Unsurpassed Adaptability

Unsurpassed Adaptability

Something I think about a lot, especially when thinking of the great diversity of human experiences, is how incredible human adaptability is. Humans have found ways to survive across the globe. Humans appear to have first evolved in Africa, with several different waves of human species spreading from Africa across Europe and Asia, and eventually across the oceans to the Americas and to Australia. From savannas and plains, to tropical jungle islands, to frozen tundras, humans have found ways to adapt and live. At this point, we have found ways to survive for long stretches submerged in metal tubes or floating outside the atmosphere in tubes. We have settled in the driest deserts, the wettest rain forests, and even have ways of surviving in the coldest, frozen polar ice-scapes.
This adaptability of humans is truly astonishing, especially when you look back at human history and put us in context with other animals and species. Yuval Noah Harari does this in his book Sapiens and he marvels at how quickly the human species was able to conquer the globe. He writes, “The human blitzkrieg across America testifies to the incomparable ingenuity and the unsurpassed adaptability of Homo sapiens. No other animal had ever moved into such a huge variety of radically different habitats so quickly, everywhere using virtually the same genes.” Adaptability has been a human super power since the early days of the cognitive revolution, when humans began to find ways to live in places that our genes had not evolved to fit.
I’m in awe of our adaptability and think about it whenever I am in a situation I didn’t expect and when I meet people who live dramatically different lives than my own. I am inspired by what some people can push their minds, bodies, and existence to become. I am also dismayed at how terrible life can be for others, and how they nonetheless manage to survive. From the Holocaust, to modern civil wars, to the squalor of tribes in the poorest parts of the globe, it is simultaneously inspiring that humans have survived such awful conditions and depressing. Our adaptability means we can survive and put up with terrible things, languishing in a state of mere existence for years or even generations. Just as our adaptability can allow us to be astronauts, athletes, and chess grand masters, our adaptability can allow us to be prisoners of war, sex trafficking victims, and impoverished peoples. Our unsurpassed adaptability is what allowed our species to conquer the planet, but it is also what has allowed us to pump green house gasses into the atmosphere and allowed us to devastate wildlife and ecosystems.
Our adaptability is amazing and has been since the early days of Homo sapiens, but it does have a cost. While it can allow us to be our best, it can perpetuate our survival at our worst. It has allowed us to flourish as a species across the globe, but has also allowed us to do great harm to the planet. Moving forward we need to continue to adapt, but should strive to do so in a way that makes life better for all, that finds a new Pareto efficiency between all of us and our planet.
Human Hunting, Fire Agriculture, and Climate Change

Human Hunting, Fire Agriculture, and Climate Change

What caused the extinction of megafauna on the Australian continent? In his book Sapiens, Yuval Noah Harari writes that the three main factors that people consider to be the primary contributors to the extinction of megafauna on the Australian continent were human hunting, human fire agriculture, and climate change which compounded the threats from humans. Homo Sapiens arrived on the continent and upended the ecological balance that evolution had produced. Through cooperative hunting and using fire to change the environment humans threatened many larger species that reproduced slowly and couldn’t keep up with the changes that humans brought.
Harari writes, “by the time Sapiens reached Australia, they had already mastered fire agriculture. Faced with an alien and threatening environment, it seems that they deliberately burned vast areas of impassable thickets and dense forests to create open grasslands, which attracted more easily hunted game, and were better suited to heir needs. They thereby completely changed the ecology of large parts of Australia within a few short millennia.” Humans have been terrestrial menaces, working together to conquer the land in a way that no other species has ever been able to. The megafauna of Australia had evolved slowly over millennia alongside the rest of the species on the continent, but humans upended that evolution. Their group hunting overpowered the large animals that could defend themselves against a single predator. Their ability to use fire to reshaped the landscapes, took away natural habitats, and left many species vulnerable.
On top of all the change from humans was natural climate cycles. When humans destabilized the environment, existing climate changes were more severe and threatening to the existing species. “It is hard to find a good survival strategy that will work simultaneously against multiple threats,” Harari writes of the mass extinction brought to the continent by humans.
Today we are pretty sensitive to the impact we have on our planet. We don’t want to continue the mass extinctions we have been driving. We don’t want to destroy more natural habitat than is necessary. And we are concerned with our impact on global climate change. What Harari shows is that humans have been impacting the climate and causing extinctions for tens of thousands of years. This doesn’t dismiss our current concerns or excuse what we have been doing to the planet since the industrial revolution, but it does show that how we live with the rest of life on Earth is a choice, and it is an ever shifting relationship. I don’t know what it would mean to return to a natural state of humans relative to nature, I don’t know what it means to say that we need to better manage forests to prevent catastrophic wildfires, and I don’t know how we will strike the right balance with the ecosystems where we live, but we should accept that we shape the world in profound ways, and have dominated the planet often at the expense of other life.
Evidence of Humans as Terrestrial Menaces

