How Human Values Evolve
* Book: Foragers, Farmers, and Fossil Fuels: How Human Values Evolve. By Ian Morris. Princeton University Press, 2015
"Most people in the world today think democracy and gender equality are good, and that violence and wealth inequality are bad. But most people who lived during the 10,000 years before the nineteenth century thought just the opposite. Drawing on archaeology, anthropology, biology, and history, Ian Morris explains why. Fundamental long-term changes in values, Morris argues, are driven by the most basic force of all: energy. Humans have found three main ways to get the energy they need—from foraging, farming, and fossil fuels. Each energy source sets strict limits on what kinds of societies can succeed, and each kind of society rewards specific values. But if our fossil-fuel world favors democratic, open societies, the ongoing revolution in energy capture means that our most cherished values are very likely to turn out not to be useful any more. Foragers, Farmers, and Fossil Fuels offers a compelling new argument about the evolution of human values, one that has far-reaching implications for how we understand the past—and for what might happen next."
EACH AGE GETS THE THOUGHT IT NEEDS (pp. 1-24)
"In 1982, I went on my first archaeological excavation in Greece. I was thrilled: I had dug a lot in Britain, but this was something else entirely. An ancient Land Rover took me from Birmingham as far as Thessaloniki, where I caught an even more ancient bus to Assiros, the farming village where we would be working (figure 1.1).¹ There I settled into the project’s routine. All day long we would count, weigh, and catalogue fragments of prehistoric pottery, and as the sun went down, we would revive ourselves with a glass or two of ouzo in the dig house’s...
I begin with foraging societies. “Foraging,” one standard reference work helpfully suggests, means the “hunting of wild animals, gathering of wild plants, and fishing, with no domestication of plants, and no domesticated animals except the dog”¹ (hence the common use of the term “hunter-gatherers” as a synonym for “foragers”). The consequence of this strategy of energy capture, another standard work observes, is that foragers “exercise no deliberate alteration of the gene pool of exploited resources.”²
As we will see in this chapter, there are many versions of foraging (some anthropologists therefore prefer to speak of a “foraging spectrum”),³ and in...
Farmers are people whose most important source of energy is domesticated plants and animals. At the start of chapter 2, I quoted Catherine Panter-Brick’s definition of foragers as people who “exercise no deliberate alteration of the gene pool of exploited resources” and consequently “live in small groups, and . . . move around a lot”;¹ farmers, by contrast, do deliberately alter the gene pool of exploited resources, live in large (often very large) groups, and move around rather little. In foragers’ mobile but tiny bands, the places change but the faces stay the same; in farmers’ static but big villages,...
Humanity has always depended on solar energy. Sunlight hits the earth, where plants photosynthesize it into chemical energy; animals eat the plants, converting their chemical energy to kinetic energy; and humans eat both plants and other animals. In the last two centuries, however, humans have vastly increased the amount of energy they capture by learning to tap into fossilized sunlight. This comes chiefly in the form of vast deposits of coal, gas, and oil buried under the earth’s surface since the Carboniferous Era, roughly 300 to 360 million years ago. Exploiting fossil fuels has set off an energy bonanza, transforming...
THE EVOLUTION OF VALUES: BIOLOGY, CULTURE, AND THE SHAPE OF THINGS TO COME
In chapters 2 to 4, I attempted to tell the story of human values across the twenty thousand years since the coldest point of the last ice age. I suggested that modern human values initially emerged somewhere around 100,000 years ago (± 50,000 years) as a consequence of the biological evolution of our big, fast brains, and that once we had our big, fast brains, cultural evolution became a possibility too. Because of cultural evolution, human values have mutated rapidly in the last twenty thousand years, and the pace of change has accelerated in the last two hundred years.
ON THE IDEOLOGY OF IMAGINING THAT “EACH AGE GETS THE THOUGHT IT NEEDS”
I too, as Ian did, would in Kenya have paid a local family to fetch and boil the water. He drew the lesson that biological evolution has given us common sense, which tells us to adapt to our circumstances. But “common sense” is—paradoxically—usually ideological. Ian was in Kenya as a temporary individual observer. For the villagers, it would be better not to adapt to the circumstances but to transform them, by working for the improvement of the water supply. Ian’s lectures were learned, stimulating, persuasive, and misleading in a way that I consider politically disastrous. According to Ian...
BUT WHAT WAS IT REALLY LIKE? THE LIMITATIONS OF MEASURING HISTORICAL VALUES
In my response to the Tanner Lecture presentation made by Ian Morris, I emphasized the great distance that separated the our two scholarly approaches to history. Morris worked on a complex global scale, moving back and forth across vast spans of time and space, whereas I stayed with specific individuals in all their intricacies at the local level, in the fleeting integrations that constituted human life in the past. To Morris, the past and the distant historical times and spaces could be calculated with precision, and were subject to order and quantification; that made sense, since Morris’s ultimate goal was...
ETERNAL VALUES, EVOLVING VALUES, AND THE VALUE OF THE SELF
Ian Morris assures us that he does not think his view implies “that what is (let alone what has been) is what ought to be.”⁴ Nevertheless, Morris’s speculations raise questions about the relationship between the values that people actually do hold, or have held, and the values that we ought to hold, if indeed there are any such values. In order to make it less cumbersome to talk about this, I want to mark the distinction terminologically, but it turns out that that is rather hard to do. I could call the values that we ought to hold “real values,”...
WHEN THE LIGHTS GO OUT: HUMAN VALUES AFTER THE COLLAPSE OF CIVILIZATION
I would like to thank Professor Morris for his stimulating, bracing, synthesizing, and heart-stoppingly terrifying lecture, which I predict will soon become a video game, like Snakes and Ladders but with a lot more snakes.
Let me briefly place myself. I’m a writer of fiction—I say this without shame, especially since the brain gurus have revealed that the narrative skills that we evolved in the Pleistocene were a prime driver of evolution. Without them, we’d have the language aptitudes of the Walking Dead, and would thus be unable to discuss human values in the way that we are doing...
MY CORRECT VIEWS ON EVERYTHING
In academia, criticism is the sincerest form of flattery. I therefore owe major thanks to Phil Kleinheinz, Josh Ober, Kathy St. John, Walter Scheidel, Paul Seabright, Ken Wardle, the Princeton University Press’s two anonymous reviewers, and my tireless and patient editors Steve Macedo and Rob Tempio, all of whom read and commented on earlier versions of this book.¹ But I owe even more thanks to Margaret Atwood, Christine Korsgaard, Richard Seaford, and Jonathan Spence, who not only took the trouble to travel to Princeton in October 2012 to respond to my original lectures but also took still more trouble to..