Constraints to Progress (part 2): Why How Our Ancestors Acquired Their Food Still Matters

This is the second post for an ongoing series about constraints to progress. See also part one.

There has been enormous progress throughout the world over the last three decades. Clearly, though, inequalities still exist. Some nations are far richer than others. Fortunately, they are diminishing greatly over time, but true equality eludes us.

Why are some nations poorer than others? Why are some ethnic groups poorer within the same nation? Why did some nations industrialize before others? Why do some nations perform better on development metrics than others? Why did the Industrial Revolution occur in Britain?

The legacy of society types helps to answer all these questions.

In a fascinating article entitled “Was the Wealth of Nations Determined in 1000BC?”, three authors make the compelling argument that the rank order for the wealth of nations versus less prosperous nations has changed little for thousands of years (see also my summary of this article). How wealthy a nations was compared to other nations at the same time period in 1000BC, 1000, 1500 and today are all closely correlated. Let that sink in for a moment, as this observation has profound consequences…

Essentially, the authors argue that the current focus on technological innovation, government policy, levels of education, health, political stability, imperialism or racism all miss critical long-term factors working behind the scenes. Forget all those short-term factors. What really matters is how advanced the technology of your ancestors was 3000 years ago! Once you know where your genetic ancestors ranked 3000 years ago, you have a pretty good idea of where your nation ranks today. This fact should give real pause to those who focus exclusively on the present and very recent history.

At first this seems preposterous. How could what happened 3000 years ago affect what happens today? How could what happened during an era of ox-driven plows affect what is happening today in an era of the Internet and genetic engineering?

Some researchers who have noticed this phenomenon have embraced the “head start” hypothesis. Essentially, they argue that: whichever society got to agriculture and states first got such a head start that others societies never were able to catch up. Louis Putterman has done some excellent research in this area.

But this explanation does not work either. Northwest Europe and Britain were clearly trend-setters in progress over the last 300 years. It was in those regions that the Industrial Revolution originated and gradually diffused throughout the world. But Northwest Europe were actually very late to discover both agriculture and the state compared to the Middle East, India and East Asia. Clearly the Agrarian societies of Eurasia have had a commanding lead over the rest of the world, but Northwest Europe and Britain were laggards compared to rest of Eurasia. And the Middle East, which invented both agriculture and the state has been a laggard over the last 200 years. So head start does not explain the amazing stability of the wealth of nations over the millenia.

Something else enabled Northwest Europe, and particularly Britain, to take off during the Industrial Revolution despite being relative laggards for thousands of years. I believe that something can be explained with the concept of Society Types.

If you are not familiar with the concept of Society Type, check out my earlier post. A very quick description is that society type sorts societies into categories based upon how the residents acquire the majority of their calories.

Here are the main categories. Even if you have never heard of the concept of Society Types, some of them will be very recognizable to you.

  • Hunter Gatherer societies: Hunting wild animals and gathering wild plants.
  • Fishing societies: Fishing, hunting sea mammals and gathering shellfish.
  • Herding societies: Herding domesticated animals on the wild range.
  • 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.
  • 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.

In general, those societies high up on this list had very slow rates of innovation and copying innovations made by others. Societies towards the bottom had much faster rates of innovation and willingness to copy the innovations of others. This is caused by factors such as population size, population density, urbanization, and sophistication of energy, transportation and communication technologies.

As I have argued in previous posts, the quest to gain enough calories to survive and reproduce has been the dominant struggle of human history. Until the Industrial Revolution about 90% of the people devoted the majority of their waking hours to this task.

How each society solved that problem had a very large impact on how the entire society was structured. And their solutions were heavily constrained by the geography that they lived in.

How a society organized itself to produce food had a large impact on its ability to innovate new technologies, skills and organizations. It also affected how easily the society could copy the innovations from other societies. So to a large extent due to accidents in geography, some nations “accidentally” created societies that were good at innovation and copying, while others were trapped in societies where innovations was very slow and the possibilities of copying other societies were remote.

As I have argued, progress was invented by the Commercial city-states of Northern Italy about 800 years ago. Examples include Venice, Florence, Milan and Genoa. While other Eurasian societies were Agrarian societies, where monarchs, clerics and soldiers dominated over an ocean of peasants toiling in the fields, these people invented Commercial societies. These societies were strikingly modern in their characteristics because they possessed three of the four keys to progress: trade-based cities, productive agriculture and decentralization of power.

