Author Topic: Recommended "Sapiens: a brief history of humankind" by Yuval Noah Harari  (Read 4176 times)

aperture

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Picked this book up from the library after seeing Bill Gates talk about it on his blog. I am presently in the middle of reading it and want to pass on my recommendation.  This book is absolutely brilliant and interesting and full of insights into our shared history.

Here is a link to Gate's blog and review of the book: https://www.gatesnotes.com/Books/Sapiens-A-Brief-History-of-Humankind

Best wishes, Ap.
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TVRodriguez

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I heard the author interviewed on npr a couple weeks ago, and it was fascinating. I plan to read it but haven't gotten around to it just yet. Thanks for the reminder!

joninnyc

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Picked this book up from the library after seeing Bill Gates talk about it on his blog. I am presently in the middle of reading it and want to pass on my recommendation.  This book is absolutely brilliant and interesting and full of insights into our shared history.

Here is a link to Gate's blog and review of the book: https://www.gatesnotes.com/Books/Sapiens-A-Brief-History-of-Humankind

Best wishes, Ap.

Just wait until you get to the end - then stuff really gets nuts. This is one of those epic long reads that you really need to take time to think through, but you can get so much out of it. I took it to the beach earlier this year and read it all day every day for a week. So good.

aperture

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Re: Recommended "Sapiens: a brief history of humankind" by Yuval Noah Harari
« Reply #3 on: September 03, 2016, 08:03:47 AM »
Just wait until you get to the end - then stuff really gets nuts. This is one of those epic long reads that you really need to take time to think through, but you can get so much out of it. I took it to the beach earlier this year and read it all day every day for a week. So good.

I finished the book and enjoyed the end - and as you point out, it gets pretty weird.  On the other hand, I previously read the Nexus series by Ramez Naam (which are fantastic if you like near future SF), and have been a fan of cyberpunk and Iain Banks, so the post-human speculation was not foreign to me.  My work leads me to have small brushes with people seeking to expand their abilities with present pharmaceutical technologies.  After 15 years of observing the trend, I suspect that any affordable technology that allows an expansion of human ability will quickly (decades at most) be adopted by a significant minority of the population.  I have no doubt that there will be an emergent subculture of people that embrace enhancements in the way that a subculture today embraces tattoos. 
If enhancements allow for greater productivity and achievement, there could be a new tech enhanced elite, but I am a cynic.  Having watched the workplace and the way we humans work in large groups - it will not be productivity and achievement that creates an elite.  It will continue to be anti-social tendencies and willingness to score points by shifting on the people below you while simultaneously kissing up to the people above that leads to advancement.  Besides, it is likely that many tech enhancements will be social or pleasure enhancements and these will likely distract people from greater productivity and performance.

Anyway, the book is brilliant and I really enjoyed it.  -Aperture
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TVRodriguez

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My name finally came up on the library list for this book, and I'm in the middle of it now.  I'm really really enjoying it.  Every few pages, I just close it and say "whoa."  I might actually have to buy a copy so I can mark it up and re-read it.  His writing is at such an accessible level, I think many people could get into this book.  But man, is it heavy!  Actually heavy.  As in, I find it uncomfortable to read it if I have to hold it up and not just lay it on my lap or a table. 

lost_in_the_endless_aisle

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Hadn't run across that one and will probably get it. Anyone who has/is reading it, is there any speculation on what caused the "cognitive revolution" 70K years ago, or is it just taken as a brute fact in the discussion? Gates' review didn't make it clear if that was analyzed in detail.

aceyou

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I just started reading it last night and it's amazing so far. 

I don't know about speculation on the cognitive revolution, but I'm interested if anyone finds/knows something on it. 

And isn't it just amazing to think about us building sailing ships to Australia 45,000 years ago.  I mean, take away all the technology that we have, and put all us mustachians together to build a fleet to cross an ocean.  We are a very smart hardworking creative crew, filled with people like MMM and others.  I'm not sure we'd have the guts, talent, and courage to decide to invent/build the tools to invent/build a fleet and figure out how to send ourselves off to some new world. 

These groups must have been truly amazing individuals working together, dreaming, inventing, building.  Just incredible.   

lost_in_the_endless_aisle

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I've read the first section and he basically punts on the question of what caused the Cognitive Revolution:

The appearance of new ways of thinking and communicating, between 70,000 and 30,000 years ago, constitutes the Cognitive Revolution. What caused it? We're not sure. The most commonly believed theory argues that accidental genetic mutations changed the inner wiring of the brains of Sapiens, enabling them to think in unprecedented ways and to communicate using an altogether new type of language. We might call it the Tree of Knowledge mutation. Why did it occur in Sapiens DNA rather than it that of Neanderthals? It was a matter of pure chance, as far as we can tell.

