Charting the progress of Sapiens

Vivek Menezes puts the question:

    In 1974, a grey-haired indigenous leader of Papua New Guinea asked a visiting American ornithologist something like, “How come you people dominate the world, while we have so little?”

Jared Diamond has been answering that question ever since. Israeli historian Yuval Noah Harari has moved into the space opened up by Diamond, essentially asking why a seemingly inconsequential ape that divided from chimpanzees some six million years ago ended up with a species of Homo, namely Sapiens, which has come to dominate the planet. Harari’s book Sapiens: A Brief History Of Humankind concentrates on the last 70,000 years, which as Galen Strawson points out, is more than enough for a mere 400 pages.

Harari’s writing is exhilarating and stimulating, as Beb Shephard says:

    The book’s surface is brilliantly clear, witty and erudite but its underlying message is dark.

In a sense it is a philosophical meditation, by a historian who is not a philosopher. So in the end when he addresses the meaning of everything he ropes in Buddhism, whereas Joanna Bourke in similar circumstances in What it Means to be Human ends up wrestling with Derrida. That may be a mercy for some, but Harari perhaps doesn’t escape the charge of shallowness, which may be unfair. At all times he is aware of complexity, but tries to reveal the most critical events or ideas that contribute to the ‘progress’ of Sapiens.

It is not clear at all to Harari that Sapiens is now better off in any way that matters. It is very clear, however, that we have wrought great misery on the biosphere. Worse still we don’t even know what we want. He sees bioengineering of the human species as more or less inevitable, making us in a sense gods with the power to make ourselves into a species that supersedes Sapiens. Which brings us to his final question:

    Is there anything more dangerous than dissatisfied gods who don’t know what they want?

The book is organised into four parts:

    The Cognitive Revolution
    The Agricultural Revolution
    The Unification of Humankind, and
    The Scientific Revolution

I’ve linked to three reviews above. The best I’ve seen so far, and the most critical, is by Galen Strawson in The Guardian. As the introduction to this interview says, “It’s a book so full of new ideas and talking points that it could provide enough material to keep a reading group going indefinitely!”

In the remainder of this post I’d like to summarise the events and ideas that led to modern society as we know it. There are preconditions identified in the first three parts, such as the invention of the Arabic numbering system, writing and money, which he identifies as “a system of trust, and not just any system of trust: money is the most universal and most efficient system of mutual trust ever devised.” However, the real action starts in the fourth part, The Scientific Revolution.

Modern science, he says differs from previous traditions of knowledge in three critical ways.

Firstly, we admit ignorance. We know that we don’t know everything and that all knowledge is subject to challenge.

Secondly, there is the centrality of observation and mathematics. Mathematical tools are used to connect observations to theories.

Thirdly, we use new knowledge to create new powers by developing technologies.

Out of knowledge came power and the idea of progress, the notion that the future could be made better than the past. Knowledge was married to empire.

What made Europeans exceptional was “their unparalleled and insatiable ambition to explore and conquer.” The discovery and exploitation of America was particularly significant, he says.

Then came capitalism. To understand capitalism, Harari says you need to understand one word: growth. Knowledge, power, technology and conquest created growth. Harari points out that prior to the modern era there was negligible growth in per capita production. If you wanted more, you took it at someone else’s expense.

Underlying growth, he says, is the idea of progress and a trust in the future. Earlier societies used credit, but now it was used to produce consistent growth. In this context, the Dutch produced two powerful ideas.

The first was the limited liability joint-stock company which supercharged joint action and enhanced the availability of capital. Along with this went a financial system based on justice for the individual irrespective of position and private property rights.

The Dutch, he says, believed in paying interest on loans and respecting property rights. This contrasts with the Spanish aristocracy, for example, who did not.

In the end, though, capitalism did not usher in utopia. There were and are issues about equity and the limits to growth, which, logically, cannot go on forever. Profit can be used to justify just about anything, including at one point slavery.

