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I’m not saying energy flows determine what kind of society you have. Absolutely not.

Energy flows set up the costs and benefits of any decision you make. They rig the system so that if you choose the right thing — without knowing what the right thing is, and with no way to know what the right thing is — you benefit from it. You choose the wrong thing, you pay a very harsh price for it.

Ian Morris

Wind back 1,000 years and the moral landscape looks very different to today. Most farming societies thought slavery was natural and unobjectionable, premarital sex was an abomination, women should obey their husbands, and commoners should obey their monarchs.

Wind back 10,000 years and things look very different again. Most hunter-gatherer groups thought men who got too big for their britches needed to be put in their place rather than obeyed, and lifelong monogamy could hardly be expected of men or women.

Why such big systematic changes — and why these changes specifically?

That’s the question best-selling historian Ian Morris takes up in his book, Foragers, Farmers, and Fossil Fuels: How Human Values Evolve. Ian has spent his academic life studying long-term history, trying to explain the big-picture changes that play out over hundreds or thousands of years.

There are a number of possible explanations one could offer for the wide-ranging shifts in opinion on the ‘right’ way to live. Maybe the natural sciences progressed and people realised their previous ideas were mistaken? Perhaps a few persuasive advocates turned the course of history with their revolutionary arguments? Maybe everyone just got nicer?

In Foragers, Farmers and Fossil Fuels Ian presents a provocative alternative: human culture gradually evolves towards whatever system of organisation allows a society to harvest the most energy, and we then conclude that system is the most virtuous one. Egalitarian values helped hunter-gatherers hunt and gather effectively. Once farming was developed, hierarchy proved to be the social structure that produced the most grain (and best repelled nomadic raiders). And in the modern era, democracy and individuality have proven to be more productive ways to collect and exploit fossil fuels.

On this theory, it’s technology that drives moral values much more than moral philosophy. Individuals can try to persist with deeply held values that limit economic growth, but they risk being rendered irrelevant as more productive peers in their own society accrue wealth and power. And societies that fail to move with the times risk being conquered by more pragmatic neighbours that adapt to new technologies and grow in population and military strength.

There are many objections one could raise to this theory, many of which we put to Ian in this interview. But the question is a highly consequential one: if we want to guess what goals our descendants will pursue hundreds of years from now, it would be helpful to have a theory for why our ancestors mostly thought one thing, while we mostly think another.

Big though it is, the driver of human values is only one of several major questions Ian has tackled through his career.

In Why the West Rules—For Now, he set out to understand why the Industrial Revolution happened in England and Europe went on to dominate much of the rest of the world, rather than industrialisation kicking off somewhere else like China, with China going on to establish colonies in Europe. (In a word: geography.)

In War! What is it Good For?, he tried to explain why it is that violent conflicts often lead to longer lives and higher incomes (i.e. wars build empires which suppress interpersonal violence internally), while other times they have the exact opposite effect (i.e. advances in military technology allow nomads to raid and pull apart these empires).

In today’s episode, we discuss all of Ian’s major books, taking on topics such as:

  • Whether the evidence base in history — from document archives to archaeology — is strong enough to persuasively answer any of these questions
  • Whether or not wars can still lead to less violence today
  • Why Ian thinks the way we live in the 21st century is probably a short-lived aberration
  • Whether the grand sweep of history is driven more by “very important people” or “vast impersonal forces”
  • Why Chinese ships never crossed the Pacific or rounded the southern tip of Africa
  • In what sense Ian thinks Brexit was “10,000 years in the making”
  • The most common misconceptions about macrohistory

Get this episode by subscribing to our podcast on the world’s most pressing problems and how to solve them: type ‘80,000 Hours’ into your podcasting app. Or read the transcript below.

Producer: Keiran Harris
Audio mastering: Ben Cordell
Transcriptions: Katy Moore


How can war drive there being less war?

Ian Morris: So your question, how can war drive there being less war? Well, you look at the long-term history and ask yourself, what is driving this decline in the use of violence? Overwhelmingly — again, all these things are debated, everybody’s had a different theory — but it seems to me overwhelmingly the big force driving down rates of violent death is the creation of governments, powerful governments that can provide incentives to people not to use violence. This is not an original idea. A lot of your listeners, I’m sure, immediately recognise that Thomas Hobbes floated more or less this idea in the 17th century. I think Hobbes basically got it right. This has been the driver overwhelmingly driving down the rates of violent death.

