2 Apr 2018

Review: Sapiens: A Brief History of Mankind

One of my readers recommended this book, and I enjoyed it a lot. Given its massive success, I am not going to write very much about its content (here's an overview) but give some comments and impressions on Hariri's thinking.

Warning: I made over 300 notes, as Hariri is an elegant and perceptive thinker and writer. Below, I group my comments or quote Hariri by the book's parts.

Although many points are presented as fact, I think of them as informed opinion. In most cases, I agree with Harari's logic, but that agreement dropped as his narrative approached our contemporary times (skip to the bottom). I think that's less due to the presence of more data than the ever-deepening diversity and complexity of our institutions -- trends that Hariri also acknowledges.

Part 1: The cognitive revolution
  • Humans are born underdeveloped, so they need help growing up. Thus we have strong social potential that can be shaped (language, taste, religion) in many ways.
  • Our jump to the top of the food chain (due to the advantages of social organization) was sudden. Thus, we lack natural predators or instincts that might limit our exploitation of resources, a problem that's especially acute in the "new world"
  • Humans are "afraid" in the sense that they do not understand their power. Thus, we might over-react against perceived threats or destroy through ignorance: "The wandering bands of storytelling Sapiens were the most important and most destructive force the animal kingdom had ever produced" [p 62].
  • Language probably (?) allowed sapiens to dominate and eliminate Neanderthals (and other human species) even though any given Neanderthal individual was stronger and smarter. Language and social organization made it easier for groups of sapiens to dominate Neanderthals via collective action. Aside: Read this fascinating paper on how groups facing extinction (i.e., competition from other groups) will cooperate at much higher levels than groups not facing existential threats. And here's a great description of why sapiens are tribal and how to overcome tribalism in the name of nation, tolerance, etc.
  • Language allowed abstract thought, planning, story telling and deeper social relations, all of which drove forward the cognitive revolution and dominance of our species.
  • Gossip made it easier to control bad behavior. The value of a "maximum anthropological unit" is based on the fact that "most people can neither intimately know, nor gossip effectively about, more than 150 human beings" [p 26].
  • Religion grew out of story telling. Religion, fiction and other communal myths help larger groups cooperate by supporting laws, money, and other institutions.
  • Telling effective stories is not easy. The difficulty lies not in telling the story, but in convincing everyone else to believe it. Much of history revolves around this question: how does one convince millions of people to believe particular stories about gods, or nations, or limited liability companies? Yet when it succeeds, it gives Sapiens immense power, because it enables millions of strangers to cooperate and work towards common goals.
  • Story-telling allows cultural evolution to run 1,000x faster than genetic evolution.
  • Our diverse stories led to "culture" and the events changing culture became "history."
  • These stories make it possible for sapiens to cooperate in far larger groups than our chimpanzee cousins that are limited to groups of 150.
Part 2: The agricultural revolution
  • The majority of individuals were far worse off living with domesticated animals and crops. They had worse nutrition, worked harder, suffered from more disease (a key element in Guns Germs and Steel), and lost autonomy to elites who could control property: "This discrepancy between evolutionary success and individual suffering is perhaps the most important lesson we can draw from the Agricultural Revolution" [p. 97].
  • The agricultural revolution led to larger populations that needed high-density food production systems to survive. Thus, we lost the "exit option" to return to the hunter-gatherer lifestyle. (It's also true that agricultural societies could seize land and territory from hunter-gathers, so all groups were trapped in that equilibrium.) The same "no-return" problem (cf. Logic of Collective Action) makes it hard to reverse an arm-race, educational inflation, imported-water-dependent cities and farms. Likewise, the "luxury trap" has turned email into an incessant job, our "smart" phones into pestering devices.
  • The agricultural revolution led to required planning, which introduced stress about potential futures that hunter-gathers had never needed to experience. Planning led to bureaucracy, elites and rulers, who have taxed peasant workers (us!) ever since. Those elites funded art, temples, palaces and forts, but those "cultural institutions" were not often available to peasants.
  • Page 101: "History is something that very few people have been doing while everyone else was ploughing fields and carrying water buckets..." for rulers who often started wars fueled by peasant blood.
  • Page 111: "If people realise that human rights exist only in the imagination, isn’t there a danger that our society will collapse? Voltaire said about God that ‘there is no God, but don’t tell that to my servant, lest he murder me at night’."
