There is an extant meme about early human history, that the invention of agriculture was a huge mistake. Noah Yuval Hariri popularized the idea in Sapiens. He pointed out that ancient foragers were “taller and healthier than their peasant descendants”. Foragers also suffered less from famine and plague and had a “relatively short working week”. As a result, Hariri calls the agricultural revolution “history’s biggest fraud”. Matt Yglesias has taken up the idea: “agriculture made living standards lower rather than higher.” And he pastes in this chart, with its appealingly honest y-axis:

As the source says, “we have some good reasons to think that this transition made life worse for the average person.”

You can’t discuss anthropology without pointing out that Jean-Jacques Rousseau said it all first, here in the Discourse on Inequality:

… equality disappeared, property was introduced, work became indispensable, and vast forests became smiling fields, which man had to water with the sweat of his brow, and where slavery and misery were soon seen to germinate and grow up with the crops…. The poets tell us it was gold and silver, but, for the philosophers, it was iron and corn, which first civilised men, and ruined humanity.

It’s not my goal to criticize the empirics here. I think that plausibly, the average person’s welfare went down after the introduction of agriculture, although it’s a controversial result in a fast-moving field. But this ignores an equally important change: there were a lot more of those people!

Average welfare is an appealing way of evaluating societies. It has a natural interpretation: if you were to be a randomly chosen person in a society, how well off would you be? This is the basis of John Rawls’ veil of ignorance in A Theory of Justice, although he rejects average utilitarianism, and before Rawls, John Harsanyi had made the same point.

But the average welfare metric is indifferent to the number of people alive. A hundred people with average welfare of X counts the same as a thousand people with average welfare of X, or a million. That’s not plausible! We should care whether people are alive or dead.

Not doing so is just intuitively weird, and it leads to paradoxes. Suppose you evaluate society using average welfare, and people in society have average lifetime welfare of 100 utils or whatever. You’re indifferent, then, to a hundred new people being born who will also have average lifetime welfare of 100 utils. Their existence is neither good nor bad for the world. OK, now suppose people get much better off, so they have average lifetime welfare of 1000 utils. Now, you’re opposed to the same hundred new people being born and having 100 utils welfare! They would lower the whole society’s average. This violates our intuition that people’s lives have value in themselves, not in relation to other people who happen to be born at the same time. If the 100 people’s lives are worth living, then that must be true no matter what is happening elsewhere.

So let’s stop using average welfare as our criterion, and think about agriculture like this: average happiness went down, but very many more people were alive. (Something like 1 million people by 10,000 BC, and 300 million by 0 AD, compared to maybe 100,000 before agriculture.) Overall, was this good or bad?

I think this is a no-brainer. Clearly, good! The life of the extra millions outweighs the loss of the 100,000.

People like being alive. They show this by their actions. Very few people kill themselves. Most people fear death.

Poor people like being alive too. This is true even though very poor people have suffered terrible ills throughout history: disease, hunger, war and oppression. Despite this, ordinary life is basically good and worthwhile. In fact, a very large part of these ills is that they might stop you being alive! Or they might make your — fundamentally good — life less good. (Going blind is bad, because it is nice to see the light.) Anthropologists who live in peasant communities do not report unremitting misery, and ordinary people’s words, recorded in folk songs or hand-me-down sayings, have good cheer and optimism as well as sorrow.

There is a famous thought experiment by Derek Parfit, which is meant to make us question total utilitarianism. Imagine a universe with trillions of people, each with a life that is barely worth living. If there were enough trillions of people, this dismal universe would still have higher total welfare than a world of a few billion people with quite nice lives. Each new person born, whose life is just barely better than death, would contribute a tiny amount to the universe’s total welfare, and with enough people you can get arbitrarily high. Parfit called this “the repugnant conclusion” and Matt Yglesias mentions it when thinking about agriculture.

