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Human civilization is thousands of years old. What's our report card? Whatever we've been doing, has it been "working" to make our lives better than they were before? Or is all our "progress" just helping us be nastier to others and ourselves, such that we need a radical re-envisioning of how the world works?
I'm surprised you've read this far instead of clicking away (thank you). You're probably feeling bored: you've heard the answer (Yes, life is getting better) a zillion times, supported with data from books like Enlightenment Now and websites like Our World in Data and articles like this one and this one.
I'm unsatisfied with this answer, and the reason comes down to the x-axis. Look at any of those sources, and you'll see some charts starting in 1800, many in 1950, some in the 1990s ... and only very few before 1700.1
This is fine for some purposes: as a retort to alarmism about the world falling apart, perhaps as a defense of the specifically post-Enlightenment period. (And I agree that recent trends are positive.) But I like to take a very long view of our history and future, and I want to know what the trend has been the whole way.
In particular, I'd like to know whether improvement is a very deep, robust pattern - perhaps because life fundamentally tends to get better as our species accumulates ideas, knowledge and abilities - or a potentially unstable fact about the weird, short-lived time we inhabit.
So I'm going to put out several posts trying to answer: what would a chart of "average quality of life for an inhabitant of Earth look like, if we started it all the way back at the dawn of humanity?"
This is a tough and frustrating question to research, because the vast majority of reliable data collection is recent - one needs to do a lot of guesswork about the more distant past. (And I haven't found any comprehensive study or expert consensus on trends in overall quality of life over the long run.) But I've tried to take a good crack at it - to find the data that is relatively straightforward to find, understand its limitations, and form a best-guess bottom line.
In future pieces, I'll go into detail about what I was able to find and what my bottom lines are. But if you just want my high-level, rough take in one chart, here's a chart I made of my subjective guess at average quality of life for humans2 vs. time, from 3 million years ago to today:
Sorry, that wasn't very helpful, because the pre-agriculture period (which we know almost nothing about) was over 100x as long as everything else.3
(I think it's mildly reality-warping for readers to only ever see charts that are perfectly set up to look sensible and readable. It's good to occasionally see the busted first cut of a chart, which often reveals something interesting in its own right.)
But here's a chart with cumulative population instead of year on the x-axis. The population has exploded over the last few hundred years, so this chart has most of the action going on over the last few hundred years. You can think of this chart as "If we lined up all the people who have ever lived in chronological order, how does their average quality of life change as we pan the camera from the early ones to the later ones?"
In other words:
- We don't know much at all about life in the pre-agriculture era. Populations were pretty small, and there likely wasn't much in the way of technological advancement, which might (or might not) mean that different chronological periods weren't super different from each other.5
- My impression is that life got noticeably worse with the start of agriculture some thousands of years ago, although I'm certainly not confident in this.
- It's very unclear what happened in between the Neolithic Revolution (start of agriculture) and Industrial Revolution a couple hundred years ago.
- Life got rapidly better following the Industrial Revolution, and is currently at its high point - better than the pre-agriculture days.
- I agree with most of the implications of the "life has gotten better" meme, but not all of them.
- I agree that people are too quick to wring their hands about things going downhill. I agree that there is no past paradise (what one might call an "Eden") that we could get back to if only we could unwind modernity.
- But I think "life has gotten better" is mostly an observation about a particular period of time: a few hundred years during which increasing numbers of people have gone from close-to-subsistence incomes to having basic needs (such as nutrition) comfortably covered.
- I think some people get carried away with this trend and think things like "We know based on a long, robust history that science, technology and general empowerment make life better; we can be confident that continuing these kinds of 'progress' will continue to pay off." And that doesn't seem quite right.
- There are some big open questions here. If there were more systematic examination of things like gender relations, slavery, happiness, mental health, etc. in the distant past, I could imagine it changing my mind in multiple ways. These could include:
- Learning that the pre-agriculture era was worse than I think, and so the upward trend in quality of life really has been smooth and consistent.
- Or learning that the pre-agriculture era really was a sort of paradise, and that we should be trying harder to "undo technological advancement" and recreate its key properties.
- As mentioned previously, better data on how prevalent slavery was at different points in time - and/or on how institutionalized discrimination evolved - could be very informative about ups and/or downs in quality of life over the long run.
