Chimps and Coalitions

Coalitions and Chimps

Yuval Noah Harari’s book Sapiens makes an effort to show that the Cognitive Revolution changed the direction of evolution for human species. He takes a long view of history, exploring how humanity first evolved, and how our evolutionary track took us in a different direction than the evolutionary track of most other large and dominant animals. To demonstrate just how much the Cognitive Revolution changed humans, Harari first looks at chimpanzees, a very close human cousin.
Harari explains that similar to humans, chimps form social groups and tribes. However, unlike humans, their groups only manage to get to a few dozen individuals, not millions of people. Again similarly to humans, chimps form sub-groups and coalitions based on physical closeness, touching, grooming, and mutual favors. The entire tribe is often influenced by smaller dynamics within coalitions. For example, Harari writes, “the alpha male usually wins his position not because he is physically stronger, but because he leads a large and stable coalition. These coalitions play a central part not only during overt struggles for the alpha position, but in almost all day-to-day activities. Members of a coalition spend more time together, share food, and help one another in times of trouble.”
Chimps are social creatures and form tribes and coalitions, but at a rudimentary level compared to humans. Harari introduces chimps and their social culture in part to dispel some myths – such as ideas of only the strong survive or of stereotypical macho-manliness for leadership. Survival among social species is often more dependent on who can demonstrate leadership well and form large coalitions where pure numbers outweigh pure physical strength. Individuals live and survive by being part of a collective, where resources are shared, where aid is given, and where we generally are willing to trust and assist others – rather than kill them to take their bananas. Chimps and the coalitions they build are a miniature and simplified version of the kinds of coalitions and social structures that humans have formed and have expanded across the globe. Looking at chimps and how they behave is helpful to understand how human evolution initially took off and how we came to be the species we are today.
Fiction as a Technology - Yuval Noah Harari Sapiens - Joe Abittan

Fiction As A Technology

In nerdy circles, on some podcasts and in discussions among people who look at the world in complex ways, you may hear people refer to human institutions as technologies. The idea is that human institutions are designed and created to help further specific goals, just as the things we typically think of as technologies are, such as cell phones and automatic coffee makers. Forms of governance, religions, and social organizations can all be thought of as technologies – they are tools we create to help us live as social creatures in complex societies. Through this lens, we can also view fictional stories as a technology.
In his book Sapiens, Yuval Noah Harari looks at fictions as a type of technology and explains how the evolution of the human brain and an increased capacity for language unlocked this technology. He writes:
“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.”
Fictions allow us to imagine things that don’t exist. It allows us to transmit ideas that are hard to put into concrete, real world terms and examples. Memes often exist in fictional form, transmitting through people once a critical mass has been reached. Myths, the show Friends, and concepts like the American Dream help us think about how we should live and behave. As Harari writes, “fiction has enabled us not merely to imagine things, but to do so collectively.”
Fiction as a technology functions as a type of social bond. We spend our time constantly creating fictions, imaging what is taking place inside another person’s head, what our future will look like if we do one thing rather than another, and what the world would look like if some of us had special powers. What is incredible about the human brain is that these fictions don’t just exist in isolation within individual brains. They are often shared, shaped, and constructed socially. We share fictions and can find meaning, belonging, and structures for living our lives through our shared fictions. The power of the mind to create fictional stories and to then live within collective fictions is immense, sometimes for the betterment of human life, and sometimes for the detriment.
More on Human Language and Gossip

