Mass Cooperation Instincts

Mass Cooperation Instincts

The last few years in the United States have been a difficult time in terms of political disagreement. President Trump was an incredibly polarizing figure who clearly lied, made up a lot what he said, and was simply not a good president. Nevertheless, he had a huge number of supporters who liked his persona, liked that he praised their social groups, and supported him so strongly that they tried to prevent the government from certifying the election that Trump lost by rioting through the nation’s capital. The former President and those who supported him in such a fanatical manner represent a problem with human cooperation and evolution. Whether we like it or not, and whether we want to admit it or not, we still have tribal instincts that drive much of our behavior.
 
 
“The problem at the root of such calamities,” writes Yuval Noah Harari in his book Sapiens, “is that humans evolved for millions of years in small bands of a few dozen individuals. The handful of millennia separating the Agricultural Revolution from the appearance of cities, kingdoms, and empires was not enough time to allow an instinct for mass cooperation to evolve.”
 
 
In the book, Harari explains that humans have been evolving for a few million years separate from apes and other close cousins. Homo Sapiens specifically, has only existed as a distinct species of human for a couple hundred thousand years. That is an incredibly long time on the scale of a human lifetime, but in terms of evolution, it is a very short time. For the couple hundred thousand years of the existence of homo sapiens, only about 70,000 years has passed since the very beginning of the Agricultural Revolution – perhaps about one third of the full time that homo sapiens has existed. Humans went from a relatively insignificant species that lived in small tribal bands to the most dominant force on the planet in less than 100,000 years. And as I stated, this is a long time in the life of a single human, but a blip in evolutionary time.
 
 
Such a fast ascent was made possible by our incredible brains and unsurpassed adaptability. But our quick ascent has not been perfect. We have not fully evolved in a way that helps us support the world we have built and the lives we now lead. As our recent political experience demonstrates, our minds still seem to be evolved to fit within small tribal bands, not within global populaces. It is easy to be altruistic among a small group of friends and to provide aid and assistance to those you personally know or to those individuals in front of you who need life saving help. It is harder to be supportive of people you differ from culturally and it is hard to find the will to aid people across the globe who are slowly dying from preventable causes. Cooperating at large scales is difficult, and it doesn’t fit the millions of years of human evolution that came before the Agricultural Revolution. Our brains allowed for a quick ascent to dense cities and eventually metropolitan statistical areas comprised of millions of people, but that change was faster than evolution. The challenge we face today is to cooperate together and find ways of living in a world we did not evolve to fit. The challenge is to develop an instinct for mass cooperation, even if it is not biologically natural for us right now.
Advanced Planning - Yuval Noah Harari - Sapiens - Joe Abittan - Stoic Thinking Contradictions

Advanced Planning

Within much of Stoic thinking, which I generally embrace pretty strongly, there is a contradiction between being ready for the future and focusing on the present movement. Stoicism encourages a sense of presence, of living in the present moment, being aware of ones body and ones surroundings right now, and managing and controlling the things under ones control at this moment. We cannot control the future, and cannot predict exactly what will come to pass. Within Stoic thought, all we can control is how our mind reacts to the present moment, so we should focus on how we are using our time and attention in an effort to be our best selves right now.
 
 
What this mindset leaves out, or at best inadvertently omits, is the importance of long-term planning. To get to where we want to get, to achieve goals, and to utilize our resources and energy the most effectively, we have to be able to look ahead and plan for the future. Advanced planning means we have to tie the present moment and our actions to specific steps to help us achieve future desired endpoints and outcomes. We have to form theories of the world and build causal structures to form our own mental models that tell us, “if I do this now, then a certain effect will be produced in the future.”
 
 
There is a paradox in Stoic thinking when it comes to being present. The whole idea of presence is that it enables us to be less stressed, to focus on the tasks at hand, and to bring our best selves to each moment throughout the day. The ultimate end goal of all this, however, is to better achieve future goals. Presence on its own doesn’t matter to much, unless we are ok with living a life where we drift without a long-term plan. This paradox is not limited to Stoic thought, and in some ways ties back to our ancient foraging roots.
 
 
In his book Sapiens, Yuval Noah Harari writes about the shift in planning and thinking about the future that occurred with the Agricultural Revolution. Foragers, Harari explains, couldn’t save food for a long period of time. They could bring a handful of nuts or fruits with them, but carrying a large amount of nuts and fruits was cumbersome, and fruit would go bad quickly. Farmers, however, could produce a surplus of crops that could be harvested and saved for a longer period of time. Successful farming rewarded and required an ability to plan ahead, while foraging encouraged more thinking about the present moment. Harari writes, “in the subsistence economy of hunting and gathering, there was an obvious limit to such long-term planning. Paradoxically, it saved foragers a lot of anxieties. There was no sense in worrying about things that they could not influence. The Agricultural Revolution made the future far more important than it had ever been before.”
 