The industrial revolution is fundamentally about energy sources and energy conversion. Throughout history solar energy produced plants which were then converted into muscle power by humans and animals. Other sources of power were static, such as the mill stream or the windmill. The breakthrough was the use of steam to create movement and then the use of coal to create the steam.

The biggest effects of the new technology were in agriculture. In most societies more than 90% of the population were peasants. Most food production fed farm animals and people who lived on farms. Only a small percentage was available to feed artisans, teachers, priests and bureaucrats. Now in the United States only 2% of people are engaged in agriculture, but they feed the rest with some left over to export.

But in the end, Harari says, from a scientific viewpoint, life has no meaning. The only thing that makes us happy is our biochemical system.

    Today, when we finally realise that the keys to happiness are in the hands of our biochemical system, we can stop wasting our time on politics and social reforms, putsches and ideologies, and focus on the only thing that can make us truly happy: manipulating our biochemistry.

Brain chemistry is where it’s at. Happiness begins within.

    Money, social status, plastic surgery, beautiful houses, powerful positions – none of these will bring you happiness. Lasting happiness comes only from serotonin, dopamine and oxytocin.

Told you he was dark!

23 thoughts on “Charting the progress of Sapiens”

  1. Thanks a lot for that summary, Brian.

    That seems to be a real danger: having immense power but not knowing what we want – or really need.

    When read with the post where you did mentioning Wallerstein, it looks as though Capitalism, in its present form. is downright suicidal in that must always seek growth, even cancerous growth, and from that I believe that it cannot tolerate any steady-state or conserving situation. It is a sprint to see which destroys itself first: rapacious, cancerous Capitalism or the human race?

    The limited liability company has indeed been useful in mobilizing capital for a purpose – the downside of that is that in removing a lot of the risks for the venturers, it has also removed a lot of the personal responsibility, hence to rise of unnecessary destruction of such a large part of the natural environment, the shocking waste of materials and of individuals’ time and lives, slavery and debt-bondage, the crushing of innovation and invention so as to preserve existing firms and their out-dated technology, all this as well as a lot of other harmful activities.

    Communism was no better – nor is Islamic administration and finance – and a revived Chinese imperial system would have to be rejigged to such an extent that it would be unrecognizable as such.

    That said, I still hope humans can develop systems that will combine the least destructive and most beneficial parts of each of these systems.

    As for manipulating our brain chemistry …. well, not having read the book, I am really puzzled as to how such a conclusion has been drawn. Perhaps the scholar might have been over-indulging in the smoking of non-tobacco substances. 🙂

    Still, the idea has merit – if 6.9 thousand million people can be induced to get themselves continuously stoned and the remaining 200 million or so abstain from screwing themselves up with controlling or recreational chemicals, there will be a sufficiently large gene-pools left for homo sapiens to start all over again. How’s that for mixing Social Darwinism with “Brave New World” and “Logan’s run”?

  2. Graham: Yep. Ceo’s driven to add to shareholder value. Advertising designed to convince us we need the latest load of garbage. Designed obsolescence and the disappearance of durable goods that can be repaired by mere mortals. (Or repaired by anyone.) All driven by the need to grow no matter how little people’s lives are improved.
    To make matters worse governments and the population support growth because it “creates jobs”. Part of the urgency of the creation of jobs is that we tend to deal with a shortage of jobs by sacking people instead of reducing hours worked. The other problem is that it is difficult for people who would prefer to work less hours for less money. (Which is what I would have preferred for most of my working life.)
    The good news is that humans have learned how to run enormous, essentially free democracies over a very small amount of time. This gives some hope that we will be able to solve the problems we need to solve urgently. I read somewhere that the real strength of the US was its ability to change rapidly when needed.
    The recent performance of the Aus Tea Party in the polls suggests that denialism is not popular with the voters.

  3. Graham, on the brain chemistry thing, he quoted happiness research accurately and appropriately, but when faced with the question of whether all the ‘progress’ was worthwhile he doesn’t measure up too well. He’s wandered into areas where he is under-qualified and let off a few zingers.