Here are the planned future posts in this series. I highlight different sections of the above chart to make clear which time period I'm talking about for each set of posts.
Has Life Gotten Better?: the post-industrial era will introduce my basic approach to asking the question "Has life gotten better?" and apply it to the easiest-to-assess period: the industrial era of the last few hundred years.
Pre-agriculture (or "hunter-gatherer" or "forager") era
Pre-agriculture gender relations seem bad will examine the question of whether the pre-agriculture era was an "Eden" of egalitarian gender relations. I like mysterious titles, so you will have to wait for the full post to find out the answer.
Violent death rates in very early societies will examine claims about violent death rates very early in human history, from Better Angels of Our Nature and some of its critics. As of now, I believe that early societies were violent by today's standards, but that violent death rates likely went up before they went down.
With the previous two posts as sources, Was life better in "foraging"/hunter-gatherer times? (No) will attempt to compare overall quality of life in the modern vs. pre-agriculture world.
The middle period
Has violence declined, when we add in the world wars and other large-scale atrocities? will look at trends in violent death rates over the last several centuries. When we include large-scale atrocities, it's pretty unclear whether there is a robust trend toward lower violence over this period.
Was life getting better before the Industrial Revolution? will compare pre-agriculture to post-agriculture quality of life, and summarize the little we can say about how things changed between ~10,000 BC and ~1700 CE.
Finally, an important caveat to the above charts. Unfortunately, the chart for average animal quality of life probably looks very different from the human one; for example, the rise of factory farming in the 20th and 21st centuries is a massive negative development. This makes the overall aggregate situation for sentient beings hard enough to judge that I have left it out of some of the very high-level summaries, such as the charts above. It is an additional complicating factor for the story that life has gotten better, as I'll be mentioning throughout this series.
Thanks to Luke Muehlhauser, Max Roser and Carl Shulman for comments on a draft.
- I wrote down the start date of every figure in Enlightenment Now, Part II (which is where it makes the case that the world has gotten better), excluding one that was taken from XKCD. 6 of the 73 figures start before 1700; the only one that starts before 1300 is Figure 18, Gross World Product (the size of the world economy). This isn't a criticism - that book is specifically about the world since the Enlightenment, a few hundred years ago - but it's an illustration of how one could get a skewed picture if not keeping that in mind.
- I went through Our World in Data noting down every major data presentation that seems relevant for quality of life (leaving out those that seem relatively redundant with others, so I wasn't as comprehensive as for Enlightenment Now.) I found 6 indicators with data before 1300 (child/infant mortality, which looks flat before 1700; human height, which looks flat before 1700; GDP per capita, which rose slightly before 1700; manuscript production, which rose starting around 1100; the price of light, which seems like it fell a bit between 1300-1500 and then had no clear trend before a steep drop after 1800; deaths from military conflicts in England, which look flat before 1700; deaths from violence, which appear to have declined - more on this in a future piece) and 8 more with data before 1700. Needless to say, there are many charts from later on. Note that I think this exercise is useful for giving a sense of proportionality, but
See the end of the post for a comment on animals. ↩
"Why didn't you use a logarithmic axis?" Well, would the x-axis be "years since civilization began" or "years before today?" The former wouldn't look any different, and the latter bakes in the assumption that today is special (and that version looks pretty similar to the next chart anyway, because today is special). ↩
I mostly used world per-capita income, logged; this was a pretty good first cut that matches my intuitions from summarizing history. (One of my major findings from that project was that "most things about the world are doing the same thing at the same time.") But I gave the pre-agriculture era a "bonus" to account for my sense that it had higher quality of life than the immediately post-agriculture era: I estimated the % of the population that was "nomadic/egalitarian" (a lifestyle that I think was more common at that time, and had advantages) as 75% prior to the agricultural revolution, and counted that as an effective 4x multiple on per-capita income. This was somewhat arbitrary, but I wanted to make sure it was still solidly below today's quality of life, because that is my view (as I'll argue). ↩
More specifically, I'd guess there was probably about as much variation across space as across time during that period. It's common in academic literature (which I'll get to in future posts) to assume that today's foraging societies are representative of all of human history before agriculture. ↩
Enjoying these posts! I'm also looking at the question of whether pre-agricultural hunter-gatherers were more violent than today. Would be happy to comment on your piece
This seems a potentially valuable exercise for sharpening our understanding of what the future might look like. A couple of comments.
