of more frequent inter-group conflict. But my confidence is modest on this issue. More important is that for almost all of human history our species existed on the Malthusian margin. That is, they were conventional animals whose population tracked resource availability. This implied that median wealth would have remained about the same, as population growth easily matched economic growth. There were exceptional transient periods. I believe that the shift from hunter-gathering to farming in any region was accompanied by generations of nutritional surfeit, as the farmers rapidly spread into “empty” tracts. The settlement of North America by the British, and Europeans in the generations after the Black Death, are other instances of transient periods of relative wealth and health. The key is to remember that this was for all practical purposes a zero-sum world, and wealth followed in the wake of death, while poverty followed in the wake of low mortality.

Our world is different, in particular the developed world. Economic growth does not get swallowed up by population growth. Not only does innovation produce productivity growth far greater than in the past, but greater wealth does not result in superior fertility. This a linear aspect of history, because hunter-gatherers and farmers both lived in the Malthusian world. One group may have been somewhat healthier than the other, but the mortality rate of modern humanity exhibits a qualitatively different pattern, shifted toward very advanced ages.

Additionally, there is a tendency to view the farmer as the prototypical modern man in his or her work ethic, while the hunter-gatherer lived a life of relative leisure. And yet histories of economic development indicate that there was a very noticeable shift from being a peasant to a factory worker in terms of work ethic and attention to time. The reality is that though farmers were very poor, in may be that for much of the year they had little work to do beyond the routine, and, importantly they may not have had the physical robusticity to work intensely for long periods. In this way it may be that pre-modern farmers resembled hunter-gatherers, going from feast to famine to feast. The main difference may have been density and a more sedentary character to life.

– A major difference between hunter-gatherers and farmers is the elaboration of cultural forms because of inter-generational institutions. I believe that supernatural thinking is the norm for the human mind. And certainly I do not see in the few surviving hunter-gatherers exemplars of of cool-headed materialism. I believe that hunter-gatherers had religion, but only the surplus stolen from aggregates of poor farmers could give rise to organized, institutionalized, religion. And it is organized religion which we term as “higher religion.” Higher religion is a system of thought, an elaborated set of norms, which persist over generations, and extend themselves outward. Only with the leisure and inequality of mass societies could we have Brahmins, Satmar Hasidism, or Deobandi punctiliousness.

Though religion is a clear and precise illustration of the principle, it seems that this is a general tendency. Many highly developed cultural forms which have specialist practitioners in the worlds of stolen surplus of the farmers and the post-Malthusian world today, music, art, and literature, clearly have their elementary precursors in the world of the hunter-gatherers. I believe that some of the modern world’s impatience with the baroque and irrational nature of these cultural forms has to do with the weakening of the power of elites and institutions over what are ultimately basic human impulses and competencies.

More later….

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Anthroplogy, History

Comments (10)

  1. DK

    I think that Hanson pretty arbitrarily assigns traits to hunter-gatherers and farmers so that the picture fits his preconceived idea. E.g. supposedly hunter-gatherers are less monogamous and farmers are supposedly more violent. But I think that the little evidence about that kind of stuff that we have suggests exactly contrary.

  2. right. from what robin told me he made some bold assertions to start the iterative process of correction and system-building.

    i would agree with both assertions you made.

  3. “Even in societies which discourage romantic love as determinative in cementing a pair-bond the cultural myths still allude to tragic lovers”

    When looking up the Parthian empire, I found that Vis and Ramin is one of their few surviving literary works. Haven’t been able to find a translation online, so I’d appreciate if anyone had pointers. I had also been wondering if there are any old works holding up polygamy or other alien cultural aspects as an ideal (“It is my sin I am a Pashtun!”). But if even recent traditionalists retained that modal hunter-gatherer mindset they might not be so alien.

  4. Sandgroper

    For mine, Hanson is full of it, he makes numerous assertions which are demonstrably not true, to build…what?

    I don’t see the point.

    How many real life HGs has he known? Or farmers, for the matter. He must be kidding.

    I thought about writing a piece deconstructing what he has written , but then decided I couldn’t be bothered. I’m a civil engineer for goodness sake, why should I have to deconstruct someone who states such untruths so assertively? Not my job. You guys demolish him, I’m here just to learn, not to have to read that kind of sophistry, let alone point out the obvious nonsense. What a waste of time. Well, Zeeb has started the demolition, and I look forward to more.

  5. bioIgnoramus

    “he made some bold assertions to start the iterative process of correction and system-building” may well be the finest euphemism I’ve ever seen for “he’s talking out of his arse”.

  6. I didn’t get past the first post because it was terrible, leading, and grossly inaccurate.

    Having navigated there from this page I knew the punch line. It seemed to me the attempt was not to describe foragers vs farmers but liberals vs. conservatives while trying to some how connect their features to foragers vs farmers. Some of the statements appear to be straight up wrong for example murder rates .
    Others just make no sense hunter foragers care less for money? the question is N/A the don’t have the populations bases to create market economies.
    Allot of the features he uses to draw a parallel between foragers and liberals like traveling and focus on leisure and the arts, ring false because access to these for modern liberals are dependent on material wealth and not highly available to people who have low temporal preference which seems likely to have been the rule among foragers not to mention the influence of IQ.

    The connection he is trying to make is Dependant on badly manipulated versions of outdated models of forager and farmer attributes.

  7. milieu

    @bioIgnoramus, Comment #5,

    Hanson might be following the dictum of …

    “If at times I do seem dogmatic, it is because it is convenient to give my own views as unequivocally as possible.” Bartlett M.S.

  8. bioIgnoramus

    @milieu, but I don’t at all wish to suggest that there’s fundamentally anything wrong with talking out of your arse; extra-arsine conversation can no doubt be stimulating in the extreme, if it helps you get to the bottom of the issue.

  9. milieu

    ditto Razib, Comment #6, lol!


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About Razib Khan

I have degrees in biology and biochemistry, a passion for genetics, history, and philosophy, and shrimp is my favorite food. In relation to nationality I'm a American Northwesterner, in politics I'm a reactionary, and as for religion I have none (I'm an atheist). If you want to know more, see the links at


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