Anyway, I was hoping to get a new perspective on that side-stepped question. The most reasonable explanation that attempts a detailed argument that I've run across is Deutsch in The Beginning of Infinity (yes, I cite this book a lot because it is so idea-dense!), the crux of which is as follows:

It must have happened something like this. In early pre-human societies, there were only very simple memes – the kind that apes now have, though perhaps with a wider repertoire of copiable elementary behaviours. Those memes were about practical things like how to get food that was otherwise inaccessible. The value of such knowledge must have been high, so this created a ready-made niche for any adaptation that would reduce the effort required to replicate memes. Creativity was the ultimate adaptation to fill that niche. As it increased, further adaptations co-evolved, such as an increase in memory capacity (to store more memes), finer motor control, and specialized brain structures for dealing with language. As a result, the meme band-width (the amount of memetic information that could be passed from each generation to the next) increased too. Memes also became more complex and sophisticated.

This is why and how our species evolved, and why it evolved rapidly – at first. Memes gradually came to dominate our ancestors’ behaviour. Meme evolution took place, and, like all evolution, this was always in the direction of greater faithfulness. This meant becoming ever more anti-rational. At some point, meme evolution achieved static societies – presumably they were tribes. Consequently, all those increases in creativity never produced streams of innovations. Innovation remained imperceptibly slow, even as the capacity for it was increasing rapidly.
...
Hence, paradoxically, it requires creativity to thrive in a static society – creativity that enables one to be
less innovative than other people. And that is how primitive, static societies, which contained pitifully little knowledge and existed only by suppressing innovation, constituted environments that strongly favoured the evolution of an ever-greater ability to innovate.

Contrastingly, Harari writes things like:

Consequently, ever since the Cognitive Revolution Homo sapiens has been able to revise its behaviour rapidly in accordance with changing needs

and:

Once cultures appeared, they never ceased to change and develop, and these unstoppable alterations are what we call 'history'

The question that remains if you embrace a view that post-Cognitive Revolution people were as creative as people today (a question Deutsch at least recognizes and attempt to answer) is: why then did it take 70,000 years to reach the Enlightenment? So far Harari has not discussed why technological change was so slow when the capacity for it was already so large. Though it's too early to judge and perhaps he will make some of these points in the Scientific Revolution section.

aceyou

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This paragraph struck me as pertinent to the ethos of this forum...question why we desire to spend money on the things we want....

Quote
Even what people take to be their most personal desires are usually
programmed by the imagined order. Let’s consider, for example, the popular
desire to take a holiday abroad. There is nothing natural or obvious about this. A
chimpanzee alpha male would never think of using his power in order to go on
holiday into the territory of a neighbouring chimpanzee band. The elite of ancient
Egypt spent their fortunes building pyramids and having their corpses mummiɹed,
but none of them thought of going shopping in Babylon or taking a skiing holiday
in Phoenicia. People today spend a great deal of money on holidays abroad
because they are true believers in the myths of romantic consumerism.

aceyou

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If found this really thought provoking...

Quote

If tensions, conflicts and irresolvable dilemmas are the spice of every culture, a
human being who belongs to any particular culture must hold contradictory beliefs
and be riven by incompatible values. It’s such an essential feature of any culture
that it even has a name: cognitive dissonance. Cognitive dissonance is often
considered a failure of the human psyche. In fact, it is a vital asset. Had people
been unable to hold contradictory beliefs and values, it would probably have been
impossible to establish and maintain any human culture.
If, say, a Christian really wants to understand the Muslims who attend that
mosque down the street, he shouldn’t look for a pristine set of values that every
Muslim holds dear. Rather, he should enquire into the catch-22s of Muslim culture,
those places where rules are at war and standards scuffle. It’s at the very spot
where the Muslims teeter between two imperatives that you’ll understand them
best.
[/b]

PAstash

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Re: Recommended "Sapiens: a brief history of humankind" by Yuval Noah Harari
« Reply #10 on: February 15, 2017, 09:43:25 PM »
Just finished this. Get the audio book! great for long drives.

lost_in_the_endless_aisle

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Re: Recommended "Sapiens: a brief history of humankind" by Yuval Noah Harari
« Reply #11 on: February 15, 2017, 10:17:54 PM »
I'm through Chapter 6 but will do a full review later. For now, I'm very frustrated that he's a flaming moral anti-realist, but I found disagreeing with him engaging throughout this section. Though many of the same general points he makes could be made from a moral realist standpoint. But everything is a "myth" to Harari!

aceyou

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Re: Recommended "Sapiens: a brief history of humankind" by Yuval Noah Harari
« Reply #12 on: February 23, 2017, 01:51:02 PM »
I'm through Chapter 6 but will do a full review later. For now, I'm very frustrated that he's a flaming moral anti-realist, but I found disagreeing with him engaging throughout this section. Though many of the same general points he makes could be made from a moral realist standpoint. But everything is a "myth" to Harari!