More on Human Language and Gossip

In my last post I wrote about human language evolving to help us do more than just describe our environments. Language seems helpful to ask someone how many cups of flour are in a cookie recipe, where the nearest gas station is, and whether there are any cops on the freeway (or for our ancestors, what nuts are edible, where one can find edible nuts, and if there is a lion hiding near the place with the edible nuts). However, humans use language for much more than describing these aspects of our environment. In particular, we use language for signaling, gossiping, and saying things without actually saying the thing out loud.
We might use language to say that we believe something which is clearly, objectively false (that the emperor has nice clothes on) to signal our loyalty. We may gossip behind someone’s back to assess from another person whether that individual is trustworthy, as Yuval Noah Harari argues in his book Sapiens. And we might ask someone if they would like to come over to our house to watch Netflix and chill, even if no watching of Netflix is actually in the plans we are asking the other person if they are interested in engaging in. As Robin Hanson and Kevin Simler explain in The Elephant in the Brain, we are asking a question and giving the other person plausible deniability in their response and building plausible deniability into the intent of our question.
These are all very complicated uses of language, and they developed as our brains evolved to be more complicated. The reason evolution favored brain evolution that could support such complicated uses of language is due to the fact that humans are social beings. In Sapiens, Harari writes, “The amount of information that one must obtain and store in order to track the ever-changing relationships of even a few dozen individuals is staggering. (In a band of fifty individuals, there are 1,225 one-on-one relationships and countless more complex social combinations.)” In order for us to signal to a group of humans, gossip about others, or say things that we know will be commonly understood but plausibly denied, our brains needed a lot of power. History suggests that tribes typically ranged from about 50 on the low end to 250 people on the high end, meaning we had a lot of social interactions and considerations to manage. Our brains evolved to make us better social creatures, and language was one of the tools that both supported and drove that evolution.
Using Language for More than Conveying Environmental Information - Yuval Noah Harari Sapiens - Kevin Simler and Robin Hanson The Elephant in the Brain - Joe Abittan

Using Language for Conveying More Than Environmental Information

In the most basic utilitarian sense, our complex human languages evolved because they allowed us to convey information about the world from one individual to another. Language for early humans was incredibly important because it helped our ancestors tell each other when a predator was spotted nearby, when fruit was safe to eat, or if there was a dead water buffalo nearby that our ancestors could go scavenge some scraps from.  This idea is the simplest idea for the evolution of human language, but it doesn’t truly convey everything we have come to do with our language over a couple million years of evolution.
Yuval Noah Harari expands on this idea in his book Sapiens, “a second theory agrees that our unique language evolved as a means of sharing information about the world. But the most important information that needed to be conveyed was about humans, not lions and bison.” What Harari means in this quote is that human language allowed our ancestors to gossip. This is an idea that Kevin Simler and Robin Hanson share in their book The Elephant in the Brain. They argue that language is often more about showing off and gossiping than it is about utilitarian matters such as conveying environmental information. They also argue that the use of language for gossip and signaling was one of the key drivers of the evolution of the human brain, rewarding our ancestors for being smarter and more deceptive, hence rewarding larger and more complex brains.
In Sapiens, Harari explains that many species of monkeys are able to convey basic information through specific calls that are recognized among a species, such as when a predator is nearby or when there is ample food nearby. Playbacks of sounds identified as warnings will make monkeys in captivity hide. However, studies haven’t been able to show that other species are able to communicate and gossip about each other in the ways that humans do from a very young age. Our use of language to convey more than basic information about our environment allowed humans to develop into social tribes, and it has sine allowed us to develop massive populations of billions of people all cooperating and living together.
Is Human Evolution an Inevitable Race Toward Bigger Brains?

Is Human Evolution an Inevitable Race Toward Bigger Brains?

“Some scholars believe,” writes Yuval Noah Harari in his book Sapiens, “there is a direct link between the advent of cooking, the shortening of the human intestinal tract, and the growth of the human brain.” Harari argues that technologies around cooking allowed human intestinal tracts to evolve toward simplicity. Cooking food broke down compounds in foods that were harder to digest and neutralized pathogens that could have made us sick. As we learned to use fire, boil water, and create stone or dirt ovens, we made food more healthy, safer, and easier on our digestive systems which meant that we didn’t need to have such a robust digestive tract.
Harari continues, “Since long intestines and large brains are both massive energy consumers, it’s hard to have both.” When our intestines didn’t need to be so beefy, it was advantageous for humans to evolve with shorter, more streamlined guts. The energy saved in the gut could go toward other organs. Specifically, in the view Harari explains, the extra energy could be used to maintain a larger brain.
This makes me wonder, is all of human evolution a race toward a bigger brain? It is true that taller men are more likely to be elected president in the United States and that the typical image of a sexy man is a taller and more muscular individual (like Thor or Captain America), but for how long in human evolutionary history have tall bodies and large biceps been the most advantageous features for survival? Perhaps our desire for big brawny genes is leftover from our super quick ascendancy to the top of the food chain. Perhaps, as Harari’s quote eludes to, bigger brains have been the most advantageous feature for human survival for most of our history. Perhaps that truly is still the case.
An argument that Harari makes throughout the book is that humans have come to dominate the planet through our improved cognitive, reasoning, and social skills, which are all dependent on our brains. In this sense, evolutionary pressure has been toward larger brains, so all of human evolution is in some ways a race toward bigger brains. Shortening our gut allowed for bigger brains, giving up musculature allowed for more brain energy, standing on two feet allowed us to better survey the land – to provide our big brains with more data. We are not evolving to be better fighters, faster runners, or to physically occupy new niches. We are (and have been) evolving to better support better brains.
An Over-Hasty Food Chain Jump

