Dissing Hunter-Gatherers

January 20, 2021
Posted by Jay Livingston

I was listening to the podcast “Think Like an Economist” this morning, the episode called “Economic Growth — Improving Our Lives.” About two minutes in, I nearly choked on my coffee when I heard Betsey Stevenson say this.  

For pretty much the last million years, people were hunter-gatherers living a hand-to-mouth existence. The main focus of life was finding enough food to eat.

Now Betsey Stevenson and her partner in podcasting and life Justin Wolfers are widely respected economists. But what they say here about hunter gatherers is flat out wrong.

Of course, we can’t be certain how foragers of 100,000 years ago actually lived. But the accounts that we do have of contemporary foraging societies paint a picture far different from the image of grim hunter gatherers toiling unhappily for long hours to avoid starvation. Foragers spend far less time working than do people in agricultural or industrial societies. In fact, they don’t really have the concept of “work” since they do not separate work and the rest of life. And the basis of that life is involvement with other people, often in a manner we would call playful.

Immediately after the statement about foragers, Stevenson and Wolfers tell us what happened next.

Things got a little better when people started farming about 12,000 years ago. People went from spending most of their time finding food to growing food to stay alive. Unfortunately though, starvation was still common. There were innovations, but they rarely led to sustained economic change because political systems were designed to keep any extras in the hands of an elite few.

No, things didn’t get better, they got worse. Wolfers implies as much in the next sentences. Agriculture wiped out the freedom and equality that foragers take for granted. And yes, it did bring starvation. Even when people in agrarian societies weren’t starving, they had a much poorer diet than that of foragers, who ate a wide variety of plants and animals.

Little wonder then that foragers are also happier than people in more “advanced” societies. They are happy, but, as James Suzman (here) says of the Bushmen, they don’t have a word or concept for “happiness.”

Bushmen have words for their current feelings, like joy or sadness. But not this word for this idea of “being happy” long term, like if I do something, then I'll be “happy” with my life long term.

Perhaps Stevenson and Wolfers have this incorrect picture of life before the agricultural revolution because they are economists, and economics is about scarcity. In fact, one definition of economics is that it is the study of the allocation of scarce resources. But foragers like the Bushmen live in a world of abundance relative to their wants and needs. Scarcity was something imposed by economic growth.

As the title of the podcast episode implies, economists take it for granted that economic growth improves our lives. But does it? I think we need to ask two other questions first: “Compared to what?” And “How do we measure how ‘good’ our lives are?” Economists are not comparing us to the Bushmen, nor is the economists’ idea of a “good” life one that foragers would have. In other words, the economists’ vigorous cheerleading for economic growth requires that we ignore the evidence from most of the history of our species.*


* Given that for more than 90% of our history on the planet  we humans were hunter gatherers, you’d think that social scientists would not base their ideas about “human nature” on only the most recent sliver of that history. But they do. See these posts from a decade or so ago — one about virginity, the other about private property.

Like a Virgin — Whatever That Was

Sandbox Sociology — Sharing and Human Nature

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