Once these four keys were discovered in Northern Italy, they slowly and unevenly diffused throughout the world. There were a number of key historical breakthroughs that enabled progress to accelerate and diffuse to new parts of the globe:

  1. The diffusion of Commercial societies from Northern Italy to Flanders (modern-day Belgium) and then to Netherlands and finally to southeast England.
  2. The migration of European settlers to the Americas and Oceania. The migration of peoples from Commercial societies to North America was particularly important.
  3. The Industrial Revolution in Britain in the 1830s, which added the fourth key to progress (widespread use of fossil fuels).
  4. The Allied victory in World War II, which ended the military threats of Nazi Germany, Imperial Japan and Fascist Italy.
  5. The collapse of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s. This enabled progress to expand to China, India and much of the rest of the world.

One thing to note is that the pathways that progress has followed since the Industrial Revolution, closely match the Society Type that a people achieved in 1500. Progress roughly passed from Britain to other Commercial societies, then to Agrarian societies in Europe, then to Agrarian societies in East Asia and it is just starting to occur in the rest of the world. Note: I choose the year 1500 because that is before the European conquests and migrations that rescrambled much of the world. The world of 1500 closely matched the world of 1000BC with the critical exception of the evolution of Commercial societies in Northwest Europe.

It is striking that even the nations of East Asia (all Agrarian societies in 1500) that have experienced such explosive economic growth – Japan, South Korea, Hong Kong, Taiwan and Singapore – have still not reached the per capita GDP PPP as the United States. But as more and more nations accelerate in their copying of technology, skills and social organizations from wealthier nations, the differences are narrowing quickly.

I am fascinated by the fact that the current standard-of-living of a nation, ethnic minorities within nations as well as the timing of industrialization are closely tied to the society type of their genetic ancestors in 1500. For example, the Dutch people today are the genetic descendants of people who lived in Commercial societies in 1500. The Japanese people today are the genetic descendants of people who lived in Agrarian societies in 1500. The Sub-Saharan African people today are the genetic descendants of people who lived in Horticultural and Herding societies in 1500.

Those simple facts tell us a great deal about their current standard-of-living, the timing of their transition into Industrial societies and their relative outcome on the development metrics in that I discuss in the “Measuring Progress” series.

The rough pecking order for success in both the past and the present has been:

  1. Descendents from Commercial societies in 1500: England, Belgium, Netherlands, Northern Italy and western Germany plus the nations that were settled by those people –  the United States, Canada, Australia and New Zealand. These peoples industrialized early, have some of the highest standards-of-living in the world, and score very high on development metrics.
    Many of these societies have ethnic minorities descendent from Horticultural societies from Africa and Latin America who have been far less successful economically. Fortunately, many of these minority groups have recently experienced significant improvements as they integrate into broader society, so there is hope for the future.
  2. Descendents from Free Peasant societies: Switzerland, Denmark, Norway, Sweden, Iceland and perhaps Finland. These nations industrialized slightly later and have some of the highest standards-of-living in the world. They also score very high on development metrics. Minority groups within these nations who descend from less complex society types are less successful.
  3. Descendents from Agrarian societies that were culturally and geographically proximate to the first two groups: Germany, France and the rest of Europe (with a gradual gradient as one moves away from Northwest Europe to Southeast Europe). These nations lagged the previous groups in industrialization and have somewhat lower standards-of-living and development metrics. Minority groups within these nations who descend from less complex society types are less successful.
  4. Descendents from Agrarian societies that were culturally and geographically distant from Northwest Europe: Japan, South Korea, China, India, Indonesia, Thailand and Vietnam. These nations lagged most European nations in their industrialization, and have somewhat lower standards-of-living and development metrics. Communist governments in Eastern Europe, China and Vietnam seem to have hurt the transition, although the fall of the Soviet Union and the adoption of capitalism in China and Vietnam have enabled them to catch up rapidly.
    Immigrants from these countries to nations dominated by the above groups have been very successful. In many of those countries, descendents from Asian Agrarian societies have been even more successful than the native born. Given that many of these immigrants have technical degrees from university, it is likely that they are not representative of the overall population. It is hard not to notice, however, that immigrants from these Asian societies are doing much better than the remaining groups on the list.
  5. Descendents from Horticultural and Herding societies: Latin America, Sub-Saharan Africa, Central Asia, mountainous regions of Southeast Asia and New Guinea. None of these societies have made the transition to Industrial societies so far, and they lag Europe, North America and East Asia in standard-of-living and most development metrics.
    Many of these societies have ethnic minorities descendent from Commercial and Agrarian societies who have been far more successful economically (Chinese, British, Germans, Spanish, Russians, Lebanese, and Indians). Fortunately, most of these nations have recently experienced significant improvements in development metrics, so there is hope for the future.
  6. Descendents from Hunter-Gatherer societies: restricted to very scattered and impoverished regions across the world. These societies have been the real losers of history. While they once dominated the planet, they are now severely restricted in scope. In most cases, the descendents of Hunter-Gather societies have intermarried with the descendents of more complex societies, so their uniqueness is fading away. Where they are able to preserve their ways of life, they do at the cost of poverty and isolation.