Ian Morris: If you want to put it bluntly: governments scare their people straight. Why do governments do this? It’s not because governments are run by saints. Far from it. The people who create the governments are the masters of violence: people who are really, really good at using force. What the government does is it says, “I want you to shut up and go out there and plough your fields and pay your taxes. I do not want you killing your family, burning down your neighbour’s farm and stealing all his crops and not paying taxes.” This is the recurring theme. “So if you go and burn your neighbour’s farm down, I’m going to come down there with way more force than you can muster, I’m going to murder you, I’m going to sell your family into slavery, and I’m going to desolate your farm so that no one will ever live there again. That’s the offer I am making you.”

Rob Wiblin: And it’s a strong offer.

Ian Morris: People generally say, “When you put it like that…” So this is what governments do. Our own governments, they don’t say it quite so bluntly, but this is what it’s about. Ultimately, men with guns will come to your house and kill you if you don’t do what the government says. The way this works, where do these governments come from? The governments come from violence. The governments come from people using force to set themselves up above everybody else, and then say, “I alone have the legitimate right to use violence within this territory.” Which is a kind of nasty way to think about history. I think you have to focus on the nasty stuff sometimes.

Ian Morris: We are the ultimate beneficiaries of a really, really long history of violence. As people in the past used violence and created these larger governments, they changed the environment in which we live and made it into one where using violence on a casual basis becomes less and less profitable, and drives the violence down. It sounds like a paradoxical idea — that force has created these institutions, which then leads to there being less force — but to any evolutionists, they’ll say, “Yes, of course, that’s how evolution works.”

How strong can historical evidence ever be?

Ian Morris: This is the big methodological question for the kind of work that I started doing, because in a lot of ways, asking questions on this scale drives you to being very anti-historical. Even though they’re historical questions, methodologically, you become anti-historical.

Ian Morris: What happened with historians and a lot of other academic disciplines is in the 19th century, you get these new skills that are getting developed, which are basically about going to the very bottom of the problem, and being historical, being scientific about what you’re doing. People start saying, “The only way we can really know anything scientifically about the past is by going to the archives, where all the primary documents from the past are stored, and reading all the primary documents that are relevant to the question you’re asking — every single one ever produced. You go to the very bottom of the well and then you have a scientifically valid answer to the question.”

Ian Morris: This is an absolute breakthrough. This transforms the way we do history. It’s one of the biggest ideas in the history of scholarship. It’s phenomenal. But it does generate a problem, which is that as we generate more and more primary data, it gets harder and harder to go to the bottom and read everything. The sort of questions you’re able to ask and answer in this way get narrower and narrower and narrower. Most make fun of this trend among academics, and rightly so, to get to these ridiculous tiny questions that some people ask. Yet in a way, that’s the only way to be a valid scientist.

Ian Morris: The challenge is, how do we hang on to the seriousness of modern scholarship while asking the bigger questions that people actually care about? When you’re starting to answer these things, you’re walking this tightrope all the time, that you cannot follow the standard, traditional historical practice of reading absolutely everything relevant. I cannot read every document, study every individual artefact ever found, study the entire history of the planet. It’s just ridiculous to think that.

Ian Morris: So you start having to behave more like social scientists do, or even natural scientists do, which is you take things on trust. You say, “There are other scholars out there. I’m never going to be an absolute master of mediaeval Chinese poetry, but there are a bunch of absolute masters out there, some of them at my university. I have to take things on trust.” But the problem is, if you are a serious scholar, you know that all other serious scholars disagree about absolutely everything.

Ian Morris: This is why I always worry a little bit when I read big history books written by people who didn’t start off themselves in old-fashioned, traditional academic disciplines. If you haven’t done that, you just don’t know the kind of knife fights that go on in the long grass over these tiny little details. If you don’t at least understand how the arguments have been waged, you’re not in a position to say, “OK, here I’ve got three world-famous experts disagreeing about the details of the domestication of maize in Mexico 8,000 years ago. Which am I going to believe? Whose story is more plausible?” You’re just not in a position to judge that, unless you at least know how the arguments get waged.

Ian Morris: But the ultimate answer to your question is that you have no guarantees: you never know when you’re getting it right. That’s because nobody ever knows when they’re getting it right. There’s a great saying they have in the natural sciences that I think we sometimes forget in the humanities: “All science is revisable, no knowledge is ever final.” You’ve just got to embrace that. You do your best, knowing you’re never going to be right.