Evidence of Humans as Terrestrial Menaces

My last post was about asking questions we cannot fully answer because we don’t have perfect evidence to find a concrete answer. The post was inspired by Yuval Noah Harari who argues that it is important to ask such questions and who puts the idea in context in his book Sapiens by explaining that failing to ask questions we cannot fully answer means we would ignore tens of thousands of years of human evolution because we don’t have concrete material evidence for what humans were doing before humans settled into agrarian societies.
By asking questions we can’t fully answer, Harari argues that we can start to see the world in different ways and start to understand human influence on the planet even if we don’t have direct evidence of human action. As an example, Harari argues that the extinction of many large animal species can be tied back to humans, even if we don’t have perfect evidence for it. He writes about the extinction of a giant marsupial named diprotodon in Australia, alongside other megafauna of the continent from the time that humans arrived on the continent. Harari writes, “The evidence is circumstantial, but its hard to imagine that Sapiens, just by coincidence, arrived in Australia at the precise point that all these animals were dropping dead.”
Humans are good at working in groups and collaborating to achieve goals. This put large species that previously didn’t have to worry about smaller animals at a new disadvantage. Humans may not have been settling in large agrarian communities and may not have been leaving lots of evidence that archeologists could find tens of thousands of years later, but that doesn’t mean that humans were not shaping the planet. We were eradicating large animals that had strong defenses against smaller animals, but that were weak against teams of animals cooperating and coordinating actions to take them down.
The Danger of Only Asking Questions We Expect To Be Able To Answer

The Danger of Only Asking Questions We Expect To Be Able To Answer

It is not fun to face ambiguity and questions that we don’t have any hope of answering. Humans don’t like sitting with the unknown, and we don’t like admitting that there are questions, some very important and definitive, that we simply have no way of answering. Some questions we know we cannot answer at this point, but we expect to be able to answer, and some questions there is almost certainly no hope of answering within our lifetimes, and perhaps not within the entire lifetime of our planet or sun. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t still ask such questions.
In his book Sapiens, Yuval Noah Harari writes, “scholars tend to ask only those questions that they can reasonably hope to answer. … Yet it is vital to ask questions for which no answers are available, otherwise we might be tempted to dismiss 60,000 of 70,0000 years of human history with the excuse that the people that lived back then did nothing of importance.”
In this quote, Harari is specifically referring to scholars who don’t ask questions about ancient humans living in times before modern tool use. Such humans didn’t leave an obvious trace through items which can be identified and discovered through archeological explorations. Their tools and items were made of organic materials that decomposed. Their major advances came in languages which were not written down and preserved. Their important contributions to human evolution were psychological and cultural, and didn’t easily leave a trace that could survive 70,000 years of weathering, continental drift, volcanic explosions, floods, and human resettlement. As a scholar, why spend time and put your career on the line investigating questions you can’t answer, knowing that you won’t produce journal articles and research presentations for your non-answers?
It is understandable why scholars don’t ask the questions they have no hope for answering, even beyond questions of early human cultures, but Harar thinks they should. By asking such questions, we remember to think about important factors that can be ignored or easily discounted. We can limit our view of history to only those things that left material imprints and traces on our planet. We can overlook details that we might otherwise find important. As an example, Harari shows how early humans still changed the world around them, primarily through hunting and the use of fire, even if the hunting often involved chasing an animal until it died of exhaustion or burning a part of a forest to force animals out of hiding. We might not find a lot of physical tools and evidence of such behavior, but the changes in the ecology and environment may be detectable. For 60,000 years early Homo Sapiens changed the planet, even though we can’t always detect how. Failing to ask questions about such humans and their cultures, questions we can’t find evidence and information to answer, means that we overlook their contributions to the changes of the planet. Failing to ask unanswerable questions means we also fail to ask questions for which we do have some hope of finding answers. It also means we ignore important areas and topics, leaving them for people who want to abuse history and science with myth and narrative that may not have a hope of actually being accurate or discarded as junk without serious minds thinking about the topic.
Nutritional Downgrading