  • Page 112: "To say that a social order is maintained by military force immediately raises the question: what maintains the military order? It is impossible to organise an army solely by coercion. At least some of the commanders and soldiers must truly believe in something, be it God, honour, motherland, manhood or money... How do you cause people to believe in an imagined order such as Christianity, democracy or capitalism? First, you never admit that the order is imagined. You always insist that the order sustaining society is an objective reality created by the great gods or by the laws of nature. People are unequal, not because Hammurabi said so, but because Enlil and Marduk decreed it. People are equal, not because Thomas Jefferson said so, but because God created them that way. Free markets are the best economic system, not because Adam Smith said so, but because these are the immutable laws of nature."
  • These beliefs underpin individualism, romantic vacations, consumerism, pick-up basketball, etc.
  • Page 118: "These imagined orders are inter-subjective, so in order to change them we must simultaneously change the consciousness of billions of people, which is not easy. A change of such magnitude can be accomplished only with the help of a complex organisation, such as a political party, an ideological movement, or a religious cult."
  • Social orders work on a small scale due to evolved social skills (gossip). On a larger scale, they depend on writing and numbers -- abstractions that are harder for sapiens to grasp and use. Both can be helpful in communicating information across time to many people, but both are abused. Writing can be abused via dubious logic (Marx's labor theory of value). Numbers are abused in their abstraction. Many scams depend on "trustworthy people" selling us crap at prices that do not result in value. Think multi-level marketing, Brexit's “£350 million a week,” or Trump's steel policy ("create 33,000 metal-making jobs and destroy 179,000 metal-dependent ones")
  • Page 136-8: "Time and again people have created order in their societies by classifying the population into imagined categories, such as superiors, commoners and slaves; whites and blacks; patricians and plebeians; Brahmins and Shudras; or rich and poor. These categories have regulated relations between millions of humans by making some people legally, politically or socially superior to others. Hierarchies serve an important function... In most cases the hierarchy originated as the result of a set of accidental historical circumstances and was then perpetuated and refined over many generations as different groups developed vested interests in it."
  • Page 142-3: "The stigma that labelled blacks as, by nature, unreliable, lazy and less intelligent conspired against him. You might think that people would gradually understand that these stigmas were myth rather than fact and that blacks would be able, over time, to prove themselves just as competent, law-abiding and clean as whites. In fact, the opposite happened – these prejudices became more and more entrenched as time went by. Since all the best jobs were held by whites, it became easier to believe that blacks really are inferior...Such vicious circles can go on for centuries and even millennia, perpetuating an imagined hierarchy that sprang from a chance historical occurrence. Unjust discrimination often gets worse, not better, with time. Money comes to money, and poverty to poverty. Education comes to education, and ignorance to ignorance. Those once victimised by history are likely to be victimised yet again."
  • Page 145: "Rape, in many legal systems, falls under property violation – in other words, the victim is not the woman who was raped but the male who owns her. This being the case, the legal remedy was the transfer of ownership – the rapist was required to pay a bride price to the woman’s father or brother, upon which she became the rapist’s property."
  • Page 147: "From a biological perspective, nothing is unnatural. Whatever is possible is by definition also natural. A truly unnatural behaviour, one that goes against the laws of nature, simply cannot exist, so it would need no prohibition. No culture has ever bothered to forbid men to photosynthesise, women to run faster than the speed of light, or negatively charged electrons to be attracted to each other. In truth, our concepts ‘natural’ and ‘unnatural’ are taken not from biology, but from Christian theology. The theological meaning of ‘natural’ is ‘in accordance with the intentions of the God who created nature’."
  • Page 155: "It is only natural that the chain of power within the species will also be determined by mental and social abilities more than by brute force. It is therefore hard to believe that the most influential and most stable social hierarchy in history is founded on men’s ability physically to coerce women...the greater the number of wars, the greater men’s control of society. This feedback loop explains both the ubiquity of war and the ubiquity of patriarchy."
  • Men are in power mostly because they are pushier, not because they are better at ruling.