    He has a sense of humour and uses irony and sometimes gets into tongue in cheek. So maybe he’s not altogether serious. He was thinking of prozac rather than getting stoned. I think he’s kinda serious but ends up being a bit silly.

  4. John, I think I read in Zygmunt Bauman that in the beginning of the nineteenth century they used to preach from the pulpit in England that work was good and more of it was better.

    Harari makes the same point about agriculture that Diamond does. People worked harder for their tucker than the foragers and ate less well. But they found themselves in a population trap and a society which was now hierarchical and patriarchal and less free.

  5. Brian: Yep. the protestant work ethic thing backed up by capitalists who wanted their workers to work harder, toughen up and put up with lousy work conditions.
    The work ethic seems to have worked with the countries that supported it.
    However, it doesn’t help when people lose their job or want work/life balance.

  6. Brian @4 and John D, @5: The problem with the Protestant Work Ethic was that when it was applied to oneself, it was beneficial and ethical; however, when imposed on others, especially the poor or the natives, it was often oppressive, exploitative and downright unethical.
    Back in the ‘Fifties and ‘Sixties, the anticipated shorter working hours of the future were supposed to deliver purposeful leisure that would enrich our lives. Well, we certainly missed out all round there! Now all we get is the Capitalist version of Stakhanovism, ruinous “growth(??)”, markedly reduced discretionary income and very little leisure – and what there is nothing but thinly disguised marketing or electronic opium.

  7. Back in the fifties and sixties our leaders would have been people who had been adults during the depression and WWll. It was also a period when communism was seen as a rising power which was seen as a threat that was potentially more dangerous than Nazi Germany. For these reasons our leaders understood that it was important that the worker conditions continued to improve and that unemployment stayed low.
    Given recent experience many key union leaders were communists and most of the workers believed that rich capitalists had the capacity to pay the workers more. The unions were hostile to the idea of people working overtime when others were unemployed and put the priority on jobs for the family bread winner. In many cases women lost their job once they got married (Ex: Teachers in Qld.)
    My recollection was that when I started working in 1960 I had the right to 2 weeks holiday per year and the drillers who worked for BHP coal geology got 1.25 time for overtime.
    Since then the unions have lost most of their power, overtime penalty rates have risen and an increasing % of the workforce are paid a fixed annual salary instead of by the hour. The move to a salary has created enormous pressure on people to work longer hours, particularly when jobs are insecure.
    In addition the conservatives have discovered that the workers will vote for them as long as they promise to do things like “stop the boats”.
    Labor’s long campaign to win the center right vote by sacrificing the interests of the workers hasn’t helped.

  8. John D.@7: The awful thing is that almost all of the young people do not know what a secure job is – its advantages, its responsibilities and duties, the life strategies needed to take full advantage of its opportunities.

    Not only has the concept of a secure job been ripped out of their culture but it is now totally alien to them; they have been taught to fear it. Exploitation has been normalized for them so they are incapable of seeking better work conditions and of protecting what little rights and advantages they are still allowed to have.

    Young people in the workforce face a very bleak future – and so too does the Australian economy. Stakhanovism failed in the Soviet economy because it gave the illusion of increasing productivity whilst actually causing efficiency to crash-and-burn. Much the same thing is happening in Australian workplaces now: young people are working harder but not smarter; the illusion of increased productivity is there and it is trumpeted by the ideological extremists but the stark reality is that the physical laws of the universe cannot be suspended so as to satisfy anybody’s desire to present the shareholders with a pretty balance sheet.

