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Over 500,000 people visited Farnam Street last month to expand their knowledge and improve their thinking. Work smarter, not harder with our free weekly newsletter that's full of time-tested knowledge you can add to your mental toolbox.
Rewarding reads on love, life, knowledge, history, the future, and tools for thinking. Out of all the books I read this year, here is a list of what I found most worth reading in 2016.
1. The Psychology of Man’s Possible Evolution
These lectures, which were originally called Six Psychological Lectures, were first privately printed in the 1940s. Of the first run of 150 copies, none were sold. The essays were published once again after Ouspensky’s death, and unlike last time became a hit. While the book is about psychology, it’s different than what we think of as psychology — “for thousands of years psychology existed under the name philosophy.” Consider this a study in what man may become — by working simultaneously on knowledge and inner unity.
2. The Island of Knowledge: The Limits of Science and the Search for Meaning
Imagine the sum of our knowledge as an Island in a vast and endless ocean. This is the Island of Knowledge. The coastline represents the boundary between the known and unknown. As we grow our understanding of the world, the Island grows and with it so does the shores of our ignorance. “We strive toward knowledge, always more knowledge,” Gleiser writes, “but must understand that we are, and will remain, surrounded by mystery.” The book is a fascinating and wide-ranging tour through scientific history. (Dig Deeper into this amazing read here.)
3. When Breath Becomes Air
It’s been a while since I’ve cried reading a book. This beautifully written memoir, by a young neurosurgeon diagnosed with terminal cancer, attempts to answer the question What makes a life worth living? If you read this and you’re not feeling something you’re probably a robot.
4. The Sovereign Individual: Mastering the Transition to the Information Age
The book, which argues “the information revolution will destroy the monopoly power of the nation-state as surely as the Gunpowder Revolution destroyed the Church’s monopoly,” is making the rounds in Silicon Valley and being passed around like candy. Even if its forecasts are controversial, the book is a good read and it’s full of interesting and detailed arguments. I have underlines on nearly every page. “Information societies,” the authors write, “promise to dramatically reduce the returns to violence … When the payoff for organizing violence at a large scale tumbles, the payoff from violence at a smaller scale is likely to jump. Violence will become more random and localized.” The Sovereign Individual, who, for the first time “can educate and motivate himself,” will be “almost entirely free to invest their own work and realize the full benefits of their own productivity.” An unleashing of human potential which will, the authors argue, shift the greatest source of wealth to ideas rather than physical capital — “anyone who thinks clearly will potentially be rich.” Interestingly, in this potential transition, the effects are “likely to be centered among those of the middle talent in currently rich countries. They particularly may come to feel that information technology poses a threat to their way of life.” The book predicts the death of politics, “weakened by the challenge from technology, the state will treat increasingly autonomous individuals, its former citizens, with the same range of ruthlessness and diplomacy it has heretofore displayed in its dealings with other governments.” As technology reshapes the world, it also “antiquates laws, reshapes morals, and alters preconceptions. This book explains how.”
5. To Kill a Mockingbird
I know, I know. Hear me out. Someone I respect mentioned that he thought Atticus Finch was the perfect blend of human characteristics. Tough and skilled, yet humble and understanding. He’s frequently rated as a “most admired” hero in fiction, yet he’s a lawyer competing with Jedis, Detectives, Spies, and Superheroes. Isn’t that kind of interesting? Since it had been at least 15 years since I’d read TKM, I wanted to go back and remember what made Atticus so admired. His courage, his humility, his understanding of people. I forgot just how perceptive Finch was when it came to what we’d call “group social dynamics” — he forgives the individual members of the mob that show up to hurt Tom Robinson simply because he understands that mob psychology is capable of overwhelming otherwise good people. How many of us would be able to do that? Atticus Finch is certainly a fictional, and perhaps “unattainably” moral hero. But I will point out that not only do real life “Finch’s” exist, but that even if we don’t “arrive” at a Finchian level of heroic integrity and calm temperament, it’s certainly a goal worth pursuing. Wise words from the book Rules for a Knight sums it up best: “To head north, a knight may use the North Star to guide him, but he will not arrive at the North Star. A knight’s duty is to proceed in that direction.” (Here are some of the lessons I took away from the book.)
