Celebrate National Poetry Month with Colm Tóibín’s On Elizabeth Bishop

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Author photo by Phoebe

Author photo by Phoebe Ling

In the first entry in this month’s National Poetry Month (#npm15) blog series, we are proud to feature Colm Tóibín’s On Elizabeth Bishop, the latest title in the Writers on Writers series. Irish novelist, critic, and playwright Tóibín is both a fan of and known as a master of subtle language (as evidenced by his selection of Henry James’s The Golden Bowl as current host of The Wall Street Journal Book Club), so it is apt that he considers the famously enigmatic American poet Bishop among one of his lasting literary influences.

Tóibín discovered Bishop in his teens and brought her Selected Poems in his suitcase to Barcelona (the setting of his first novels The South and Homage to Barcelona). He offers a personal and incisive introduction to Bishop’s life and work. Spanning her poetry, biography, letters, and prose works, Tóibín creates a beautiful and complex picture of Bishop while also revealing how her work has shaped his sensibility as a writer and how her experiences of loss and exile resonate with his own relationships to place, memory, and language.

Tampa Bay TiToibin_OnElizabethBishopmes book editor Colette Bancroft recently selected On Elizabeth Bishop as one of her notable prose books on poetry. Kirkus Reviews writes that Tóibín’s book is “[a]n admiring critical portrait of a great American poet and a master of subtlety….An inspiring appreciation from one writer to another.” A Starred Review in Publishers Weekly reads, “Novelist Tóibín gives an intimate and engaging look at Elizabeth Bishop’s poetry and its influence on his own work. . . . Whether one is familiar with Bishop’s life and work or is looking to Tóibín to learn more, this book will appeal to many readers.” At the Arts Fuse, Lloyd Schwartz calls it “a particularly welcome addition to the Princeton University Press Writers on Writers series. . . . [F]ew critics have dealt more revealingly than Tóibin with Bishop’s habitual illusion of ‘spontaneous’ self-correction, her process of thinking aloud on the page.” Across the pond, poet Eavan Boland writes in the Irish Times:

[C]ritical method at its best….Unorthodox, original and deeply effective….The close mesh between Tóibín’s growth as a writer and Bishop’s journey as a poet, the eloquent mirroring of place and displacement, and above all the openness to a poet’s language, a poet’s truth put this among the best books on poetry I have read in years. I have no doubt it will become an essential text on her work.

Read the first chapter of On Elizabeth Bishop on the PUP site. You can also read eleven of Bishop’s poems, including “One Art” and “The Fish,” at the Academy of American Poets site.

Don’t forget that this year’s Poem in Your Pocket Day is coming up at the end of the month (April 30; #pocketpoem). Which of Bishop’s poems would you want to carry around in your pocket to share with friends and family?

Spotlight on…Letter-Writers

Italo Calvino: Letters, 1941-1985

Italo Calvino:
Letters, 1941-1985

For the final post in this series, we turn to the raw materials of biography with two volumes of collected letters. Private letters often give a very different picture from public writings – less guarded, more spontaneous and immediate. They can shed light on the development of ideas and concepts over time, revealing the struggle so often obscured by the perfection of the finished work. These letters are a vital primary source for biographers. It seems certain that the rise of email and decline of letter-writing will profoundly affect the work of future biographers. Will email prove as durable as paper? Will the sheer volume of electronic correspondence defeat even the most dedicated researchers? It may be decades before the answers to these questions are clear. For now, we are still seeing significant collections of letters published, allowing readers to make their own first-hand acquaintance with Carl Jung and Italo Calvino.

Analytical Psychology in Exile collects the correspondence between Jung and one of his most brilliant students, Erich Neumann. The letters span nearly three decades, offering a fascinating insight into the maturing of Jung’s theories as he shares them with, and defends them against, the younger Neumann. Jung has been accused of sympathy with the Nazi regime in Germany, and of anti-semitism, yet here we see him in dialogue with a Zionist Jew who was forced to flee Germany for Tel Aviv in 1934. Inevitably, given the impending catastrophe, these letters touch on complex and controversial issues such as the psychology of fascism and anti-semitism, and the crushing experience of exile. Neumann lived to see the founding of the state of Israel and died there in 1960; although nearly thirty years his senior, Jung outlived him by a year.