Energy extraction technology as a key driver of human values

Ian Morris: I think there’s a lot of room still to argue about whether we have a genuinely convincing causal explanation, but we certainly do have a lot of very, very strong correlations. Where does it start to happen? It starts to happen in the societies around the North Atlantic, that — for the reasons I talked about in my book, Why the West Rules—For Now — start to see their energy capture go through the roof, even before they crack the secret of fossil fuels after about 1750. Already by 1600, because they are mastering the Atlantic Ocean, places like the British Isles, France, and Spain are seeing energy capture begin to take off.

Ian Morris: Some of them, like the British Isles and the Netherlands in particular, see their energy begin to increase even more, because they figure out the most effective ways of channelling all this new wealth, all these new resources coming across the Atlantic Ocean. When the Industrial Revolution does happen, it’s in the countries that have come to dominate the Atlantic economy, especially Britain, especially England, and channel those resources. They’ve got all these things they could do if they can just find the way to get the resources going. And fossil fuel–driven industrial manufacturing — and then governments that open up paths within the society for fossil fuel manufacturers and their funders — places that do that see this explosion.

Ian Morris: It’s not like English people have changed their fundamental moral character. It’s just that they start seeing, “Oh, we’re doing really well compared to all these benighted Europeans. Why are we doing really well?” Some say, “Well, obviously, it’s because God chose us. God loves us. That’s why we’re doing really well.” Others say, “Well, no, actually, it’s because we’ve got this constitution with a parliament, where parliament gets to decide the funding questions and parliament can only do that if at least our electorate” — which varies between a quarter and a third of the male population — “agrees to do this, to take on these burdens ourselves.”

Ian Morris: Then people start saying, “Well, but there’s all these other people getting rich and taking part in this process as we move into the 19th century. What if we gave them more say in the process as well?” People start to say, “Yes, the more we widen the franchise, the better we are going to be able to channel and use all this energy at our fingertips.”

Ian Morris: It’s not like the energy flows change who you are, or somehow make you a different moral being. It’s just that they start rewarding different kinds of behaviour. Certainly, by the end of the 19th century, you’ve still got people who say women should not vote. You’ve still got people who say slavery should be legal. But you’re starting to look like a crackpot if you say these things, and that is the only force driving this. Again, it’s like biological evolution. Nobody is in charge. God has not laid down the principles that animals shall evolve into human beings and that’s the end of the story. Nobody is in charge of this, and so people are making their own decisions.

Ian Morris: It turns out that the decisions that people have been making within Britain generally in the 19th century were ones that were very profitable for the British system as a whole. Not necessarily for everybody within Britain, but they were looking at the world, recognising the way geography was taking them, the options open to them, and capitalising on these. Some historians will say the Industrial Revolution really should have happened in France or Belgium, not in England. Well, the mistakes the French and Belgian leaders made had a lot to do with why it didn’t.

Ian Morris: I say this is why it all happened. This is the key thing to remember. I’m not saying energy flows determine what kind of society you have. Absolutely not. Energy flows set up the costs and benefits of any decision you make. They rig the system so that if you choose the right thing — without knowing what the right thing is, and with no way to know what the right thing is — you benefit from it. You choose the wrong thing, you pay a very harsh price for it.

How much things might change over the next 100 years

Ian Morris: I make this prediction, other things being equal, Eastern development catches up with Western in 2103, or around about the end of this century. Let’s say somewhere around there. Now, the big thing is, of course, “other things being equal.” Are other things going to be equal? Well, we’re talking about the future, so nobody knows. You can look at the way these big long-term trends have worked in the past and ask yourself, what kind of countervailing forces do they tend to generate? What kind of things might happen so that other things are not equal, or might happen so other things actually do turn out to be equal?

Ian Morris: So I start looking at my graphs and my trends. I realise there’s actually a little bit more going on in this graph than what I had been talking about so far. When we’re talking about asking when does the Eastern line catch up with the Western, we’re talking here about the horizontal axis, the timeline on my graph. At what point on the timeline do the lines cross each other? What if we look at the vertical axis, the number of points on this development index?

Ian Morris: The huge thing on the development index is the way the scores have jumped so much over the last couple of hundred years, up to the point where now, the Western development scores run to about 1,000 points on this development index I developed, and the Eastern score is gaining on it. If they carry on upward at the same rates in the 21st century as they did in the 20th, by the time the lines cross, they will both be at around 5,000 points. That means a 4,000-point jump in one century, which is roughly nine times the amount of increase that we’ve currently seen since the end of the ice age.