6. Lee Kuan Yew: The Grand Master’s Insights on China, the United States, and the World
If you’re not familiar with Lee Kuan Yew, he’s the “Father of Modern Singapore,” the man who took a small, poor island just north of the equator in Southeast Asia with GDP per capita of ~$500 in 1965 and turned it into a modern powerhouse with GDP per capita of over $70,000 as of 2014, with some of the lowest rates of corruption and highest rates of economic freedom in the world. Finding out how he did it is worth anyone’s time. This book is a short introduction to his style of thinking: A series of excerpts of his thoughts on modern China, the modern U.S., Islamic Terrorism, economics, and a few other things. It’s a wonderful little collection. (We’ve actually posted about it before.) Consider this an appetizer (a delicious one) for the main course: From Third World to First, Yew’s full account of the rise of Singapore. (Dig deeper here.)
7. An Illustrated Book of Bad Arguments
Perfect summer reading for adults and kids alike. One friend of mine has created a family game where they all try to spot the reasoning flaws of others. The person with the most points at the end of the week gets to pick where they go for dinner. I have a suspicion his kids will turn out to be politicians or lawyers.
8. Intuition Pumps and Other Tools for Thinking
Dan Dennett is one of the most well known cognitive scientists on the planet . This book is a collection of 77 short essays on different “thinking tools,” basically thought experiments Dennett uses to slice through tough problems, including some tools for thinking about computing, thinking about meaning, and thinking about consciousness. Like Richard Feynman’s great books, this one acts as a window into a brilliant mind and how it handles interesting and difficult problems. If you only walk away with a few new mental tools, it’s well worth the time spent. (You can learn a lot more about Dennett here, here, and here.)
9. The Seven Sins of Memory (How the Mind Forgets and Remembers)
I found this in the bibliography of Judith Rich Harris’ No Two Alike. Schacter is a psychology professor at Harvard who runs the Schacter Memory Lab. The book explores the seven “issues” we tend to find with regard to our memory: Absent-mindedness, transience, blocking, misattribution, suggestibility, bias, and persistence. The fallibility of memory is so fascinating: We rely on it so heavily and trust it so deeply, yet as Schacter shows, it’s extremely faulty. It’s not just about forgetting where you left your keys. Modern criminologists know that eyewitness testimony is deeply flawed. Some of our deepest and most hard-won memories — the things we know are true — are frequently wrong or distorted. Learning to calibrate our confidence in our own memory is not at all easy. Very interesting topic to explore. (We did a three part series on this book. Introduction and parts One, Two, and Three).
10. Talk Lean: Shorter Meetings. Quicker Results. Better Relations
This book is full of useful tips on listening better, being candid and courteous, and learning what derails meetings, conversations, and relationships with people at work. Don’t worry. It’s not about leaving things unsaid that might be displeasing for other people. In fact, leaving things unsaid is often more detrimental to the relationship than airing them out. Rather, it’s about finding a way to say them so people will hear them and not feel defensive. If you want to get right to the point and not alienate people, this book will help you. I know because this is something, personally, I struggle with at times.
11. The Master Algorithm: How the Quest for the Ultimate Learning Machine Will Remake Our World
I recently had a fascinating multi-hour dinner with the author, Pedro Domingos, on where knowledge comes from. Historically, at least, the answer has been evolution, experience, and culture. Now, however, there is a new source of knowledge: Machine learning. The book offers an accessible overview of the different ways of machine learning and the search for a master, unifying, theory. The book also covers how machine learning works and gives Pedro’s thoughts on where we’re headed. (Dig deeper in this podcast.)
12. Why Don’t We Learn from History?
This is a short (~120pp) book by the military historian and strategist B.H. Liddell Hart, a man who not only wrote military history but surely influenced it, especially in Germany in the World War period. He wrote this short synthesis at the end of his life and didn’t have a chance to finish it, but the result is still fascinating. Hart takes a “negative” view of history; in other words, What went wrong? How can we avoid it? The result of that study, as he writes in the introduction, is that “History teaches us personal philosophy.” Those who learn vicariously as well as directly have a big leg up. Something to take to heart. I plan to read more of his works.
13. A Powerful Mind: The Self-Education of George Washington
What a great book idea by Adrienne Harrison. There are a zillion biographies of GW out there, with Chernow's getting a lot of praise recently. But Harrison narrows in on Washington’s self-didactic nature. Why did he read so much? How did he educate himself? Any self-motivated learner is probably going to enjoy this.
14. Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind
One of the best books I’ve come across in a long time. Sapiens is a work of “Big History” — in the style of Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs, and Steel — that seeks to understand humanity in a deep way. Many of Professor Harari’s solutions will be uncomfortable for some to read, there is no attempt at political correctness, but his diagnosis of human history is undeniably interesting and at least partially correct. He draws on many fields to arrive at his conclusions; a grand method of synthesis that will be familiar to long-time Farnam Street readers. The book is almost impossible to summarize given the multitude of ideas presented. But then again, most great books are. (Dig deeper into this amazing read here, here, and here.)
