Foragers, Farmers, and Fossil Fuels | Richard Seaford

Summary of: Foragers, Farmers, and Fossil Fuels: How Human Values Evolve
By: Richard Seaford


Welcome to a thrilling journey through the evolution of human values in ‘Foragers, Farmers, and Fossil Fuels: How Human Values Evolve’ by Richard Seaford. This book summary will give you an insightful glimpse into how methods of energy capture drive the development of our values, behavior and society. From the days of early foragers to the modern fossil fuel-based societies, Seaford takes us through an analysis of the values that have shaped human history. Get ready to uncover the connection between energy, societal organization, and the rise and fall of various values systems.

Energy Capture and Values Evolution

In 1982, an encounter at an archaeological dig site in Greece made the author reflect upon the underlying principles of human values and their development. The author observed that certain human values support a society’s survival while others can lead to its decline. He attributed this process to the methods of energy capture – the acquisition of food energy from our surroundings – which drive the evolution of these values. Over time, values that complement the prevalent methods of energy capture become dominant, whereas others fade away. This theory explains the differences in values between societies that depend on farming, and those that rely on fossil fuels, as well as the historical development of human values.

Foragers: Equality and Violence

In the early years of human history, foraging was the primary way of obtaining food, and less than 1 percent of the population still practices it. Foragers value equality and shun hierarchy, as reflected in their low Gini scores (a measure of wealth inequality), which average 0.25 among various groups. This equality comes from the necessity to share food and the need for a nomadic lifestyle with few possessions. Despite their focus on equality, foragers are known for embracing violence. Foraging societies are inherently more violent, given the lack of centralized governments and the evolutionary favoring of violent individuals in terms of reproduction success.

Birth of Farming Societies

Our early foraging ancestors spent only a few hours a day searching for food and lived short lives. However, around 7000 BC, they began replanting wild wheat and domesticating animals, marking the birth of farming. This shift led to increased energy capture, larger families, and the formation of large-scale societies. These farming societies shared similarities such as ideal locations for agriculture and the use of slaves, irrigation, and gender hierarchy.

The lives of our early foraging ancestors were simpler compared to ours, with only a few hours a day spent hunting or gathering food. But, their lives were also significantly shorter – living to just 25 years on average. That changed around 7000 BC when foragers began replanting wild wheat and domesticating large animals, ultimately leading to the birth of farming.

Farming brought about critical transformations: more energy captured, the growth of families, and the formation of large-scale societies. These societies thrived in areas with fertile lands and abundant resources or where conditions favored agriculture. Soon, farmers discovered the benefits of river-based irrigation, constructing the first cities along the Euphrates, Tigris, and Nile Rivers. As a result, farming enabled the capture of up to 10,000 kilocalories per day by 4000 BC in Mesopotamia and Egypt.

However, this shift had its drawbacks – farming demanded long, labor-intensive days. A single farmer couldn’t manage all the work, leading to larger families with many children who could help with the tasks. But sometimes, even the average seven-child family wasn’t enough. Thus, farming societies relied on paid or forced labor, giving rise to the widespread use of slaves.

Interestingly, all of these farming societies held some common views: women were to stay home, care for children, while men worked the land. The unwavering consistency of this gender hierarchy is stunning. With slavery, hard labor, and gender discrimination, farming societies seem to have adopted a harsh way of life. Nonetheless, these values and practices continue to shape the world we live in today.

Hierarchy and Values in Early Farming Societies

In early farming societies, life was largely dictated by a hierarchical structure and an emphasis on hard work. The rise of elites, religion, and a ruling class significantly reduced violence, promoting the success of business and labor. However, this social stratification also led to gender inequalities, as men sought to protect their material inheritance primarily through women’s subservience.

Envision life as an early farmer in a fertile region like Mesopotamia, where you would wake up every day and work tirelessly, interacting with limited social circles. This structured lifestyle heavily influenced their deeply-held values. Early agricultural societies were characterized by well-defined hierarchies that viewed violence less favorably than their foraging ancestors.

When a farming society’s energy capture exceeded 10,000 kilocalories per day, distinct elites emerged, managing or controlling the community and markets. The highest authority was often a god-like figure, given power by supposed divine endorsement. Through religious beliefs, farming societies validated these hierarchies, and the populace largely acquiesced to a Gini score of 0.45, meaning 10% of the people controlled around 80% of the wealth.

Interestingly, the establishment of a ruling class held a silver lining: reduced violence. A supreme authoritative figure effectively deterred individuals from conflict, fostering peace and safeguarding the labor process. This, in turn, facilitated business and further reinforced labor as the backbone of these farming societies, with farmers striving to produce both sufficient food and sellable goods.

As material wealth epitomized survival, it was crucial to pass these resources on to their children. Yet, this need for generational security exacerbated gender disparities. Men, intent on ensuring their offspring were their rightful heirs, placed heightened importance on women’s virginity, consequently relegating them to even more subservient roles.

Farming values dominated the global landscape for nearly 9,000 years, shaping societies and their belief systems. However, the introduction of fossil fuels disrupted this long-standing social order, leading to a paradigm shift in the foundations of human societies.

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