This is interesting philosophy, but the agriculture revolution is not at all like that! Ordinary people in agricultural societies (peasants) did not have lives that are just an iota better than death. A few surely had terrible lives, because plague and hunger and oppression can make your life very bad. Some had lives worse than death, and some thought that life was worse than death and killed themselves. But most didn’t. They had basically good lives, even though they were at risk of awful things that we now find morally unacceptable and try to prevent, and though they probably had more bad mixed with the good than we do.

Peasants in Monty Python and the Holy Grail. “Dennis! There's some lovely filth down 'ere!”

In most of history, humans were in the Malthusian regime: an increase in total income led people to have more children, until average income was the same as before. Economists sometimes call this a “trap”, because it prevented sustained growth in living standards and the take-off into modern progress.

But it isn’t a moral trap. It doesn’t mean that an increase in total income was “wasted” on extra children. Extra people are good! Material progress through most of human history has taken the form of more people being alive.

Brueghel, The Peasant Dance

Thinking of the past as “10,000 years of misery till the 1950s” is bad in two ways. It is dismissive of our own history, and it subtly devalues the people we are talking about.

Like Calvin in the cartoon, who thought that the USA was founded in 200 BC (“Before Calvin”), each age tends to judge the past by its own standards, which usually make it look relatively good. This is obvious when historians judge any society before, say, 1970, by post-millennial standards. A subtler version is when economists measure material social welfare and see a flat line for thousands of years, missing the aspects of progress over that time, material and otherwise, which don’t show up in per capita GDP.

It’s right to be shocked by the insults and injuries of poverty. But that can easily slip into defining poor people by those insults, reducing them to cardboard cutouts. This applies to people in the past also. The lives of Roman slaves, medieval peasants, or workers in the Industrial Revolution were not just composed of suffering. They had loves and hopes; they thought about higher things, as Christians, Cathars or Socialists. We are luckier than they were, but they deserve respect, not just pity.


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Not everybody agrees with you that simply having more people alive is better, and not everybody shares your intuitions. For example, I think it's a "no brainer" that counting noses is insane, and trying to add up "utilons" is even more so. I see no reason to increase the population at modern levels of well being.

I doubt that argument by extended, aggressive assertion is going to change anybody's mind.

The argument isn't that simply having more people alive is better. That's why I spend time arguing that people's lives are worthwhile.

I mention two intuitions. The intuition that it's good to be alive is quite widely shared, no? Even people who claim to disagree often act as if they agree. (My uncle repeatedly said he didn't want to live any more, yet he carefully avoided Covid.) 

The intuition that people's lives have value in themselves, and not in relation to what else is going on, isn't just a gut feeling. It relates to the idea that what has value is consciousness - feelings of joy or contentment, say - so that if someone experiences a lifetime reasonably worth living, then that life is reasonably worth living whatever else is going on, because the experiences are the same.

You may be right that adding up utilons is crazy, but my claims don't depend on that. Any moral framework will do, if it positively values the fact of a person leading a reasonably good life.

Lastly, I'm surprised you see any aggression here.

The thing is that I don't give imaginary people equal weight to real ones. It seems obvious to me that somebody who doesn't exist anywhere in space or time doesn't get any consideration. And that means that I am under no obligation to bring them into existence or to care whether anybody else does.

As for agression, all I can say is that I processed it that way.

As a basis for purely personal morality that may be fine, but as a way of evaluating policy choices or comparing societies it won't be enough. Consider the question "how much should we reduce global warming"? Any decision involves alternative futures involving billions of people who haven't been born yet. We have to consider their welfare. Put another way, the word "imaginary" is bearing a lot of weight in your argument: people who are imaginary in one scenario become real in another.

Well, that's true, but I think it's less a problem for me than it is for a lot of people here, because I don't think there's any respectable moral/ethical metric that you can maximize to begin with.

Ethics as a philosophical subject is on very shaky ground because it basically deals with creating pretty, consistent frameworks to systematize intuitions... but nobody ever told the intuitions that they had to be amenable to that. All forms of utilitarianism, specifically, have horrible problems with the lack of any defensible way to aggregate utilities. There are also issues about whose utility should count. Some people would include imaginary people, some would include animals, etc. But the alternatives to utilitarianism have their own problems.