You don't say what you mean by 'better'. What do you mean, exactly? Sorry if you said this elsewhere. Without that criterion specified, it's hard to interrogate the analysis. I'm inclined to understand better by 'happier', that is, with an improved balance of pleasure over pain, and imagine you probably mean something like this too.
Assuming we're thinking in terms of happiness, I'll flag now what I hope the future posts contain - I note you're just giving your answers here, and not your reasoning.
One thing is an understanding of the role happiness plays in evolution, that is, as a mechanism rewarding or punishing for the things that help and survive and reproduce. So, one would want to say why, given the sort of creatures that we are, we're better/worse living our lives in one sort of societial configuration than another.
The other piece is to focus particularly on time use - how people actually spend their lives - rather than just imagining their lives in snapshots. Psychological research shows that we make predictable mistakes when engaging in 'affective forecasting'. On such bias is 'focusing illusions', where we let our judgments be driven by the stuff that's easy to imagine. Another is 'duration neglect', where our judgments of how good/bad things are pay very little attention to the passage of time.
Taking this together, how would we go about answering your question? In short, you'd want to know how good/bad the average, ordinary day in someone's life is. Hunter-gatherers seemed to have things pretty good: I can't immediately remember where I read this - maybe Sapiens - but I understand hunter-gatherers don't spend very much time working, ie looking for food, and do spend lots of time socialising. In the agricultural and industrial ages, people spend many more hours working, and the work was less fun - tilling fields and working looms vs gathering berries and hunting. It's not so obvious to me that modernity is better than all that came before: as a result of technology, we increasingly live desk-bound, socially isolated lives.
I might add I haven't thought lots about this historical comparison piece, so this is not a 'cold take'.
Interesting add, I guess the one thing that comes to mind is people tend to perceive work that is different as more fulfilling (due to diminishing marginal returns). So, the assumption that gathering berries and hunting is more fulfilling than a desk job is in part driven by most people's experience working at a desk their entire professional lives. It seems less obvious to me that hunting and gathering is an inherently more fulfilling type of work, but rather is such a different experience than a desk job that it would be more satisfying in the short-term. My guess is that this fulfilment decreases once you have been doing it for a long period of time.
As someone who is clearly not a hunter-gatherer, I wouldn't say I have good intuition regarding the long-term fulfilment of such a job and it could be that it is more rewarding. My main point is that at least some of the "Eden" myth is driven by the frame of reference. If people believe humans now are unable to appreciate the benefits of modern society from a happiness standpoint, why would we be more likely to appreciate the benefits of a pre-agrarian society? Would we not also take certain things for granted and want more than we have? (this question is only in part rhetorical and if anyone has ideas I would love to hear them)
The fifth piece in this series is Unraveling the evidence about violence among very early humans. I suggest that any comments on it go in this thread.
The fourth piece in this series is Was life better in hunter-gatherer times?. I suggest that any comments on it go in this thread. (The piece is not yet up, but will be later today.)
Maybe the elision in your post was intentional, but to be clear, one obvious and extremely large downside of the past is that there were very few people in the past, like maybe <0.1% of the number of people alive today before the dawn of the agricultural revolution. Per unit time, they'd need to be >1000x happier, fulfilled, etc, to outweigh the happiness (and other moral goods) of humans alive today, assuming an additive/total view.
I loved the graph of cumulative human lives in this post, and I think it should probably be a much more common way of displaying historical data (it strikes me as closer to what we often want than the common practice of just putting everything on a log scale).
It's interesting that there were about the same total number of foragers (40 billion people from 3 million years ago to 10,000 BC) as farmers (40 billion from 10,000 BC to the 1800s), and that there have already been almost 20 billion industrials/moderns since 1960. At current birth rates (about 140 million people each year), we will hit 40 billion industrials/moderns by 2160. Maybe that is a good estimate for how long we should imagine the current industrial/modern era to last, before it is superseded by some fundamentally new mode of civilization -- perhaps AI, digital people, dystopian collapse, or one of the other scenarios Holden mentions.
