The Forager/Farmer Thesis Is Wrong

Robin Hanson has been beating the drum on his liberaltarian wet dream known as the forager/farmer thesis in a series of posts. Basically, “liberal” values and lifestyle are a reflection of humanity’s ancient forager (hunter-gatherer) ways, while “conservative”, or traditional, values and lifestyle are emergent properties of our relatively more recent 10,000 year old farmer (agricultural) heritage. Modern foragers in the form of cafe-loitering SWPLs sipping dragonwell tea and reading Dan Savage columns are essentially freeriding on the industrial and moral substrates that were created by rules-following and hierarchical farmer ancestors. Thanks to their comfy livings and safe environments, elite cosmopolitan liberals in Western societies are returning to the values and lifestyles of their distant forager forebears, while modern traditionalists hew to more rigid codes of conduct and warn them (in so many words) that all foraging and no farming makes Jack a weak boy. (You can see where this is heading.)

If you buy Hanson’s thesis, this neatly explains blue state vs red state, Obama vs Bush, open borders nuts vs immigration realists, and Apple vs Windows.

Hanson relies for much of his speculative evidence on the Sex At Dawn book, which I promiscuously manhandled here. But there’s too much wrong with the claims made by that book to sufficiently lend support to the Forager vs Farmer (i.e., liberal vs conservative) thesis of clashing values and lifestyles.

For instance, Hanson and Ryan elide the force of jealousy in shaping human sexual dynamics. If we were built for polyamory as Ryan claims, or free love promiscuity as Hanson says, then jealousy would not have evolved to the extent it did (among Euro-descended people at least) to become a powerfully ingrained emotional hindbrain response to infidelity or suspicions of cheating. Both men and women experience jealousy, though men seem to react more violently when in its throes, (as would be predicted by a “farmer” reading of sociosexuality, since men stand more to lose by a cheating lover).

In addition, just about every polyamorous, free love utopia/forager commune that has been tried in historical record has utterly failed, some of them spectacularly. (It’s no coincidence that most dedicated polyamorists are androgynous, middle-aged frumps.)

Hanson and Ryan claim foragers are/were nonviolent compared to farmers. But from everything I’ve read on the matter, that is wrong as well: modern hunter-gatherers have impressive levels of tribal violence, mostly of the raiding and randomly savage variety. Farmers are also capable of violence, but when they do it the violence is coordinated and planned; the random individual violence that typifies forager society isn’t a steady state feature of farmer existence. I’m not going to dig around for relevant links, so I’ll throw it open to the commenters to do the dirty work.

Finally, a big point of Hanson’s repackaged thesis is that “rich and safe” modern foragers — implicitly the intellectual and social liberal elites of Western society — pursue and advocate a promiscuous lifestyle. Except the data show that isn’t necessarily true. Higher IQ men place greater value on monogamy and sexual exclusivity and are less likely to cheat than lower IQ men.

There are too many holes in this tidy farmer/forager outlook to take it as anything more than United States of Canada porn for self-satisfied cosmopolitan lefties to jack their head hamsters off to. And I say this as someone who lives to the fullest the modern, promiscuous forager lifestyle. I know its personal appeal, and its immolating potential for the wider society.

1 comment / Add your comment below

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