So I, at least, am free to go for a lot of possible futures and take a lot of things into consideration. I can feel OK about using raw intuitions, or even aesthetic preferences, to choose between courses of action, including creating more-but-somewhat-sadder people versus fewer-but-somewhat-happier people. I don't have any rigid system to narrow what I can care about, so I can choose to look at things like the diversity or complexity of their experiences, or how good the best ones are, or how bad the worst ones are, or in fact things that aren't related to human experience at all. Or I can mix and match those at any moment. I'd feel uncomfortable with creating a bunch of people whose experiences were uniformly totally miserable, but that leaves me a lot of room to maneuver.

... and I'm even at least a little bit insulated from feeling like I have to actually do the absolute most I possibly can to predict every possible consequence of every action I take all of the time. I get the sense that that impossible self-demand really eats at a lot of people on Less Wrong.

Anyhow, if you're like me, and you've somehow counterfactually been given the godlike power to knowingly choose between hunter-gatherers and agriculturalists as people to "make real", even given total knowledge of the consequences, you can take into account not only their experiences, but your own aesthetic view of the kinds of worlds they generate. And I don't find numbers aesthetically compelling.

It'd the same for more-globally-warmed and less-globally-warmed people, although in that case you know that there will also be major consequences for people who are actually alive right now.

Sure, I find that take on moral intuitions plausible. But if society has to make a real choice of the order of "how much to tax carbon", I think that collectively we would not want to make the decision based on people saying "meh, no strong opinions here, future world X just seems kinda prettier". We need some kind of principled framework, and for that... well, I guess you need moral philosophy! 

Sorry, missed this somehow.

I don't think it's plausible that there'll ever be widespread agreement on any philosophical framework to be used to make policy decisions. In fact, I think that it's much easier to make public policy decisions without trying to have a framework, precisely because the intuitions tend to be more shared than the systematizations.

I've never seen an actual political process that spent much time on a specific framework, and I've surely never heard of a constitution or other fundamental law or political consensus, anywhere, that said, let alone enforced, anything like "we're a utilitarian society and will choose policies accordingly" or "we're a virtue ethics society and will choose policies accordingly" or whatever.

The curious thing about your wording is that you go from ‘we would not want to make‘ to ‘we need some kind of principled framework’. The former does not automatically imply the latter.

Additionally, you presuppose the possibility of discovering a ‘principled framework’ without first establishing that such a thing even exists. I think the parent comment was trying to get at this core issue.

Any decision involves alternative futures involving billions of people who haven’t been born yet. We have to consider their welfare.

This logic holds if it is an unassailable given that they will be born. If you remove that presupposition and make it optional, then these people can be counted as imaginary as jbash says. They become a real part of the future, and thus of reality, only once we decide they shall be. We might not. Maybe we opt for the alternative of just allowing the currently alive human beings to live forever, and decline to make more.

PS: Anyone know a technical term for the cognitive heuristic that results in treating hypothetical entities that don't exist yet as real things with moral weight, just because we use the same neural circuitry to comprehend them, that we use to comprehend a real entity?

I don't think this argument makes sense. Of course the people who will be born are "imaginary". If I choose between marrying Jane and Judith, then any future children in either event are at present "imaginary". That would not be a good excuse for marrying Jane, a psychopath with three previous convictions for child murder. More generally, any choice involves two or more different hypothetical ("imaginary") outcomes, of which all but one will not happen. Obviously, we have to think "what would happen if I do X"? It would be silly to say that this question is unimportant, because "all the outcomes aren't even real!" That doesn't change if the outcomes involve different people coming into existence. 

I think the technical term you're looking for is "imagination".

If they will come into existence later, they have moral weight now. If I may butcher the concept of time, they already exist in some sense, being part of the weave of spacetime. But if they will never exist, it is an error to leap to their defense -- there are no rights being denied. Does that make more sense?