15. Becoming Wise: An Inquiry into the Mystery and Art of Living — A refreshing signal in world of noise that should be read and immediately re-read. There is so much goodness in here that scarcely will you find more than a page or two in my copy without a mark, bent page, or highlight. The entire book offers texture to thoughts you knew you had but didn't know how to express.
16. The Happiness Trap: How to Stop Struggling and Start Living
The way most of us search for and attempt to hold onto fleeting moments of happiness ends up ensuring that we’re miserable. A great practical book on developing mindfulness, which is so important in many aspects of your life, including satisfaction. Might be the best self-help book I’ve read.
“From a biological perspective, nothing is unnatural.
Whatever is possible is by definition also natural.”
— Yuval Harari
We get a little confused when deciding if a particular human behavior is cultural or biological. Is homosexuality a natural act or unnatural? How about Facebook? Is it unnatural human behavior? Abortion? Non-procreative sex? Slavery? Mixing of races?
Many of these are either explicitly or certainly border on being taboo subjects. As in, they may not be discussed in polite company, even when encouraged.
So how should we think about this?
Professor Yuval Harari, who has previously taught us why humans dominate the earth and the false natural state of man, has an interesting take, discussed in his book Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind. The chapter is aptly titled “There is No Justice in History.”
Professor Harari's well-informed heuristic boils down to: Biology Enables. Culture Forbids.
How can we distinguish what is biologically determined from what people merely try to justify through biological myths? A good rule of thumb is ‘Biology enables, culture forbids.' Biology is willing to tolerate a very wide spectrum of possibilities. It's culture that obligates people to realize some possibilities while forbidding others. Biology enables women to have children — some cultures oblige women to realize this possibility. Biology enables men to enjoy sex with one another — some cultures forbid them to realize this possibility.
Culture tends to argue that it forbids only that which is unnatural. But from a biological perspective, nothing is unnatural. Whatever is possible is by definition also natural. A truly unnatural behavior, one that goes against the laws of nature, simply cannot exist, so it would need no prohibition.
…Evolution has no purpose. Organs have not evolved with a purpose, and the way they are used is in constant flux. There is not a single organ in the human body that only does the job its prototype did when it first appeared hundreds of millions of years ago. Organs evolve to perform a particular function, but once they exist, they can be adapted for other usages as well. Mouths, for example, appeared because the earliest multicellular organisms needed a way to take nutrients into their bodies. We still use our mouths for that purpose, but we also use them to kiss, speak, and, if we are Rambo, to pull the pins out of hand grenades. Are any of these uses unnatural simply because our worm-like ancestors 600 million years ago didn't do those things with their mouths?
Our biology gives us a very wide playground and a lot of berth. We're capable of a wide variety of activities and forms of organization, while other species generally fall into far more fixed and predictable hierarchies.
Over the course of history, humans have taken advantage of this wide range in a variety of positive and negative ways by creating and sustaining myths not supported by biological reality.
Take slavery, once a common practice throughout the world and now thankfully considered a scourge (and illegal) on all parts of the planet. Or the caste system, still in place in some in certain areas of the world, although perhaps less strictly than in the past.
Both slavery and the castes were carried out through a series of pseudoscientific rationalizations about the “natural order” of things, stories strong enough to believed (in part) by all constituents of the hierarchy. This “forbidding” aspect of culture was not supported by biological differences, but that didn't make the stories any less powerful or believable.
Even the American political system, ostensibly founded on a bedrock of “liberty and equality”, only provided those things to certain small groups. The Founders used cultural myths to rationalize a deeply divided society in which men had dominion over women, European whites had dominion over blacks and the native people, and the historically rich had dominion over the historically poor. Any other order would have been “unnatural”:
The American order consecrated the hierarchy between the rich and poor. Most Americans at that time had little problem with the inequality caused by wealthy parents passing their money and businesses onto their children. In their view, equality meant simply that the same laws applied to rich and poor. It had nothing to do with unemployment benefits, integrated education or health insurance. Liberty, too, carried very different connotations than it does today. In 1776, it did not mean that the disempowered (certainly not blacks or Indians or, God forbid, women) could gain and exercise power. It meant simply that the state could not, except in unusual circumstances, confiscate a citizen's private property or tell him what to do with it. The American order thereby upheld the hierarchy of wealth, which some thought was mandated by God and others viewed representing the immutable laws of nature. Nature, it was claimed, rewarded merit with wealth while penalizing indolence.