One thing that is important to point out is that the difference cannot be entirely explained by the society itself: its institutions, its technology, etc. Migrants clearly bring whatever advantage they have with them to their new location whether they are settling a new land as Europeans did in North America or individual migrants do today. Few of those migrants bring institutions or technology with them. Many were desperately poor by today’s standards.

British immigrants to North America, German immigrants to Central Europe, Russian immigrants to Central Asia, Chinese immigrants to Southeast Asia, Indian immigrants to Africa, Lebanese immigrants to Africa and Latin American as well as Jewish immigrants from throughout Europe have settled in new regions and within one or two generations became far more successful than the natives who had living there for centuries. The type of society that they came from has a big impact on their success in the new country. For summaries of books on this topic with more details go here and here.

The authors of these two books and others argue that some cultures have certain values that enable individuals to compete better within other societies. Their culture enables to arrive as poor immigrants and then gradually ratchet themselves up over the subsequent generations. This is clearly true, but the authors fail to explain how those societies got those values in the first place. Values do not arise out of nothingness. And particularly if very different cultures are arriving at similar solutions, there must be something that crosses multiple cultures that is causing cultures to change. That something must be pressuring cultures to change in a certain direction.

I believe that only the concept of society type explains why. People who migrate to new lands must be bringing something with them as they move to new land and that something must be caused or at least influenced by the society type of their ancestors.

Is there any evidence of this? Currently, because the concept of Society Type is not well known outside of the fields of anthropolgy and sociology, there has been very little research on the topic. There are some tantalizing clues that society type is a useful concept.

We have good evidence for different outcomes in Africa between peoples who descend from Horticultural societies and those who descend from Herding societies. Critically, these differences are present even when a person migrates to a different region. Whatever is causing their “richness” and “poorness” is brought with them. This nullifies institutions as a possible cause for the difference. Research in this area is just in its infancy, but I think that we will start finding more and more examples of the legacy of society types leading to different economic outcomes within the same region.

Why is this so? Why does it matter which society type a person’s ancestors descend from?

I have been struggling to answer this question for quite some time. At this point, I can only offer an outline of a theory. I strongly believe that human beings adapt to survive and prosper within their society type, just as animals adapt to survive and reproduce within their natural environment. It is clear that the society types are different enough from each other as to make it difficult for people to migrate from one to the other and be successful in their new society.

But the exact mechanisms for what retards the transition are unclear. How much of it is genetic? Today many historians and social scientists are afraid to even raise the question, despite the overwhelming evidence from twins studies that outcomes are to a large extent heritable (see summary for evidence). It is important to at least raise the possibility that humans genetically evolve to survive and reproduce within their society type. Genetics must play at least some role. But there is no conclusive evidence of genetic differences between people living in different society types, so any claims are based on rational assumptions, not evidence.

How much of the difference is cultural? Different cultures clearly have different values, which lead to different motivations and actions. Technologies, skills and social organizations clearly became rooted in cultures and are closely linked to identity. And when migrants move to completely different regions, they bring all that cultural baggage with them. But it is very difficult to separate genetics from culture because migrants bring their genes with them as well.

And culture is so broad. Which is more important: technology, skills, social organizations or values? Because migrants bring all of them with them, it is very hard to know which is the real causal factor.

While there is not enough data to give conclusive answers, we can construct a plausible theory from what is currently known. I believe that this theory must rely on multiple causes. Just one cause is not enough to explain all the variation. My initial thoughts go something like this: More complex societies enable increasingly rapid innovation of technologies. The innovations of new technologies put pressure on humans to specialize on increasingly complex skills. The rapidly increasing number of skills necessary to use technology also forces social organizations to become more numerous, larger and more complex.