While Jung passed the Second World War in the comparative security of Switzerland, Italo Calvino experienced first-hand the dangers of life in Fascist Italy. In Italo Calvino: Letters, 1941-1985, that experience is most profoundly seen in an absence, the lack of any correspondence from his years in hiding as a member of the Italian resistance. Although his letters rarely refer to the war, his time fighting with the resistance resulted in a deep philosophical and personal commitment to communism. We see his disillusion and resignation from the Communist Party following the crushing of the Hungarian revolution of 1956 and his excitement at the fresh hope offered by the événements of 1968 in Paris. The course of his writing, from the autobiographical realism of The Path to the Nest of Spiders to the dazzling metafiction of If On A Winter’s Night A Traveller, perhaps reflects his withdrawal from political life. Nonetheless, Calvino remained an acute critic and his letters are filled with sharp assessments of post-war Italy’s vibrant cultural life.

PUP celebrates National Poetry Month

Princeton University Press will be kicking off National Poetry Month by featuring a new poetry-related title each week on the blog, starting with Colm Tóibín’s deeply personal introduction to the life and work of Elizabeth Bishop. The first National Poetry Month was held in 1996, inspired in part by the success of Black History Month. Organized by the Academy of American Poets, this month-long April holiday has become a widespread way to bolster the appreciation of poetry. Poets.org offers a wealth of free educational resources and information on local poetry events, from PoemCity in Montpelier, VT, to Poetry & the Creative Mind in New York City.

In addition to retrospectives like Tóibín’s On Elizabeth Bishop from our Writers on Writers series, and cultural histories like Catherine Robson’s on poetry recitation, Princeton University Press has long published the best of emerging and established poets in the Princeton Series of Contemporary Poets, currently under the editorship of Princeton professor and former MacArthur Fellow Susan Stewart. Here are some poetry-related choices to enjoy this April:

 

On Elizabeth Bishop What W.H. Auden Can Do For You
The Complete Works of W.H. Auden Volume V The Complete Works of W.H. Auden Volume VI
Heart Beats The Eternal City: Poems

Mark Zuckerberg chooses Michael Chwe’s RATIONAL RITUAL for Facebook Books!

Rational Ritual: Culture, Coordination, and Common Knowledge by Michael Chwe has been selected by none other than Mark Zuckerberg as the latest pick in his “Year of Books.” Analyzing rituals across histories and cultures, Rational Ritual shows how a single and simple concept, common knowledge, holds the key to the coordination of any number of actions, from those used in advertising to those used to fuel revolutions.

From Mark Zuckerberg’s Facebook post:

The book is about the concept of “common knowledge” and how people process the world not only based on what we personally know, but what we know other people know and our shared knowledge as well.

This is an important idea for designing social media, as we often face tradeoffs between creating personalized experiences for each individual and crafting universal experiences for everyone. I’m looking forward to exploring this further.

Zuckerberg isn’t the first to take note of Michael Chwe’s talent for making unusual and intriguing connections. As Virginia Postrel wrote in the New York Times, “[His] work, like his own academic career, bridges several social sciences.” Not long ago his book, Jane Austen, Game Theorist created a stir on social media, triggering debates and garnering a hugely popular feature by Jennifer Schuessler.

A Q&A with Chwe will be coming out on Facebook Books in the coming weeks. In the meantime, head over to Facebook to comment on Rational Ritual, or follow the discussion.  Congratulations, Michael Chwe!

Zimmerman talks sex education at the American Enterprise Institute

Zimmerman jacket

Too Hot to Handle by Jonathan Zimmerman

Too Hot to Handle: A Global History of Sex Education is shaping up to be one hot book for spring. A long format conversation with author Jonathan Zimmerman recently appeared in Globe and Mail, and he was interviewed (live and available to stream) for WNYC’s Brian Lehrer Show. Zimmerman published “Can Sex Ed be Universal?” in Foreign Affairs, the book was excerpted on PopMatters.com, and was the subject of a feature on Vox.com as well.

This past Thursday, the American Enterprise Institute hosted a conversation with Zimmerman. Taking a look at the differences in sex education between countries and throughout history, he explains how, as countries become more democratic, sex education has become more contentious.

Check out Zimmerman’s American Enterprise Institute talk here.