All the above-mentioned distinctions — between free persons and slaves, between whites and blacks, between rich and poor — are rooted in fictions…Yet it is an iron rule of history that every imagined hierarchy disavows its fictional origins and claims to be natural and inevitable. For instance, many people who have viewed the hierarchy of free persons and slaves as natural and correct have argued that slavery is not a human invention. Hammurabi saw it as ordained by the gods. Aristotle argued that slaves have a ‘slavish nature' whereas free people have a ‘free nature'. Their status in society is merely a reflection of their innate nature.
This isn't to argue that there aren't biological differences between certain groups of people, including men and women. There are. But history has shown our tendency to exaggerate those differences and to create stories around our exaggerations, stories that uphold a certain desired hierarchy. These stories have a way of creating their own reality.
Just as frequently, we commit the opposite sin by restricting certain behavior based on some idea of what's “natural” or “unnatural”, confusing biology with religious or cultural taboos. (And these myths die hard: It's hard to fathom, but homosexuality wasn't even legal in the United Kingdom until 1967.) As Harari rightly points out, anything we can do is perfectly natural in the biological sense. We come well-equipped for a variety of behavior.
And this certainly isn't to argue that all behavior is equally acceptable: We put bumpers on society to reduce murder, rape, slavery, and other vile behavior that is perfectly biologically natural to us, and we should.
But unless we recognize the difference between biology and cultural myth and seek to reduce our unfair taboos wherever possible, we fail in some way to see the world through the eyes of others, and see that our imagined order is not always a fair or just one, a natural or inevitable one. Maybe some of the things we see around us are just a historical accident if we look closely enough.
Even more than that, examining the relationship between biological reality and cultural myth allows us to appreciate our basic storytelling instincts. Human beings are wired for narrative: We've been called the Storytelling Animal and for good reason. Our thirst and ready acceptance of narrative is a basic part of our existence; it's hard-wired into our genetic algorithm.
Much of our narrative superpower can be observed in the structure of human language, which is unique among species in its infinite flexibility and adaptability. It makes us capable of great cooperative accomplishments, but also great evils.
Fortunately, the modern world has done a pretty good job steadily loosening the grip of mythical “natural” realities that only exist in our heads. But a fair inquiry remains: What sustaining myths still exist? Are they for good or for evil?
We leave that for you to ponder.
If you liked this, you'll love:
Why Humans Dominate the Earth: Myth-Making — It is our collected fictions that define us.
Religion and History: Will Durant on the Role of Religion and Morality — Religions ability to shape cultural behavior.
The False Allure of a “Natural State” of Man — The heated debate about Sapiens’ “natural way of life” is missing the point. Ever since the Cognitive Revolution, there hasn’t been a natural way of life for Sapiens.
The heated debate about Sapiens' “natural way of life” is missing the point.
Ever since the Cognitive Revolution, there hasn't been a natural way of life for Sapiens.
— Yuval Noah Harari
We modern humans have a fascination with trying to figure out our “natural” state. What do we eat — “naturally”? What sort of world are we “meant” to live in? What sort of family dynamic are we “meant” to have? Are we supposed to have sex with only the opposite gender, or is it perfectly “natural” to prefer your own? How much violence is natural and acceptable?
(The line of reasoning is a bit strange once we dig into it. Are modern humans not part of the natural world? Isn’t anything we do basically “natural”? At what point did we divert from “natural” to “unnatural”? We digress…)
One of the central conceits of the “man’s natural state” argument is that if we go back to some point in time, we’ll find it. We’ll finally come across the state of being where man lived totally in harmony with each other and with nature; eating the perfect diet for health, worshipping the correct gods, having sex in the natural and acceptable way. And besides studying religious texts, the tool that’s most frequently employed is the study of ancient, “pre-historic” man and woman. We hope that, by going back far enough, we’ll hit some arbitrary Point of Naturalness. That’s partially the approach used, for example, by the Paleo movement which has become such a popular force in nutrition. We evolved to eat bacon, right?
These types of “meant to be” questions presuppose that we existed in some homogenous state in the past, and that we should be striving to get back to that place; that nature has given us a sort of natural endowment that we are best to stick to. Not so, says Yuval Harari.
The value of a book like Harari’s Sapiens, with its broad sweep of human history, is that we learn that ever since our Cognitive Revolution, the point that what we call history diverges from what we call biology, human society has been consistently molded and remolded; changed to suit the temper of the moment. That’s what makes humanity so unique relative to other intelligent creatures. Culturally, we change rapidly and unpredictably. There are very few absolutes, there are very few arrangements we haven’t tried yet. What’s “natural” depends on which society you’re looking at and at which point in time you’re looking at it.