  9. Graham: What young people need to understand is that a different set of strategies are needed in a changing world with poor job security vs the relatively secure working environment I enjoyed for most of my working life.
    In the good old days what mattered was your reputation within the company you worked for. Now what gives you security now is the reputation you enjoy outside of your current employer and the networks. If you like it is a world of continuous job interviews. (You go to a meeting with clients or suppliers and one of your objectives is to convince these outsiders that you are worth employing.)
    It is also a world where one of your key job objectives is to strengthen your CV and build up a network of people who will give you a good reference. A world where becoming an expert is risky if this means that the range of people who may employ you reduces over time.
    Young people need to be taught to think strategically about there career.
    You are right too to say that all this does not always help employers. If you know that you will lose your job if the current project is killed you may hesitate about saying why the project is going to fail. (BHP lost millions in the 90’s proceeding with projects that at least some people knew were duds)

  10. ” Job security ” is a myth, always has been,
    For employees, employers, politicians, Kings, dictators, tribal chiefs and prophets throughout history. ( the thread topic )
    An artificial nirvana created by unions to collect dues from the gullible, no such thing, nor should there be.
    Guaranteeing ” job security ” kills productivity in any civilisation that has come before us.

  11. Iv’e read my @ 10 back a few time and it comes across far more snarky than I intended, I’m ok with a deletion Brian if you concur.

  12. Jumpy, it can stay!

    In the world I worked in I knew many people who were brilliantly innovative in their jobs because that’s what they could concentrate on rather than keeping their CV in order.

  13. Brian @ 12: I agree. Jumpy @ 10: I disagree.

    Job security gives you the time and the stability to plan and to take risks.

    For example: to take on a mortgage for a dwelling of your own. Another example: the design bureaux in the Soviet Union that gave them their aerospace industry (not every innovation came from spying on The West as the myths have it).

    Job insecurity gives us the triple-headed monster of (1) Not giving a damn what happens to the firm/organization because you won’t be here – maintenance is neglected, adverse trends are ignored, opportunities go unseized, excellence is avoided, theft (especially of data, like customer details) is made respectable, even obligatory. (2) Expending an awful lot of time and effort and concentration just on keeping the present job (if that is at all possible) and on fabricating your CV for the next series of jobs. (3) Long-term personal commitment is seen as foolish and so earnings that could go into savings and investment are blown on trinkets and on chemicals – with knock-on harmful effects on the overall economy.

    Jumpy, through most of human history, the biggest problem wasn’t job insecurity, it was far to much job security (not all of which was completely voluntary lie under The Poor Laws and all the other laws which stopped labour mobility). True, many unions did turn from beneficial into parasitic – just as has happened to employment firms and degree mills.

    John D., young people may well need to be instructed in strategies to develop their careers in a rapidly changing world – but who will instruct them – apart from a herd of job placement fraudsters?
    I take also your point about perverse incentives to keep your mouth shut and allow failure to happen.

    If our economy is to survive and flourish, it will need a renovated system of job security – not the old-fashioned one but a system that encourages workers to want to work to the best of their ability; a system that gives frequent and USEFUL feedback on performance and not the performance reviews that give bullies and dominators a cheap thrill. Such a renovated system of job security cannot come from the inefficient United States but from a thorough examination of what works well in the rest of the world and what did work well in other centuries.

  14. Well said GB.

    Such a renovated system of job security cannot come from the inefficient United States …

    Neither will it come from “the market”.

  15. Brian @12.
    I recon we can put some of our differences down to ” different worlds ”
    In mine a CV or even criminal record is of no relevance, nor race, gender, age or faith. ( no quota based discrimination )
    Very market based is the construction industry.

    To me a ” job ” is a relationship between two parties.
    The ” job ” isn’t owned by either, but by both.
    It doesn’t seem fair that the focus on ” security ” is only for one party.
    What of the other ?
    On party ( employee ) can end the relationship at any time without reason, there is no Commission or Act that can reverse their decision regardless of the harm or loss to the other party.

    One party ( employer ) has a set of laws which dictate the only ” valid reasons ” they can end the relationship. If challenged, the relationship can be forcibly reinstated or financial penalties taken from one and given to the other.

    Completely unfair!