Nutritional Downgrading

Foraging didn’t provide ancient humans with a great abundance of food, but in many ways foragers likely had better diets than humans living in early agricultural societies. This idea doesn’t seem intuitive, but Yuval Noah Harari explains why it is likely to be true in his book Sapiens. He writes, “The typical peasant in traditional China ate rice for breakfast, rice for lunch, and rice for dinner. If she was lucky, she could expect to eat the same on the following day. By contrast, ancient foragers regularly ate dozens of different foodstuffs.”
It is tempting to think that foragers gave up their nomadic lifestyle in favor of an agrarian lifestyle because mastering agriculture provided more, and better, food. This was not the case for many ancient (and not so ancient) humans. Moving to an agrarian system could provide a surplus of some foods, which did provide more food security in some instances, but often decreased the quality of diet compared with the diets of foragers. Ancient foragers could find many different foodstuffs, from nuts, to berries, to edible roots, to small animals and bugs. Knowledge was passed along about what foodstuffs could be eaten and where foodstuffs could be found. Different things were eaten at different times of the year, based on what was blooming, what animals were around, and what the weather was like. Foragers didn’t have a ton of surplus food, but their diets were pretty varied and pretty nutritious overall.
When humans moved into agrarian societies, they often began cultivating just a single food item, like wheat or rice. Successful farming could ensure a good harvest and a surplus of the staple crop for the individual farmer, their household, and potentially others in the village cropping up around the crops. But a huge amount of work went into cultivating a single crop, and this meant that diets were not varied and that people were at risk if a harvest didn’t turn out as expected. Contrasting this to foragers again, Harari writes, “by not being dependent on any single kind of food, [foragers] were less liable to suffer when one particular food source failed.” Ancient peasants lost the knowledge of where and how to find edible foodstuffs, and how to safely prepare those items at different times of the year. This meant they were dependent on a surplus of a single crop to get them through.
Additionally, relying on a single crop meant that foragers who became farmers gave up the interesting diet of a hunter-gatherer. Ancient humans traded a nutritious but slim diet for a more bountiful but less nutritious and less varied diet. Without eating all the fruit, nuts, roots, and other foodstuffs that provided vital nutrients, nutritional diseases were more likely to pop up in agricultural societies dependent on a single crop. Eating just rice, just wheat, or a slim variety of foods likely meant that important vitamins and minerals were missing from ancient farming diets. Ultimately, humans figured this out and found a way to master their diets, but early humans were not exactly at a nutritional advantage by shifting to agriculture.
Agricultural & Industrial Boredom

Agricultural & Industrial Boredom

Growing up, I remember being told that agrarian farmers in the United States around the time of the depression had a very small number of stimuli in their daily lives. I don’t know why I remember it being around the time of the Great Depression or limited to just farmers in the United States, but I had a teacher at one point who compared the number of stimuli in the lives of kids in the 1990s and early 2000s (kids like me) to farmers of the early 1900s. This was in a pre-smartphone age, but I still had a Gameboy, watched too much TV, and even in Reno, NV had plenty of billboards competing for my attention as I was driven to and from sports practices. A farmer of the 1900s had a tractor, some farm equipment, rows of corn, and blue skies with a few clouds here and there. By the time I had played a few minutes of Gameboy, watched a cartoon before school, and ridden the bus, I had experienced more stimuli competing for my attention than a farmer would have experienced their whole life – so my teacher suggested.
The implications of the lack of stimuli for early farmers was that their lives were boring. I had electronic games, interesting TV shows, and thousands of distractions every day to keep my mind occupied. But early farmers had very little to keep their mind engaged throughout the day. This idea is echoed by Yuval Noah Harari in is book Sapiens. He writes, “the forager economy provided most people with more interesting lives than agriculture or industry do.” This seems to have been true about early human agriculturalists and industrialists, and is in many ways still true today.
Ancient hunter-gatherers had a lot of interesting things to do each day. They would move around, travel about the landscape looking for different edible foods, try to stalk an animal to potentially kill for dinner, and look for resources and materials that could be useful for some sort of shelter. Their days were like our treasured weekend hiking and hunting trips, and for many of them, they were likely out with a small group of trusted tribesmen, not off by themselves.
Early farmers had a lot of work to do, but it was routine and dull compared to exploring the land looking for good food. In the end, farming seems to have been able to provide more calories for more people, making it pay off for society as a whole, but the individual farmers had less interesting lives than the foragers. Industry is similar. Humans within industry and factories are viewed as essentially biological machines, and they often have to do the same repetitive tasks for hours on end in industrialized economies. Certainly being a hunter-gatherer who goes on hikes all day and then hangs out with kids, plays games, tell stories, and gossips after a day out exploring would have been much more interesting and enjoyable than waking up early, making the same daily commute, and working the same tedious job 5 or 7 days a week.
Survivorship Bias and Ancient Humans