 

Spotlight on…the Renaissance

“In Italy, for thirty years under the Borgias, they had warfare, terror, murder, bloodshed, but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, and the Renaissance. In Switzerland, they had brotherly love. They had five hundred years of democracy and peace, and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock.”

– Orson Welles, as Harry Lime, in The Third Man

Niccolo Machiavelli, by Conrad Vivanti

Niccolò Machiavelli
by Conrad Vivanti

Welles’s famous speech atop the Ferris wheel is a brilliantly concise picture of the Italy of Niccolò Machiavelli, simultaneously a patchwork of warring city-states and the stage for a rebirth of western culture. Niccolò Machiavelli: An Intellectual Biography, by Conrad Vivanti, analyses the life and work of the man whose name has become a watchword for unscrupulous power politics. As a young man in Florence Machiavelli witnessed the expulsion of the ruling Medici family and the establishment of the short-lived republic which he was to serve as diplomat and organizer of the citizen militia. He traveled on missions to the royal courts of Spain and France, and to the papal court of the Borgia Pope Alexander VI. Machiavelli’s first-hand knowledge of the attempts of Alexander’s illegitimate son and general Cesare Borgia to assert power over central Italy provided the basis for his best-known work, The Prince. Still controversial today, The Prince argues that rulers must be prepared to use deceit and brute force to preserve their power and build a stable state. Unpublished until five years after Machiavelli’s death, The Prince was placed on the Index of banned books by Pope Paul IV in 1559, but survived to become one of the founding works of modern political science.

The works of Desiderius Erasmus also enjoyed the back-handed honor of Paul’s ban, but this was, perhaps, a case of closing the stable door after the horse had bolted. In the 1530s his books accounted for more than 10% of all books sold in Europe; in addition his edition of the New Testament was the basis for Luther’s German translation and the King James Version in English. Lisa Jardine’s Erasmus, Man of Letters is a portrait of a man who was the center of the intellectual life of his age, corresponding with as many as five hundred of his fellow scholars. Keen to maintain his independence, he moved between a dozen European cities, from Paris to Turin, from Cambridge to Basel. He even worked briefly as a proofreader for the Venetian pioneer of print Aldus Manutius. Equally independent in mind, Erasmus mocked superstition in The Praise of Folly, while challenging the established theology of the church and leading the return to the original texts of the New Testament and the early fathers. Like Machiavelli, Erasmus sought to offer advice to the prospective rulers of his day but his Education of a Christian Prince recommended that the Prince gain the love of his people through just and benevolent rule. Fittingly, it was written in Switzerland.

Spotlight on…Public Intellectuals

Worldly Philosopher, by Jeremy Adelman

Worldly Philosopher
by Jeremy Adelman

The title of Jeremy Adelman’s biography of Albert O. Hirschman, Worldly Philosopher, concisely sums up the character of many public intellectuals of the twentieth century. In battles that overflowed the geopolitical arena to encompass culture, the arts, and political theory, intellectuals frequently found themselves where history was being made.

Born in Berlin in 1915, Hirschman left Germany in 1933 when the Nazis announced the expulsion of Jews from the universities. He fought in the Spanish Civil War, and later guided escapees across the Pyrenean mountain passes between Vichy France and Spain. He worked in Algiers as a translator for the OSS (precursor to the CIA), in Europe for the Federal Reserve Board on the Marshall Plan, and in Colombia for the World Bank. His experiences in Europe and Colombia influenced his thinking on economics and development: Hirschman realized that the grand plans and idealized markets of his fellow economists were unworkable in the real world. Instead he proposed a strategy of improvisation and experimentation, responsive to local conditions and opportunities. Later works, including Exit, Voice and Loyalty and The Passions and the Interests, continued against the grain of conventional economic thinking and established Hirschman as one of the foremost intellectuals of his time.

Isaiah Berlin too was an emigrant: born in Riga in 1908 (now in Latvia, then part of Russia), he lived through the 1917 revolutions in St. Petersburg before his family moved to England in 1921. He found a home at Oxford University and, despite his Russian Jewish, roots rapidly found himself at the heart of the British establishment, working for the British Diplomatic service in the embassies at Washington and Moscow during the Second World War. His position, and his legendary brilliance as a conversationalist, gave him access to a veritable Who’s Who of politicians, intellectuals, writers and academics. He played a part (recently dissected by Frances Stonor Saunders) in the smuggling of the manuscript of Dr. Zhivago out of Russia. Personal Impressions, Berlin’s collection of biographical essays, draws on first-hand acquaintance with Boris Pasternak, alongside Winston Churchill, Albert Einstein, John Maynard Keynes, Virginia Woolf and many others.