The point is whether they exist conditional on us taking a particular action. If we do X a set of people will exist. If we do Y, a different set of people will exist. There's not usually a reason to privilege X vs. Y as being "what will happen if we do nothing", making the people in X somehow less conditional. The argument is "if we do X, then these people will exist and their rights (or welfare or whatever) will be satisfied/violated and that would be good/bad to some degree; if we do Y then these other people will exist, etc., and that would be good/bad to some degree." It's a comparison of hypothetical goods and bads - that's the definition of a moral choice! So saying, "all these good/bads are just hypothetical" is not very helpful. It's as if someone said "shall we order Chinese or pizza" and you refused to answer, because you can't taste the pizza right now.

Actually, the worlview "it's NOT good to be alive; the fact that almost everyone think that it's good to be alive is just failure of human reflectivty" is pretty consistent. I don't endorse it, but my best friend do.

Well, he says he does. I think it would be very sad if he acted on the idea, and I bet you agree.

There are also ethical (even utilitarian) frameworks that consider hypothetical people to be fundamentally different than real current people. I can say that I think we should maximize the average utility of all current people going into the future while also thinking that I should choose the future where the hypothetical people have the highest average happiness. How you weigh current people versus future hypothetical people is complex but beyond the scope of this post I think.

That is, if there are ten people alive today and I’m choosing between an option where the ten people each have 10 utils or 100 utils, obviously I should choose the 100 utils. But if I’m choosing between a future where 100 people will exist with 5 utils each or a future where 10 people will exist with 10 utils each, there is no person who is worse off in the second future compared to the first future, so no person is harmed by choosing the second future.

Frankly I don’t think that people have a moral intuition that actually matches your suggestions. Almost any couple in a developed world could probably support raising ten children, and all of those children would be happy to exist, but it just seems wrong to say that couples have a moral imperative to have as many children as possible. (I think that would still hold true even if pregnancy and childbirth were painless and free.)

Saying "it's good to be alive" is not the same as saying people have a moral imperative to bring children into the world. It would probably improve human welfare if I gave all my assets to the poor and starved to death, but I don't have a moral imperative to do it. Judgments of overall welfare are ways of deciding what to do collectively, but no individual has an absolute duty to maximize overall welfare at the expense of his own basic desires and life choices. 

(This is my personal view, not especially carefully thought-out. Some people probably do think we have an absolute duty to maximize welfare. I think your example of having to have 10 children is a reductio ad absurdum of that view, not of the view that the marginal extra human life is a good thing.)

People like being alive. They show this by their actions. Very few people kill themselves.


This reminds me of a couple of comments I made on another post. I think the most appropriate quote from my comments is this:


I don't think I agree that suicide is a sufficient proxy for whether an entity enjoys life more than it dislikes life because I can imagine too many plausible, yet currently unknown mechanisms wherein there are mitigating factors. For example:

I imagine that there are mental processes and instincts in most evolved entities that adds a significant extra prohibition against making the active choice to end their own life and thus that mental ability has a much smaller role in suicide "decisions".

In the world where there is no built-in prohibition against ending your own life, if the "enjoys life" indicator is at level 10 and the "hates life" indicator is at level 11, then suicide is on the table.

In, what I think is probably our world, when the "enjoys life" indicator is at level 10 the "hates life" indicator has to be at level 50.

What's more, it seems plausible to me that the value of this own-life-valuing indicator addon varies from species to species and individual to individual.

Yes, I wouldn't say suicide is the be-all and end-all indicator, though it is quite suggestive. I'd also lay weight on simple common sense and intuition here. Most people today like life. If you read about ordinary people from 200 years ago or before, it doesn't seem like unremitting misery. (Piers Plowman, the "rude mechanicals" in Shakespeare, the peasants in the Georgics or in medieval Books of Hours, the ordinary people in the Old and New Testaments. Maybe these were just elites idealizing peasants? Hmm... up to a point.) Reporters and anthropologists who live with peasants and the poor today similarly paint a picture with light as well as shade.

People like being alive. They show this by their actions. Very few people kill themselves.