I often think of the past as "countless people slaving away for centuries in misery", and then think "wow, thank god I live in a brief window of technology and prosperity". But when you weight by cumulative population instead of by time, you can see there is already 1 happy industrial (and more on the way) for every 2 miserable farmers, which makes the whole project of civilization seem a lot more worthwhile than "100 centuries of misery, then 2 centuries of happiness".
I’ve been fascinated lately by writings and research about how the naturally evolved pre-societal human was innately more cooperative and “moral” than people today (Darcia Narvaez has a lot of writing and research on this topic). I’m trying to suss out how much there may or may not be “rose tinted glasses” for the past in these conclusions I ended up reading your analysis of Better Angels’ assertions for decreasing violent death and particularly the comparisons between nomadic and sedentary rates (which are obviously very rough estimates). I wondered though, given that there are still hunter gatherer societies around in some places, are there contemporary comparisons there that might be valuable beyond locating a trajectory, but in examining different ways of living compared to the “Western” World.
(The other thing that struck me in the numbers that are there was how wildly divergent they were, which does make sense if we’re talking about local groups developing their own ways of living, but also makes sense if the data is just pretty rough itself)
And gosh I’m still thinking about Western Europe being 6x safer from violence than the IS.
It's interesting that the time of "life getting better" is basically the same time as "humans increasingly using fossil fuels." I have heard the argument (which I am not yet educated enough to have an opinion on) that all of the economic growth and improvements in standards of living over the last few hundred years have been enabled by cheap, abundant, dense, and easily transportable energy, aka fossil fuels.
Therefore, one reason we could be on the cusp of a crazier time is that the world is basically telling fossil fuel companies to limit new exploration and drilling while we don't really yet have a replacement ready. To be clear, I am an environmentalist and think we do need to limit and reduce fossil fuel use and ultimately get to net zero emissions by 2050 as a planet. But the magnitude of this task may be under-appreciated, and the likelihood that the energy transition produces chaotic and negative side effects may similarly be under-appreciated.
Everybody loves to hate on farmers, and I don't disagree, but I think they're often ignoring a crucial question: was farming much more stable than foraging? I think you should discount farmers' greater misery by looking at the overall rates of death in each civilization -- it's possible that doing so would make farmers look better.
Which life would you prefer:
Clearly it's a moral philosophy question -- people who really dislike suffering might prefer to choose the "death or riches" option compared to the "certain poverty" option. Personally I might go for "certain poverty". Intelligent people differ and I'm not sure which option is correct. But IMO it would be silly to just compare the rich survivors from "death or riches" to the population of "certain poverty", since that comparison is ignoring the biggest drawback of "death or riches" -- the fact that half of them died as children! "Dead men tell no tales", and all that.
If overall death rates are higher in forager societies than in farmer societies, that might indicate that forager lifestyles are more like "Death or Riches", while farmer lifestyles are like "Certain Poverty". People debate rates of violence and war, but I'm also talking about:
Of course, there's a good chance that a full analysis of the above would just make the farmers look even worse than they already do (they were more miserable AND they had higher death rates), perhaps because infectious disease just overwhelms all the other factors. But if the analysis indicates that farming is a more stable life than foraging, I think that would be a big point in favor of farming, since that would mean that many people would choose a safer farming life even if it meant enduring more misery.
The second piece in this series is Has life gotten better?: the post-industrial era. I suggest that any comments on it go in this thread.
I think I agree with the broad thesis of your post, but I'm less sure about the claim for romantic relationships specifically, as well as the evidence for them. In particular, in addition to the emotional unreliability points you mentioned, I think there's systematic selection bias when you look at existing relationships, when the proportion of people in relationships have systematically changed over time (US data). So I wouldn't be surprised if average happiness in relationships have increased (because of better matching, etc), but average happiness about relationships have decreased.
Anecdotally, if I look at my parents' or especially my grandparents' generation, being single is almost unheard of in general if you're in your late 20s/30s, never mind if you're an emotionally stable nice person in a high-status job. (I think the rate of sex-selective abortion in China probably has not helped for this).