  • Page 160: "During the last century gender roles have undergone a tremendous revolution. More and more societies today not only give men and women equal legal status, political rights and economic opportunities, but also completely rethink their most basic conceptions of gender and sexuality" ... and the results can be seen in many cultures and countries: not just better lives for women but better lives for men.
Part 3: The unification of humankind
  • Page 163-4: "Myths and fictions accustomed people, nearly from the moment of birth, to think in certain ways, to behave in accordance with certain standards, to want certain things, and to observe certain rules. They thereby created artificial instincts that enabled millions of strangers to cooperate effectively. This network of artificial instincts is called ‘culture’... every man-made order is packed with internal contradictions. Cultures are constantly trying to reconcile these contradictions, and this process fuels change."
  • Page 166&172: "Over the millennia, small, simple cultures gradually coalesce into bigger and more complex civilisations...the first universal order to appear was economic: the monetary order. The second universal order was political: the imperial order. The third universal order was religious: the order of universal religions such as Buddhism, Christianity and Islam. Merchants, conquerors and prophets were the first people who managed to transcend the binary evolutionary division, ‘us vs them’, and to foresee the potential unity of humankind."
  • Page 177: "Money is not coins and banknotes. Money is anything that people are willing to use in order to represent systematically the value of other things for the purpose of exchanging goods and services. Money enables people to compare quickly and easily the value of different commodities (such as apples, shoes and divorces), to easily exchange one thing for another, and to store wealth conveniently."
  • Page 183: "Counterfeiting is not just cheating – it’s a breach of sovereignty, an act of subversion against the power, privileges and person of the king. The legal term is lese-majesty (violating majesty), and was typically punished by torture and death. As long as people trusted the power and integrity of the king, they trusted his coins."
  • Good news! "For thousands of years, philosophers, thinkers and prophets have besmirched money and called it the root of all evil. Be that as it may, money is also the apogee of human tolerance. Money is more open-minded than language, state laws, cultural codes, religious beliefs and social habits. Money is the only trust system created by humans that can bridge almost any cultural gap, and that does not discriminate on the basis of religion, gender, race, age or sexual orientation. Thanks to money, even people who don’t know each other and don’t trust each other can nevertheless cooperate effectively" [p 186].
  • Bad news! "When everything is convertible, and when trust depends on anonymous coins and cowry shells, it corrodes local traditions, intimate relations and human values, replacing them with the cold laws of supply and demand. Human communities and families have always been based on belief in ‘priceless’ things, such as honour, loyalty, morality and love. These things lie outside the domain of the market, and they shouldn’t be bought or sold for money. Even if the market offers a good price, certain things just aren’t done. Parents mustn’t sell their children into slavery; a devout Christian must not commit a mortal sin; a loyal knight must never betray his lord; and ancestral tribal lands shall never be sold to foreigners. Money has always tried to break through these barriers, like water seeping through cracks in a dam" [p 186].
  • Page 187: "As money brings down the dams of community, religion and state, the world is in danger of becoming one big and rather heartless marketplace. Hence the economic history of humankind is a delicate dance. People rely on money to facilitate cooperation with strangers, but they’re afraid it will corrupt human values and intimate relations. With one hand people willingly destroy the communal dams that held at bay the movement of money and commerce for so long. Yet with the other hand they build new dams to protect society, religion and the environment from enslavement to market forces. It is common nowadays to believe that the market always prevails, and that the dams erected by kings, priests and communities cannot long hold back the tides of money. This is na├»ve."
  • Page 190: "Cultural diversity and territorial flexibility give empires not only their unique character, but also their central role in history. It’s thanks to these two characteristics that empires have managed to unite diverse ethnic groups and ecological zones under a single political umbrella, thereby fusing together larger and larger segments of the human species and of planet Earth."
  • Page 195-6: "Cyrus did not see himself as a Persian king ruling over Jews – he was also the king of the Jews, and thus responsible for their welfare. The presumption to rule the entire world for the benefit of all its inhabitants was startling. Evolution has made Homo sapiens, like other social mammals, a xenophobic creature. Sapiens instinctively divide humanity into two parts, ‘we’ and ‘they’ ... [in contrast] imperial ideology from Cyrus onward has tended to be inclusive and all-encompassing. Even though it has often emphasised racial and cultural differences between rulers and ruled, it has still recognised the basic unity of the entire world."