Both David Hume and Arthur Schopenhauer—LessWrong-aligned philosophers from the 18th and 19th centuries respectively—wrote of suicide favorably, and asserted that ordinary people did not live net-positive lives. Hume, for his part, proposed that the reason why people did not commit suicide was because they feared death itself, the offense it would bring to God, and could not bring themselves the courage to do it at any one instant. From his essay, Of Suicide,

The superstitious man, says Tully[1], is miserable in every scene, in every incident of life. Even sleep itself, which banishes all other cares of unhappy mortals, affords to him matter of new terror; while he examines his dreams, and finds in those visions of the night, prognostications of future calamities. I may add, that, tho' death alone can put a full period to his misery, he dares not fly to this refuge, but still prolongs a miserable existence, from a vain fear, lest he offend his maker, by using the power, with which that beneficent being has endowed him...

So great is our horror of death, that when it presents itself under any form, besides that to which a man has endeavoured to reconcile his imagination, it acquires new terrors, and overcomes his feeble courage. But when the menaces of superstition are joined to this natural timidity, no wonder it quite deprives men of all power over their lives; since even many pleasures and enjoyments, to which we are carried by a strong propensity, are torn from us by this inhuman tyrant.

Schopenhauer cites many philosophers since ancient times who viewed suicide favorably, including Pliny the Elder who wrote,

Not even to God are all things possible; for he could not compass his own death, if he willed to die, and yet in all the miseries of our earthly life, this is the best of his gifts to man.

I am personally emotionally drawn to a passage from one of Hume's posthumous works, Dialogues concerning Natural Religion, in which the character Philo tries to convince others that God cannot be benevolent, since the misery and discontent in life exceeds the happiness we find in it. Hume's writing is engaging and poetic; a summary would not suffice, and therefore I will quote it in full. He writes,

The whole earth, believe me, Philo, is cursed and polluted. A perpetual war is kindled amongst all living creatures. Necessity, hunger, want, stimulate the strong and courageous: Fear, anxiety, terror, agitate the weak and infirm. The first entrance into life gives anguish to the new-born infant and to its wretched parent: Weakness, impotence, distress, attend each stage of that life: and 'tis at last finished in agony and horror...

Man alone, said Demea, seems to be, in part, an exception to this rule. For by combination in society, he can easily master lions, tygers, and bears, whose greater strength and agility naturally enable them to prey upon him.

On the contrary, it is here chiefly, cried Philo, that the uniform and equal maxims of Nature are most apparent. Man, it is true, can, by combination, surmount all his real enemies, and become master of the whole animal creation: but does he not immediately raise up to himself imaginary enemies, the dæmons of his fancy, who haunt him with superstitious terrors, and blast every enjoyment of life? His pleasure, as he imagines, becomes, in their eyes, a crime: his food and repose give them umbrage and offence: his very sleep and dreams furnish new materials to anxious fear: and even death, his refuge from every other ill, presents only the dread of endless and innumerable woes. Nor does the wolf molest more the timid flock, than superstition does the anxious breast of wretched mortals.

Besides, consider, Demea; this very society, by which we surmount those wild beasts, our natural enemies; what new enemies does it not raise to us? What woe and misery does it not occasion? Man is the greatest enemy of man. Oppression, injustice, contempt, contumely, violence, sedition, war, calumny, treachery, fraud; by these they mutually torment each other: and they would soon dissolve that society which they had formed, were it not for the dread of still greater ills, which must attend their separation.

But though these external insults, said Demea, from animals, from men, from all the elements, which assault us, form a frightful catalogue of woes, they are nothing in comparison of those, which arise within ourselves, from the distempered condition of our mind and body. How many lie under the lingering torment of diseases? Hear the pathetic enumeration of the great poet.

Intestine stone and ulcer, colic-pangs,
Dæmoniac frenzy, moping melancholy,
And moon-struck madness, pining atrophy,
Marasmus, and wide-wasting pestilence.
Dire was the tossing, deep the groans: DESPAIR
Tended the sick, busiest from couch to couch.
And over them triumphant DEATH his dart
Shook: but delay'd to strike, tho' oft invok'd
With vows, as their chief good and final hope.