Afghanistan President Ashraf Ghani mentions LOST ENLIGHTENMENT before Congress

Last night, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani and Afghan Chief Executive Abdullah were honored at a dinner held in the Ben Franklin Room. President Ashraf Ghani addressed the attendants of the dinner and stated, “[I]f there’s one book that you want to read please do read LOST ENLIGHTENMENT. [T]he story that Fred tells is not the story of the past. Its good news is that it’s the story of the future.” Read the transcript of the event, here.

LOST ENLIGHTENMENT is available in hardcover and will be released in paperback this June. Read the first chapter of this must-read for free, here.


 

bookjacket

Lost Enlightenment:
Central Asia’s Golden Age from the Arab Conquest to Tamerlane

S. Frederick Starr

Spotlight on…Philosophers and Mystics

A Short Life of Kierkegaard, by Walter Lowrie

A Short Life of Kierkegaard
by Walter Lowrie

The nineteenth century was a period of extraordinary advances in science and engineering that seemed to bring the dream of a comprehensive understanding of the physical world within reach. Yet it was also the century that gave us Kierkegaard, Nietzsche and Kafka, three writers whose work expressed the subjective dimension of life, analyzed the role of human choice and will, and rejected a purely rationalist vision of existence.

To residents of Copenhagen in the first half of the nineteenth century, Søren Kierkegaard was a familiar sight, his striking figure daily walking the streets of the town. But few, if any, would have known that he was the author of several volumes of philosophy and theology – his early works were published under a series of unlikely pseudonyms, including Johannes de Silentio and Hilarius Bookbinder. Despite the oddness of his pen-names, Kierkegaard was deeply in earnest, and occupied his last years with an extended critique of the Church of Denmark in a series of pamphlets. His arguments that faith is rooted in an act of individual choice, not church ritual, and that state involvement corrupted the church, were highly influential, and his reputation grew rapidly after his early death in 1855. W. Lowrie’s A Short Life of Soren Kierkegaard is a perfect introduction to Kierkegaard’s life and work by one of his first English translators. For those willing to make a leap of faith and tackle Kierkegaard’s life in greater detail, Joakim Garff’s magisterial Søren Kierkegaard: A Biography is the definitive work.

As the subtitle of Walter Kaufman’s Nietzsche: Philosopher, Psychologist, Antichrist suggests, Friedrich Nietzsche’s thoughts on religion were far removed from those of Kierkegaard. He derided Christian ethics as “slave morality” and proclaimed the need for the individual to overcome their social, cultural and moral context through the force of will. His radical ideas and poetic, allusive style were unsuccessful in his lifetime – he printed a mere forty copies of the fourth part of Thus Spake Zarathustra – but his influence has grown enormously in the century following his death, as much among writers and artists as philosophers.

Nietzsche eventually succumbed to insanity and lived the last years of his life in the care of his sister, Elizabeth Förster-Nietzsche, who edited his remaining manuscripts for publication after his death. It is often argued that she introduced an anti-semitic and nationalist slant that later made Nietzsche’s thought more appealing to the Nazis. However, were it not for similar efforts by Max Brod, none of Franz Kafka’s novels would have survived. On his deathbed, Kafka asked Brod to destroy his manuscripts and diaries, but convinced of Kafka’s genius, Brod instead chose to preserve them and edit them for publication. A perfectionist, Kafka could not bring himself to finish any of the novels, but even in their incomplete forms, the Trial and the Castle stand as undisputed classics. Reiner Stach’s monumental biography (Kafka: The Decisive Years, and Kafka: The Years of Insight) paints an astonishingly detailed picture of a deeply introspective writer and his life in Prague at the turn of the century.

Interview with n+1 co-founder and PUP author Mark Greif

As Adam Kirsch writes in Tablet Magazine’s review of n+1 co-founder Mark Greif’s widely-reviewed new book, The Age of the Crisis of Man, “[t]he word “crisis” itself seems to capture something essential about our relationship to history, which we now experience as a constant procession of unexpected, suddenly emerging threats.” From cold war to climate change, from economic recession, to war in Iraq, recent decades have seen their share of anxiety-provoking episodes. And yet, it’s safe to say the “crisis of man” has become something of a throwback expression. The notion that human nature itself is under threat is an intellectual artifact of mid-century American culture. Why so?