All of these changes force humans, particularly males, to get much better at learning new skills and cooperating together with other males in social organizations. Males that are better at those two abilities will tend to be successful, whether that success is measured by income, wealth, land holdings or social status. Some of that success will be due to luck and individual decisions, but some of the difference in outcome must also be due to genetic traits that give them an advantage.

Women prefer to mate with successful men, or at least men whom they believe will become successful. The culture of the individual society will define what success means. In a society that values hunters, women will tend to want to mate with the most successful hunter. In a society that values warriors, women will tend to want to mate with the most successful warrior. In a society that values landowners, women will tend to want to mate with the most successful landowner. In a society that values businessmen, women will tend to want to mate with the most successful businessman.

Of course, many women will have different preferences or not be able to follow through on their desires. All that is required is for differential mating and reproduction: successful men having more children than unsuccessful men. What this means in practice is that the least successful men, as defined by their culture, will pass on a lower share of their genes to the next generation than more successful men.

If this is repeated over dozens of generations, humans will tend to evolve genetically for success in their society type. In complex societies, this means that they will become better at learning skills and cooperating together with others in large organizations. People living in less complex societies will be under less pressure to adapt.

As any biologist will quickly recognize, this is the theory of sexual selection applied to humans. First hypothesized by Charles Darwin, sexual selection is the likely cause of some of more bizarre anatomical features in the animal kingdom: the tails of peacocks, the antlers of elk and moose, the noses of elephant seals as well as the bright coloration of many male birds. Sexual selection also explains complex behavior, such as male birds that sing, construct nests and dance in front of females.

Some would argue that this is impossible as human genetic evolution stopped about 10,000 years ago with the Agricultural Revolution. While this was once widely believed, current gene research has destroyed this assumption. In fact, genetic research shows that human genetic evolution has accelerated 100 times over its pre-Agricultural rate. Many recent genetic adaptation that some societies acquired recently while others did not include: ability to digest cow’s milk, ability to digest grains, ability to metabolize alcohol, breath oxygen more effectively at altitude, and immunity to diseases such as measles and malaria. Scientists discover more every year.

For evidence of this, read my summary on Cochran and Harpending’s book “The 10,000 Year Explosion: How Civilization Accellerated Human Evolution.” Or if you really want to get into the nitty gritty science, read this and this.

Just as animal adapt genetically to their natural environment, humans also likely adapted to their social environment. Humans lived in Hunter Gather societies for 5000 generations. It is absolutely inconceivable that humans did not adapt genetically. In fact, the entire field of Evolutionary Psychology is based upon that assumption. But that field misses that fact that most Eurasia societies lived in Agrarian societies for 5000 years or 250 years. And parts of Northwest Europe lived in Commercial societies for at least 25 generations.

While genetic change must be part of the answer, it cannot possibly be the entire story. Far too many countries that have been mired in poverty for thousands of years have suddenly experienced progress over the last 30 years. Other factors must be going on.

In addition to driving genetic changes, society types that promote innovation likely also drive changes in parenting methods. All parents want their children to succeed, but what success means is determined by the culture and the parents social standing within society. Parents from successful families will work hard to pass on the knowledge, skills, habits and values that promote success.

So in addition to passing on genes that promote success, they also pass on non-genetic traits that enable their children to succeed. In complex societies, this means that they will be better at learning skills and cooperating together with others in large organizations. People living in less complex societies will be under less pressure to teach their children to learn new skills and cooperate together in large organizations.

Finally, society types also influence the career paths of youths. The career path that ambitious young persons, particularly young males, take is extremely important to the future of a society. This choice is strongly determined by the values of the young person’s parents, peers, ethnic group and society. When all of these are in alignment, young persons voluntarily invest a great deal of time acquiring a skill that enables them to produce a good or service that others want to buy, society can develop rapidly. But few societies in history have valued this.

Hunter-Gatherer societies value hunters, so ambitious young men focus their energy on acquiring those skills. Horticultural and Herding societies honor warriors, so ambitious young men focus their energy on learning skills to become great warriors. Agrarian societies honor aristocrats, military officers and the clergy. Therefore, ambitious young men living in those societies choose careers in those fields (if they are allowed to). Commercial and Industrial societies honor entrepreneurs, scientists and engineers. Not surprisingly, ambitious young men (and more recently young women) choose those career paths.

