Work Book Cover

What Hunter-Gatherers Can Teach Us About Work, Life, and Shared Abundance

We often underestimate just how much our current attitudes towards a subject are influenced by relatively recent cultural inventions, and this is particularly true regarding our relationship with work. As anthropologist James Suzman argues in his latest book, Work: A Deep History, from the Stone Age to the Age of Robots, the way we think about work today has its roots in farming and the agricultural revolution that occurred only 12,000 years ago. 

The problem is, humanity has spent the majority (95 percent) of its 300,000-year-history as hunter-gatherers, and so something as recent as the invention of farming cannot possibly explain our deeper evolutionary attitudes towards work. To understand this topic at a deeper level, then, requires the exploration of our extended evolutionary past, incorporating the research of physics, evolutionary biology, zoology, and cultural anthropology—research that contradicts much of classical economics. 

According to the classical economic model, much of human behavior can be explained by the “problem of scarcity,” or the idea that humans are cursed with insatiable desires for material resources and, because there are not enough resources to satisfy everyone’s wants, everything is scarce. 

And yet the idea of scarcity puzzles any modern hunter-gatherer group. What Suzman and other anthropologists have discovered is a paradox: hunter-gatherer groups tend to live in a world of shared abundance and limited work while the modern Westerner lives in a world of artificial scarcity and long hours of labor—despite the fact the Western world has a greater overall abundance of resources. 

Suzman explains this shift in attitude by exploring both the physical science of our relationship with energy as well as the cultural and historical evolution of humanity’s ability to capture and expend energy at ever-greater scales—from the control of fire to the Industrial Revolution to the age of automation and beyond. 

Suzman starts by explaining that, while work can be defined in several ways, a good general definition is “the purposeful expending of energy or effort on a task to achieve a goal or end.” In this way, and from the perspective of physics, to simply live is to work. All biological organisms work to survive by extracting, storing, and converting energy for the purpose of survival and reproduction in a constant battle against the second law of thermodynamics: the law of entropy. Humans are, like all animals, built to work, and as we find ways to cultivate more energy from the environment, we find ever-creative ways to expend it. 

Suzman proceeds to cover the history of life, the energy requirements and behaviors of various animals, and the early evolutionary history of Homo sapiens. Where things get interesting is the human discovery of the control of fire, which correlates with an increase in brain size from about 600 cm3 in volume for Homo habilis to about 1,300 cm3 in Homo sapiens. This increase in brain volume—which demanded 20 percent of our total body energy resources—required more energy-dense foods that only the use of fire and cooking could unlock. 

The connection between fire, cooking, and increased brain size in early humans is intensely debated to this day, but I’m not sure whether Suzman has the arrow of causation moving in the right direction. Keep in mind that, in terms of evolution, Lamarckism is the long-discredited idea “that an organism can pass on to its offspring physical characteristics that the parent organism acquired through use or disuse during its lifetime.” This “inheritance of acquired characteristics,” like the idea that an adult that loses its arm will produce one-armed offspring, is not an accurate representation of how genes are passed on from parent to child. 

Similarly, it seems to me that the idea of fire leading to bigger brains is itself Lamarkian. Simply eating cooked foods as an adult could not in itself alter the genetic code for brain size that would then be passed onto offspring—for this would be a blatant case of the inheritance of acquired characteristics. Suzman does not elaborate on the mechanism by which brain size is inherited based on the behavior of eating cooked foods. It seems more plausible that an increase in brain size for other reasons necessitated the use of fire to procure more energy-dense foods that our new bigger brains required. 

Either way, what isn’t debatable is that the use of fire was a major energy revolution milestone that freed up time for the pursuit of other activities not related to food acquisition, such as the pursuit of art, language, story-telling, mythology, socialization, games, dance, and the creation of tools and technologies. 

This additional amount of leisure time in hunter-gatherer groups resulted in what cultural anthropologist Marshall Sahlins would call the “original affluent society.” Research shows that hunter-gatherers typically spend less than half the amount of time on food acquisition and general chores than the average American, with the remainder spent in leisure. 