Ian Morris: Now, that was when my mind truly boggled, when I realised what the implications of the data I’d been looking at were. Five times as much changes in the last century, nine times as much as since the end of the last ice age. I realised that if these data are anywhere near reality, bear any resemblance to the truth whatsoever, this means that the coming 100 years is going to see more change in the human condition than the previous 100,000 years have seen.

Ian Morris: I should say, this strikes some people as a slightly incredible claim to make. Just an absurd claim to make. The very nature of what it is to be a human being is going to change if other things continue in the way they have been doing. The obvious reason why that is actually not a ridiculous claim at all is that in many ways, the human condition has already changed more in the last 100 years than it did in the previous 100,000 years.

Ian Morris: We have seen men with no legs running in the Olympic Games. If you’d said that to your great-great-grandparents, they would’ve said this was magic. We can already intervene into the genetics of unborn children, turn them into something that nature has not made them. This is magic. We already have godlike powers at our disposal. It’s just that compared to where they’ll be 100 years from now, if other things remain equal, what we’re doing now is laughable. It’s child’s play.

Ian Morris: This is where the mind begins to boggle. The question I had to ask myself is, of course, where might this take us? What are the truly paradigm-shattering things that are happening in our own world? There’s a lot of them. The nature of violence is actually one of the big ones. The introduction of nuclear weapons into the world, I think, is one of the big things driving rates of violence down so dramatically in the last 75 years. We’ve changed the world we live in, in that way. The truly earth-shattering one, I think, is this growing synthesis of genetics, nanotechnology, computing power. We really are changing what it means to be a human being.

The malleability of human values

Ian Morris:The thing that strikes me most about human values is how variable they are: you can go to two communities quite close to each other geographically, and they will have entirely different attitudes about things like gender relationships, whether hierarchy is a good or a bad thing, all kinds of stuff like this, wildly different ideas about this. The malleability of our values is the thing that really struck me.

Ian Morris: I think that comes about because, unlike other animals, we have evolved biologically to the point where we can also evolve culturally. We have cumulative cultural evolution which is something that really no other species of animal exactly has. We can think up new ways to do things. We can tweak these, add to them over the centuries. Just like every other kind of animal, we act in response to the environments in which we live. But unlike any other kind of animal, we can do so cumulatively, changing the way we behave without having to evolve biologically into a different kind of animal.

Ian Morris: When elephants migrate to the edge of Siberia and discover, “Oh, it’s really cold in Siberia, we can’t go there,” they stop until they evolve biologically into animals that are hairy — woolly mammoths — which of course they eventually do, and in they go and they live there very successfully. On the other hand, humans migrate and spread to the edge of Siberia. They say, “Oh, it’s really cold there. What can we do about this? I know, let’s kill something and steal its skin and fur and wrap ourselves in it, and in we go.” This is precisely what they do. No other animal can do this.

Ian Morris: Looking at human values, we see not only this tremendous variability between societies but also these big long-term patterns. Through 90-odd% of our history on Earth, humans were hunter-gatherers who were living off wild plants and wild animals, mostly in quite small groups, migrating, moving around a lot to follow wild plants and animals as they move around and ripen. This has severe constraints on what you can do and the amount of energy you can capture from your environment. The fact that you’ve got to move constantly strictly limits what you can do.

Ian Morris: What anthropologists have found is overwhelmingly — not 100%, but overwhelmingly — forager, hunter-gatherer societies tend to be very, very egalitarian in terms of gender relationships, political relationships, economic relationships. Very egalitarian. Why are they like this? Is it because eating wild rice makes you feel like a saint and you want to sing “Kumbaya” and hug everybody? Well, no, that’s ridiculous. It’s because we are free to organise our societies in any way that we want.

Ian Morris: But then we have the agricultural revolution. Farming societies come into the world. In farming societies, overwhelmingly, people see the world in an entirely different way. They’re staying in one place now, growing domesticated plants and animals, generating much more energy. But there’s also all these things you’ve got to do. You can’t run these societies unless you build roads, you have ports, you build big ships, you have organisation, you have irrigation — all these things have got to be done.

