Tag Archives: Language

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.

Thomas Schelling

In the Washington Post, Henry Farrell writes about Schelling’s work and how it shaped the Cold War.

Schelling’s contribution was to show how the two sides could think systematically about coordinating (where they had common interests) and deterring each other from unwanted actions (where they did not). This arguably gave rise to a much more stable world — the world of the Cold War — where both sides struggled with each other for dominance, but tacitly agreed on some of the rules of the game, and didn’t try to push each other too far. The Cold War was organized around deterrence, and deterrence mostly rested on Schelling’s ideas about credible threats. …

The U.S. stationed a small garrison in Berlin, which was embedded deep in East German territory, and indefensible against any serious attack. As Schelling described it, these soldiers’ job was not to defend the city but to die if it were attacked. This would then trigger a large scale U.S. response, since no U.S. president could tolerate the USSR killing American soldiers and not retaliate. Hence, by the logic of credible threats, the USSR would not attack Berlin.

In the New York Times, William Grimes writes that

Schelling analyzed superpower negotiations in the way that he analyzed the conflicts between, say, a blackmailer and his client, a parent and a child, or management and labor. In each case, he wrote, “there is a mutual dependence as well as opposition,” with each side seeking out tests of strength at less than crisis levels. …

one side in a negotiation can strengthen its position by narrowing its options … He also argued that uncertain retaliation is more credible and more efficient than certain retaliation. …

“The Strategy of Conflict” introduced the concept of the focal point, often called the Schelling point, to describe a solution that people reach without benefit of communicating, relying instead on “each person’s expectation of what the other expects him to expect to be expected to do.” …

Professor Schelling moved on to other social questions that seemed to be fertile ground for game theory, notably the dynamics behind racial change in American neighborhoods.

Why Does Music Give Chills?

David Shariatmadari suggests some answers in The Guardian.

  • What’s happening? An “autonomic nervous system arousal, the evolutionarily ancient preparation for fight or flight.” Plus a positive emotional component, related to brain activity and dopamine release.
  • To whom? Not to everybody. According to some estimates, only to every second non-musician.
  • Why? Emotional experiences can be related to specific musical structures like “enharmonic changes” or “appoggiaturas” (examples given in the article), connected with unexpected, dramatic shifts that force the listener to pay attention. Add to this memories and “feelings of transcendence.” Maybe music helps to form bonds with other human beings or it played a role in the development of language. “Music simply taps into [linguistic ability] in the same way that drugs tap into a system that wasn’t designed for drugs”.
  • Example: “The last few minutes of Bach’s Mass in B Minor, the last page or so of the Dona Nobis Pacem.”

Swiss German, Standard German, and Swiss Standard German

In the NZZ am Sonntag, Reto Hunziker argues that the schooling system in the German speaking part of Switzerland undermines students’ ability to speak proper German. Hunziker wants the Swiss to speak either their Swiss German dialect or Standard German—not the Swiss German dialect or Standard-German-As-Spoken-In-Schools-In-Switzerland.

Wikipedia article on High German languages. Wikipedia article on German dialects.

Languages, Specifically English

Dylan Matthews presents interesting facts about the use of languages, their roots and in particular, about the English language, in Vox.

The median number of languages spoken in Denmark, the Netherlands or Slovenia equals 3. In the English language, the letter “b” mostly appears at the beginning of a word, the letter “d” at the end and the letter “u” in the middle. Also in the English language, a “d” or “y” is most often followed by a blank; a “h”, “v” or “z” by an “e”; and a “q” almost always by a “u”. And the most common letter combinations in Google Book archive are


Languages and Their Structure

Martin Haspelmath has posted a fascinating set of slides (PDF, in German) about languages. Some facts:

  • About 7000 languages are spoken; more than 800 in Papua New Guinea; 170 in the US; 7 in Germany.
  • About 150 languages are spoken in Europe.
  • 280 languages are spoken by more than one million people each, 450 languages by less than one hundred people each.
  • The ranking of languages: 1. Mandarin. 2. English. 3. Spanish. 4. Hindi. 5. Arabic. 6. Portuguese. 7. Bengali. 8. Russian. 9. Japanese. 10. German.
  • Roughly half of the world population speak one of these ten languages.
  • The Georgian language allows for up to 7 consonants in a row.
  • All languages feature words and sentences; questions and negation; names; expressions for “up” and “down.”
  • Not all languages distinguish tempi or feature adjectives or expressions for numbers or for “and, or, left, right.”