I think there are similar things in the West, if maybe less extreme for some people and with different causal attribution.
To be clear, this is not a refutation for the broad thesis of your post -- I'd much rather be single and lonely in California in 2021 than being happily married during the cultural revolution in China, and I'm pretty confident this isn't just status quo bias talking -- just contesting a specific subpoint here.
Looking forward to the posts, and happy to postpone further discussion to when they are published, but to me the question and your alluded to answer has enormous implications for our ability to raise life satisfaction levels.
Namely: very rough estimates suggest that we are now 100x-1000x richer than in the past, and our lives are in the range [good-ok], but generally not pure bliss or anything close to it. If we extend reasonable estimations for the effect of material circumstances on wellbeing (i.e. doubling of wealth increases satisfaction by 1 point on a 10 point scale) , we should then expect past humans to have been miserable.
I am skeptical that this was the case: On the one hand, belief systems like Buddhism clearly espouse that life is suffering. On the other hand, other religions are arguably not that pessimistic about life. Furthermore, folk tales and historic accounts generally do not seem to support that people were looking forward to their death (with some exceptions, e.g. spirituals from African-American slaves, that show that life can get that bad.) Also, existing hunter-gatherer tribes seem as satisfied as modern people. (which I guess you already incorporated into your chart somewhat).
To me, it is not surprising that some of the material gain gets eaten by the treadmill-effect (for example status symbols like flashier cars), but we have to remember that pre-modern people had no access to modern medicine to relieve pain (teeth pain can be horrible), far less delicious food and comfort, etc.. This could suggest that life satisfaction has, maybe not a a set-point, but rather a narrow range where it can move under realistic conditions.
I don't think we should expect past humans to have been miserable. One of the key findings in the happiness literature is the so-called Easterlin Paradox, which is that (1) richer people are happier than poorer people at a time but (2) people, in aggregate, happiness doesn't increase over time. This is usually explained by some combination of adaptation and social comparison effects.
It's also worth noting that the "each doubling of income increases happiness by a fixed amount (eg 1 point on a 10-point scale)" can't literally be true. If it were, anyone with any income would have maximum happiness, because there are an infinity of doubling between zero income and, well, any level of income. Research does, however, find this result is basically true across the range of incomes that people actually have.
But over the long-term, you can't really have zero income -- you need some basic level of resources just to survive at subsistence levels. Subsistence income is probably around $400 per year, although of course it doesn't have to be formal taxable income -- it could be foraged food or whatever. This is true today -- few people even in India or Africa have incomes less than a few hundred dollars, because basically if you make less than a dollar per day, you die: https://80000hours.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/04/1200x-1.png . Something like this is also true for the distant past, although obviously the idea of translating the labor of medieval people into US Dollars is a difficult academic project: https://voxeu.org/article/ancient-income-inequality .
With a floor around $400/year, you get:
five doublings to $12K/year, the poverty line for individuals in the USA and the level of Andrew Yang's "universal basic income" proposal (although in practice government welfare raises income above this level making people better off than the raw number looks, while a slew of comparison and selection effects make people worse off than the number looks).
eight doublings to $100K/year, very well-off above-median family income in the USA, equivalent to some of the highest-income countries in the world like Switzerland.
about sixteen doublings to an income of $250 million per year, which would make you a billionaire after a forty-year career.
A sixteen-point difference still breaks a ten-point scale, but in fairness the people who made the scale were probably never trying to interview the full spectrum of people from Malthusian poverty all the way up to the global 0.000001%. (More discussion of how plausible it is that billionaire lives are really great at this applied divinity studies post: https://applieddivinitystudies.com/billionaire/)
Thanks for this! I don't see anything here that disagrees with my claim. I said it can't literally be true, which is how lots of people treat it. Going from no income to $400/year also involves an infinity of doublings.
A better claim might be "given you have enough income to subsist, doubling your income causes a fixed increase in happiness." Fine, but note that's not literally the claim "doubling your income causes a fixed increase in happiness." My hope is that by showing the logarithmic model isn't true, that pushes us to come up with a more realistic model of the relationship between happiness and income.
Fair! There are certainly a lot of problems with a pure logarithmic model.
