Why Human Values Vary So Much

An Orang Asli man, the indigenous minority peoples of Peninsular Malaysia, takes pictures with his mobile phone during a prot
An Orang Asli man, the indigenous minority peoples of Peninsular Malaysia, takes pictures with his mobile phone during a protest against proposed dam projects across the country during ASEAN Power week in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, Wednesday, Sept. 10, 2014. The government is proposing 12 mega dams in Sarawak, 16 in Sabab and 3 in Peninsular Malaysia. (AP Photo/Vincent Thian)

Most days, the news is full of horrors. If it is not the self-styled Islamic State crucifying people, it is Boko Haram selling schoolgirls into slavery.

I imagine that most readers, like me, wonder how anyone could think this is right. And yet some people clearly do; the more bigoted, sexist and violent these groups' behavior becomes, the more volunteers flock to their banners.

Nothing, it seems, varies quite so much as people's values.

And yet, that is not what biologists say. Monkeys, chimps and even dolphins have a sense of right and wrong, reacting angrily to being treated in ways they think unfair. Values, biologists conclude, are evolved adaptations -- genetic predispositions to think in ways that make animals more likely to pass their genes on to the next generation. Each species has its own values, shared by all members.

Human values, just like monkey values or dolphin values, have evolved biologically. Consequently, everyone in the world shares them; everyone believes in fairness, justice, love, loyalty and respect. We just disagree over what these words mean.

"Nothing varies quite so much as people's values."

To explain the disagreements, we need to back away from the details and look at history across the last 20,000 years. When we do, the bewildering variety of values simplifies into just three broad patterns, driven by a single fundamental force.

We find the first pattern among foragers -- people who live by gathering wild plants and hunting wild animals. From the time modern humans evolved (50,000-150,000 years ago) until about 10,000 BC, everyone on earth lived this way, and a few people, of course, still do. Foraging did not capture much energy from the environment (typically, 5,000-10,000 kilocalories per person, per day), so foragers were poor (usually living on the equivalent of $1.10 a day), lived in small groups (less than a dozen people) and moved around a lot. It was hard to maintain much political, economic or gender inequality in these conditions, so people who interpreted justice and fairness as meaning that they should treat everyone the same tended to do better than people who did not. Although, on the other hand, people who readily used violence to solve problems also tended to do better than people who did not. Something like 10 percent of foragers probably died violently.

The second value system flourishes in farming societies, which get their energy from domesticated plants and animals. Farming, which was invented around 10,000 BC, captured more energy than foraging (typically, 10,000-30,000 kilocalories per person, per day), and so farmers were richer (usually living on the equivalent of $1.50-$2.20 a day), lived in larger groups (cities of up to a million people) and moved around rather little.

For farmers, political, economic and gender inequality were not just possible but necessary, because only hierarchy could hold together the complex division of labor that farming required. People who interpreted justice and fairness as meaning that everyone was different and should be treated differently -- kings better than peasants, men better than women -- tended to do better than people who did not. However, farmers who used violence frequently tended to do less well than equally homicidal foragers (unless, of course, the king was the one using the violence). Overall, less than 5 percent of farmers seem to have died violently.

The third value system belongs to fossil-fuel societies, which extract vast amounts of energy from coal and oil (typically, 50,000-200,000 kilocalories per person per day). This strategy began in Britain just 200 years ago and then spread around the world. Fossil-fuel users are much richer than farmers (on average earning the equivalent of $25 a day), live in huge societies (cities of 35 million people and more), and have extremely complex divisions of labor -- so complex, in fact, that they cannot work well under top-down hierarchy.

"The Islamists are backward and wrong."

The more that fossil-fuel societies move toward letting people make their own decisions, through free markets, democracy and free speech, the more they flourish. Today, people who interpret justice and fairness as meaning that we should treat everyone the same tend to do better than people who do not, as happened in foraging times. But fossil-fuel societies differ sharply from foraging ones in that the scope for legitimate violence has become even smaller than it was in the farming age. Even in the 20th century -- with its two world wars, genocides and atom bombs -- just 1-2 percent of fossil-fuel users died violently. Since 2000, the figure has fallen below 1 percent.

There is, of course, a lot more to be said, and I say some of it in my new book Foragers, Farmers, and Fossil Fuels: How Human Values Evolve. But if this argument does make sense, three big conclusions seem to follow.

  1. Human values are evolutionary adaptations, hardwired into us by biology. But what we take those values to mean depends on how we capture energy from the world around us.
  2. The reason that the Islamic State and Boko Haram shock people like me so much is that while most of us who read the news have fossil-fuel values, Islamists are still playing by farmers' rules. This is not a call for relativism: all value systems are not equal. Two thousand years ago, in the age of farming societies, crucifixion and slavery were normal, but that world has now vanished. The Islamists are backward and wrong.
  3. If energy capture does drive the interpretation of values, there is no reason to think that the values the news media chooses to focus on are the final, perfect form. Energy capture seems likely to change faster in the 21st century than ever before, and so will human values.

Perhaps our descendants will become even more egalitarian; or perhaps they will flip back towards hierarchy. But either way, by 2115 our own values will probably look as backward as the values of Boko Haram look to us today.

#BringBackOurGirls Protests Around The World