Climbing the Food Chain Too Quickly

Evolution usually takes a very long time. Genetic and epigenetic factors tend to be the driving forces behind evolution, and changes to the genome or expressions of genes are usually quite slow. Over thousands to millions of years certain traits in species change, certain genes end up with errors that turn out to be beneficial for survival, and species slowly evolve. In most ecosystems across Earth’s history, predators, prey, and everything living have co-evolved in a slow but steady manner.
However, evolution does seem to have its shocks. This can be seen in theories of punctuated equilibrium, where things are stable with small changes occurring at relatively constant frequencies punctuated by periods of rapid and dramatic changes. Perhaps a volcano erupted and changed the landscape of an ecosystem. The genetic changes that were previously advantageous might not be advantageous now, and perhaps a whole new set of genetic mutations become advantageous. Or perhaps an invasive species has moved into the ecosystem and is upending a balance that evolution and natural selection had settled upon, reshaping the ecosystem and what traits are the most beneficial for the survival of all creatures.
In his book Sapiens, Yuval Noah Harari describes the quick ascension of humans as a force toward punctuation in the history of evolution on planet Earth. We are similar to a volcano or invasive species in terms of our destructive and disruptive power. For over a million years humans evolved slowly, positioned in the middle of the food chain, but  relatively rapidly, we rose to the top of the food chain and became the most dominate animal on the planet.
Harari writes, “Other animals at the top of the pyramid, such as lions and sharks, evolved into that position very gradually, over millions of years. This enabled the ecosystem to develop checks and balances that prevented lions and sharks from wreaking too much havoc.” Most apex predators evolved over a long period of time alongside the same prey and other living creatures, allowing animals to find their niches and natural defenses to live in a type of balance within an ecosystem.
Harari continues, “humankind ascended to the top so quickly that the ecosystem was not given time to adjust. Moreover, humans themselves failed to adjust. … Many historical calamities, from deadly wars to ecological catastrophes, have resulted from this over-hasty jump.” When humans went from mid-food chain to the top in only a few thousand years, we created a punctuation in the evolutionary course of the planet. Tool use, advanced social tribes, and coordination and cooperation among humans allowed us to disrupt the slow and steady process of evolution that allows living creatures to steadily evolve together. Other species couldn’t adapt quick enough, and a mass extinction is the end result.
Further, Harari argues that our quick jump in the food chain didn’t allow humans to evolve and adapt – in terms of our psychology – to our new position. We possess fears and insecurities that are tied to our tribal ancestry. We live as if we are still in the middle of the food chain, and not  the top. Our quick ascent was so fast that we still haven’t caught up with exactly what the change means and where we are, and as a result we still live with the same fears that our ancestors had when they were in the middle of the food chain. This insecurity, Harari argues, has contributed to wars, deliberate decimation of other animal species, and various negative things that humans have done to each other and the planet since becoming the most dominant species.
Are Humans Really Hunters?

Are Humans Really Hunters?