  16. Jumpy: I worked for Thiess for 10 yrs. You are right. The construction industry uses reputation rather than CV’s when deciding who to ask to work on a site. The message to young workers should include building a good reputation as a key objective of any job these days.
    Part of the reason for union militancy in the construction industry is that the temporary nature of employment makes it easy for workers to be excluded for wanting things like wanting a safe workplace or other undesirable behaviour. Someone said to me once that most industries/workplaces get the industrial relations they deserve.
    One of the things I liked about working for Thiess was that the company understood at that time that loyalty is a 2 way thing.

  17. Jumpy, a balance is needed, as usual. I worked in the public service, and indeed it was difficult to sack people. Not impossible, but difficult.

    I remember a company called North, a miner who was in the paper-making business, basically as a cash cow for their mining interests. The executives used to have “the right to manage” emblazoned on their brief cases and reckoned that workers should come to work every day thinking that they might be sacked if they didn’t perform. They were having diabolical troubles with the unions.

    Eventually they sold the paper business to Amcor, who understood management, and themselves got taken over, I think by Rio.

    Essentially they were poor managers full stop.

  18. Jumpy, a balance is needed, as usual.

    I wholeheartedly agree.
    At present the right of ” withdrawal of labour ” is skewed too far one way.
    There needs to be a correction but ” Workchoices!!!!!! ” get in the way of constructive debate.
    That’s unfortunate for Australia.

  19. Jumpy: Employment should indeed be a balance of what workers want and need and what the firm wants and needs – and the fulcrum on which that balance usually rests ids the want and the needs of the customer. However, this is Australia and they don’t want any of that sort of funny stuff around here.

    The anti-sacking laws came in because of the outrageous behaviour of some firms that pretended they were being run by competent businessmen. Remove the cause (managerial incompetence) and the effect (restrictive dismissal laws) will remove itself sooner or later.

    The monster I mentioned back @13 has four heads, not three. The fourth is corporate amnesia. Every time an employee leaves, they remove part of the firm’s memory – for example: where particular items are kept; how to cope with a non-standard event that has occurred before.

    One of the funniest I saw involved a low-level combination-lock safe that was opened only occasionally; employee after employee left so that when management wanted a specific item from that safe, there was nobody left who knew the combination – given its location, calling in a professional was right out of the question and so part of a wall was knocked down and the safe opened by an earthmoving machine. And yes, the firm did try to contact the long-gone employees but to no avail. I make no apologies for using this stark example of the loss of corporate memory through the lack of stable employment.

  20. Graham, one of my favourites happened in Adelaide, I think in the 1990s. The government had privatized the sewerage system. A lot of downsizing followed. This was followed by a stench that stank out the town until they found a redundant employee on the Sunshine Coast, who knew how to fix it.

  21. The dismissal laws were brought in to help stop big business losing millions when the brothers went out on strike because someone was dismissed. The unfair dismissal laws provided confidence that the process was reasonably fair and a dismissal did not justify a strike. Problem is that the procedures were too complex for a small business person to follow through on. (OK for a big miner who had industrial relations departments.)
    My view is that it should be easy to get rid of someone by paying retrenchment pay, difficult for an employer to dismiss someone without a payout (employer has to prove there were real reasons for dismissal without payout – Ex: Stealing.) and that anyone who wants to claim unfair dismissal damages has to produce real proof.)

  22. John D. You have hit on a real problem in Australia: unnecessary complexity.

    There should be clear and simple laws concerning engagement and dismissal – but nobody will be able to make a squillion out of guiding (+ defrauding) both parties through the maze of inconsistencies and blatant injustices. Too many vested interests in keeping the same dodgy system or a variation on it.

    Unfortunately, too much of the hullabaloo about anti-dismissal laws comes from manifestly incompetent bosses who couldn’t run a chook raffle without bullying – and from union professionals trying to justify their pelf.

  23. The problem with the unfair dismissal laws is that the process is designed to keep the industrial relations club in jobs. The process should be designed so that the really outrageous dismissals are dealt with while the rest are dealt with by some form of retrenchment payment.
    To go with this the penalty rates for casual employment should be high enough to make it cheaper to employ permanent staff for jobs that are going to last more than say 12 months even after retrenchment payments.

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