Category Archives: Foragers

My favorite books of 2017

I felt this was a pretty weak year for books. I don’t know why. I only really loved three books that came out this year.

Especially with regards to work, I found I learned a lot more by doing rather than reading. I’m curious if this trend will continue.

That being said, the best books was incredibly good: because of the first two books below, I’ve tried to up my meditation to 40 minutes a day and reduce social media to under 30 minutes a day. I’ve also done a lot to reduce iPhone screen time. I’ve also spent much more time contemplating the nature of the self. My meditation practice is a little less tactical and includes more philosophical exploration.

I feel more in control of mind than I have in years.

Why Buddhism is True by Robin Wright

Robin’s thesis is:

  1. Our brains were mostly built during hunter and gather times.
  2. The modern world has hijacked useful desires (for food, sex, stimulation, and status) so that they are no longer that useful (we over eat, watch too much porn, constantly check our phones, etc.).
  3. There is no CEO in your brain. Your brain is made up of a bunch of competing desires / modules. And whichever you feed and reward will grow stronger.
  4. Meditation is a technique that can reduce the power of the feeling -> action sequence. Desires need not be orders if they are observed with distance and objectivity.
  5. The idea that there is no CEO of the brain also fits Buddhism’s core philosophical tenet that the self is an illusion.

I think arguments #1 through #4 are correct. Robin surveys a mounting body of scientific case evidence that makes this case, from evolutionary psychology to neurobiology.

I think #5 is directionally correct, but that ultimately humans do not have a brain that is powerful enough to make hard claims about these types of metaphysical conditions.

iGen – Jean Twenge

Jean’s thesis is that:

  1. Socio-economic conditions (in part families having increased wealth and less children) has led to a lengthening of childhood. High school is the new middle school.
  2. The iPhone has fundamentally altered how teens interact.
  3. Taken together, changing socio-economic conditions and the smartphone has led children to be more tolerant, less risk taking (sex, alcohol, and driving are down… marijuana is up), more insecure, less happy, less religious, more concerned with wealth, and more politically independent.

I’m not an expert in the field, but I found her found her argument compelling.

This generational shift is a striking example of how productivity and technology can combine to change societal values.

For you parents in the crowd, she gives thoughtful parenting recommendations at the end of the book.

The Dark Forest Trilogy

I previously reviewed the books here. Some of the best science fiction I have ever read.

The series is premised on this logic path:

  1. The primary goal of each civilization is to survive.
  2. There are finite resources and space in the universe.
  3. Civilizations tend to expand.
  4. Civilizations tend to advance technologically.
  5. You have no way of truly knowing whether an alien species is peaceful or hostile.

If this ends up being true in our reality, we will likely be destroyed by more technology advanced aliens.

What comes after science – religion or politics?

There is some chance that, in the future, we will interact with either (1) aliens who are so much smarter than us that we can’t really comprehend them or (2) artificial intelligence that will far surpass human intelligence.

The Rise of Science 

Over the past few hundred years, science has ascended as one of the primary mental models of humanity. So many of the ideas that we determine to be true, or whose adherence grant status, are born out of science.

This is not to say that religion and politics are unimportant; rather, it’s only to say that for most of humanity science didn’t really exist – and that over the past few hundred science has grown to be a primary mover of humanity.

As far as I can tell, the rise of science has been a generally good thing for humanity, though I’m open to the idea that the hunter and gatherer life was pretty ok – and that science may be the foundation from which we destroy ourselves.

The Limits of Human Science

The limits of human science stem from the limits of the human brain. There’s a reasonable chance that there are truths out there that we will never be able to understand because of our limited brain capacity.

On planet Earth, humans are the best there is at science, so we’ve not yet had to confront the humiliating inadequacy of our science.

But aliens or AI may understand the world in ways which we are simply incapable of mastering.

Then What?

Once we encounter entities that render our science functionally moot – in that it no longer explains the knowledge we know possess from witnessing the wonders of aliens or AI – then human science will lose its usefulness and status at a rapid pace.

At this point, my guess is that either religion or politics will increase in importance.

Religion is the practice of finding meaning in the unknowable.

Politics is the practice of finding meaning in the tribal.

Givent that aliens or AI would be knowable, my guess is that politics would trump religion and science in this new world.

Humanity, at this point, might divide itself in accordance to (1) tribal affiliation to specific alien or AI personalities or (2) tribal affiliation of how to interact with the knowledge that we are intellectually inferior to other beings.

Putting Science in Its Place

Human science is a pretty amazing thing, but it’s dominance is probably temporary.

How Hard is Life? Here’s What the Numbers Say

Scott Alexander just wrote one of the more important posts I’ve read this year (HT Tyler Cowen).

Please do read the full post.

After Scott gave qualitative information about human suffering in America, he ran some numbers to come up with what a random sample of 20 Americans might be dealing with.

Here’s what he came up with (NP = no problem in terms of the narrow ailments he ran):

Screen Shot 2015-12-28 at 5.16.50 PM

In sum, only 9 out of 20 Americans have escaped some combination of chronic pain, alcoholism, sexual abuse, domestic violence, unemployment, and depression.

Of course, this doesn’t mean that these people can’t lead happy and meaningful lives (I personnaly am very close with three alcoholics who have kicked drinking and are thriving).

But this is also a narrow list of ailments: I could think of numerous other sufferings that could make life very, very difficult.

A few takeaways, most of which are pretty obvious:

  1. Things were probably harder back in the day. This seems to definitely be true during the agriculture and early industrial ages, and was probably true in the hunter and gather age as well.
  2. The United States is amongst the richest nations in the world. It also has fairly high levels of happiness and meaning rates. So if the numbers are grim here, they are most likely worse for much of the world.
  3. So while things are indeed better, they are not amazing. Declaring that things are amazing is ignorant at best and destructive at worst, as the policy regime for “things are amazing” is likely to be different than the policy regime for “things are still pretty tough for a lot of people.”
  4. Of course, humans brains were not evolved to be happiness machines, so suffering will always be with us so long as we retain our humanness. But I hope there doesn’t need to be this much suffering.