You sound like you are more educated on this topic.  Can you help me understand what you mean? 

My understanding is that to Harari, everything that's not due to our natural biology is part of a myth. 

So, for example, our biology/evolutionary track has us naturally desiring sweet foods because we rarely got them throughout history. 

However, today, myths like advertisements largely shape which kinds of sweets we will seek out.  So, wanting chocholate is probably just part of our biology, but wanting a dove bar is probably influenced heavily by a myth. 

He then extends that to things like countries, religions, economic systems/principals, etc.. 

I find myself largely agreeing with him.  An LLC, for example, only has any meaning or significance, because we all believe and accept that it does.  And tons of things that happen in our day to day lives exist because we believe and accept that an LLC can and should exist. 

Does that mean I should consider myself an anti-realist, or am I missing key components of what it means to be an anti-realist? 

Thanks for contributing, I'm really enjoying this read and the discussion here. 

lost_in_the_endless_aisle

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Re: Recommended "Sapiens: a brief history of humankind" by Yuval Noah Harari
« Reply #13 on: February 23, 2017, 11:47:03 PM »
I certainly can expand. Here are some quotes (all from Chapter 6 except for #9 from chapter 7) that I found relevant to judging Harari's apparent philosophical leaning (I have not read the final section yet though):

1) Myths, it transpired, are stronger than anyone could have imagined. When the Agricultural Revolution opened opportunities for the creation of crowded cities and mighty empires, people invented stories about great gods, motherlands and joint stock companies to provide the needed social links

2) All these cooperation networks - from the cities of ancient Mesopotamia to the Qin and Roman empires - were 'imagined orders'. The social norms that sustained them were based neither on ingrained instincts nor on personal acquaintances, but rather on belief in shared myths.

3) Now let's examine the best-known myths of history: the Code of Hammurabi of c.1776 BC, which served as a cooperation manual for hundreds of thousands of ancient Babylonians; and the American Declaration of Independence of 1776 AD, which today serves as a cooperation manual for hundreds of millions of modern Americans....The Americans would, of course, say they are right and that Hammurabi is wrong. Hammurabi would naturally retort that he is right, and that the Americans are wrong. In fact they are both wrong. Hammurabi and the American Founding Fathers alike imagined a reality governed by universal and immutable principles of justice, such as equality or hierarchy. Yet the only place where such universal principles exist is in the fertile imaginations of Sapiens, and in the myths they invent and tell one another. These principles have no objective reality.

4) ...there are no such things as rights in biology.

5) From a biological viewpoint, it is meaningless to say that humans in democratic societies are free, whereas humans in dictatorships are unfree.

6) We believe in a particular order not because it is objectively true, but because believing in it enables us to cooperate effectively and forge a better society. Imagined orders are not evil conspiracies or useless mirages. Rather, they are the only way large numbers of humans can cooperate effectively.

7) There is no chance that gravity will cease to function tomorrow, even if people stop believing in it. In contrast, an imagined order is always in danger of collapse, because it depends on myths, and myths vanish once people stop believing in them. In order to safeguard an imagined order, continuous and strenuous efforts are imperative [paraphrasing, he goes on after this statement to suggest these efforts take the form of coercion/violence and the necessary existence of true believers]

8) People are unequal, not because Hammurabi said so, but because Enlil an 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.

9) Of course, not all hierarchies are morally identical.


Generally, #1-8 suggest that our belief in institutions, including legal systems and their moral content, are nothing more than mass delusions with perhaps some instrumental value in cementing a society together. That view holds the underlying moral principles that are expressed in a society are not real entities, hence the concept of moral anti-realism. A countervailing view holds that morality (and other considerations not strictly moral that underpin society, such as economic theory) represent objective knowledge about the world and are falsifiable. However--shockingly--Harari then states #9 above which confused me since that statement suggests that morals can be compared in an objective light (but he doesn't repeat this sort of statement later so either he is confused about what he's saying or he kludged the wording in this one case).

Now I will provide some details as to why I disagree:

#1: He makes no distinction between the types of beliefs that gods, nations, and business entities constitute. Gods are (I presume, #pascalswager) fictional entities that were invented but designed to be believed literally to exist by people. Nations have an identity and exist by virtue of the beliefs people hold about them (there is no further fact that defines a nation except for the existence of such beliefs). Finally, joint stock companies are explicitly understood to be legal inventions to facilitate certain forms of cooperation. These cases are not, in my view, directly comparable to one another, since the first (gods) is an actual delusion, the second (nations) actually exist given a more reasonable definition on what a nation is, and the last (joint stock companies) are human inventions to facilitate commerce and are explicitly instrumental in nature. What does it mean for a joint stock company to "exist" then? It means that if you embed such an entity in the framework of a society where certain legal and institutional norms are practiced, that such a company will have organizational advantages in operating compared to other feasible entities. That's not a "myth", it's a technique or strategy!