One skill that I have is the ability to see the narrative in the way that people understand the world. I think there is some level of an objective reality in the world, but it is often hard to see and understand because we layer so many narratives together to define the reality around us. I think I do a pretty good job of seeing the narratives that people tell themselves and of understanding why people are attracted to certain narratives. One such narrative that I think deserves to be questioned is the idea that humankind are natural hunters, that we are apex animals, and as such, our men (in particular) should be dominant and should exercise their natural urge to hunt and kill.
This is a narrative that has lost a lot of appeal in the United States and other WEIRD – Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, Democratic – countries, but still has a lot of power. People who gravitate toward such a narrative tend to be described as more traditionally conservative than people who eschew such a label in cultures like ours. In other cultures across the globe, the narrative is still a lot stronger, and countries like China are cracking down against sissy men who seem to violate the narrative. But are humans natural hunters? Are we really such powerful apex predators with urges to hunt and kill? Yuval Noah Harari argues that this narrative doesn’t seem to fit the evidence and leading scientific thoughts on exactly where humans have fit within the food chain for most of our evolutionary past.
“Humans who lived a million years ago, despite their big brains and sharp stone tools, dwelt in constant fear of predators, rarely hunted large game, and subsisted mainly by gathering plants, scooping up insects, stalking small animals, and eating the carrion left behind by other more powerful carnivores,” writes Harari. What is important to note is that for humans, who date back about 2 million years, a majority of our evolutionary past was not spent at the top of the food chain. There was a very long evolutionary past where humans were vulnerable, and rarely did any hunting that we would like to associate with early humans if we hold the narrative of humans being natural hunters and the most powerful animal on the planet. Harari continues, “one of the most common uses of early stone tools was to crack open bones in order to get to the marrow.” For much of human evolution, we were more scavengers than hunters, waiting for more dangerous predators (lions, hyenas, and such) to clear a carcass before we came along with our smart brains, deft hands, and insightful tool use to access the bone marrow the animals couldn’t easily get to.
I think it reveals a lot to note that the narrative of man as tough, aggressive, hunter-killers is common, while the narrative of man as a ingenious scavenging coward is not a narrative that anyone adopts. It may be more accurate to say that we are clever and find ways to pick up the scraps that other animals left behind, but no one wants to view themselves or humans broadly as scavengers. No one considers it “natural” to eat road kill, yet many diets are based on eating “natural” caveman diets that are based around the idea of hunting and killing our food.
“Genus Homo‘s position in the food chain was, until quite recently, solidly in the middle. For millions of years, humans hunted smaller creatures and gathered what they could, all while being hunted by larger predators,” writes Harari. The idea that man needs to hunt, that men need to be aggressive and kill, and that our survival is dependent on how tough our men are, is largely a narrative. I realize I am leaving out inter-human conflict and combat, but at least in terms of what humans evolved to eat, it is more narrative than objective reality that we need to eat lots of meat and kill animals for our diets. Humans evolved as scavengers, and only recently jumped to the top of the food chain.
Early Births and Socialization

Early Births & Socialization

“Compared to other animals,” writes Yuval Noah Harari in his book Sapiens, “humans are born prematurely, when many of their vital systems are still under-developed.” Harari explains that humans are born so early because humans walk upright. As humans evolved, we began to stand and walk on two legs, rather than walk on four legs or primarily walk on two legs while greatly supporting ourselves with our arms. A consequence is that female hips narrowed to support an upright gait, which in turn restricted the birth canal, meaning that infants born sooner were more likely to survive because they were smaller and less of a risk to a female human with a relatively more narrow birth canal than other species.
In evolutionary terms, earlier births had additional consequences for the direction in which humans evolved. Harari continues, “since humans are born underdeveloped, they can be educated and socialized to a far greater extent than any other animal.” Raising a child is difficult work, and raising infants who are born under-developed and then develop slowly takes the work of many. Harari’s suggestion is that raising human infants was not possible for our female ancestors to do on their own – at least it was incredibly difficult compared to females raising their infants within a tribe. It would have been hard for a lone female to forage for sufficient food and to provide defense for herself and the infant. As a result, “evolution thus favored those capable of forming strong social ties,” writes Harari.
I find this explanation of the evolution of human social skills pretty convincing, even if I can imagine particular instances where it may not necessarily fit. I think it is reasonable to assume that there was a dual feedback mechanism, where evolving brains shaped our physiology, and where our evolved physiology in turn shaped our brains. As we got smarter and as evolution favored larger brains and increased cognitive capabilities, our bodies changed to adapt to our brain, and certain physiological traits were more advantageous to a species with increased cognitive abilities. Those physiological traits and characteristics, like narrow hips and birth canals, changed the size of the brain at birth, changing the cognitive capabilities of human infants. This allowed infants to be socialized at a younger age and favored individuals who were better at being part of a community, changing the dynamics for what type of cognitive abilities were favored by natural selection.
There was no clear evolutionary path and no way to predict where the future would go based on the past. Social factors, physiological factors, environmental factors, and other factors we have not identified all likely shaped the evolution of humans. We adapted to fit the circumstances and evolution favored different ways of being human at different times. I think this is a lesson we can still learn lessons from today. We can learn that we will evolve and that different ways of being human will be favored at different times based on many factors unique to our time, space, cultures, and environments.
Increasing Brain Power, But Little to Show