It is interesting to think about what this might mean for education.

I’ll try to tackle that in a later post.

Are Yoga Instructors the New Foragers?

yoga

I recently read Foragers, Famers and Fossil Fuels, which laid out the thesis that societal values are determined by a society’s method of energy extraction.

Currently, I’m reading Sapiens, a book that surveys human history.

This post was inspired by a conversation with Adam Hawf about these two books.

Was Foraging Life Better than Farming Life? 

Yuval Harari, author of Sapiens, argues that foraging life was, for most people, much better than farming life.

Most foragers (as best as we can tell) lived in small, egalitarian bands of thirty or so individuals, worked around 30 hours a week, ate whatever they found (a variety of fresh foods), and then, presumably, spent the rest of the time gossiping, having sex, and playing low cost status games.

They did suffer from very high early childhood mortality rates, bouts of starvation, and elevated homicide rates, but they also had a reasonable chance of living to sixty if they survived childhood, as their lifestyle was less hospitable to infectious diseases.

In short: life was (presumably) good unless you were dying in childhood, starving, or being murdered.

Most people in the farming era, on the other hand, lived in hierarchical and unequal villages, worked in excess of 60 hours a week doing manual drudgery, ate processed grain products for most meals, and went through population boom and bust cycles based on starvation, warfare, and epidemics. Materially speaking, life was generally best right after a plague (assuming you survived).

In short: life consisted of near slave labor conditions (unless you happened to own the farm, castle, or pyramid) and was punctuated by major waves of death.

It’s not hard to see why Harari argues that foragers had it better than farmers.

Given the choice, I would probably choose to be a forager.

Was Foraging Life Better than Modern Life?

Harari also argues that forager life was in many ways better than modern life.

I’m less sold on this argument, but I’m open to it.

Most modern humans, increasingly: live in moderately unequal cities or towns, live a long-time, work 40 hours a week for small or large corporations, have access to sophisticated informational and entertainment technologies, support the rights of women and minorities, and have varied success in finding meaning and happiness, which is sometimes thwarted by anxiety, depression, alienation, and bad governance. And while violence seems to be down in the aggregate, in the early and mid 20th century we twice coordinated global slaughtering sprees.

On one hand, we live a long time, have more access to education and information, and enjoy great entertainment; on the other hand, our professional and social lives may be suboptimal due to the predominate economic and political conditions of our time.

Perhaps we’d be happier if we were gathering berries with our friends, even if we had shorter lives, less stimulating entertainment, and were less capable of abstract thinking.

It’s difficult to judge whether or not we’d have more meaningful lives, as most of our current constructs of meaning are intertwined with abstract thinking – making it hard to directly compare us to societies that did not think in the same manner.

Could We Have the Best of Both Worlds?

Is it possible that the future economy will deliver the best of both the foraging and modern world?

One could argue that being a yoga teacher or an Uber driver or a massage therapist – or any kind of service oriented independent consultant – offers you high levels of autonomy in jobs that generally involves humans hanging out with each other…. somewhat like being a forager.

And the kicker is this: instead of probably dying before you were five, having to suffer through bouts of starvation, having to worry about your buddy hitting you over the head with a rock, and having little capacity for abstract thinking, now you get free healthcare, wage subsidies, free police protection, and free education.

Yes, inequality will likely be higher in the New Forager world than in the old forager world, but absolute living conditions will be pretty great, which seems like a reasonable tradeoff. Also, wage subsidies could be introduced to reduce inequality to whatever society deemed fit.

My Experiences as a New Forager

I’ve lived as a New Forager twice in my life.

After college, I was a service contractor to a variety of restaurant corporations, moving from job to job either because I was fired or I quit. I was still on my parent’s health insurance and was not too concerned with building wealth, so I just made enough money to live on, hung out with my friends (who were also poor at the time), and saw a lot of live music. In short, I was poor but not really poor; the scarcity and stresses of deep poverty were absent from my life.

Now, as an independent consultant, I spend my days hanging out with people in different cities, writing power points that detail how we might better educate humans, and reflect on these experiences by writing abstract thoughts on the internet.

While I’m better compensated in my current iteration of New Foraging, it’s unclear to me that I’ve had a major bump in happiness or meaning (and what gains I’ve made I attribute more to wisdom than to money). That being said, all thing being equal, I’d rather be a higher income New Forager than a lower income New Forager.

Would I rather be a lower income New Forager or a middle-income worker at a boring job for a large corporation?

It’s hard to know without being forced to choose, but I think would rather be an Uber driver or a private tutor or a personal coach than having to work long hours doing repetitive and meaningless tasks. The autonomy, freedom, social interaction, and time would mean more to me than the money, especially if I could rely on government provided health care and education to ensure my family’s basic needs were met.

But who knows: perhaps the pressure to gain status or make money would have me showing up and grinding it out for a large corporation.

One last point: I’m not trying to deny that real poverty exists; rather, I’m saying that the New Forager lifestyle might be able to deliver a lot of happiness and meaning without high wages. People with access to high-quality education, health care, and safe communities will likely not suffer from the ills of those who currently live in deep poverty.

In Sum 

People bemoan the fact that we might be moving to a contractor based service economy that suffers from high inequality.

I can understand the risks associated with this future, especially if we cut back, rather than increase, government social nets.

But, when we survey all of human history, we should be open to the idea that this new economy might revive some of the best of the forager lifestyle, while also mitigating some of the worst aspects.