I would certainly expect there to be threshold effects around subsistence. I also wonder if there are other kinds of threshold effects having to do with the median income of your local society (distinct from social-comparison effects). In America today, large parts of the economy are arguably captured by regulatory schemes that suppress market competition and promote rent-seeking. https://capturedeconomy.com/ In a world where housing was cheap and plentiful, education and other credentialing costs were low, etc, perhaps it would be easier to afford the "basics" of a physically comfortable developed-world life, and we'd see a weaker correlation between income and happiness. In real life, with high amounts of rent-seeking, I wonder if that artificially pumps up the correlation between happiness and income, by creating more zero-sum social-comparison status games where people have to fight to outbid each other for an artificially scarce resource.
It's also hard to take seriously the idea that the scale just keeps going and going as you get richer... With my personal income of around 100K, the logarithmic model would imply that I'm equidistant from the billionaire level vs the subsistence level. But I don't feel like becoming a billionaire would make me happy to anywhere near the extent that falling into absolute poverty would make me miserable. Although maybe I just lack imagination when it comes to how great my life could be. (I would still take the gamble, but for altruistic reasons: if I got lucky, I could use my wealth to influence the world in good ways.) Maybe it's hard for the scale to keep going to extreme levels in part because there just aren't enough people who are that rich; nobody makes products or services for people with a net worth over $100B (like vacations to the moon, perhaps) because so few potential customers exist.
Finally, of course it's pretty weird to just ask people to rank their overall "happiness" on a 1-10 scale. I liked the point, made by Applied Divinity Studies, that increased income raises "life satisfaction" moreso than it boosts "experienced wellbeing". I wonder if we couldn't split those categories even further... Experienced wellbeing might be split into a physical vs social component. (Physical = benefits from the comforts of air conditioning, tasty food, no chronic health problems, etc. Social = how much you go about your day feel liked and respected. Maybe some kind of "mindset" or "hedonic setpoint" component that's like "to what extent do you feel stressed/anxious/pessimistic in the manner of a depressed person".) Life satisfaction might be split into components like freedom (I feel like I have control over my life and can do what I want) vs accomplishments (I feel like I've distinguished myself with success) vs influence (I'm happy that I can exercise power and influence the world to my liking). Asking about specific categories and then combining them into an overall score afterwards might be a more precise way to measure what contributes to different components of happiness, and to make sure that the questions still work well cross-culturally.
This comment is a response to the Cold Takes post Has life gotten better?: the post-industrial era, which is related to this EA forum post. The "impressive, consistent improvement" rating given to poverty and nutrition was surprising given the data available, as was the generally optimistic analysis of armed conflict.
TLDR: Life is getting better in some ways, but people in many high-population growth countries are dearly lacking the basics in consumption, nutrition, and safety from armed conflict. Aspects of all three problem areas have overall stagnated or worsened in recent decades according to some of the data from OWiD and ReliefWeb.
The absolute number of people experiencing better lives on certain metrics has increased in the post-industrial era, but the relative share of wellbeing factors is still strongly skewed away from places experiencing high population growth.
85% of the world's population lives in poverty on less than the equivalent of $30 per day, and OWiD's grapher shows shockingly little movement in the majority of countries since 1981 (earliest data avail) on that metric, despite significant gains in reducing the # of people living on under $1.90 per day during the same period. The areas with a stagnant poverty population share are also experiencing the highest rate of population growth, potentially leaving a higher absolute number of people in poverty in the future than there were in the late 20th century.
Similarly, global average adult height (proxy measurement for nutrition) increased consistently across nations in the global north through the 20th century, but people born in the 80s and 90s in many African and Southeast Asian places are shorter as adults than people born 10 to 20 years before. While the general height trend skews upward, it masks notable declines across the populations of most interest to those working toward global health and wellbeing.
#3 Armed conflict:
I also am skeptical of the examples given for improvements in violence, as the numbers cited are predominantly from Europe and the UK. This might be a limit of OWiD, since their "War and Peace" section is focused on state conflict (i.e. conflict where at least one belligerent is an internationally recognized government). Unfortunately, the number of non-state conflicts has been increasing drastically since 2010 with large shares in Africa and the Middle East, so this is a major blind spot.
