Book review: Foragers, Farmers, and Fossil Fuels: How Human Values Evolve, by Ian Morris.
This book gives the impression that Morris had a halfway decent book in mind, but forgot to write down important parts of it.
He devotes large (possibly excessive) parts of the book to describing worldwide changes in what people value that correlate with the shifts to farming and then industry.
He convinces me that there’s some sort of connection between those values and how much energy per capita each society is able to use. He probably has a clue or two what that connection is, but the book failed to enlighten me about the connection.
He repeatedly claims that each age gets the thought that it needs. I find that about as reasonable as claiming that the widespread malnutrition associated with farming was what farming cultures needed. Indeed, his description of how farming caused gender inequality focuses on increased ability of men to inflict pain on women, and on increased incentives to do so. That sounds like a society made worse off, not getting what it needs.
He mentions (almost as an afterthought) some moderately interesting models of what caused specific changes in values as a result of the agricultural revolution.
He does an ok job of explaining the increased support for hierarchy in farming societies as an effect of the community size increasing past the Dunbar Number.
He attributes the reduced support for hierarchy in the industrial world to a need for interchangeable citizens. But he doesn’t document that increased need for interchangeability, and I’m skeptical that any such effect was strong. See The Institutional Revolution for a well thought out alternative model.
I had hoped to find some ideas about how to predict value changes that will result from the next big revolution. But I can’t figure out how to usefully apply his ideas to novel situations.
See also Robin Hanson’s review.