Survivorship Bias and Ancient Humans

Yuval Noah Harari writes almost romantically about ancient human foragers in his book Sapiens. Describing the difference in knowledge, skills, and abilities between modern humans and ancient hunter-gatherers, Harari is absolutely glowing in his descriptions of ancient humans. He praises them for the knowledge, self-awareness, and connectedness between their bodies and the natural world. Something he argues modern humans have lost.
He writes, “Foragers mastered not only the surrounding world of animals, plants and objects, but also the internal world of their own bodies and senses. They listened to the slightest movement in the grass to learn whether a snake might be lurking there. They carefully observed the foliage of trees in order to discover fruits, beehives, and bird nests. They moved with a minimum of effort and noise, and knew how to sit, walk, and run in the most agile and efficient manner. Varied and constant use of their bodies made them as fit as marathon runners.”
I think this paragraph is generally accurate, if a bit hyperbolic, but troublingly, I think this paragraph is also subject to survivor bias. The humans who lived and survived the longest in a dangerous wilderness environment were probably as fit as modern day triathletes. They probably were more aware of seasonal changes and small details in nature that helped them find food and avoid predators. But I don’t see why we would extend those traits to all foragers. It is unlikely that every human was great at all of the skills Harari lays out, and it seems to me that it would be unlikely for all of them to be agile, fit, super proto-homo sapiens. Many probably fell short in a few areas, and if they fell too short in too many areas, then they probably died, leaving us with the survivorship bias that Harari ends up with. Ultimately, this gives us an overly-romanticized perspective of foraging humans.
The Location of Human Knowledge - Yuval Noah Harari Sapiens - Joe Abittan

The Location of Human Knowledge

“The average forager had wider, deeper, and more varied knowledge of her immediate surroundings than most of her modern descendants,” writes Yuval Noah Harari in Sapiens. Individual human hunter-gatherers had to know a lot about their environment, and they were not learning from text books and schools. They were learning by trial and error, by being shown what was edible and what was not edible older members of their tribe, and they had to develop a plethora of skills in order to do all the things necessary for survival.
Humans today are not very likely to be able to weave baskets from reeds (as much as we joke about basket weaving courses for college athletes). They also likely can’t sharpen a flint arrowhead, don’t know what animals are around their location and how to hunt them, and don’t know what wild plants are helpful or harmful. Individually, modern humans don’t seem to have the same regionalized knowledge as the ancient humans that came before them. But today we definitely know far more than the humans before us as a whole.
The difference, Harari explains, is that the location of human knowledge has changed. We no longer all hold the same helpful regional information in our heads. Instead, we have a collective knowledge spread across humanity. Each of us is an expert in our own little niche. For example, I studied political science and Spanish. I know a bit about theories of policy processes, such as the Multiple Streams Framework, and I know a bit about medieval literature from the Iberian Peninsula. On the other hand, I don’t really know much about how nuclear submarines work, how my city’s sewage system works, and I don’t really know what migratory birds can be found in the area during the spring versus the fall. Someone else in the collective of human knowledge is an expert in each of those things.
“The human collective,” writes Harari, “knows far more today than did the ancient bands. But at the individual level, ancient foragers were the most knowledgeable and skillful people in history.” This quote may be a broad overgeneralization, but it is nevertheless interesting and thought provoking. Some of us are incredibly skilled with a variety of things and have a great deal of knowledge about much of the world around us. Others don’t seem to have as much skill, and know more about celebrities than we do about what is happening in the world. Overall, the important thing to consider is that the modern world has seen a shift in the distribution of knowledge. We don’t all have to hold information about our immediate surroundings in our heads, and we don’t all have to be able to produce the things necessary for our survival. Only some humans need to know those things and have the skills to produce the basic necessities for life. The rest of us can then go off and explore different areas and learn different things, constantly increasing the collective human knowledge and skill base, even if we individually seem more narrowly skilled and less immediately knowledgeable compared with our ancient forager ancestors.
There is no Natural Way of Life - Yuval Noah Harari - Sapiens - Joe Abittan