The question, and Greif’s new book, appear to have struck nerves in today’s intellectual community, inspiring, among an explosion of coverage, Kristin Iversen’s “Man-Splaining” in Brooklyn Magazine, and a widely discussed New York Times Book Review essay by Leon Wieseltier. Recently, Greif took the time to chat with Princeton University Press about his book:

You’re best known for your work as a founder of n+1 and your essays in that magazine. What connects that New York literary world to this book?

MG: To me, they’re tightly connected. When we founded n+1, I wanted to understand how the intellectual and literary worlds worked now. The opening section (of the book?) many of which I wrote in the early issues, was “The Intellectual Situation.” I wanted to know how conventional wisdom got settled; how certain questions became “important” and “serious,” but not others; and especially why new novels and essays sometimes had influence on other debates, and sometimes seemed irrelevant or old-fashioned, past tense. In the same ten years of n+1 attempts to intervene in literary culture, though, my “day job” in effect was as a scholar, I had been digging in the library to see, objectively, how we got where we are. I was reading through complete runs of old journals, Partisan Review, Commentary, to see how to make a twenty-first century journal. But also to see, archeologically, what had been obscured in our picture of the twentieth century. This book is the analytic and philosophical complement to n+1 for me. It’s my best effort to tell a new story of how the twentieth century determined what counts.

Can you say succinctly what the “Age of the Crisis of Man” is?

MG: Sure. It was a period in the center of the twentieth century, from the rise of Nazism to the end of the Sixties, in which we put a universal human character at the center of all “serious” discussion in public.Not incidentally, this period saw the shift of international philosophizing from continental Europe to the United States and England for a little while. And it saw a brief crest of the American novel to its high-water mark of reputation (though maybe not of literary production). And it saw dreams of utopian international order. All those strains come together around the figure of “Man.” But then the same concentration of energy helped create the civil rights and liberation movements that seemed to blow it apart.

So this is an era that we ought to remember and learn from?

MG: Not entirely. It’s not an era I want to champion. I don’t want to reify the Man debates as just one more rival aspect of the twentieth century, as if we need to add it to PBS documentaries alongside the Cold War, suburbanization, existentialism, all the ingredients of the canned version of midcentury. Many of the explicit “crisis of man” books feel empty, frankly. I want to have read them so others don’t have to! But I think the emptiness is important. My basic model of history tries to locate the empty spaces, or blank or negative spaces, in public philosophy and rhetoric and criticism. Those spaces that demand answers that are simply impossible to decide. They (the spaces?) set what matters, what is acceptable, what one should think or say. But as coercive as they are, they may be themselves quite weak, loose, or devoid of reason.

Does your history mean there wasn’t a “crisis of women” or crises in different communities in America, or political crises? How important is a universal “Man” to your story?

MG: Crises of women’s rights and equality exist in this period, and crises of African-American rights, and racism, segregation, white supremacy, you name it. The important thing to see is how “what counts,” as public discourse has it, makes women’s and African Americans’ claims harder to articulate in some registers—in contrast, say, to the earlier (does earlier modify 1930s, i.e. 1931 vs. 1937, or are you using it to mean the entire decade was earlier than the post-WWII starting point of your book?)1930s—and articulable in others. Yet later the same discourse will become a source of explosive power, as feminist and civil rights and black power speakers plant their flag on Man. Sex and race provided the most fundamental contradictions to a universal, unmarked man. But that line of difference, and how tortuously it rose to salience, is a big part of my story.

What have we lost, in the transition from the age whose portrait you give here, to the twenty-first century?

MG: That’s the toughest question. It’s very hard to look at these moments when “ideas mattered,” and novels answered “the big questions,” so to speak, and not be nostalgic. Clearly these ideas did have consequences, too in geopolitics, in the lasting revival of human rights, in the standing of literature, as well as in the creation of a whole atmosphere of life and thought. At the same time, it’s clear that lots of thoughtful and sensitive people found the “discourse of the crisis of man” gaseous and stifling, especially as it got older. Whenever you live, you live among the mediocrities and coercions of the ideas of your own time. History usually tends either to wash them out or take them at their own valuation, while condescending to them, of course, since we always know better now.