It stands to reason that the ethnic and cultural variety among ancient hunter-gatherers was equally impressive [as those found in Australia by European settlers], and that the 5 million to 8 million foragers who populated the world on the eve of the Agricultural Revolution were divided into thousands of separate tribes with thousands of different languages and cultures. This, after all, was one of the main legacies of the Cognitive Revolution. Thanks to the appearance of fiction, even people with the same genetic make-up who lived under similar ecological conditions were able to create very different imagined realities, which manifest themselves in different norms and values.
For example, there’s every reason to believe that a forager band that lived 30,000 years ago on the spot where Oxford University stands would have spoken a different language from one living where Cambridge is now situated. One band might have been belligerent and the other peaceful. Perhaps the Cambridge band was communal while the one at Oxford was based on nuclear families. The Cambridgians might have spent long hours carving wooden statues of their guardian spirits whereas the Oxonians may have worshipped through dance. The former perhaps believed in reincarnation, while the latter thought this was nonsense. In one society, homosexual relationships might have been accepted, while in the other they were taboo.
In other words, while anthropological observations of modern foragers can help us understand some of the possibilities available to ancient foragers, the ancient horizon of possibilities was much broader, and much of it is hidden from our view. The heated debates about Homo Sapiens’ “natural way of life” miss the main point. Ever since the Cognitive Revolution, there hasn’t been a natural way of life for Sapiens. There are only cultural choices, from among a bewildering palette of [biological] possibilities.
Take the debate between monogamy and polygamy. Both have certainly been tried before and exist in some form in modern society, with each achieving various levels of success. It’s likely that most modern humans consider monogamy the most “natural” arrangement since it’s the most popular one, but we see the evidence of its failure all the time. Divorces are as common as death-do-us-part marriages, at least in most of Western civilization. We have a host of psychological problems tied to the constant trials of a long term one-to-one relationship. The proponents of polygamy would point to the failures of marriage as being due to the biological prison of monogamy, the unnaturalness of it all.
Wait, no no, say the monogamists. Our biology points the other way: We are meant to live in a tight-knit nuclear family with one spouse. This encourages caring and survival, and strong, unavoidable emotions like jealousy give us evidence that it’s probably right there in our genes. The prevalence of monogamy in modern society must be some evidence that it’s the real contender.
Who’s right? The truth is we don’t really know, and a study of the past is not as revealing as you might think. The Monogamy v. Polygamy debate also points to an even greater problem with our understanding of man in the period before he started writing things down, which is that our knowledge is dwarfed by our lack of knowledge.
Compared to the many things we do know about our past, there are many times more things we don’t know, and in fact can’t know. Our historical methods have deep limitations:
Unfortunately, there are few certainties regarding the lives of our forager ancestors. The debate between the ‘ancient commune’ and the ‘eternal monogamy’ schools is based on flimsy evidence. We obviously have no written records from the age of foragers, and the archaeological evidence consists mainly of fossilized bones and stone tools. Artifacts made of more perishable materials — such as wood, bamboo, or leather — survive only under unique conditions. The common impression that pre-agricultural humans lived in an age of stone is a misconception based on this archaeological bias. The Stone Age should more accurately be called the Wood Age, because most of the tools used by ancient hunter-gatherers were made of wood.
Foragers moved house every month, every week, and sometimes even every day, toting whatever they had on their backs. There were no moving companies, wagons, or even pack animals to share the burden. They consequently had to make do with only the most essential possessions. It’s reasonable to presume, then, that the greater part of their mental, religious and emotional lives was conducted without the help of artifacts. An archaeologist working 100,000 years from now could piece together a reasonable picture of Muslim belief and practice from the myriad objects he unearthed in a ruined mosque. But we are largely at a loss in trying to comprehend the beliefs and rituals of ancient hunter-gatherers. It’s much the same dilemma that a future historian would face if he had to depict the social world of twenty-first century teenagers solely on the basis of their surviving snail mail — since no records will remain of their phone conversations, emails, blogs and text messages.
This archaeological bias, as Harari terms it, calls to mind the drunk looking under the streetlight for his keys because “That’s where the light is!” We study what is most study-able. The problem is that this bias leaves behind a whole bunch of interesting questions, a whole lot of interesting stuff that probably occurred.
Take the difference between understanding the diet of the ancient person and understanding how they actually felt about their food, and what that said about who they were:
The basics of the forager economy can be reconstructed with some confidence based on quantifiable and objective factors. For example, we can calculate how many calories per day a person needs in order to survive, how many calories were obtained from a pound of walnuts, and how many walnuts could be gathered from a square mile of forest. With this data, we can make an educated guess about the relative importance of walnuts in their diet.