There is No Natural Way of Life

Are human beings naturally peaceful, or naturally violent? Are they naturally traders, or are they naturally competitors? Is it natural for them to pursue progress, or natural for humans to stick to tradition and avoid new ways of organizing the world around them? These questions rage every day in academic circles, on the news, in our offices, and everywhere that people gather. We like to believe that there are things that are simply natural for human beings, and things we consider natural are considered broadly good, while things that are unnatural are lumped in with everything bad and evil.
However, in his book Sapiens, Yuval Noah Harari argues that there is no natural way of life for Homo sapiens. Instead, according to Harari, there is a wide horizon of possibilities which includes, “…the entire spectrum of beliefs, practices, and experiences that are open before a particular society, given its ecological, technological, and cultural limitations.” Even for people living in the most remote, technologically limited, and culturally strict villages on Earth, there is a wide horizon of possibilities for what any individual or group could do. For those of us lucky enough to live in the United States, the horizon of possibilities is effectively endless. The ways in which we could live and experience the world are greater than what any of us could imagine, and all the different perspectives and permutations could be considered natural from a certain point of view – or unnatural from another. Trying to attach values such as good or bad, through labels of natural or unnatural, doesn’t really make sense for any given permutation chosen from the horizon of possibilities.
Harari continues, “The heated debates about Homo sapiens’ ‘natural way of life’ misses the main point. Ever since the Cognitive Revolution, there hasn’t been a single natural way of life for Sapiens. There are only cultural choices, from among a bewildering palette of possibilities.” Dating back at least 70,000 years ago, human tribes have varied and differed based on numerous factors. Looking at a single ancient tribe or group of humans and deciding that how they lived was natural gives us a misleading understanding of how we should live today. We can look back and find tyrannical leaders who conquered other tribes and sacrificed their victims to their gods, but this doesn’t mean it is natural for humans to be lead by a single genocidal tyrant. It is just as fair to look around today and see transsexual men and women cooperating and sharing virtual resources in a video game and make conclusions about what is natural for humans as it would be to look back at the genocidal tyrant, to look back at human groups from the days of the first books in the Christian Bible, or to look back at any other group of humans from any part of the globe since the Cognitive Revolution and decided that how people live, interact, behave, and interpret the world is ‘natural’. At each point in space and time there are options available to us based on the ecology of where we find ourselves, based on the technology and knowledge available to us, and based on many other factors we cannot enumerate. Some ways of living are more likely to help us and others survive, some ways of living are more likely to help us enjoy our lives, but that doesn’t mean they are natural, good, or will continue to help us survive and enjoy our lives indefinitely. There is no natural way of life for a human, only a staggeringly large set of possibilities.
The Wood Age

The Wood Age

An interesting bias that enters into our understanding of the world and human history comes from material sciences. When we look into the deep human past, we have very weak evidence upon which we can base our assumptions and theories. Before people wrote things down, we didn’t have anything that could preserve the history of a people or place. And even once people began to record things it was still hard to save those recordings for the long term. We have some stone and clay tablets with inscriptions on them, some quipus (string counting devices), and some written documents on animal skin, but not a lot of well preserved, documented writing from the earliest known humans to have settled into communities. Most of the artifacts we have from early humans come from any stone tools they used, because those can be preserved better.
Yuval Noah Harari writes about the bias these stone tools create in his book Sapiens. “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.”
I think it is interesting to consider our bias of ancient humans based on the materials we can recover of their history. The Stone Age is a common idea that appears in cartoons, in advertisements, and in stories. But it is understandable that early humans would have used wood more than stone for many tools. Wood is lighter, can be shaped more easily, and may be more available than stone in some parts of the world – not for me personally here in Northern Nevada. The Stone Age bias is a simple bias that we never think about unless we are asked to stop and consider the way that materials and artifacts could bias our minds. It is an accepted story and idea that we share, without even realizing the bias taking place.