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Foragers, Farmers, and Fossil Fuels

How Human Values Evolve

By Ian Morris
13-minute read
Audio available
Foragers, Farmers, and Fossil Fuels by Ian Morris

Foragers, Farmers, and Fossil Fuels (2015) argues that the values we hold most dear stem from one fundamental source: energy. While anthropologists have spent centuries attempting to understand differences between cultures, few have attempted to explain those differences. These blinks do just that.

  • History and philosophy enthusiasts
  • Futurists wondering how and why our values and ethical concerns may soon change
  • Anyone curious about how moral systems work

Ian Morris is an archaeologist, historian, university professor, and co-founder of the Stanford Archaeology Center. His book Why the West Rules – For Now won the 2011 PEN Center USA Literary Award for Creative Nonfiction. He holds honorary degrees from DePauw University and Birmingham University.

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Foragers, Farmers, and Fossil Fuels

How Human Values Evolve

By Ian Morris
  • Read in 13 minutes
  • Audio & text available
  • Contains 8 key ideas
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Foragers, Farmers, and Fossil Fuels by Ian Morris
Synopsis

Foragers, Farmers, and Fossil Fuels (2015) argues that the values we hold most dear stem from one fundamental source: energy. While anthropologists have spent centuries attempting to understand differences between cultures, few have attempted to explain those differences. These blinks do just that.

Key idea 1 of 8

Our values may have evolved in line with our methods of energy capture.

In 1982, the author and his colleagues were working at an archaeological dig site in rural Greece. One evening, an old Greek husband and wife passed by. The husband was riding a donkey, while the wife was on foot carrying a heavy sack. One of the author’s colleagues asked the husband, “Why isn’t your wife riding the donkey?” The husband replied simply, “She doesn’t have one.”

To modern Western adults, this apparent scene of selfishness might seem unthinkable. But why exactly are most Westerners so averse to gender hierarchies like this one, not to mention other kinds of hierarchies? Are they simply more in tune with the notions of fairness and equality?

The real answer may lie in a more practical phenomenon: the way we capture energy.

The key message here is: Our values may have evolved in line with our methods of energy capture.

Over the years, many people have attempted to understand human values. But not quite so many have attempted to explain our values – that is, why we value what we do.

The author’s theory is that our values evolve – in much the same way that our genes do.

We all know evolution’s basic premise: that organisms with genes most suited to their environment will pass those genes along, perpetuating beneficial traits. Over millions of years, this can result in major changes to the original organism.

Similarly, human values that suit a particular environment will allow a society to flourish, whereas a society with mismatched or outdated values won’t last long. This will lead certain values to dominate and others to die out.

And what force dictates which values stand the test of time? In a word, energy, or more accurately, energy capture. This term defines the process of obtaining or deriving units of food energy – kilocalories – from our environment. Different methods of energy capture work best alongside different values and ways of organizing society.

We can see this in action in our example of the Greek farmer. He probably wasn’t hogging the donkey just because he was a jerk – he may just have been operating according to the hierarchical values of farming societies. Similarly, fossil-fuel users don’t champion gender equality and democracy because we’re saints, but because those values work best in fossil fuel-based societies.

How did this all play out for the earliest human societies? Let’s find out.

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