Increasing Brain Power With Little to Show

I recently listened to Gastropod’s episode about barrels, and the hosts said that we don’t know a whole lot about the development of barrels throughout human history. One reason why we don’t know too much about ancient barrels is that barrels are made of wood, which decays and disappears over thousands of years.  We can study pottery and containers for food and drink made of earthenware because it can be more easily preserved than wooden vessels. Barrels can only be studied tangentially, since original specimens are hard to come by after a thousand years of decomposition.
Gastropod’s episode about barrels represents a challenge faced in all ancient history studies and sciences. How do we learn about things that don’t leave permanent remnants behind? What is reasonable to conclude from the absence of physical artifacts? What inferences are reliable and reasonable, and what inferences are biased because we don’t have something physical that could tell a story?
Yuval Noah Harari ran into this problem in his book Sapiens. About the evolution of early human species and the development of big brains he wrote, “for more than 2 million years, human neural networks kept growing and growing, but apart from some flint knives and pointed sticks, humans had precious little to show for it.”
He explains that our brains allow us to make many marvelous things today, from laptops to skyscrapers, that give us a clear advantage over the rest of the world. Our brains use a lot of energy and our species evolved away from big muscles, claws, and teeth to support our big brains. This payoff doesn’t really seem worth it if it took more than 2 million years to get from no tools to where we are today. A few flint knives and pointed sticks, Harari argues, is hardly worth the costs of developing big brains which left us vulnerable to more threatening animals.
A problem I think that Harari runs into is that we can’t look back at 2 million years of human evolutionary history and see the things that nature wasn’t able to preserve for us. For all those years of evolution we may have only been developing rudimentary physical tools, but we may have been developing new tools that we can’t look back and see, mainly mental tools and institutions.
This is an argument Robin Hanson and Kevin Simler might make. In their book The Elephant in the Brain, they argue that social interactions, in particular complex political interactions between humans, drove the evolution of our brains. Increasing our brains so that we could better work together and develop political groups would not leave a trace we could identify through physical artifacts like stone tools.
Additionally, early evolving humans with their increasing brains may have been developing more physical items than we give them credit for. Because many of the things they created may have disappeared due to natural decomposition, we might not have a record of them. I am sure this is something that people in the field know much better than me, and I’m sure something that Harari is aware of as well, but it is not well presented in Sapiens. His argument that the evolution of the brain did not have immediate payoff in terms of physical tools that would help the species survive is still valid, but it is narrow and leaves out other important advantages that the evolution of big brains brought to humans.
Why Giant Brains Are So Rare

Giant Brains Are Rare

In Sapiens, Yuval Noah Harari explains that Homo sapiens means wise man. It is a term we have given ourselves as a species because we have large brains and use those large brains to set ourselves apart from the rest of the animals and creatures on the planet. There are some other species with big brains, but in general large brains are rare, and no other species has been shown to use their brain to the same competitive advantage as humans.
But if large brains have made us so competitive across the globe, why are they so rare? Harari writes, “The fact is that a jumbo brain is a jumbo drain on the body. … in Homo sapiens, the brain accounts for about 2-3 percent of total body weight, but it consumes 25 per cent of the body’s energy when the body is at rest. By comparison, the brains of other apes require only 8 per cent of rest-time energy.”
Our brains are incredibly active and use a lot of sugars for fuel, even when we are not doing anything. This is great news for those of us who are trying to go on a diet to lose some weight today, but it was not great news for our ancestor hunter-gatherer humans and proto-Homo sapiens species of the past. According to Harari, large brains essentially have a high up-front cost. There is a large energy up front energy cost that goes into maintaining the brain before a species can really use the brain to a competitive advantage, and that has been a barrier to other species developing large brains and using them in a way that could give them a competitive advantage.
Harari continues, “Archaic humans paid for their large brains in two ways. Firstly, they spent more time in search of food. Secondly, their muscles atrophied. … A chimpanzee can’t win an argument with a Homo  sapiens, but the ape can rip the man apart.” Strong thinking and reasoning skills are helpful today and are the reasons we live in houses, build rocket ships, and are able to develop vaccines to end global pandemics. However, our big brains are not always the best tool to bring to a fist fight. It is not obvious that better reasoning skills will help a species survive better than sharp claws and teeth, thick hides, or spiky spines. Evolution doesn’t have an end goal in mind, and for all species besides the human species that evolved into Homo sapiens, the big brain payoff simply wasn’t the evolutionary rout that provided the best chance of survival and spread. It wasn’t until the big brained human species began to live and interact in clusters and tribes, communicating and working together, that big brains and reasoning skills could begin to pay off and become competitive against larger animals with bigger muscles and more ferocious claws, teeth, and tusks.