  • Page 197: "Ideas, people, goods and technology spread more easily within the borders of an empire than in a politically fragmented region. Often enough, it was the empires themselves which deliberately spread ideas, institutions, customs and norms. One reason was to make life easier for themselves. It is difficult to rule an empire in which every little district has its own set of laws, its own form of writing, its own language and its own money. Standardisation was a boon to emperors" -- but not always to individuals.
  • Page 204: "Many Indians adopted, with the zest of converts, Western ideas such as self-determination and human rights, and were dismayed when the British refused to live up to their own declared values by granting native Indians either equal rights as British subjects or independence. Nevertheless, the modern Indian state is a child of the British Empire," which is a problem when it comes to its centralizing tendency -- a tendency present in many post-colonial countries -- to deny local autonomy and ignore local solutions.
  • Page 210: "Religion must...  espouse a universal superhuman order that is true always and everywhere [and] insist on spreading this belief to everyone. In other words, it must be universal and missionary... People tend to believe that all religions are like them. In fact, the majority of ancient religions were local and exclusive... As far as we know, universal and missionary religions began to appear only in the first millennium BC. Their emergence was one of the most important revolutions in history, and made a vital contribution to the unification of humankind, much like the emergence of universal empires and universal money."
  • Page 214: "Most Hindus... are sunk deep in the morass of mundane concerns, where Atman [the supreme being] is not much help. For assistance in such matters, Hindus approach the gods with their partial powers. Precisely because their powers are partial rather than all-encompassing, gods such as Ganesha, Lakshmi and Saraswati have interests and biases. Humans can therefore make deals with these partial powers and rely on their help in order to win wars and recuperate from illness."
  • Page 215-18: "The only god that the Romans long refused to tolerate was the monotheistic and evangelising god of the Christians. The Roman Empire did not require the Christians to give up their beliefs and rituals, but it did expect them to pay respect to the empire’s protector gods and to the divinity of the emperor. This was seen as a declaration of political loyalty. When the Christians vehemently refused to do... polytheistic Romans killed no more than a few thousand Christians. In contrast, over the course of the next 1,500 years, Christians slaughtered Christians by the millions to defend slightly different interpretations of the religion of love and compassion... Since monotheists have usually believed that they are in possession of the entire message of the one and only God, they have been compelled to discredit all other religions. Over the last two millennia, monotheists repeatedly tried to strengthen their hand by violently exterminating all competition."
  • That said, "The monotheist religions expelled the gods through the front door with a lot of fanfare, only to take them back in through the side window. Christianity, for example, developed its own pantheon of saints, whose cults differed little from those of the polytheistic gods" [p 219].
  • Page 227: "Buddhism does not deny the existence of gods – they are described as powerful beings who can bring rains and victories – but they have no influence on the law that suffering arises from craving. If the mind of a person is free of all craving, no god can make him miserable. Conversely, once craving arises in a person’s mind, all the gods in the universe cannot save him from suffering."
  • Page 232-4: "The main ambition of the Nazis was to protect humankind from degeneration and encourage its progressive evolution. This is why the Nazis said that the Aryan race, the most advanced form of humanity, had to be protected and fostered, while degenerate kinds of Homo sapiens like Jews, Roma, homosexuals and the mentally ill had to be quarantined and even exterminated... Hitler dug not just his own grave but that of racism in general. When he launched World War Two, he compelled his enemies to make clear distinctions between ‘us’ and ‘them’. Afterwards, precisely because Nazi ideology was so racist, racism became discredited in the West. But the change took time. White supremacy remained a mainstream ideology in American politics at least until the 1960s."
  • Page 241-3: "So why study history? Unlike physics or economics, history is not a means for making accurate predictions. We study history not to know the future but to widen our horizons, to understand that our present situation is neither natural nor inevitable, and that we consequently have many more possibilities before us than we imagine...There is no basis for thinking that the most successful cultures in history are necessarily the best ones for Homo sapiens. Like evolution, history disregards the happiness of individual organisms. And individual humans, for their part, are usually far too ignorant and weak to influence the course of history to their own advantage."