#3, #7, #8: Wow, he is being so cheeky juxtaposing the 1776 BC/AD dates! Taking #3 and #8 together, he is saying there is no meaningful difference in truth content between the Code of Hammurabi and the Declaration of Independence (which is an odd choice to make since the Declaration does not codify any law, but I'll proceed all the same). Here is a non-rigorous test of your proclivity towards moral anti-reality: do you believe that no moral progress was made between Hammurabi and Jefferson? Harari seems to suggest that since people of each era wouldn't agree on moral issues that there is no fact of the matter. That would be a very weak argument for the anti-realist perspective, but Harari never actually argues moral anti-realism effectively; rather, he merely presupposes it throughout his writing.

A second problem with this section is it takes each moral code as a fixed system of belief. I don't know about the evolution of Hammurabi's code but the Constitution was designed with a mechanism for change (Amendments) specifically built into the document! In other words, the Founding Fathers knew that their views could be mistaken and hence need to be modified in the future. That is why I lumped in #7: he cites coercion and true believers as necessary components in preserving his "imagined orders" but ignores the most critical component of post-Enlightenment thought which is that beliefs are falsifiable. Thus, there are not just true believers and non-believers but skeptics as well, and all of  this brings about periodic shifts in beliefs from those that are less accurate to those that are more accurate. This fact means anyone who believes in a moral code should also believe that they could be wrong about any component of their belief. That doesn't mean that moral truth doesn't exist, it means our knowledge is just never perfect and never fully tested (which is true of all scientific knowledge as well).

#4 Well there are no such things as cells in physics, so is biology in doubt?

#5 Same fallacy as #4 but this one sure is a howler! (At least I think so but I haven't slept much in a couple days). The reason different academic disciplines exist is to describe phenomena at different levels of organization. I get the impression that maybe more than being anti-realist, Harari is actually just a strict reductionist (at least to the level of biology since apparently that's one of the disciplines he studied). I also wonder if Harari believes in consciousness, since the brain is nothing but neurons and chemicals, and those nothing but atoms, etc.

#6 This isn't so bad since it almost admits entities like I describe with respect to the joint stock company example.


So this may sound as though I don't like the book, but the main disaster in my view was Chapter 6 where this nagging phrasing annoyed me and detracted from the main thrust of the discourse. I have a personal problem with moral anti-realism because if that view is correct, it makes me feel nihilistic and depressed but that's just a crazy personal reason of mine to favor realism!

Finally, I am also disappointed he adds nothing to the harder questions raised by his review (the causes of the Cognitive Revolution and an explanation of why the Scientific Revolution occurred where/when it did). Now I'll brace myself for the alleged craziness of the last section!

aperture

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Re: Recommended "Sapiens: a brief history of humankind" by Yuval Noah Harari
« Reply #14 on: February 24, 2017, 06:13:03 AM »
For now, I'm very frustrated that he's a flaming moral anti-realist, but I found disagreeing with him engaging throughout this section. Though many of the same general points he makes could be made from a moral realist standpoint. But everything is a "myth" to Harari!

l_i_t_e_a, thanks for sharing your thoughts here and below.  I had to look up moral anti-realist to know what you are talking about.  It seems to me that moral anti-realism boils down to the idea that morals, right and wrong, and etc. do not exist independent of the human mind.  This is the starting point of most of science, right?

I would charachterize myslef as a 'true-believer" in Harari's terms. (But so is Harari...). I would say that faith (in objective right and wrong) is something that I might hold in my head as a belief, but is confirmed in my feet as I walk faith.  The subjective sense of objective knowing is in the experience of doing - and doing over long periods of time rather then in the reflective moment of knowing. To say that something that is not apparent in the reflective moment of knowing is false is to mistake the world of words for the world. 

In christian scripture, Mathew 6:9 quotes Jesus as saying we should pray "Our Father in Heaven..."  Peter Rollins points out that this is a jewel of a statement, encapsulating the intimacy of knowing a "father" and also being confronted with the remoteness of an unknowable God in heaven.  All the despair and anguish of God's absence rolled up with a knowable father.  To me this is a lovely statement of the dual experience of moral realism and moral anti-realism that you wrestle with (and Harari apparently does not - at least not in this book).  Neither view point is objectively correct, and both are.

Anyway, I wish you well and I am so glad you shared your thoughts on this book.  Best wishes, Ap.