The original post on Cold Takes might be meant to inspire & encourage people about how quickly things have improved in some places. However, the glib generalization of worldwide progress is misleading and potentially harmful, as it underplays the increasingly inequitable distribution of poverty and violence persisting in the world. Furthermore, it's imperative that leaders in the global health & wellbeing space represent these issues in a way that encourages urgency.
The third piece in this series is Pre-agriculture gender relations seem bad. I suggest that any comments on it go in this thread.
I'm pretty sure "man" here means "human", not "male"; and they're referring to the idea that human intelligence evolved primarily for hunting purposes as part of a "get smarter > hunt better > get nutrition from meat to support brain > get smarter still" feedback loop. [This doesn't have much direct implication regarding equality.]
I think that part of the issue is that people are sometimes mistaking a comparative claim for an absolute claim. Researchers claiming that hunter-gatherer societies had better gender relations than early agricultural ones aren't thereby claiming that hunter-gatherer societies are anywhere near equal - just less unequal than the agricultural societies that followed them.
Searching a bit (using "origin of patriarchy" as the search term) I found two relevant books that seem to be the sources of a lot of claims: The Creation of Patriarchy, by Gerda Lerner, from 1986; The Civilization of the Goddess: The World of Old Europe, by Marija Gimbutaš, 1991. These seem to both often be described as stating that there was once an equal society, and a later society imposed patriarchy on it some time around 5000 years ago. But the former seems to be more specifically claiming that early Mesopotamian civilization was less unequal than later Mesopotamian civilization, and the latter seems to be more specifically claiming that the Neolithic agricultural inhabitants of Europe had a matrilocal goddess-oriented society that was disrupted by the patrilocal god-oriented nomadic society of the Indo-Europeans that gave rise to the later societies. Neither one of them particularly supports the claim that hunter-gatherer societies are egalitarian and agricultural societies are patriarchal (the latter even seems to reverse this!) But both do give some evidence for the claim that might be more plausible, that there was a period shortly before recorded history in which gender relations were not as bad as they became by the early period of recorded history.
If true, this would be one more way in which one might expect pre-agricultural life to have been substantially worse than the present, but also better than much of agricultural history.
Out of curiosity, I wanted to check how many current societies (countries) have female leaders. This wikipedia page lists 26, and there are ~195 countries total, which gives us 13%.
To weigh by population and rule out ceremonial positions, I compiled some data in this Google Sheet, which gets us that 5.44% of the world population has a female leader.
To be clear, I don't consider this a particularly strong counterpoint. You do go on to mention that even the societies with female leaders had serious gender inequality. Also, many of the countries I've listed have had female leaders in the past, or have laws allowing female leaders, so it's not as if they have "no possibility" as may have been the case in the past.
But if I were writing the article "post-agricultural gender relations seem bad", I might say something like "169 out of 195 societies have no female leaders" and "19 out of 20 people don't have a female leader", and it would sound quite bad for the modern world.
I thought this was a helpful corrective to a largely unchecked popular narrative.
That's part of it, but I think the stronger reason is something like "there were female leaders in the past, therefore today's gender inequality is the result of social norms".
EDIT: Also FWIW, the Wikipedia page for Sexism does note under Ancient world:
A bit late to this post - thanks Holden for writing it, super interesting!
Quick thought - could the definition of a "good life" change significantly across time/culture? Could this definition be biased in a way that often makes a recent period look like we've had progress (since we've focused on these things) and unclear (up, down, or flat) before that?
For example - in a highly religious culture, the percentage of people assumed to be going to heaven (proximate measures could be being an adherent of a particular religious faith, going to church, praying, the number of churches and temples built, etc.) would be one of the key measures of a "good life". In this society, there would have been significant recent efforts to increase religiosity, so we would see an upward trend and that life is "getting better". In contrast, the percentage of folks practicing religious was not included in the trends you've measured (or that I would measure) to track if life has gotten better based on my existing frame, so we don't count a decline in religiosity as a negative trend.
Similar idea with your point re: factory farming. If welfare of farm animals was a key value in a specific time/culture, then this society could see limited progress in "life getting better" in say the last couple hundred years (even though, based on our frame, life does feel like it's getting better!)