Part 4: The scientific revolution
  • Page 251-3: "The great discovery that launched the Scientific Revolution was the discovery that humans do not know the answers to their most important questions. Premodern traditions of knowledge such as Islam, Christianity, Buddhism and Confucianism asserted that everything that is important to know about the world was already known...The willingness to admit ignorance has made modern science more dynamic, supple and inquisitive than any previous tradition of knowledge. This has hugely expanded our capacity to understand how the world works and our ability to invent new technologies. But it presents us with a serious problem that most of our ancestors did not have to cope with. Our current assumption that we do not know everything, and that even the knowledge we possess is tentative, extends to the shared myths that enable millions of strangers to cooperate effectively. If the evidence shows that many of those myths are doubtful, how can we hold society together? How can our communities, countries and international system function?"
  • Good news! "The notion that humankind could [end wars, famine or death] by discovering new knowledge and inventing new tools was worse than ludicrous – it was hubris. The story of the Tower of Babel, the story of Icarus, the story of the Golem and countless other myths taught people that any attempt to go beyond human limitations would inevitably lead to disappointment and disaster" [p 264].
  • Bad news! Scientific advancement was not going to "overcome any and every problem by acquiring and applying new knowledge... because it would be funded and directed for the benefit of rulers and empire, not humanity.
  • Page 282: "What potential did Europe develop in the early modern period that enabled it [rather than the Asian empires generating 80 percent of the world's wealth] to dominate the late modern world? There are two complementary answers to this question: modern science and capitalism. Europeans were used to thinking and behaving in a scientific and capitalist way even before they enjoyed any significant technological advantages."
  • Superior knowledge made it possible for a ridiculously small number of Britons to control India.
  • Page 303: "the place of racism in imperial ideology has now been replaced by ‘culturism’... Marine le Pen’s speechwriters would have been shown the door on the spot had they suggested that the leader of France’s Front National party go on television to declare that, ‘We don’t want those inferior Semites to dilute our Aryan blood and spoil our Aryan civilisation.’ Instead, the French Front National, the Dutch Party for Freedom, the Alliance for the Future of Austria and their like tend to argue that Western culture, as it has evolved in Europe, is characterised by democratic values, tolerance and gender equality, whereas Muslim culture, which evolved in the Middle East, is characterised by hierarchical politics, fanaticism and misogyny."
  • Page 308-11: "You could cut the pie in many different ways, but it never got any bigger. That’s why many cultures concluded that making bundles of money was sinful...If the pie is static, and I have a big part of it, then I must have taken somebody else’s slice... Whoever believes in progress believes that geographical discoveries, technological inventions and organisational developments can increase the sum total of human production, trade and wealth... Smith’s claim that the selfish human urge to increase private profits is the basis for collective wealth is one of the most revolutionary ideas in human history – revolutionary not just from an economic perspective, but even more so from a moral and political perspective."
  • Harari claims [p 215] that the human economy has been able to grow continuously "thanks only" to scientific discoveries but forgets how fossil fuels have allowed us to consume "millions of years of solar energy" in only a few centuries.
  • Page 318: "The secret of Dutch success was credit. The Dutch burghers, who had little taste for combat on land, hired mercenary armies to fight the Spanish for them. The Dutch themselves meanwhile took to the sea in ever-larger fleets. Mercenary armies and cannon-brandishing fleets cost a fortune, but the Dutch were able to finance their military expeditions more easily than the mighty Spanish Empire because they secured the trust of the burgeoning European financial system at a time when the Spanish king was carelessly eroding its trust in him. Financiers extended the Dutch enough credit to set up armies and fleets, and these armies and fleets gave the Dutch control of world trade routes, which in turn yielded handsome profits. The profits allowed the Dutch to repay the loans, which strengthened the trust of the financiers."
From around here (1800) forward, Harari's narrative is (more) vulnerable to critique, probably due to a combination of his over-reliance on a given trend that might ignore other trends or an over-simplified version of a concept (capitalism, for example).