Link to Peter Rollins if you are interested: https://peterrollins.com/
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lost_in_the_endless_aisle

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Re: Recommended "Sapiens: a brief history of humankind" by Yuval Noah Harari
« Reply #15 on: February 24, 2017, 08:39:24 PM »
Yes, your general description of moral anti-realism is fine, I think. I believe moral beliefs are independent of the human mind and are objectively true or false. The reason I am a realist in this regard is because (in part) I'm an optimist: without moral realism, moral progress is fictive and all personal decisions you or I make are equal with respect to moral judgement since such distinctions are meaningless. I can go out and impale babies on spikes all night, while you feed homeless people: it's all the same. The way you put it with the Rollins quote sums up the tension, to be sure  (though if it's implicit in the statement, I certainly don't think that morals could only derive from a deity to have objective reality). I fall on one side of the issue because to do otherwise is to let hedonism or nihilism into the picture (also I believe the more technical arguments I've read regarding moral realism but I'm just self-taught in philosophy so I'm far from an expert).

Almost all of science, I would say, says nothing about morality. It is mainly a philosophical endeavor to determine what constitutes morality and whether or not morality is even a meaningful concept! As far as the sciences go, I am a scientific realist as well, even though a lot of scientists who do good work are supposedly not scientific realists. Incidentally, there is a very good (but very long!) overview of scientific realism here if you are interested. I don't know of a comparable review of moral realism but many of the arguments run in parallel. Same goes for mathematical realism (who mathematical physicists like Roger Penrose passionately argue in favor of, e.g. The Emperor's New Mind).

A couple more thoughts while I'm on this thread that I found interesting:

While I find Harari's lumping of all of his "myths" into one bucket over-simplistic, there are a large number of beliefs (and reasons for beliefs) that actually exist today in people's heads that are fantastical. For some incisive thoughts in this direction, I suggest this. Harari is not totally wrong in calling bullshit on some human beliefs; I just think he throws the baby out with the bathwater.

The second additional thought I have is regarding Harari's claims that no one was better off with the Agricultural Revolution. Of course, since he doesn't embrace moral realism as exhaustively discussed above, what follows here he would also presumably reject. In any event, it could be the case that no one is individually better off after the agricultural revolution but that it is still a better objective outcome from the point of view of morality (see the Repugnant Conclusion in population ethics, for instance).
« Last Edit: February 25, 2017, 12:56:12 AM by lost_in_the_endless_aisle »

aceyou

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Re: Recommended "Sapiens: a brief history of humankind" by Yuval Noah Harari
« Reply #16 on: February 25, 2017, 08:56:01 PM »
I certainly can expand. Here are some quotes (all from Chapter 6 except for #9 from chapter 7) that I found relevant to judging Harari's apparent philosophical leaning (I have not read the final section yet though):


Thanks for the thoughtful reply.  I didn't respond right away so I could think about it for a while. 

I think I do identify with Harari's perspective, but I could be convinced to change my mind.  Just because two competing ideas might both be 100% myths, that doesn't mean that they are all equally nonsense.  Humans can compete for ideas about which myths benefit us most, and select those that do so the best. 

In fact, could it be possible that viewing all of this as a myth could actually help make a more just/positive world?  For example, we have capitalism.  Well, in my opinion, capitalism is pretty darn awesome, but it has huge pitfalls IMO too.  For example, to use Warren Buffett's analogy, capitalism is like the goose lays the golden egg, and it produces more golden eggs than any other system.  He also goes on to say that while it's great a producing eggs, it's totally indifferent to who gets them, and in fact it is set up in a way that gives most of the eggs disproportionately to the people who are already really rich. 

Well, if you think that capitalism is not a myth, and that it's real, and it's f#$%ing awesome, then you might be more inclined to resist any tweaks to it.  However, if you acknowledge that it's simply a myth that happens to really come in handy, you might be far more open to tweaking it to work for everyone.  Perhaps you'd be more willing to consider something like a universal basic income to better distribute the eggs in a more equitable manner. 

If you look at the current political climate in the United States, you get an example of this actually happening.  Conservatives and liberals alike are becoming so entrenched with the belief that their side is "good", and the other side is "bad", that it seems to be crippling our ability to come up with common sense policies at times.  Maybe if both sides were more able to say "you know what, since this whole conservative/liberal thing are just two myths anyway, heck, since the whole idea of democracy is just a myth we share to create what we consider a better world, why don't we come together and tweak things a bit to find a win/win situation. 

I hope my reply doesn't come off as a disagreement with anything you said, I'm just trying to think through these ideas that are completely new to me.  Thanks lost_in_the_endless_aisle for your analysis, I've thought about it a lot.

lost_in_the_endless_aisle

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Re: Recommended "Sapiens: a brief history of humankind" by Yuval Noah Harari
« Reply #17 on: February 25, 2017, 10:37:58 PM »
Thanks in return for your thoughtful reply. Of course, disagreements are good things instead of bad in my opinion (however, feel free to disagree!).

