1 min read

Non-Ergodic Cavemen

We now live in an agricultural society, far removed from our hunter-gatherer ancestors.  It’s a common misconception that agriculture improved the lives of humans and is the reason humans became dominant on the planet.  Most people believe that farmers must have had better lives, otherwise hunter-gatherer societies would dominate today.  Is it possible that hunter-gatherers had better lives?

Maybe, and this is where ergodicity comes in.  Ergodicity compares the average outcome of a group to the average outcome of a person over time.  If it’s the same, it’s ergodic.  If it’s different, it’s non-ergodic.  Ok, that didn’t make sense to me either.  Taylor Pearson uses the example of Russian roulette.  If six people play with the same pistol, you have a 16.6% (⅙) chance of dying.  But if you play by yourself six times in a row, you have a 100% chance of dying.  This is a non-ergodic situation.

What does ergodicity have to do with cavemen?  Hunter-gatherers led more extreme lives, while farmers led consistent, predictable lives.  Hunter-gatherers eat sporadically, when a hunt is successful or when they can forage.  Agriculture provides a steadier food supply, making survival more likely.  Yet agricultural societies have worse teeth, worse body composition, and more disease.  

You cannot take the outcome of the agriculture society and extrapolate the outcome of any given farmer.

You also cannot take the outcome of the hunter-gatherer society and extrapolate the outcome of any given hunter-gatherer.

How can we explain this?  Having steadier food sources means more kids live.  If farmers have more surviving kids than hunter-gatherers, their population will grow exponentially faster.  A farmer can have worse attributes than a hunter-gatherer on an individual basis.  As long as they can survive to have children, the agricultural society can outperform.  You can have worse individual outcomes but still outperform as a group.  

And if there’s a conflict between the two groups, numbers win.

So would you rather have the best life or have strength in numbers?