Complex society types also drive institutional change. Societies are in competition with each other, particularly militarily. Today, fortunately, that competition tends to be more in the field of economics. Nations have a strong vested interest in their people being able to learn skills and cooperate together in large organizations. This means investing in education and job skills training. It also means investing in food, energy, transportation and communication infrastructure that enables large cities to grow and prosper.

All of the above mean that complex societies drive changes in human genes, parenting methods, institutions, career choices and culture that enable their people to learn skills and cooperate together in organizations. Hunter Gatherer societies with relatively simple technologies and very small organizations drives relatively small changes in each generation. If a group of people live in a geographic area that enables the evolution of more complex society types, the changes in each generation will increase.

Horticultural and Agrarian societies have more complex technologies than Hunter Gatherer societies. They also have a greater number of social organizations, each of which are larger and more complex. Therefore, they drive more rapid changes in human genes, parenting methods, institutions and culture. The result are humans who more easily learn skills and cooperate more effectively in social organizations.

Commercial and Industrial societies push this process into overdrive. This helps to explain why people whose genetic descendents who lived in Commercial societies in 1500 have been so successful across the globe. They not only have more effective technologies, skills and social organizations, but their genes, parenting methods, institutions, and culture enable them to more quickly learn new skills and means of cooperation. This enables them to more rapidly adapt to change.

Does this mean that humans with ancestors from simpler society types are doomed to poverty forever? No, absolutely not. In fact, quite the opposite. The society types of our ancestors just defines the starting point and how quickly the society can adopt industrial technologies, skills and organizations. Once an individual or a society (or more accurately the leaders within the society) makes a conscious decision to copy those technologies, skills and organizations, they can make a jump to progress within one generation. But clearly some types of societies made the jump earlier than others and have less difficulty competing today than others.

This process also shows why immigrants from less complex societies have struggled to flourish, at least initially, in Industrial societies. These people are not inferior in any sense. They are just less well adapted for success in modern societies. With each generation, however, they are placed under the same pressure to evolve as the natives who have lived in those societies for generations.

Gradually, immigrants and their descendents figure out that they need to learn new skills and learn to cooperate in large organizations with the locals. As they do, they update their parenting methods, behaviors and culture. The more successful immigrants will move out of the neighborhood and intermarry with the native born. Over time the two groups integrate culturally and genetically until differences diminish greatly.

Poor nations that decide to copy the technologies, skills and social organizations of wealthy Industrial societies go through the same process, but without the intermarriage and cultural integration. The first members of the society that are able to master new skills and cooperate with others rapidly move up the socio-economic ladder. They pass on more of their genes than less successful members of society. They also update their parenting methods to pass on the knowledge, skills, habits and values to their children. Cultures that were once highly resistant to change now begin to value at least some of those changes and respect those who do well by them. Governments begin to invest in education and energy, transportation and communication infrastructures that enable further change.

Some may see this as a reason for pessimism and reject the fundamental unfairness of human history. While it is clearly unfair that some societies were trapped in a desperate poverty that we cannot imagine today, I prefer to focus on the marvelous achievement of Commercial and Industrial societies to create a widespread progress. Even more important is that progress is rapidly spreading to the rest of the world. The fact that inequalities exist is far less important than the fact that people’s lives are clearly getting better.

This progress was not inevitable. While the other society types were fundamentally trapped by geographical constraints, Commercial and Industrial societies are much less so. It is very easy for me to imagine an alternate history where the Commercials societies of the Netherlands or Britain never evolved or were crushed by more powerful Agrarian societies. It is also very easy for me to imagine North America never being populated by settlers from Commercial and Free Peasant societies.

Poverty, exploitation and ignorance were inevitable. Progress was not.

Fortunately, we live in a time period when almost any society can radically transform the standard-of-living of their people in just one generation. All they have to do is copy the technologies, skills and social organizations of more successful peoples and then modify them a bit so that they function within a new context. But many people fail to see the possibilities. Others see the possibilities, but chose not to copy. Some even reject the option as fundamentally immoral.

In future posts, I will write about the other constraints to modern progress:

  • Ethnic/religious/racial identities
  • Ideologies that promote class, ethnic, religious or racial resentments.

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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