But did they consider walnuts a delicacy or a humdrum staple? Did they believe that walnut trees were inhabited by spirits? Did they find walnut leaves pretty? If a forager boy wanted to take a forager girl to a romantic spot, did the share of a walnut tree suffice? [Ed: Did the concept of romance mean anything to them?]
That’s the thing: We don’t even really know how they felt about these things. They didn’t leave us any memoirs.
Some of the more interesting sets of questions surround religion. One thing we can reliably suppose is that man has been in an essentially constant state of religious belief.
Most scholars suppose that most ancient humans were animists, believing that all things contained a life-force, be it a rock, a tree, a squirrel, or a human. In addition, there were spirits, fairies, angels, and other mystical creatures that play a role in the world. Human beings, in this worldview, are just part of a larger system; there are no Gods puppeteering our outcomes or watching us with a particularly close eye. We’re not the center of the universe.
But even if we can reliably suppose that most forager humans were animists, and it’s up for debate how reliable that is, there were very likely to be hundreds or thousands of varieties within that framework. It’s really the same as the “theistic” view of the world, which has been shared by billions of modern humans in widely varying forms:
The generic rubric ‘theists’ covers Jewish rabbis from eighteenth-century Poland, witch-burning Puritans from seventeenth-century Massachusetts, Aztec priests from fifteenth-century Mexico, Sufi mystics from twelfth-century Iran, tenth-century Viking warriors, second-century Roman legionnaires, and first-century Chinese bureaucrats. Each of these view others’ beliefs and practices as weird and heretical. The differences between the beliefs of groups of ‘animistic’ foragers were probably just as big. Their religious experience may have been turbulent and filled with controversies, reforms, and revolutions.
We assume they were animists, but that’s not very informative. We don’t know which spirits they prayed to, which festivals they celebrated, or which taboos they observed. Most importantly, we don’t know what stories they told. It’s one of the biggest holes in our understand of human history.
Conquest is another fascinating aspect of history. It’s comparatively easy for us to study Columbus and Pizarro and understand why they sought to explore new worlds, and why their wealthy backers supported the cause. Much of it is recorded and has been analyzed, summarized, and synthesized for our modern study.
But what of the conquests of the vastly longer period of pre-recorded history, what of them? We know they happened: The fossil record tells us that we started out as a species in the African/Asian landmass, bounded by the sea, and clearly, we broke free. Our technology was likely to have been barely up to the task, but we went ahead anyway.
Following the Cognitive Revolution, Sapiens acquired technology, the organizational skills, and perhaps even the vision necessary to break out of Afro-Asia and settled the Outer World. Their first achievement was the colonization of Australia some 45,000 years ago. Experts are hard-pressed to explain this feat. In order to reach Australia, humans had to cross a number of sea channels, some more than 60 miles wide , and upon arrival they had to adapt nearly overnight to a completely new ecosystem.
The journey of the first humans to Australia is one of the most important events in history, at least as important as Columbus’ journey to America or the Apollo 11 expedition to the moon. It was the first time any human had managed to leave the Afro-Asian ecological system — indeed, the first time any large terrestrial mammal had managed to cross from Afro-Asia to Australia.
Imagine what it must have been like arriving in Australia, with the entirety of human history having taken place on another continent with different animals, weather, plants, and geology. It makes the Moon landing seem kinda tame by comparison.
But the even more salient question is why? What would have motivated a band, or many bands of ancient human foragers to take a risky journey across the sea to new land? Were they trying to escape persecution? Were they curious conquerers? Were they trying to prove something? Were they guided by spirits? At current, we can’t know those answers, and thus our understanding of deep history has limits.
Harari calls this The Curtain of Silence.
This curtain of silence shrouds tens of thousands of years of history. These long millennia may well have witnessed wars and revolutions, ecstatic religious movements, profound philosophical theories, incomparable artistic masterpieces. The foragers may have had their all-conquering Napoleons, who ruled empires half the size of Luxembourg; gifted Beethovens who lacked symphony orchestras but brought people to tears with the sound of their bamboo flutes; and charismatic prophets who revealed the words of a local oak tree rather than those of a creator god. But these are all mere guesses. The curtain of silence is so thick that we cannot even be sure such things occurred — let alone describe them in detail.
In the end, though, our guesses make the study of history a fascinating adventure.