Your description regarding capitalism seems to frame it as a take-it-or-leave-it ideology (and capitalism is probably better described as a set of beliefs rather than a single belief). To the extent people are dogmatic supporters of capitalism, they are misguided, since believing that something is not falsifiable would qualify their belief as a "myth" in some sense (though I think that's a bit of a sloppy term to use). Instead, one should open the kimono on capitalism and understand why and where it is effective and why and where it creates outcomes that might not align with our best moral principles. The outcome of such an analysis would identify regularities which could be formulated into theories of economics that describe some objective part of the dynamics of that economic system. If some of capitalism is wrong or misguided, those parts should be tossed aside--but that doesn't mean that everything we understand about economics is based on subjective considerations; rather it means that even our best theories are not perfect and we have to continue to strive for explanations that better capture the true nature of some underlying objective truth.

By loose analogy, Newtonian gravitation was "pretty darned awesome" but then Mercury's anomalous precession and other scientific lines of inquiry ultimately resulted in it being usurped by General Relativity. And today we know that General Relativity is incomplete since it cannot be reconciled in its current form with quantum mechanics. Though none of our theories so far are perfect, each theory captures important aspects of objective reality. Similarly, current economic theory supports the view that capitalism has certain advantages over alternative orders. And those economic theories are not utter myths but rather fit into a framework of objective knowledge representing our best explanations of the world. If you cast aside such explanations as having no meaning outside of their miraculous utility then the trouble becomes why the world would have such regularities conforming to our theories if those theories do not capture some critical elements of an underlying objective reality.

Hope that made sense--I'm a bit distracted since I just spent the evening getting my thumb sewn back on at an emergency room!

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Re: Recommended "Sapiens: a brief history of humankind" by Yuval Noah Harari
« Reply #18 on: February 26, 2017, 04:55:46 AM »
*snip*

The question that remains if you embrace a view that post-Cognitive Revolution people were as creative as people today (a question Deutsch at least recognizes and attempt to answer) is: why then did it take 70,000 years to reach the Enlightenment? So far Harari has not discussed why technological change was so slow when the capacity for it was already so large. Though it's too early to judge and perhaps he will make some of these points in the Scientific Revolution section.

Great question. I think a part of the answer to this apparent delay in technology development and the migrations of humans out of africa could lie with the dangers that regularly occur in our natural environment but on time scales beyond typical human lifespans. 2 big event types happened inbetween 70k years ago and now - glaciations (combined with possibly quite unstable interglacials), and occasional impacts by really big lumps of rock.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Quaternary_glaciation
Quote
Analysis of ice cores of the entire thickness of the Greenland glacier shows that climate over the last 250,000 years has changed frequently and abruptly. The present interglacial period (the last 10,000 to 15,000 years) has been fairly stable and warm, but the previous one was interrupted by numerous frigid spells lasting hundreds of years. If the previous period was more typical than the present one, the period of stable climate in which humans flourished—inventing agriculture and thus civilization—may have been possible only because of a highly unusual period of stable temperature.

So it could be that stable agriculture could only get going relatively recently for climatic reasons. And agriculture is needed to enable your ability to support cities, specialisations, and the wealth to get your upper classes time to think about science and stuff.

Impacts:
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Impact_event
The impact data is pretty sobering. The recent Russian meteorite we all saw on dashcams was only about 20m in size and generated a ~500kT airburst (cf Hiroshima nuke was only 15kT), and we get 2 of those every 100 years. 10 times bigger every 1000 years,... 1000 times bigger (500 MegaT] every 50k years, etc. Splash something big in the oceans and you can imagine the mega-tsunamis that can result, and the rather devasting effect on stone age civilisations near coasts and big rivers (which is where the food is). It may be no coincidence that we have mythical reports of 'great floods' in many seemingly unconnected cultures, and a general fear of someone who gets pretty angry from time to time, living up in the sky.

If you want to hunker down on earth for a while, the African rift valley seems as good a place as any, and may also help explain why we are all genetically Africans.

So we may be simply really lucky: the times of late have been unusually stable and its only now that we have been given a chance to build our civilisation enough. In the past, maybe we just kept repeatedly ( and literally) being knocked back to bare survival.



