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Yuval Noah Harari’s “Sapiens—A Brief History of Humankind”

Homo appeared roughly 2 million years ago in Africa and Homo sapiens roughly 200’000 years ago in East Africa. Harari divides his account of the last 70’000 years into four parts: The cognitive revolution (language), the agricultural revolution (about 10’000 years ago in today’s Turkey, Iran, Levant), the unification of humankind (through money, empire, and religion), and the scientific revolution. According to Harari, Sapiens developed more efficient strategies for cooperation than other species and in particular, Neanderthals (which sapiens eradicated around 30’000 years ago). The rest is history, i.e., evolutionary biology and cultural history.

On his website, Harari summarizes:

Homo sapiens rules the world because it is the only animal that can believe in things that exist purely in its own imagination, such as gods, states, money and human rights.

Starting from this provocative idea, Sapiens goes on to retell the history of our species from a completely fresh perspective. It explains that money is the most pluralistic system of mutual trust ever devised; that capitalism is the most successful religion ever invented; that the treatment of animals in modern agriculture is probably the worst crime in history; and that even though we are far more powerful than our ancient ancestors, we aren’t much happier.

According to Harari, the agricultural revolution fostered population growth but made life harsher for most humans (due to less varied diet, harder work, infectious diseases)—and for the animals that Sapiens domesticated; religion, empires, money and trade fostered globalization and unification; the scientific revolution arose from Europeans’ admission of ignorance, and it was intertwined with imperialism and capitalism; whether humankind has become happier over time is unknown but doubtful; and we may soon confront a singularity:

Physicists define the Big Bang as a singularity. It is a point at which all the known laws of nature did not exist. Time too did not exist. It is thus meaningless to say that anything existed `before’ the Big Bang. We may be fast approaching a new singularity, when all the concepts that give meaning to our world—me, you, men, women, love and hate—will become irrelevant. Anything happening beyond that point is meaningless to us (p. 461 in the Vintage 2015 edition).

Other tidbits:

  • Settlement of Australia (“The Flood”), America, New Zealand: 45’000, 16’000, 800 years ago. Each settlement was associated with mass extinction of species.
  • “[F]iction has enabled us not merely to imagine things, but to do so collectively” (p. 27). “Ever since the Cognitive Revolution Homo sapiens has been able to revise its behaviour rapidly in accordance with changing needs. This opened a fast lane of cultural evolution, bypassing the traffic jams of genetic evolution.” (p. 36).
  • “The Agricultural Revolution was history’s greatest fraud. … These plants domesticated Homo sapiens, rather than vice versa” (p. 90). The revolution bred worries about the future. Food surpluses brought rulers and elites, palaces and temples, politics, wars, art and philosophy (p. 114). One `imagined order’ with three classes and two genders—the Code of Hammurabi—dates from 1’776 B.C. (p. 117). Writing, archiving, cataloguing (invented by Sumerians around 3’500 B.C.) preserves information about imagined social order; this is critical because the information is not preserved in DNA. Script undermined holistic thought. Hindus invented `Arab’ numerals around 800 AD (pp. 137–146).
  • Cognitive dissonance, contradictory beliefs are necessary to maintain any human culture (p. 184). Over the last 10’000 years, thousands of `human worlds’ have collapsed to a single one (p. 186). Three universal (imagined) orders: Money, empire, religion (p. 191). “Money is the most universal and most efficient system of mutual trust ever devised” (p. 201). Empires are stable, inclusive, not that bad (p. 219). Religious norms are founded on a belief in a superhuman order (p. 234). “Much of ancient mythology is in fact a legal contract in which humans promise everlasting devotion to the gods in exchange for mastery over plants and animals” (p. 236). Polytheist and animist religions recognize a supreme power in the background, devoid of biases and interests (p. 238). Humanist religions worship Homo sapiens. Liberal humanism believes in the humanity of the individual. Socialist humanism believes in the humanity of the collective. (Both build on Christian tradition). Evolutionary humanism (e.g., Nazism) believes that humankind can evolve or degenerate  (pp. 256–263).
  • Science started from the admission of ignorance; observation and math; and the acquisition of new powers (p. 279). Social stability requires that certain `scientific results’ are a dogma or that basic truths are non-scientific (p. 282). With the capitalist system and the industrial revolution, science, industry and military technology intertwined (p. 294). “[S]cientific research can flourish only in alliance with some religion or ideology. The ideology justifies the costs of the research” (p. 305). Science and empire supported each other (ch. 15, 16). The scientific revolution and the idea of progress fostered credit; this reinforced each other (p. 346). The industrial revolution has been a revolution in energy conversion (p. 379) and it was a second agricultural revolution (p. 382). Animal suffering, consumerism (ch. 17). The national time (p. 396). State and market replace family and local community (p. 398). “The state and the market are the mother and the father of the individual” (p. 402). “The nation is the imagined community of the state” (p. 406). The world is safer than ever, and war does not pay any more. Have humans become happier? Answer 1: “Lasting happiness comes only from serotonin, dopamine and oxytocin” (p. 436). Answer 2: Meaning. But “[p]erhaps happiness is synchronising one’s personal delusions of meaning with the prevailing collective delusions” (p. 438). Answer 3: Feelings are not to be trusted; of key import is whether people know the truth about themselves (p. 443). Intelligent design and extreme inequality (ch. 20).