I guess what interested me most in my own research was that I came to see it as a mistake to declare we had gone “from universalism to difference” in ideas, or in our picture of the basic human subject. As if there once was unity (even if only among an elite population), which split into groups. Universalism, difference: each of these is an intellectual project, an effort. Neither is more original or more basic than the other, at least not in the twentieth century. You can’t decline from one to the other. That was one thing I tried to point out in the book.

You say in the conclusion that you want to figure out where we start for twenty-first century thought. Do you really think you can give a starting point?

MG: The starting points are already given. The question is: How much do we understand how history has determined our presuppositions—say, what counts for us as “serious” thought, or what role literature and art play in ethical and political thinking? And then: With fuller knowledge, can we choose among our starting points? Can we say that some are stupid, and likely to lead nowhere?

Personally, I am divided about this. The historian in me thinks it’s silly to ask anyone to produce a better discourse of public debate and art from the recognition of past follies. Looking back from the future, “stupidities” are all we have; by which I mean, contingencies, symptoms, actings-out, with no way to step outside of your own time to see how eternity (or the archive, or the leisure of future historians) will regard you. Would knowing the past really help restrain or channel our impulses, now? The “intellectual” in me, on the other hand, or say the participant in culture and literature, the writer, thinks it’s obligatory to try to figure out where your opinions and discoveries come from. Then to see where they’re tending, whether you like to admit those tendencies or not, and then to throw some overboard, while telling people the terrifying prophecy of others. Like a Jeremiah. Whether other people like to hear it or not.

Spotlight on…Scientists

Nikola Tesla, by W. Bernard Carlson

Nikola Tesla
by W. Bernard Carlson

Genius is no guarantee of public recognition. In this post we look at the changing fortunes and reputations of three very different scientists: Alan Turing, Nikola Tesla, and Albert Einstein.

With the success of the recent movie, the Imitation Game (based on Andrew Hodges’ acclaimed biography Alan Turing: The Enigma), it’s easy to forget that for decades after his death, Turing’s name was known only to computer scientists. His conviction for homosexual activity in 1950s Britain, his presumed suicide in 1954, and the veil of secrecy drawn over his code-breaking work at Bletchley Park during the Second World War combined to obscure his importance as one of the founders of computer science and artificial intelligence. The gradual change in public attitudes towards homosexuality and the increasing centrality of computers to our daily lives have done much to restore his reputation posthumously. Turing received an official apology in 2009, followed by a royal pardon in 2013.

Despite enjoying celebrity in his own lifetime, Nikola Tesla’s reputation declined rapidly after his death, until he became regarded as an eccentric figure on the fringes of science. His legendary showmanship and the outlandish claims he made late in life of inventing high-tech weaponry have made it easy for critics to dismiss him as little more than a charlatan. Yet he was one of the pioneers of electricity, working first with Edison, then Westinghouse to develop the technology that established electrification in America. W. Bernard Carlson’s Nikola Tesla tells the story of a life that seems drawn from the pages of a novel by Jules Verne or H. G. Wells, of legal battles with Marconi over the development of radio, of fortunes sunk into the construction of grandiose laboratories for high voltage experiments.

By contrast, the reputation of Albert Einstein seems only to have grown in the century since the publication of his General Theory of Relativity. He is perhaps the only scientist to have achieved iconic status in the public mind, his face recognized as the face of genius. Children know the equation e=mc2 even though most adults would struggle to explain its implications. From the publication of the four 1905 papers onwards, Einstein’s place in scientific history has been secure, and his work remains the cornerstone of modern understanding of the nature of the universe. We are proud to announce the publication of a special 100th anniversary edition of Relativity: The Special and the General Theory, and the recent global launch of our open access online archive from the Collected Papers of Albert Einstein, the Digital Einstein Papers.

Q&A with Ian Morris, author of Foragers, Farmers, and Fossil Fuels: How Human Values Evolve

Princeton University Press recently had the opportunity to talk with Ian Morris about his new book, Foragers, Farmers, and Fossil Fuels: How Human Values Evolve.

Foragers, Farmers, and Fossil Fuels

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.


bookjacket Foragers, Farmers, and Fossil Fuels:
How Human Values Evolve

Updated edition
Ian Morris