cover artI almost gave up reading Foragers, Farmers and Fossil Fuels: How Human Values Evolve by Ian Morris because his whole thesis just seemed so anecdotal and far-fetched that I spent much of my reading time grumbling. But I kept going because after he makes his arguments, he has four other people, one of them Margaret Atwood, respond to his thesis. He then follows up the critiques with another chapter of his own in which he answers the criticism. I recently likened reading the book to a carrot and a stick with the book being a stick and Atwood at the end being the carrot to keep me going.

In the end I am glad I kept going and not just for Atwood. The book provides quite a lot of food for thought. Before it became a book though, it was a series of lectures, the Tanner Lectures delivered in 2012 and sponsored by Princeton University’s Center for Human Values. The criticism at the end is in response to the lectures. Morris did, of course, do some revising and expanding of the lectures in order to turn them into a book, but I don’t think it was much and believe most of it was in order to facilitate the change in genre from oral lecture to written book.

I don’t want to and can’t go into explicit detail of Morris’s theory, it is simply too complex. If my summary is either intriguing or infuriating enough, however, I recommend reading the book.

To the theory.

Morris argues that the core reason for changes in human values is the manner in which we capture energy. He measures energy in kilocalories which means his argument is very much based in how we get enough food and calories to sustain ourselves. And how we obtain these calories has a direct impact on our values. The main values Morris focuses on are violence, wealth and gender equality but he frequently points out that it is our entire values system he is talking about not just these few.

The book is broken up into three sections with each one centering around the means of energy capture the nicely alliterative title suggests. First we were foragers and hunters. These early societies were prone to violence while at the same time being rather egalitarian when it came to wealth and gender roles. Yes, women tended to be the gatherers and men the hunters, but both modes of obtaining food were just as important so neither gender had much power over the other. Since people moved around a lot, accumulating wealth in the form of property or possessions was not important. A lot of the time, people didn’t even have to work that hard in order to feed the group, not that it was an easy life, but it was not one in which people spent all day working. However, because the amount of energy that could be captured through foraging was limited, groups were small, settlements were few and far between, and large settlements approaching anything like a town were rare.

That is until people discovered farming. Farming required a big trade-off, a lot more work was needed but the amount of kilocalories skyrocketed. More food meant better health and longevity which meant people also reproduced more. Farming requires you stay in one place which meant villages and towns and cities. It also meant hierarchy became valuable. Wealth accumulation became possible. Violence meted out be individuals became discouraged and laws were written. Gender roles became more separated, more enforced, and women were relegated to the house and the kitchen. Because farming required huge labor inputs in order to obtain huge energy output, slavery and forced labor were considered acceptable. Human population exploded, cities expanded, empires were possible and a whole lot of other things too that people had never cared about before. Eventually, however, the energy available from farming hit a ceiling it could not expand past.

But then northern Europe discovered fossil fuels. It is the form of energy capture that has allowed the Earth’s population to grow past 7 billion. It is what has allowed us to have smartphones and computers and cars, cheap heating and cooling for our houses. Huge cities. It is what has allowed the United States to move from 90% of the labor force being farmers to just 2%. Morris argues that it is a major factor in our ability to end slavery worldwide, for the major drop in individual violence and, bloody as the twentieth century was, state violence. It is also the biggest factor in changes of gender equity and wealth equity.

But now we are coming to the end of fossil fuels, what is next? Morris doesn’t claim to know but he offers a few possibilities that range from complete societal collapse to a nearly utopian post-human future. Depending on what happens at the upcoming climate change talks in Paris, I’m hedging for something in between and hoping it is closer to the utopian side of things than the complete collapse option.

The criticisms of Morris’s arguments were interesting for the most part. Atwood looked ahead to the future and suggested if society does indeed collapse we will almost immediately return to a foraging set of values. As you would expect, her short piece was witty and thoughtful.

Another of the critics was a philosopher and I have no idea what she was going on about most of the time talking about real values and ideal values and what are values anyway? Another criticism came from a historian who disagreed with the way Morris approached history. And the fourth critique came from a classicist who accused Morris of operating from a capitalist bias that skewed everything and invalidated all.

At this point in my reading I was not as strongly against Morris’s argument as I was in the beginning but I still disagreed. After I read his thoughtful and well-argued rebuttal, I am wondering if maybe, just maybe, he is actually on to something. I am not sure what it is that swayed me, it might be that his writing style in the rebuttal had more personality while still being rigorously argued. It could be that in answering the criticism of the others, he made is thesis more rounded and clear. It is possible that since Atwood didn’t rip him to shreds or at least leave claw marks, I was more lenient on him.

Whatever the case, whether his argument is right or wrong I have no idea and I am not sure that it is something that can actually be proved one way or the other. What I can say is that Morris has worked out a well argued and thought provoking framework through which we can view the evolution of human values. And agree or disagree with him, the more frameworks we have for viewing and discussing these kinds of things, the better in my opinion. Because really, these frameworks are about telling the story of human development and one story does not tell us everything but it can tell us something.