Benchley’s Law of Distinction, Forager-Farmer Edition

There are two kinds of people in the world: Those who think there are two kinds of people in the world and those who don’t.

– Robert Benchley’s Law of Distinction

Last night, I spent an hour or two reading about Robert Hanson’s forager-farmer distinction.

For reference, here are the categories:

TYPE *A* folks eat a healthier more varied diet, and get better exercise. They more love nature, travel, and exploration, and they move more often to new communities. They work fewer hours, and have more complex mentally-challenging jobs. They talk more openly about sex, are more sexually promiscuous, and more accepting of divorce, abortion, homosexuality, and pre-marital and extra-marital sex. They have fewer kids, who they are more reluctant to discipline or constrain. They more emphasize their love for kids, and teach kids to more value generosity, trust, and honesty.

Type A folks care less for land or material posessions [sic], relative to people.  They spend more time on leisure, music, dance, story-telling and the arts. They are less comfortable with war, domination, bragging, or money and material inequalities, and they push more for sharing and redistribution. They more want lots of discussion of group decisions, with everyone having an equal voice and free to speak their mind. They deal with conflicts more personally and informally, and more prefer unhappy folk to be free to leave. Their leaders lead more by consensus.

TYPE *B* folks travel less, and move less often from where they grew up. They are more polite and care more for cleanliness and order. They have more self-sacrifice and self-control, which makes them more stressed and suicidal. They work harder and longer at more tedious and less healthy jobs, and are more faithful to their spouses and their communities. They make better warriors, and expect and prepare more for disasters like war, famine, and disease. They have a stronger sense of honor and shame, and enforce more social rules, which let them depend more on folks they know less. When considering rule violators, they look more at specific rules, and less at the entire person and what feels right. Fewer topics are open for discussion or negotiation.

Type B folks believe more in good and evil, and in powerful gods who enforce social norms. They envy less, and better accept human authorities and hierarchy, including hereditary elites at the top (who act more type A), women and kids lower down, and human and animal slaves at the bottom. They identify more with strangers who share their ethnicity or culture, and more fear others. They are less bothered by violence in war, and toward foreigners, kids, slaves, and animals. They more think people should learn their place and stay there. Nature’s place is to be ruled and changed by humans.

Type A are foragers. Type B are farmers. Type A have had more success since the beginning of the industrial revolution. Type B strategies were more likely to succeed during historically agricultural periods. Type A correspond to modern liberals and type B to modern conservatives.

I am a huge fan of Robin Hanson. I think he is one of the smartest and most innovative thinkers I’ve ever read, and I read a lot. And he is smarter than I am, so maybe I am missing something about this thought exercise. But since he expressly asked people to challenge his ideas, I believe that he would consider this blog post a sign of respect (assuming he believes what he says he does).

I am always skeptical of people who subdivide humanity into arbitrary categories. Especially two arbitrary categories with such detail that purport to categorize all of us throughout time.

If Hanson were drawing up these categories in 1710, he probably would have subdivided the world into aristocrats vs. peasants. If in New Guinea 1000 years ago, probably something else entirely (or, perhaps more likely, there would not have been an opportunity for him to think on the subject long enough to develop this theory). If in Carthage in 500 B. C., again something very different.

Where do Type A and Type B subdivide on the practice of “mlk”?

I’m guessing Hanson would say that to the extent that a society is composed of foragers vs. farmers, you can predict with some certainty whether their morality will conform to Type A morality or Type B morality.

I think there is some value to that insight. Still, to me, this is just another way of saying, “in times when conserving resources is essential for survival, risky behavior is socially discouraged. In times when finding additional resources is more important to status and survival, more risky behavior is encouraged.”

That makes sense. But I can easily imagine other potential “types” that don’t fit so well into the forager-farmer distinction: Industrialists, middle-managers, unionists, nurses, doctors, bankers, serfs, fisherman, and slaves, to name a few.

Spanish conquistadors are a great example of a group that does not fit well into either category A or B.

Conquistadors don’t have the same evolutionary weight as foragers, but then again, farming doesn’t have much evolutionary history either.

Perhaps it might be a valuable exercise for Mr. Hanson to try to re-draft his two “types” from different historical periods and cultural paradigms to see if they still fit. In 1710, nobody cared about exercise. Everybody cared about land. Elites were in no way shy about war. And so on.

I guess my ultimate criticism is just this: the two categories fit too snugly to the modern United States brand of cultural politics.

Do they fit as well with Catalan-Spanish political tensions? And so, too, with Catalan internal tribalist-but-liberal politics? With the Sinn Fein-Fine Fail-Fine Gael distinction? The multiform politics of the Republic of the Congo? With Chinese party politics?

Hanson’s categories are an excellent characterization of our contemporary left-right distinction, with some fun extensions to other times. But then there are other eras where it doesn’t seem to fit at all.

It is easy to create a model and then to use it to interpret all human interaction through that lens. With the proper humility to acknowledge that it explains some phenomena well and others less well, it serves as a useful model. But as with all models and tools, it’s important to recognize that it doesn’t always fit. Only by acknowledging that will we know when to use another model.