“Society Types” Are a Cheat Sheet to Understanding Human History and the Causes of Progress

After decades of studying world history, I have come the conclusion that one cannot understand current progress without a solid understanding of history. The reason is simple: the causes of progress today are fundamentally the same as the causes of progress today. By focusing exclusively on current times, one is drastically reducing the sample size of nations and technologies examined. As any statistician will tell you, increasing the sample size is one of the best means for giving one confidence that the correlation between two things are robust.

This leaves us with a problem. Understanding human history is a gargantuan undertaking. Even a person graduating from an elite university with a History degree still only has a basic knowledge of history. It is likely that this person has highly specialized knowledge in a few regions or periods and virtually no knowledge in other regions or periods.

It is, obviously, not realistic to ask people to spend decades reading history books in order to understand progress. We need some way of learning history on a very high level that does not require decades of intense study on all the variation in human history. We need a way to categorize societies so that we can focus on what they hold in common with each other, while still understanding what is different about them. More importantly, we need to know why they share common characteristics and why they differ.

I believe that the concept of “Society Type” enables people to get a basic understanding of all of human history without devoting a huge amount of time to the subject. A society type is a category for how a society organizes itself to transform energy and other natural resources into food and other useful technologies. This is most easily measured by how people acquire a majority of their calories. If, as they say, “you are what you eat”, then the society type concept emphasizes that “we are how we acquire what we eat.”

Virtually all energy in human societies ultimately derives from the sun. Societies use different technologies, skills and social organizations to transform solar energy into food that is fit for human consumption. In this way, large groups of people are able to survive and reproduce. How they do so, however, varies greatly between societies.

When viewed on the high level, there are only a small number of means through which a society can acquire enough calories to survive and reproduce. The following is a list of society types and how they acquire the majority of their calories:

  • Hunter Gatherer societies: Hunting wild animals and gathering wild plants.
  • Fishing societies: Fishing, hunting sea mammals and gathering shellfish.
  • Horticultural societies: Farming domesticated plants (using hand tools) and sometimes also raising domesticated animals.
  • Agrarian societies: Farming domesticated plants (using animal-driven iron plows) and raising domesticated animals.
  • Herding societies: Herding domesticated animals on the wild range.
  • Commercial societies: Selling a product or skill, so one can buy food from the market (but with limited use of fossil fuels).
  • Industrial societies: Selling a product or skill, so one can buy food from the market and widespread use of fossil fuels.

But why is food consumption so important that we can categorize entire societies by it? The reason is that until very recently, by far the most time-consuming task in people’s daily lives has been in acquiring food. Other than sleep, the bulk of people’s time has been allotted to producing, preserving, storing, distributing, preparing and eating food. And much of the time left over has been devoted to building and repairing tools necessary for those tasks.

Because so much time and energy was needed to acquire food, entire societies were forced to organize themselves around the optimum means to do so within their local environment. Because of environmental limitations, the limited number of skills that any one person can acquire and the need for people to cooperate together in social organizations, societies must specialize in one specific means of acquiring food.

For example, group of people in one geographical area cannot simultaneously specialize in both fishing and farming. In any one geographical area, one of these means of acquiring food generates more calories of food per unit of work than others, so people will naturally focus their efforts in that type of food. A very large polity may have different regions specializing in different means of subsistence, but each region must specialize in the means that is most effective at generating calories of food per unit of work. The level of technology, available energy and natural resources determines which means of subsistence is most effective.

The vast majority of societies throughout history fit comfortably into one of the types listed above (although polities often span multiple society types). The exceptional societies that cannot be fit into a type have had relatively little impact on history. Societies do not persist on the edges of a type for long (i.e. 55 percent of calories from one type of food and 45 percent of calories from another). Again, the society must focus its efforts on the most productive means of acquiring food that the environment can provide.

While many historians and anthropologist would undoubtedly bridle at such a gross over-simplification of each society, I believe that Society Type is a very useful concept for the following reasons:

Almost all bodies of human knowledge use classifications to promote our understanding. Geologists have grouped clusters of years into eons, eras and periods; Chemists have grouped types of atoms into elements on the Periodic Table; Biologists groups individual plants and animals into domain, kingdom, phylum, class, order, family, genus and species.

All of these classifications simplify by categorizing individual items into groups based upon relevant characteristics. All are open to the charge of over-simplification, but all these categorizations have stood the test of time because they are useful. They are useful because they focus on differences that matter while ignoring less important differences.

The concept of Society Type is useful because with one simple label we can communicate a large number of important characteristics about any given society in history. We will cover these characteristics in much greater detail later, but for now it is sufficient to say that each type has common levels of population size, population density, political structure, economic structure and rates of innovation. And these characteristics clearly differ from societies of other types.

The concept of Society Type enables us to understand why some groups of people evolved culturally at vastly different rates than other groups of people. This is because the society type is to humans what the natural environment is to animals: the critical environmental factor that drives evolutionary change. Among animals, that evolutionary change is entirely genetic. Among humans, that evolutionary change is genetic, cultural and technological.

Humans adapt to their society type with changes to their genes, culture, technology, skills and social organizations. Any of these factors that fundamentally conflict with survival and prosperity in their society type will be under substantial pressure to change. With adaptation via innovation and diffusion, each generation is slightly better adapted for surviving, reproducing and prospering in that society type than the previous generation. Within a single lifetime the changes can seem trivial, but when viewed from the perspective of centuries, these changes can be dramatic.

The concept of Society Type enables us to understand why some nations today are much wealthier than others. Hunter Gatherer societies are uniformly poor by the standards of any other society. Horticultural, Agrarian, Commercial and Industrial societies were step-by-step wealthier than the previous society. And the gulfs between societies in different types were usually vast in size.

The concept of Society Type enables us to understand why different ethnicities within the same country are much wealthier than others. Peoples whose ancestors were recently from Hunter Gatherer societies have had a very difficult time prospering in other society types. Immigrants who descend from peoples that lived in Horticultural societies have also struggled to adapt to living in more complex societies, despite the greater opportunities. Peoples from Commercial and Industrial societies have prospered wherever they have immigrated.

The concept of Society Type enables us to understand the daily lives of most people within a society. We have already seen that until the Industrial era, the overwhelming majority of people in all societies did the bulk of their labor acquiring food. And the processes that they developed to grow, distribute and store played a powerful role in structuring the entire society. For this reason, food production should define how we categorize societies. The food production system largely determines the amount and type of energy that a society can consume. This energy can then be used to innovate new technologies, skills and social organizations that solve key problems. With relatively inefficient food production, very little energy can be devoted to innovation. Virtually all of it is consumed by survival and reproduction. But as the food production system becomes more efficient, then greater amounts of energy can be devoted towards the innovation of new technologies, skills and social organizations.

I will make further posts on this subject.

If you would like to learn more about this or other related topics, read my book From Poverty to Progress.


Michael Magoon is the author of the “From Poverty to Progress” series of books. The first book in the series is already published with many more to follow.


The writings above are under the same copyright as the main book “From Poverty to Progress
Copyright © 2021 Michael Magoon

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