He says [p 329] "there simply is no such thing as a market free of all political bias," but that's obvious when you remember that political institutions (e.g., property rights or regulation) determine the form and regulate the operation of the market.

The sad thing is that he -- by underestimating the importance of institutions -- lays too much credit/blame on the economy, i.e., "much like the Agricultural Revolution, so too the growth of the modern economy might turn out to be a colossal fraud. The human species and the global economy may well keep growing, but many more individuals may live in hunger and want." This claim might be justified by looking at the number of people living below the "$1.90 per day line" (11 percent, or 800 million), but "hunger" is often the outcome of failed political structures (politicians favoring themselves over their citizens [pdf]), and "want" should be blamed on our desires (see Buddha, above) rather than the "new ethic of consumerism" that "appears" as a means of rescuing capitalists from their overproduction [p 347].

This claim -- besides appearing in the passive tense, as if handed down by god -- is naive.

I see many of these market developments as good and many of the problems of inequality as the result of political decisions, but perhaps he's upset at "the collapse of the family and the local community and their replacement by the state and the market" [p 355] because he prefers the pre-market world where "the community offered help on the basis of local traditions and an economy of favours, which often differed greatly from the supply and demand laws of the free market" [p 356]. That nostalgia in the present day might echo his ancestor's nostalgia for the the life of a hunter gatherer after the agricultural revolution, but I do not agree on the parallel.

First, it's unlikely that a community-oriented society will be invaded and colonized by a capitalist-oriented society in the same way that hunter-gathers were displaced by farmers.

Second, it's much easier for anyone to "go back" to a community lifestyle and spend less time in the market economy. We have the technology and productivity to make it possible for someone to work less and enjoy a decent standard of living. (After-tax wages in the Netherlands are probably half the level of those in the US, but the quality of life is better here for most people -- due to communal and market reasons.)

Third, Harari assumes that people are hapless victims  -- "many of us now bewail the loss of strong families and communities and feel alienated and threatened by the power the impersonal state and market wield over our lives" [p 360] -- assertions of dependency that I would not make for most people in middle and upper-income countries. (Neither would Mr Money Mustache.) Are the poor people in the world with limited agency? Absolutely. But many other people are more trapped by their decisions (college debt, opioids, pregnancies) than "the impersonal state and market." (That said, I'll allow for the power of marketing propaganda.)

Fourth, Harari seems to have a nostalgia for an imagined paradise: "The intimate communities fulfilled the emotional needs of their members and were essential for everyone’s survival and welfare. In the last two centuries, the intimate communities have withered, leaving imagined communities to fill in the emotional vacuum" [p 362]. In my experience of the recent history of ex-communisst countries, there was indeed a loss of community when people gained the freedom to earn more and buy goods and services they had previously traded with friends, but very few of these people want to return to those older times. (Those with nostalgia, like Donald Trump's for coal, often suffer a selective amnesia over the drawbacks of the era.)

Finally, Harari seems to assume a surprising path dependency to our future. He says that war is less likely because our economies are so intertwined, but I wouldn't bet on it. He wrote his book in 2011, and recent events have made both trade wars and shooting wars more likely.

The book ends with a call for less consumerism and more family/community (I agree), but Harari's "history of mankind" now seems to represent his personal opinion on how to be better human:*
According to Buddhism, the root of suffering is neither the feeling of pain nor of sadness nor even of meaninglessness... People are liberated from suffering not when they experience this or that fleeting pleasure, but rather when they understand the impermanent nature of all their feelings, and stop craving them [p 394].
From here, he imagines the next step:
There seems to be no insurmountable technical barrier preventing us from producing superhumans. The main obstacles are the ethical and political objections that have slowed down research on humans. And no matter how convincing the ethical arguments may be, it is hard to see how they can hold back the next step for long, especially if what is at stake is the possibility of prolonging human life indefinitely, conquering incurable diseases, and upgrading our cognitive and emotional abilities [p 403].
You might not be surprised that this passage refers to the topic in his most recent book (Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow), which I do not crave.

Bottom line: I give this book FOUR stars for its fascinating narrative of human evolution up to modern times, after which it loses direction in an attempt to be a little too tidy with our complex culture, i.e., "Those who have only a superficial knowledge of a certain period tend to focus only on the possibility that was eventually realised. They offer a just-so story to explain with hindsight why that outcome was inevitable. Those more deeply informed about the period are much more cognisant of the roads not taken" [p 238].

For all my reviews, go here.

* Harari lives in a moshav (a type of cooperative agricultural community), practices Vipassana meditation daily, and does not have a smartphone.

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