Wikipedia points to critical scholarly reception.

Truth, Triviality, and Contradiction

Nils Bohr chose

Contraria Sunt Complementa

as motto for his coat of arms. According to his son and others, Bohr distinguished between the logical properties of trivialities on the one hand and profound truths on the other:

The opposite of a correct statement is a false statement. But the opposite of a profound truth may well be another profound truth. [Unsourced]

There are two sorts of truth: Profound truths recognized by the fact that the opposite is also a profound truth, in contrast to trivialities where opposites are obviously absurd. [Quoted by Hans Bohr]

It is the hallmark of any deep truth that its negation is also a deep truth. [Quoted by Max Delbrück]

Douglas Adams’ “The Hitch Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy”

In Douglas Adams’ book (volume one in the trilogy of four) we learn, among other things:

  • Towels are particularly useful for interstellar travelers on a shoestring.
  • It’s not clear whether humans conduct experiments on mice or vice versa.
  • The answer to Life, Universe, and Everything is “forty-two” as Deep Thought found after an extended period (seven and a half million years) of number crunching.
  • But what is the question? To find out, an even more powerful computer was built: The Earth. “Deep Thought designed the Earth, we built it and you lived on it.”
  • Unfortunately, the Vogons destroyed the planet just five minutes before the program was completed. The badly timed intervention was communicated as follows: “This is Prostetnic Vogon Jeltz of the Galactic Hyperspace Planning Council. As you will no doubt be aware, the plans for development of the outlying regions of the Galaxy require the building of a hyperspatial express route through your star system, and regrettably your planet is one of those scheduled for demolition. The process will take slightly less than two of your Earth minutes. Thank you.” And after some moments: “There’s no point acting all surprised about it. All the planning charts and demolition orders have been on display in your local planning department in Alpha Centauri for fifty of your Earth years, so you’ve had plenty of time to lodge any formal complaint and it’s far too late to start making a fuss about it now.”
  • Another artificial planet may be under construction. It might feature fjords as in Norway (on the original Earth), but this time in Africa.

See here or here for quotes from the book(s).

Ayn Rand‘s “Atlas Shrugged”

Ayn Rand‘s master work about mind, productive man and his liberation. More than a thousand pages long but rarely tiresome (except for John Galt’s radio speech) the novel blends thriller with common economic sense and Rand’s philosophy of objectivism.

The economics makes sense—incentives matter and give rise to a trade-off between efficiency and equity; but it is crude—market failure is neglected. The most interesting element in the incentive problem faced by the government sponsored “looters” and “leeches” is the sanction of the victim.

The philosophy (as summarized at the end of the paperback) is less convincing; it certainly does not follow from the economics. Much more on objectivism on the website of the Ayn Rand Institute.

Philippa Perry’s “How To Stay Sane”

Philippa Perry’s short book provides a succinct perspective on mental health. Perry argues that mental disorders fall into two groups: one associated with behavior that displays a tendency to stray into chaos; the other with behavior that manifests itself in excessive rigidity. She discusses the structure of the brain and the role of nature vs. nurture in integrating emotions and reasoning. The former rules.

Perry points to several areas that are central to successfully navigating between chaos and rigidity:

  • Self-observation: Wisdom and sanity build on a non-judgemental, self-observing attitude that fosters self-awareness and avoids self-justification. Self-observation amounts to re-parenting oneself. It helps develop compassion (internal and external) and it grows the brain. It requires to use feelings rather than be used by them. Keeping a diary helps, as do prayers or meditation. “Toxic chatter” doesn’t.
  • Relating to others: Brains need brains; nurturing relationships are key to staying sane. True dialogue requires honesty and thus, vulnerability. “Adhering to strict guidelines about how to behave around others is a form of rigidity. Not being mindful of your impact upon others is a form of chaos.” The “daily temperature reading” fosters emotional honesty.
  • Stress: Positive stimulation is fruitful; it fosters learning, creativity and brain plasticity and it strengthens the immune system. But it must not become overwhelming as to trigger panic and brain dissociating. Physical activity generates good stress.

When things go wrong Perry recommends to aim at re-writing one’s narrative:

  • Personal narrative: Grasping one’s guiding beliefs helps developing new perspectives. Narratives are co-constructed and form minds. They pass down “identity, wisdom and experience” from generation to generation. Telling one’s own story helps gain distance and independence, and it creates “a place of freedom” (Perry refers to Victor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning). Narratives are self-reinforcing; a genogram can help uncover and trace their roots. But stories are flexible, they can be changed, and so can lives that build on them. “Creating a consistent self-narrative that makes sense and feels true to ourselves is a challenge at any stage in life.” Optimism is productive and self enforcing; but hearing good news must be learned. Fear of losing love comes with penny-pinching. Certainty is a trap.