Ian Morris: There’s a lot of different ways to do these things, but the way that historically clearly won out was top-down, hierarchical organisation. People in farming societies overwhelmingly — when the evidence allows us to see this — say, “People are all different and we all know this. Everybody’s different; no two people are identical. People are all different. Therefore, the fundamental moral principle should be that you treat people differently, with fairness.”

Ian Morris: We live in a world where you need a lot of labour in your fields, especially if you’re rich and you’ve got big fields. You can’t work yourself. But we also live in a world where it’s hard to generate enough surplus from agriculture to pay wages, so they’re going to attract free labourers to come and work for you. So what do you do? You go to free, poor people and say, “Here’s this deal, come and work for me, or I will break your legs. How about that for a deal?” Free people tend to say, “Yes, OK, if those really are the alternatives.” These societies — this is what we see in their literary productions — evolve towards saying, “This is actually right and proper.”

Predicting future human values

Ian Morris: I think the great challenge is we are living through the fastest transformation of everything that the planet has ever seen. Maybe the futurists are right, and we’re all going to be beamed up to the great database in the sky. Maybe we’re going to suck completely non-polluting solar energy out of outer space. I don’t know. You don’t know. Nobody knows. And what we also don’t know — the unknowns piled on top of the unknowns — is what that is going to mean for people’s moral values, for the costs and benefits of different kinds of behaviour, and for how our evaluation of the world is going to shift.

Ian Morris: Because if we’d been having this conversation 300 years ago, and I had told you about the upcoming industrial revolution — and how this was going to mean that your wife was going to go out to work, and you weren’t going to be able to enslave anybody anymore, and Jews were going to own stuff — I would bet you dollars to doughnuts you would’ve been offended by what I said. Because if you were a perfectly normal early 18th century British person, this would’ve been horrifically offensive to you. And it’s easy to think of a comparably offensive thing that somebody might say now. Because we don’t see the future, we don’t know how the world is going to change. It would be impossible for you to imagine the world that the industrial revolution produced, and equally impossible for you to imagine how you would react if you time travelled forward and settled down in a post-industrial world.

Ian Morris: We are very malleable animals. We can transform ourselves because we are good at recognising the costs and benefits of the context that we’re in. Which I know sounds very cynical, but it’s where evolutionary thinking leads to.

Ian Morris: I think there’s a number of big challenges before us. One is that we don’t know whether broadly democratic regimes are going to turn out to be the ones best suited to channel the new kinds of energies and the new kinds of technology the 21st century is bringing us. We don’t know whether we are, because plenty of people in China think the broadly authoritarian regimes are going to be the ones that capitalise most effectively on green energy, on artificial intelligence, on all kinds of things that are going on. We just don’t know at the moment — again, any more than people knew 300 years ago that moving in the democratic direction was going to be the most effective way to behave in the industrialised age.

Ian Morris: So that’s one of the big questions for us. We might not like the kind of things we hear Xi Jinping saying, but if they turn out to be so successful that every country in the world starts trying to ally itself with China — the way so many did with Britain in the 19th century — should we be totally surprised if people in these countries behave also like people did the 19th century, and start to emulate things that China does just like they emulated things Britain does? There’s a reason why association football is played all over the planet. It’s because people thought Britain had a lot of soft power. Is that what’s going to happen?

Ian Morris: So that’s one big unknown. The other one is in the sort of technological side of this. We already live in a world where Amazon knows better than I do what books I want to read, Expedia knows where I want to go for vacation. What if we reach a point where it starts to look like our algorithms are better placed than our politicians to judge what is going to be the right decisions for the future? There are certainly days where I already think our algorithms will be a lot better than our venal, corrupt, incompetent, self-serving politicians (and I say that with the greatest respect). But what if we get in the world like that? Is empowering as many people as possible to make their own decisions a really good idea when you know they are going to make substandard decisions? You know they’re going to do really stupid stuff. Would it not be better just to ask Google to take over our lives?

Articles, books, and other media discussed in the show

Ian’s work:

Decreases in global violence:

Other 80,000 Hours Podcast episodes:

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About the show

The 80,000 Hours Podcast features unusually in-depth conversations about the world's most pressing problems and how you can use your career to solve them. We invite guests pursuing a wide range of career paths — from academics and activists to entrepreneurs and policymakers — to analyse the case for and against working on different issues and which approaches are best for solving them.

The 80,000 Hours Podcast is produced and edited by Keiran Harris. Get in touch with feedback or guest suggestions by emailing [email protected].

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