“Ants and bees can also work together in huge numbers, but they do so in a very rigid manner and only with close relatives. Wolves and chimpanzees cooperate far more flexibly than ants, but they can do so only with small numbers of other individuals that they know intimately. Sapiens can cooperate in extremely flexible ways with countless numbers of strangers. That's why Sapiens rule the world, whereas ants eat our leftovers and chimps are locked up in zoos and research laboratories.” —Yuval Noah Harari, Sapiens
Yuval Noah Harari‘s Sapiens is one of those uniquely breathtaking books that comes along very rarely. It's broad, yet scientific. It's written for a popular audience but never feels dumbed down. It's new and fresh, but is not based on any brand new primary research. Near and dear to our heart, Sapiens is pure synthesis.
An immediate influence that comes to mind is Jared Diamond, author of Guns, Germs, and Steel, The Third Chimpanzee, and other broad-yet-scientific works with vast synthesis and explanatory power. And of course, Harari, a history professor at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, has noted that key influence and what it means to how he works:
(Harari) credits author Jared Diamond with encouraging him to take a much broader view—his Guns, Germs and Steel was an enormous influence. Harari says: “It made me realise that you can ask the biggest questions about history and try to give them scientific answers. But in order to do so, you have to give up the most cherished tools of historians. I was taught that if you’re going to study something, you must understand it deeply and be familiar with primary sources. But if you write a history of the whole world you can’t do this. That’s the trade-off.”
With this working model in mind, Harari sought to understand the history of humankind's domination of the earth and its development of complex modern societies. His synthesis involves using evolutionary theory, forensic anthropology, genetics and the basic tools of the historian to generate a new conception of our past: Man's success was due to its ability to create and sustain grand, collaborative myths.
Harari uses a smart trick to make his narrative more palatable and sensible: He uses the term Sapiens to refer to human beings. With this bit of depersonalization, Harari can go on to make some extremely bold statements about the history of humanity. We're just another animal: the Homo Sapiens and our history can be described just like that of any other species. Our successes, failures, flaws and credits are part of the makeup of the Sapiens. (This biological approach to history is one we've looked at before with the work of Will and Ariel Durant.)
Sapiens was, of course, just one of many animals on the savannah if we go back about 100,000 years.
There were humans long before there was history. Animals much like modern humans first appeared about 2.5 million years ago. But for countless generations they did not stand out from the myriad other organisms with which they shared their habitats….
These archaic humans loved, played, formed close friendships and competed for status and power, but so did chimpanzees, baboons, and elephants. There was nothing special about humans. Nobody, least of all humans themselves had any inkling their descendants would one way walk on the moon, split the atom, fathom the genetic code and write history books. The most important thing to know about prehistoric humans is that they were insignificant animals with no more impact on their environment than gorillas, fireflies or jellyfish.
We like to think we have been a privileged species right from the start; that through a divine spark, we had the ability to dominate our environment and the lesser mammals we co-habitated with. But that was not so, at least not at first. We were simply another smart, social ape trying to survive in the wild. We had cousins: Homo neanderthalensis, Homo erectus, Homo rudolfensis…all considered human and with similar traits. If chimps and bonobos were our second cousins, these were our first cousins.
Eventually things changed. About 70,000 or so years ago, our DNA showed a mutation (Harari claims we're not sure why — I don't know the research well enough to disagree) which allowed us to make a leap that no other species, human or otherwise, was able to make: Cooperating flexibly in large groups with a unique and complex language. Harari calls this the “Cognitive Revolution.”
What was the Sapiens' secret of success? How did we manage to settle so rapidly in so many distant and ecologically different habitats? How did we push all other human species into oblivion? Why couldn't even the strong, brainy, cold-proof Neanderthals survive our onslaught? The debate continues to rage. The most likely answer is the very thing that makes the debate possible: Homo sapiens conquered the world thanks above all to its unique language.
Our newfound language had many attributes that couldn't be found in our cousins' languages, or in any other languages from ants to whales.
Firstly, we could give detailed explanations of events that had transpired. I saw a large lion in the forest three days back, with three companions, near the closest tree to the left bank of the river and I think, but am not totally sure, they were hunting us. Why don't we ask for help from a neighboring tribe so we don't all end up as lion meat?
Secondly, and maybe more importantly, we could also gossip about each other. I noticed Frank and Steve have not contributed to the hunt in about three weeks. They are not holding up their end of the bargain, and I don't think we should include them in distributing the proceeds of our next major slaughter. Hey, does this headdress make me look fat?
As important as both of these abilities were to the development of Sapiens, they are probably not the major insights by Harari. Steven Pinker has written about The Language Instinct and where it got us over time, as have others.