The disorders of the mind, continued Demea, though more secret, are not perhaps less dismal and vexatious. Remorse, shame, anguish, rage, disappointment, anxiety, fear, dejection, despair; who has ever passed through life without cruel inroads from these tormentors? How many have scarcely ever felt any better sensations? Labour and poverty, so abhorred by every one, are the certain lot of the far greater number: and those few privileged persons, who enjoy ease and opulence, never reach contentment or true felicity. All the goods of life united would not make a very happy man: but all the ills united would make a wretch indeed; and any one of them almost (and who can be free from every one) nay often the absence of one good (and who can possess all) is sufficient to render life ineligible.

Were a stranger to drop, on a sudden, into this world, I would show him, as a specimen of its ills, an hospital full of diseases, a prison crowded with malefactors and debtors, a field of battle strowed with carcasses, a fleet foundering in the ocean, a nation languishing under tyranny, famine, or pestilence. To turn the gay side of life to him, and give him a notion of its pleasures; whither should I conduct him? to a ball, to an opera, to court? He might justly think, that I was only showing him a diversity of distress and sorrow.

There is no evading such striking instances, said Philo, but by apologies, which still farther aggravate the charge. Why have all men, I ask, in all ages, complained incessantly of the miseries of life? - - - - They have no just reason, says one: these complaints proceed only from their discontented, repining, anxious disposition. - - - And can there possibly, I reply, be a more certain foundation of misery, than such a wretched temper?

But if they were really as unhappy as they pretend, says my antagonist, why do they remain in life? - - -

Not satisfied with life, afraid of death.

This is the secret chain, say I, that holds us. We are terrified, not bribed to the continuance of our existence.

You are giving examples of people telling that other people's lives are not worth living. That doesn't mean those other people agreed with them.

Imagine today a very rich person saying "if you are not a millionaire, you should kill yourself, because your life is too miserable". Would you accept it as evidence that lives of non-millionaires are worse than death?

Imagine today a very rich person saying "if you are not a millionaire, you should kill yourself, because your life is too miserable". Would you accept it as evidence that lives of non-millionaires are worse than death?

It's some evidence, although I agree very weak. I think the evidence I gave was importantly different in two ways, making this type of citation relevant. One, these are accomplished philosophers who gave extensive reasoning to back up their theses. Two, unlike today where you can literally just read what ordinary people have to say about this issue, few ordinary people in the 18th century were literate and wrote that type of thing down. Therefore, we need to rely on reports from other people who could write things down, who happened to disproportionately be the wealthy elite.

Now I hear the Life of Brian playing in my head: "Always look on the bright side of life! De-duh, de-duh de-duh de-duh!" 

Hume didn't always take his own rhetoric or ideas too seriously. He said he couldn't prove that his friends even existed, but when he played billiards with them, these doubts vanished.

Here's another thought experiment for those convinced by this gloomy view... suppose you find a large red switch marked "Universe: on/off". Flipping it will cause the immediate painless non-existence of everyone everywhere. Do you flip it? Think how much suffering you'll save! This suggests an alternative perspective for AI alignment research: we need to bring forward the arrival of the Paperclip Maker, to put us all out of our misery.

this is an interesting take, that death (or the uncertainty of it) might be worse than life and also both together worse than non-existence for a person. then a further question: if we take complete lack of experience to be neutral (sleep, in Hume’s example), and we had a magic device that could grant each individual the opportunity to cease experience from this moment to their naturally occurring death (i.e. to become a zombie), 1) how many people who claim their life has negative value would follow through by using this device and 2) is this meaningfully different from choosing death directly? from the experiential point of view it’s identical. from the experience of those around you, not as much, though in the zombie case you’re being dishonest with those around you and that brings its own baggage.

also interesting is that even in the friendliest of utilitarian views the repugnant conclusion usually ends with “a plethora of near-0-value lives” or “a single maximally high-value life”. less discussed is a plethora of willful negative existences required to enable a counteracting positive existence (for example, a miserable father who slaves away so his children may lead better lives). yet that arrangement is arguably more relatable to the typical individual, who may frequently embrace negative states in order to obtain later positive ones (e.g. as simple as setting an early alarm clock so that you can admire the sun rise).

the saving grace to all this, for me, is that i find it incredibly unlikely that any of these distasteful utilitarian hypotheticals actually represent the global maximum. or even significant local maxima for that matter. no matter if it’s the sum or the mean, negative experience immediately adjacent to positive experience doesn’t seem to be so stable. most human relationships are co-beneficial, for example. many people gain more than they lose when they give (charity/philanthropy/etc).