Dietrich Schwanitz’ “Bildung (Cultured Education)”

Dietrich Schwanitz’ book (Wikipedia) covers “Wissen” und “Können” against the background of the German “Bildungskanon”, the liberal education of a cultured, well-bred German-speaker. The very ambition of the endeavor is breath taking and provokes disagreement and objection. But Schwanitz delivers. A lengthy book of nearly 700 pages it is concise and dense and contains lots of food for thought.

Among hundreds of tidbits, here are some:

  • Footnote on the footnote (pp. 461–462).
  • On Switzerland (p. 596):

Was die Schweizer auf dem Hintergrund ihrer eigenen Geschichte bei den Deutschen am wenigsten begreifen, ist, daß sie mit der antiautoritären Kulturrevolution alle bürgerlichen Tugenden so restlos über Bord geworfen haben. Es sind die Tugenden, die ehemals als besonders deutsch galten und jetzt nur noch in der Schweiz eine Heimstatt haben: Solidität, eine gewisse Ordnungsliebe und Pedanterie, Zuverlässigkeit im Ausführen von Aufgaben und Präzision bei der Produktion von Apparaten, und ein Standard der Sauberkeit und Wohlanständigkeit weit über dem europäischen Durchschnitt sowie ein fest verankerter Glaube an Normen und Regeln.

  • In the section about intelligence, a ranking of what might have been the 10 most intelligent men ever (p. 604):

1. John Stuart Mill; 2. Goethe; 3. Leibniz; 4. Grotius; 5. Macaulay; 6. Bentham; 7. Pascal; 8. Schelling; 9. Haller; 10. Coleridge.

  • Short summaries of “books that changed the world” (pp. 635–654).

World War II in 42 Maps

Timothy Lee and collaborators provide a map-based account of World War II in Vox. Short texts and 42 maps cover Germany, China and Japan, Central Europe, Finland, France and the UK, Russia, the Pacific, Africa, the Allies’ invasions, the Holocaust, Israel and Korea, among other aspects. An animated map displays the opponents’ varying spheres of influence during the war years.

World War I in 40 Maps

Zack Beauchamp, Timothy B. Lee and Matthew Yglesias provide a fascinating account of World War I in Vox. Short texts accompanying 40 maps cover the central European powers, Russia, the US, the Balkans, Africa, the Ottoman Empire, Palestine, Arabia, Mexico as well as technology and strategy of the campaigns.

Text 23 on “Britain conquering Palestine:”

After the failure of the Gallipoli campaign in 1916, Allied forces regrouped in Egypt and began making plans to take Ottoman-held land in the Levant. This map shows part of that effort, Britain’s successful 1917 campaign in Palestine. The British invasion of Palestine would have long-lasting consequences. On November 2, 1917, British Foreign Secretary Arthur Balfour wrote a letter endorsing “the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people.” Balfour cautioned that “nothing shall be done that may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine.” In 1922, the League of Nations officially endorsed British administration of Palestine. British policies after World War I helped lay the groundwork for the eventual UN partition of Palestine between Arab and Jewish states — and everything that followed from that.

Text 24 on “Lawrence of Arabia and Britain’s betrayal of Arab allies:”

One of the most remarkable figures of World War I was TE Lawrence, whose exploits in the Middle East were immortalized in the 1962 movie Lawrence of Arabia. Before the war, Lawrence was an archeologist, and he got to know the Middle East during expeditions to the region. When war broke out, the British recruited him to help organize an Arab revolt against the Ottoman empire. His pre-war connections made him particularly effective in this role. He fought alongside the Arabs in a series of battles between 1916 and 1918. At the end of the war in November 1918, Lawrence presented this map to his superiors in Britain, showing proposed borders for a postwar Middle East. The British had promised independence to Arab Allies who participated in the rebellion, and Lawrence attended the 1919 Paris Peace Conference to press for these promises to be kept. Instead, the British and French divided Arab territories under the terms of the Sykes–Picot Agreement (discussed below), which they had secretly negotiated in 1916.

Text 39 on “Sykes-Picot and the breakup of the Ottoman empire:”

World War I also transformed the Middle East. In 1916, French diplomat Francois Georges-Picot and his British counterpart, Sir Mark Sykes, drew up a map dividing the Ottoman Empire’s Middle Eastern territory between British and French zones of control. The agreement permitted British and French authorities to divide up their respective territories however they pleased. This led to the creation of a series of Arab countries — Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, Jordan, and so on — whose borders and political institutions only dimly reflected the Arab world’s ethno-sectarian makeup. Many scholars believe the Sykes-Picot borders were a major factor in the chaotic state of the Middle East in the decades since then.