Harari's insight is that the above are not the most important reasons why our “uniquely supple” language gave us a massive, exponential, survival advantage: It was because we could talk about things that were not real.
As far as we know, only Sapiens can talk about entire kinds of entities that they have never seen, touched, or smelled. Legends, myths, gods, and religions appeared for the first time with the Cognitive Revolution. Many animals and human species could previously say ‘Careful! A lion! Thanks to the Cognitive Revolution, Homo sapiens acquired the ability to say. ‘The lion is the guardian spirit of our tribe.' This ability to speak about fictions is the most unique feature of Sapiens language…You could never convince a monkey to give you a banana by promising him limitless bananas after death in monkey heaven.
This is the core of Harari's provocative thesis: It is our collected fictions that define us. Predictably, he mentions religion as one of the important fictions. But other fictions are just as important; the limited liability corporation; the nation-state; the concept of human “rights” deliverable at birth; the concept of money itself. All of these inventions allow us to do the thing that other species cannot do: Cooperate effectively and flexibly in large groups.
Ants and bees can also work together in huge numbers, but they do so in a very rigid manner and only with close relatives. Wolves and chimpanzees cooperate far more flexibly than ants, but they can do so only with small numbers of other individuals that they know intimately. Sapiens can cooperate in extremely flexible ways with countless numbers of strangers. That's why Sapiens rule the world, whereas ants eat our leftovers and chimps are locked up in zoos and research laboratories.
Our success is intimately linked to scale, which we have discussed before. In many systems and in all species but ours, as far as we know, there are hard limits to the number of individuals that can cooperate in groups in a flexible way. (Ants can cooperate in great numbers with their relatives, but only based on simple algorithms. Munger has mentioned in The Psychology of Human Misjudgment that ants' rules are so simplistic that if a group of ants start walking in a circle, their “follow-the-leader” algorithm can cause them to literally march until their collective death.)
Sapiens diverged when it discovered an ability to generate a collective myth, and there was almost no limit to the number of cooperating, believing individuals who could belong to a belief-group. And thus we see extremely different results in human culture than in whale culture, or dolphin culture, or bonobos culture. It's a lollapalooza result from a combination of critical elements.
Any large-scale human cooperation — whether a modern state, a medieval church, an ancient city, or an archaic tribe — is rooted in common myths that exist only in people's collective imagination. Churches are rooted in common religious myths. Two Catholics who have never met can nevertheless go together on crusade or pool funds to build a hospital because they both believe God was incarnated in human flesh and allowed Himself to be crucified to redeem our sins. States are rooted in common national myths. Two Serbs who have never met might risk their lives to save one another because both believe in the existence of the Serbian nation, the Serbian homeland and the Serbian flag. Judicial systems are rooted in common legal myths. Two lawyers who have never met can nevertheless combine efforts to defend a complete stranger because they both believe in the existence of laws, justice, human rights, and money paid out in fees.
Harari is quick to point out that these aren't lies. We truly believe them, and we believe in them as a collective. They have literal truth in the sense that if I trust that you believe in money as much as I do, we can use it as an exchange of value. But just as you can't get a chimpanzee to forgo a banana today for infinite bananas in heaven, you also can't get him to accept 3 apples today with the idea that if he invests them in a chimp business wisely, he'll get 6 bananas from it in five years, no matter how many compound interest tables you show him. This type of collaborative and complex fiction is uniquely human, and capitalism is as much of a collective myth as religion.
Of course, this leads to a fascinating result of human culture: If we collectively decide to to alter the myths, we can alter population behavior dramatically and quickly. We can decide slavery, one of the oldest institutions in human history, is no longer acceptable. We can declare monarchy an outdated form of governance. We can decide females should have the right to as much power as men, reversing the pattern of history. (Of course, we can also decide all Sapiens must worship the same religious text and devote ourselves to slaughtering the resisters.)
There is no parallel I'm aware of in other species for these quick, large-scale shifts. General behavior patterns in dogs or fish or ants change due to a change in environment or broad genetic evolution over a period of time. Lions will never sign a Declaration of Lion Rights and decide to banish the idea of an alpha male lion; their hierarchies are rigid.
But humans can collectively change the narrative in a period of a few years and begin acting very differently, with the same DNA and the same set of physical environments. And thus, says Harari: “The Cognitive Revolution is accordingly the point when history declared its independence from biology.” These ever shifting alliances, beliefs, myths, and ultimately, cultures, define what we call human history.
For now we will leave it here, but a thorough reading of Sapiens is recommended to understand where Professor Harari takes this idea, from the earliest humans to the fate of our descendants.