Tuesday, December 15, 2015


We study history, mostly that has been written down and have some appreciation of how the world got to be this way.  Yuval Noah Harari goes before the written word was invented to discover more of our origins and better understand why we are the way we are and even where we are headed.  It is a fascinating tale with unexpected insights told with a sense of humour.  This is my top read of the year.  Although very easy to read, the author does go into a lot of depth.

Whether we are religious or not we all seem to feel mankind has always been dominant and we have had no real rivals.  Apparently our history is more complicated than we were taught.  100,000 years ago we were one of several human species competing amongst larger, faster, fiercer animals for survival.

As our bodies evolved to adapt to our circumstances our minds were shaped.  The author speculates that how we defeated the Neanderthal that was supposedly more intelligent and physically capable was through our social skills.  By social skills the author includes communication, group formations and very critically, gossiping.

We used to hear of Neanderthals as primitive ape like people who vanished.  There were actually a few other human like species that also disappeared.  The author likes to point out that they didn't totally disappear as some traces have survived in our DNA.  The Neanderthals were likely stronger and possibly more intelligent than Homo Sapiens, but they lacked social skills and possibly were not as aggressive.  For the most part our ancestors started out in Africa and spread across what he calls Afro-Asia which is essentially one big land mass.  Thousands of years ago our ancestors moved to Australia and the Americas.

The author breaks down our development into three Revolutions.  The Cognitive Revolution, was the first where our Homo Sapien ancestors started to take advantage of their evolutionary advantages such as upright, larger brain, grasping hands and developed social skills to allow them to form groups.  The Agricultural Revolution came when our ancestors developed food production based on plants and animals and developed more permanent residences that allowed specializations to develop further.  The Science Revolution got rolling around 1500 when men accepted that they were ignorant, but by observation (and later mathematical analysis) could unravel all sorts of information.  The information was not necessarily practical, but in the long run supported our modern technology.

Yuval declares that there are three unifying forces in the world, namely money, imperialism and religion.  At one time we were probably thousands of isolated tribes.  By money he means our commercial system that covers virtually everyone in every country.  Imperialism was a form of nationalism where one group would conquer another nation and impose its culture on the losers.  Sometimes as an example, the conquered Greeks had their culture shared with the victorious Romans. Religion is another force that unites people that once would have been in different tribes.  Each of these forces can be criticized, but undeniably they have brought a wide variety of people together.

Yuval explores different cultures, but more as a development of humans.  He does not necessarily see our progress as constant improvement.  The point of it all is happiness.  Has all this progress made us happier.  It is possible that our hunter-forager ancestors were happier as they spent less time seeking food and getting a better variety than our agricultural ancestors who endured a more bland diet.  A definition of happiness is that "it depends on the correlation between objective conditions and subjective expectations."  Ultimately it depends on our biochemistry which is designed to re-balance itself.  Sexual reactions spur us to repeat, but also subside so we can move on.

He explores several perspectives on happiness.  I think he admires the Buddhist philosophy the most, but gives credit to other ideas. He points out that humans have in effect become more cruel to animals without giving them much thought.

Throughout the book he points that our civilization is really "imaginary."  By sharing a lot of our images we are able to form nations, conduct business, and carry on with our families and friends.

What lies ahead?  We are in fact becoming intelligent designers.  We already manipulate DNA and have cloned a variety of animals.  We also have developed prosthetic devices that enable people to physically do many amazing things hithertofore impossible.  Scientists are now considering integrating organic and inorganic as cyborgs.  Maybe science fiction is not so far fetched.

Final question from the book:  "Is there anything more dangerous than dissatisfied and irresponsible gods who don't know what they want?"  He is suggesting we think more deeply on what we want.

Aside from reading the book which I highly recommend you can visit his website:  http://www.ynharari.com which has a heading "History began when humans invented gods and will end when humans become gods.

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