 
Our ancient foraging and farming ancestors seem to highlight the contradiction that we find in Stoic thinking of the present moment. Foragers lived in the present moment and didn’t have anxieties and concerns over the future. They moved where their food sources were and didn’t have to plan ahead too far. But they also didn’t become farmers and set human evolution on a path toward modernity. The farmers who kicked off the Agricultural Revolution were the ones who broke from living in the present moment to push humanity in the eventual direction evolution favored, building small farming communities, then towns, and eventually nations with massive metropolitan areas. Planning ahead was crucial for successful farming, even though it came with stress and anxiety, and broke against the ancient human evolved tradition of living in small foraging bands focused on the present moment. Planning ahead also helped ensure more people could survive and propelled the technological advances that enabled the Agricultural Revolution.
Misjudging the Benefits of the Agricultural Revolution

Misjudging the Benefits of the Agricultural Revolution

My last couple of posts have been about the Agricultural Revolution and how it didn’t provide the benefits to early human farmers that we would imagine or expect it to have provided. The Agricultural Revolution helped propel humans toward our modern world, but it wasn’t an immediate upgrade in the lives and diets of most humans. It is perplexing how humans managed to settle into farming communities and agricultural villages given that the first humans to begin cultivating crops likely had a worse time (or very minimally marginally better time) than ancient foragers.
 
 
In Sapiens, Yuval Noah Harari writes about these challenges and why the reality of the Agricultural Revolution doesn’t match what we imagine the Agricultural Revolution to have been like. He writes:
 
 
“Village life certainly brought the first farmers some immediate benefits, such as better protection against wild animals, rain, and cold. Yet for the average person, the disadvantages probably outweighed the advantages. This is hard for people in today’s prosperous societies to appreciate. Since we enjoy affluence and security, and since our affluence and security are built on foundations laid by the Agricultural Revolution, we assume that the Agricultural Revolution was a wonderful improvement. Yet it is wrong to judge thousands of years of history from the perspective of today.”
 
 
We look at how we got to where we are and in some ways assume that the path that humans took was obvious and clear. We were once cavemen, then became farmers, then scientists, and now we can watch college football all day on Saturday on our flat screen TVs while eating pizza. The reality, however, is that early farmers and early foragers didn’t have any idea what the future would hold. It wasn’t clear exactly what would be a better step in the right direction. Advances came painfully slowly, and the Agricultural Revolution only looks like a revolution if you back out and look at the slow path of human evolution over tens of thousands of years. On the scale of a single human life, it was hardly a revolution and hardly clear that things were going in the right direction.
 
 
I think that part of what happens when we look back in time at the Agricultural Revolution and consider how it improved (or failed to improve) the lives of ancient humans, is that we substitute a hard question for an easy question. Instead of investigating what life was like for foragers relative to the first agricultural humans, we ask, “have I (and has humanity) benefitted from the Agricultural Revolution?” The answer is clearly yes, it was a good thing in the long run for us all individually. Retroactively we apply this good framing to the Agricultural Revolution and assume that it was always a good thing for everyone, judging history by our current situation and perspective. But as Harari writes, ancient farmers whose lives may have been worse off than the lives of ancient foragers certainly didn’t think that their transition to farming was always and unambiguously a good thing. They didn’t know what the future of humanity would become tens of thousands of years later, based on the system of farming and communal living that they were pioneering. By substituting how we feel about the Agricultural Revolution today for the lived reality of those who went through it, we get an incomplete and inaccurate view of what it really was.
The Agricultural Revolution is History's Biggest Fraud - Yuval Noah Harari - Joe Abittan Sapiens Book