But what’s also interesting is that hunter-gatherer groups—also unlike modern Westerners—do not live in an artificial state of scarcity. As Suzman wrote:

“‘Wants may be easily satisfied,’ Sahlins noted, ‘either by producing much or desiring little.’ Hunter-gatherers, he argued, achieved this by desiring little and so, in their own way, were more affluent than a Wall Street banker who, despite owning more properties, boats, cars, and watches than they know what to do with, constantly strives to acquire even more.”

Because hunter-gatherers minimize material needs, they also tend to be fiercely egalitarian, sharing equally and communally whatever food is procured and whatever material wealth is created or obtained. Because hunter-gatherers live in “immediate-return economies,” they obtain a direct and immediate return for their labor, and research has shown that all or nearly-all immediate-return economies lack hierarchies, chiefs, or institutional authority figures, and are intolerant of inequality in material wealth. 

It is only when humans transitioned to farming and “delayed-return economies”—where the return on labor was disconnected from the activity of work—that social and institutional hierarchy, wealth inequality, exploitation of labor, and the idea of scarcity and competition would surface. 

In fact, as Suzman points out—without exaggeration—no technological revolution before or since the invention of farming has had a greater impact on human psychology, culture, and society. Suzman argues convincingly that, compared to the egalitarianism and abundant leisure time of a hunter-gatherer, farmers worked harder and longer days, had less leisure time, and were exposed to a host of diseases, injuries, and catastrophic risks (crop failure, raids, etc.). 

Even more significantly, farming changed our relationship to time, the land, and to each other. In immediate-return economies, foragers exhibit minimal material needs, communally-owned property, and a deeper connection to the present moment. Farmers, on the other hand, must always be thinking of the future, investing in the land through hard labor and carefully managing and tracking time. 

The concepts of time, money, investments, debt, and scarcity—all elements of the “economic problem” described by classical economics—are not human universals, as is often supposed, but rather recent cultural inventions with roots in farming. 

Farming, as humanity’s second major energy revolution, allowed humans to support bigger populations of non-food-producing specialists. And it is here that we see the birth of hierarchies, cities, exploited labor, greed, and large discrepancies in status and wealth. The idea of scarcity is born here as well, along with the pursuit of infinite and perpetual economic growth. 

On the other hand, farming is also responsible for the creation of writing, culture, art, science, and the major artistic, scientific, literary, and technological achievements of the human race—not to mention modern medicine and the extension of life itself. 

So was the invention of farming a mistake? For those at the time, probably so, but I’m not sure any modern Westerner today would wish to abandon their culture and return to a hunter-gatherer lifestyle (and we couldn’t collectively do so anyway). So farming and the subsequent development of civilization is, like much else, a mixed blessing. But Suzman’s larger point is that we can retain our culture without retaining the non-egalitarian mindset that everything is scarce and everything is a competition for the never-ending production and accumulation of material goods, most of which serve no real purpose other than to show others how wealthy we are. 

The problem is, the Industrial Revolution and our migration into cities has only exaggerated the problem, further disconnecting our labor from any immediate returns, artificially stimulating our desire for material goods, creating “bullshit jobs” we collectively hate performing, increasing the rate of suicides, exacerbating differences in wealth and status, and destroying the environment. What’s worse, the threat of further automation means that—in the absence of major income or wealth redistribution—inequality will only get worse as the profits from machine labor and automation will enrich executives and shareholders while displaced workers remain unemployed. 

We should ask ourselves: Is this the life we really want? Or is there an alternative based on our more cooperative and egalitarian evolutionary past? 

Suzman points out that this is not a prescriptive book, so the reader will not find any specific policy recommendations. Rather, by exploring our deeper evolutionary past, we can widen the scope of possibilities for how we can structure our work arrangements, lives, and societies. By thinking outside the box of classical economics—and realizing that the problem of scarcity is artificial and not universal—we can return to our more egalitarian roots. 


 Work: A Deep History, from the Stone Age to the Age of Robots is available on Amazon.com.