Another comment says this post is unlikely to change anyone’s mind. But it changed mine! I agree more people alive is better and that the flat line of the malthulsian “trap” elides this - but I’d never connected these ideas before.

I agree with a fair amount of this post.

But you overestimate agriculture's effect on population size. In 1492, a substantial fraction of New World societies were foragers who were approximately as civilized as Europe. I don't see good evidence about their population size, but based on info from the books 1491 and The Dawn of Everything, there were probably 10s of millions of foragers who lived better lives than European farmers.

Also, see my comments here about why I reject the repugnant conclusion.

In 1492, a substantial fraction of New World societies were foragers who were approximately as civilized as Europe.

I thought the 'approximately as civilized as Europe' parts of the New World were basically all agricultural? Like, more than half of the native population lived in Mexico and the Andes, both of which were populated mostly by farmers instead of foragers; the cities in North America that I'm familiar with (like Cahokia) were also the product of farming cultures. The 'Salmon People' of the Pacific Northwest are a bit difficult to classify, but seem more like farmers than foragers to me (and also like they were probably at the bottom end of the range, or below, the 'approximately as civilized as Europe' group).

If you're counting 'societies' instead of 'people' then I think the measure is heavily tilted in favor of smaller societies, as farming societies are more likely to fuse and grow; for example, the formation of the Iroquois League, which seems to be related to the adoption of agriculture, turned five societies into one society (at least the way that I look at things).

The Dawn of Everything calls the "fisher kings" of the pacific northwest foragers, and also the "protestant foragers" who lived in what's now California. I don't see much info about their population density.

I'm about halfway through the book, and I'm unsure how much to trust it.

I was also including the foragers who built Poverty Point (a structure about 1/3 the size of the Burning Man area), but I see now that they were no longer around in 1500.

The book also indicates that many regions, particularly in Amazonia, are hard to classify, because they did small amounts of "play farming", without getting much food that way.

I don't know about population sizes either. Maddison (cited at says that in 1500, Americans were only about 4% of global population, with 20% being in Europe and 68% in Asia. 

There is substantial disagreement about New World population levels. Maddison seems to have written before 1491 publicized evidence that smallpox killed most people there before Europeans made much contact with them. I used the estimate of 100 million that I got from 1491's Wikipedia page, but that's likely near the high end of expert guesses.

Holden Karnofsky has written some about average quality of life, including talking about that chart.

 I think he thinks that the zero point was crossed long before 1900, but I'm not sure.

I think the phrase "10,000 years of misery" is perfectly consistent with believing that the changes were net good due to population growth, and "misery" is pretty much equivalent to "average quality of life". 

Check out "person affecting view".

Just a note that this has a very anthropocentric perspective about utility. Humans do not live in isolation, however, and our numbers and behaviours affect the rest of the "system" (essentially, all other macroscopic life forms and plenty of microscopic ones). Taking a step back, human happiness may not be a good indicator, at all, of total utility to the system. There is probably a number of humans that just about maximises total utility and going beyond it only hurts the whole.

Yup, definitely true that I haven't considered the effect on non-humans. I think you'd have to be very pessimistic to say that agriculture was a mistake from this perspective. That might be true (1) if agriculture involved so much animal suffering that it outweighed the human good involved. Or (2) if from agriculture on, humans were set on a path that inevitably led to the destruction of life on earth, e.g. by runaway global warming or nuclear war. I think (1) might be true of modern factory farming, but is less likely true of traditional farming. (2) is as yet unknown, but I hope that it will not be so.