History’s Biggest Fraud

When you think of the biggest fraud in human history, you probably don’t think of the Agricultural Revolution, but Yuval Noah Harari does. In his book Sapiens, Harari writes, “the Agricultural Revolution certainly enlarged the sum total of food at the disposal of humankind, but the extra food did not translate into a better diet or more leisure. Rather it translated into population explosions and pampered elites. The average farmer worked harder than the average forager, and got a worse diet in return. The Agricultural Revolution was history’s biggest fraud.”
The general picture of the Agricultural Revolution was humanity mastering crops and moving from the dangerous lifestyle and near starvation of foraging to bountiful harvests. The reality is that the agricultural revolution was a great disappointment in comparison. The first crops that humans domesticated were barely more productive than wild plants. Controlling land and planting crops was only slightly more effective and efficient than harvesting a lucky cache of wild edible plants. The work was hard and tedious, and a full day focused on a single crop meant that farmers were not out finding edible fruits, nuts, fungi, and animal meat to provide a well rounded and nourishing diet. Farmers ate what they grew, almost exclusively, and nutritional deficiencies were common.
Harari finds it amazing that early humans were able to persevere through the early days of farming given the terrible tradeoff involved. Farming was not a clear bounty for humanity and was not an obvious plus for the species. It was not until substantial investments over time and smarter approaches to farming had been developed and implemented that the Agricultural Revolution began to pay off. Initially, it was a fraud, promising security and full bellies but instead delivering poor quality crops that didn’t meet a human’s nutritional needs while demanding incredible efforts.
Miserable Early Farming and Parallels to Modern Life

Miserable Early Farming and Parallels to Modern Life

“Rather than heralding a new era of easy living,” writes Yuval Noah Harari in his book Sapiens, “the Agricultural Revolution left farmers with lives generally more difficult and less satisfying than those of foragers.” When we tell a basic story of humanity, we imagine early hunter-gatherer humans as cold, scared, dumb, and barely surviving as they foraged through forests in search of mushrooms and prey. The story has these people then evolve into smarter farmers who work hard in fields, but have nice warm shelters and a happy family before eventually evolving into our modern city living, car driving humans. This overly simplified story, unexpectedly, is off with regard to the experiences of early foragers and farmers, and I think there is a lesson we can see in our own lives in the modern world.
 
 
The first thing to recognize is that farming is hard, and was especially hard for the first humans to truly settle into an agricultural lifestyle. It was not a guarantee that farming and agriculture would be the best way for humans to live for continued survival and the future evolution of the species. However, that is what happened. Harari asks why this became the path of human evolution and social growth took given that farming is miserable, barely produced sufficient food at first, and left early humans dependent on a single crop. His answer generally tends to be the cooperative benefits and safety that agricultural communities offered to humans, even if it ruined every other aspect of their lives. “Hunter-gatherers spent their time in more stimulating and varied ways, and were less in danger of starvation and disease,” Harari writes.
 
 
Humans had evolved over tens of thousands of years to be great foragers. We have not evolved for the same period of time to be great farmers. Farming was incredibly difficult work from the start, and it made people’s lives as a whole worse off at the individual level while increasing the wellbeing of a select few and ultimately raising the potential of humans as a collective. In some ways, this doesn’t feel too different from modern society. There are still those who farm and those who are working in awful situations (think of the Dirty Jobs tv show) so the rest of us can live clean and leisurely lifestyles. Some of us are the equivalent of the first humans to begin farming, while others of us are the equivalent of the foragers who stuck to their adventurous lifestyle rather than adopting an agrarian life, and still others are like the ones who reaped the benefits of the agrarian society without having to do the farming themselves. For me, thinking about the history of humanity and the parallels between the modern world and the world of our ancestors helps me think about how I want to live and how many before me have lived.
 
 
Surely, whichever path I choose can be defensible based on how humans of the past chose to live and how our species evolved. Do I feel that I can’t be tied down to a particular spot and job? No problem, even while agrarian societies were getting their foothold, foraging continued to be a better lifestyle than farming, its only natural that I would be the modern day equivalent. Do I feel that I need to work hard and produce something meaningful for myself and all of society, even though all that hard work sucks? Sure, that’s only natural, look at all the humans who settled in communities to begin farming and change the direction of human evolution. And do I feel like I should be able to enjoy the benefits of hard work by making smart decisions and setting myself up well to enjoy life even though I’m dependent on the work of others? Well, that’s natural too, just look at the people who became leaders in agrarian communities without doing the farming themselves. The point is that we don’t necessarily have to defend our decisions and lifestyles as being ‘natural’, or as the ‘best way for people to live’, or as anything other than how we are choosing to live now. There is a huge range of possible ways of life, and it’s not always clear what is going to lead to the most flourishing for humanity or the greatest chance of evolutionary success. As Harari notes, farming was not a clear path toward successful genetic continuation for the first agrarian humans, but it worked out. Before them foragers drove human evolution in small tribes for a hundred thousand years. It’s not clear exactly where we are headed, but there are lots of ways to try to get there.
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.
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.
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 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.