Mr. Mark

lost_in_the_endless_aisle

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Re: Recommended "Sapiens: a brief history of humankind" by Yuval Noah Harari
« Reply #19 on: February 26, 2017, 09:53:36 AM »
Great point Mr Mark--the explanations I am inclined to formulate also tend towards the sort of environmental determinism advanced by Jared Diamond, even though I am critical of the heavy application of such a bio-geographical framework for societies following the agricultural revolution. If one views human societies as super-organisms then the efficacy with which such an organism survives and learns depends not just on its culture but also on its size and level of inter-connectedness. Given that population sizes and densities were low prior to the agricultural revolution, it could be the societies could not build and maintain enough knowledge to make meaningful progress, barring the occasional accidental discovery (literally, the super-organism was too stupid/forgetful because of its size and it lacked the ability to create an extended mind in the form of writing).

maizeman

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Re: Recommended "Sapiens: a brief history of humankind" by Yuval Noah Harari
« Reply #20 on: February 26, 2017, 10:15:52 AM »
I previously read the Nexus series by Ramez Naam (which are fantastic if you like near future SF), and have been a fan of cyberpunk and Iain Banks, so the post-human speculation was not foreign to me.  My work leads me to have small brushes with people seeking to expand their abilities with present pharmaceutical technologies.

I can second the recommendation for Nexus, and based on this discussion here I am definitely putting Sapiens on my reading list.

But now I'm extremely curious about the bolded bit of your statement. Do you just mean the nootropic folks (racetams, modafanil, and the like?).
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aperture

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Re: Recommended "Sapiens: a brief history of humankind" by Yuval Noah Harari
« Reply #21 on: February 26, 2017, 10:31:18 AM »
Yes - nootropics. Main stream middle America trying to get an edge at work/school by faking ADHD to get an Rx for Adderall. Rarely someone that has actually researched and is seeking more.

Great stuff n this thread.

BTW, I have Nexus trilogy on audio CDs if anyone is interested. Will sell at discount. PM me if interested. Ap.
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Well I finished the book today and found the last section to be pretty good overall; however, some specific critiques:

Chapter 14
He goes on talking about science as if it is the only mechanism to create new knowledge. That again ignores possible contributions from philosophical arguments; ultimately, the argument for science-as-we-know-it is predicated on philosophical underpinnings (though Harari may disagree since he seems to believe science isn't true as much as it's useful, so maybe he's not even a scientific realist).

Chapter 15
The connection he makes between the Scientific Revolution and imperialism seems poorly argued. He seems to argue that since countries supported scientific programs and those same countries also dabbled in imperialism--and sometimes imperialism enhanced a country's power--that science therefore depended on imperialism. Well, early 20th century Germany managed to become a world-leader in chemical synthesis without a global empire, for example. This is guilt-by-association. A weaker argument could be made that stable wealthy governments with good institutions are prerequisites for sustained scientific progress, and perhaps that the Age of Discovery at least helped by imparting an ethos of open-ended discovery to the sciences (as indicated in the excellent discussion of the appearance of blank spaces on maps).

Chapter 16
Suggesting that the Mississippi Bubble was the decisive factor in France lagging Great Britain is over-simplistic and seems to attribute the outcomes to luck rather than policy. Same goes for the Dutch vs. Spain discussion. What are other important differences between his examples? Catholic versus Protestant, adherence to authority versus adherence to reason, how well each country treated religious minorities, etc. These themes and much more are covered in Landes' excellent The Wealth and Poverty of Nations.

No major complaints the last three chapters. Chapter 18 has a good discussion on the emergence of the modern western concept of individualism and how that is enabled by strong states. My view is libertarianism has taken this view of individualism too far, for example. Also good here is the discussion of the stabilizing features of the modern world with respect to war, along with reasonable explanations why violence has decreased and why we might expect it to continue to do so. Chapter 19 on the basis of happiness makes some good (albeit familiar) points.

All this leads into the final chapter on the sort of collective existential question that faces humanity: what should we want? What should we want to want? Since technology will soon enable human genetic and electronic enhancement and instantiation of digital minds, humanity now has the power to fully escape natural selection and enter into an era of intelligent design. But the enormous question remains as to what aims these new capabilities will serve. Harari shoots himself in the foot a bit by deprecating all non-scientific knowledge when his final question is fundamentally a philosophical one. Still, it's good to see more people recognize that we are approaching an inflection point in capabilities where our decisions in the near-run will crystallize into a future world (galaxy, observable universe) that will be largely informed by our values and beliefs (and ability to predict the implications of our inventions).

Incidentally, I also ran across this excellent podcast from The Economist where Daniel Dennett makes some comments relevant to the origins of the Cognitive Revolution (I think Dennett is a bit of a smug asshole but my evaluation of him improved based on this discussion).

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I've read the first section and he basically punts on the question of what caused the Cognitive Revolution:

The appearance of new ways of thinking and communicating, between 70,000 and 30,000 years ago, constitutes the Cognitive Revolution. What caused it? We're not sure. The most commonly believed theory argues that accidental genetic mutations changed the inner wiring of the brains of Sapiens, enabling them to think in unprecedented ways and to communicate using an altogether new type of language. We might call it the Tree of Knowledge mutation. Why did it occur in Sapiens DNA rather than it that of Neanderthals? It was a matter of pure chance, as far as we can tell.


