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

 

Quick Questions for Michael Scott, author of Delphi

Michael Scott, credit, David WilsonMichael Scott is an assistant professor of classics and ancient history at the University of Warwick, though he is perhaps most recognized as a presenter for ancient history documentaries on National Geographic, the History channel, Nova, and the BBC. His new book on Delphi has been getting excellent reviews so far, including this from The Spectator: “Tells you everything there is to know about Delphi.” We couldn’t agree more and hope you will sample this complimentary chapter.

The book presents a thorough history of this historical site–expanding our understanding beyond the oracle to incorporate Delphi’s importance as a site of commerce, international politics, sporting competitions, culture, and on and on. It also includes a brief chapter for present-day visitors with insider’s tips on the sights to see making it the perfect companion for anyone planning a trip to see Delphi for themselves.

Now, on to the questions!

PUP: What inspired you to get into your field?

Michael Scott: A trip to Greece–indeed to Delphi–when I was 17 at school convinced me to study Classics at University. Whilst there, I was lucky enough to study at the British Schools at Rome and at Athens and to study in and amongst a wide range of fascinating archaeological sites. From that point on, I never looked back

What do you think is the book’s most important contribution?

For me, this book highlights what history, and particularly ancient history, really is. Not a list of undisputed facts about what happened, but a continuing dialogue–from then right up to now–of different, sometimes overlapping, sometimes contradictory arguments about how to understand the past, and the place of the past in our present and future. As the saying goes, ‘the future is certain, the past just keeps on changing.’


To properly understand any one moment and event, I argue that we need to connect histories from around the globe.


What was the most influential book you’ve read?

Tough one. In regard to the study of the ancient world, probably E R Dodds’s Greeks and the Irrational. I remember reading it just before starting my undergraduate degree and it entirely changing my perception of what studying the ancient world would be like.

Why did you write this book?

I wrote this book because while Delphi has been extensively studied, that study has often been piecemeal (in focusing on one particular activity at Delphi), or compartmentalized (in terms of focusing on what particular period of its 1000+ year history), or written from the standpoint of a particular kind of evidence (literary, inscriptional or archaeological). But that is not how the ancients saw, used or perceived Delphi. If we are to understand Delphi and its unique place and longevity within the ancient world, we have to get to grips with how the different sources portray Delphi’s portfolio of activities interacting across its lifespan to create a place that remained at the centre of the ancient world for so long.

PUP: What is your next project?

In my next book project, I want to break down some of the disciplinary boundaries between arenas of study in our ancient past. The book will focus on some of the most famous dates in our ancient story: 2000 BC and the completion of Stonehenge; 508 BC and the origins of democracy; 218 BC and Hannibal’s march across the Alps as well as 312 AD Constantine’s victory at the battle of Milvian Bridge. But exploring these critical moments is only the beginning. To properly understand any one moment and event, I argue that we need to connect histories from around the globe to examine what was happening elsewhere at these crucial times. So, yes, democracy may have been invented in ancient Greece in 508 BC, but what was happening politically at that time in Italy, or indeed in China? Constantine may have begun Rome’s march to Christianity in 312 AD, but what great shifts in religious observance were happening in India or North Africa? In asking that question, this book will connect up our different pasts and as a result enable us to understand the varying speeds, and kinds, of evolution that the regions of our world have been through. It will open up a window onto the similar and different challenges and issues we have faced, as well as the responses and ideas we have developed as a result.


Michael is the author of:

bookjacket Delphi
A History of the Center of the Ancient World

Michael Scott
Cloth | 2014 | $29.95 / £19.95 | ISBN: 9780691150819
448 pp. | 6 x 9 | 8 color illus. 41 halftones. 3 maps.
eBook | ISBN: 9781400851324″Like the two eagles released by Zeus from opposite ends of the world who then met in Delphi, Michael Scott gets to the heart of antiquity’s most celebrated and enigmatic oracle. A vivid and lucid study that reanimates the mentality of those who consulted Apollo more convincingly than any other I have read.”–Tom Holland, author of Persian Fire: The First World Empire and the Battle for the West

Peter Brown Receives Honorable Mention for the 2013 Cundill Prize

Peter Brown – Through the Eye of a Needle: Wealth, the Fall of Rome, and the Making of Christianity in the West, 350-550 AD
Honorable Mention for the 2013 Cundill Prize in Historical Literature, McGill University

“The Cundill Prize in Historical Literature at McGill is the world’s most important international nonfiction historical literature prize.”

Six books have moved on to the shortlist; the winner will be announced on November 20th in Toronto. Peter Brown’s book did not make the shortlist, but was recognized by the jury with an honorable mention (one of only two books so honored).

For more information about this award and event, click here.

Through the Eye of the Needle

 Through the Eye of a Needle is a sweeping intellectual and social history of the vexing problem of wealth in Christianity in the waning days of the Roman Empire, written by the world’s foremost scholar of late antiquity.

Peter Brown examines the rise of the church through the lens of money and the challenges it posed to an institution that espoused the virtue of poverty and called avarice the root of all evil. Drawing on the writings of major Christian thinkers such as Augustine, Ambrose, and Jerome, Brown examines the controversies and changing attitudes toward money caused by the influx of new wealth into church coffers, and describes the spectacular acts of divestment by rich donors and their growing influence in an empire beset with crisis. He shows how the use of wealth for the care of the poor competed with older forms of philanthropy deeply rooted in the Roman world, and sheds light on the ordinary people who gave away their money in hopes of treasure in heaven.

Through the Eye of a Needle challenges the widely held notion that Christianity’s growing wealth sapped Rome of its ability to resist the barbarian invasions, and offers a fresh perspective on the social history of the church in late antiquity.

Peter Brown is the Philip and Beulah Rollins Professor of History Emeritus at Princeton University. His many books include The World of Late Antiquity, The Rise of Western Christendom, and Augustine of Hippo.