FORAGERS, FARMERS, AND FOSSIL FUELS by Ian Morris

FORAGERS, FARMERS, AND FOSSIL FUELS

How Human Values Evolve
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KIRKUS REVIEW

A provocative explanation for the evolution and divergence of ethical values.

Humans are genetically hard-wired to respect certain universal core ethical concerns, and yet there have been "enormous differences through time and space in what humans have taken fairness [and] justice to mean,” notes prolific academic Morris (Classics/Stanford Univ.; War! What Is It Good For?: Conflict and the Progress of Civilization from Primates to Robots, 2014, etc.). The author contends that a culture's interpretation of these concepts is driven by what works best for the form of energy capture on which the culture is based. That is, "our choices about what to be righteous about are...forced on us by the ways we extract energy from the world." Cheerfully admitting that his argument is reductionist, materialist, universalist, functionalist and evolutionist, Morris sorts cultures from the end of the last ice age to the present into foragers, farmers and fossil fuel users. Each of these groups captures more energy per capita than its predecessor; each is also more materially successful and so tends to displace its predecessor over time. Each group's interpretations of ethical concepts are reflected, among other things, in a culture's attitudes toward political inequality, including kingship and slavery, wealth and gender inequality, and toleration of violence. Morris concludes with some speculation about the future of ethical development as humanity's per capita capture of energy continues its hockey-stick rise into the next century. This is, in book form, the author's 2012 Tanner Lectures for Princeton's Center for Human Values, and like the lectures, it includes brief reactions and rebuttal by three academics and the novelist Margaret Atwood, concluding with an author's response in a chapter puckishly titled, "My Correct Views on Everything."

In the hands of this talented writer and thinker, this potentially dry material becomes an engaging intellectual adventure, fully accessible to the generalist, as it ranges across millennia and disciplines including classical history, sociology, and moral and political philosophy.

Pub Date: April 1st, 2015
ISBN: 978-0-691-16039-9
Page count: 360pp
Publisher: Princeton Univ.
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 15th, 2015




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