Have you heard of Terrance McKenna's stoned ape theory? It is interesting, even if it is not well received in the scientific community.


In his book Food of the Gods, McKenna proposed that the transformation from humans' early ancestors Homo erectus to the species Homo sapiens mainly had to do with the addition of the mushroom Psilocybe cubensis in its diet,[25][70][71] an event that according to his theory took place in about 100,000 BCE (which is when he believed that the species diverged from the Homo genus).[21][72] McKenna based his theory on the main effects, or alleged effects, produced by the mushroom[3] while citing studies by Roland Fischer et al. from the late 1960s to early 1970s.[73][74]

McKenna stated that due to the desertification of the African continent at that time, human forerunners were forced from the increasingly shrinking tropical canopy in search of new food sources.[6] He believed they would have been following large herds of wild cattle whose dung harbored the insects that, he proposed, were undoubtedly part of their new diet, and would have spotted and started eating Psilocybe cubensis, a dung-loving mushroom often found growing out of cowpats.[6][7][42][75]

Psilocybe cubensis: the psilocybin-containing mushroom central to McKenna's "stoned ape" theory of human evolution.
McKenna's hypothesis was that low doses of psilocybin improve visual acuity, meaning that the presence of psilocybin in the diet of early pack hunting primates caused the individuals who were consuming psilocybin mushrooms to be better hunters than those who were not, resulting in an increased food supply and in turn a higher rate of reproductive success.[3][7][25][42] Then at slightly higher doses, he contended, the mushroom acts to sexually arouse, leading to a higher level of attention, more energy in the organism, and potential erection in the males,[3][7] rendering it even more evolutionarily beneficial, as it would result in more offspring.[25][42][71] At even higher doses, McKenna proposed that the mushroom would have acted to "dissolve boundaries," promoting community bonding and group sexual activities.[12][42] Consequently, there would be a mixing of genes, greater genetic diversity, and a communal sense of responsibility for the group offspring.[76] At these higher doses, McKenna also argued that psilocybin would be triggering activity in the "language-forming region of the brain", manifesting as music and visions,[3] thus catalyzing the emergence of language in early hominids by expanding "their arboreally evolved repertoire of troop signals."[7][25] He also pointed out that psilocybin would dissolve the ego and "religious concerns would be at the forefront of the tribe's consciousness, simply because of the power and strangeness of the experience itself."[42][76]

Therefore, according to McKenna, access to and ingestion of mushrooms was an evolutionary advantage to humans' omnivorous hunter-gatherer ancestors,[25][75] also providing humanities first religious impulse.[75][77] He believed that psilocybin mushrooms were the "evolutionary catalyst"[3] from which language, projective imagination, the arts, religion, philosophy, science, and all of human culture sprang.[7][8][26][75]

Later on this idea was given the name "The 'Stoned Ape' Hypothesis."[42][70]
taken from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Terence_McKenna#.22Stoned_ape.22_theory_of_human_evolution
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MustachioedPistachio

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Just finished this one. I also recommend it!

Found this quote apt for the forum:
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If happiness is determined by expectations, then two pillars of our society - mass media and the advertising industry - may unwittingly be depleting the globe's reservoirs of contentment.

I disagree with the qualifier "unwittingly", at least regarding advertising. :)

Aceworldtrading2009

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Re: Recommended "Sapiens: a brief history of humankind" by Yuval Noah Harari
« Reply #25 on: November 12, 2017, 05:51:15 AM »
I heard the author interviewed on npr a couple weeks ago, and it was fascinating. I plan to read it but haven't gotten around to it just yet. Thanks for the reminde
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Re: Recommended "Sapiens: a brief history of humankind" by Yuval Noah Harari
« Reply #26 on: November 12, 2017, 05:35:03 PM »
Almost done with it.  Thought provoking read.  Instead of most history books, which follow a pattern of...and then this happenened...and then THIS happened...and then THIS happened, Harari takes a very different approach. 

He looks at broad patterns and will say things like "ok, for x thousands of years we see the following forces driving behavior.  So, if you look around the world, it makes sense that y and z are happening a lot during this time. 

Sapiens makes it easier to read about history or current world events.  I'll find myself reading about something that wasn't even discussed specifically in the book, but I'll be like "well yeah, that just makes sense".

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Re: Recommended "Sapiens: a brief history of humankind" by Yuval Noah Harari
« Reply #27 on: November 13, 2017, 05:41:26 AM »
After you read Homo Sapiens and have had time to digest it, I suggest you read Homo Deus. It is well written, but a very different book.
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