Remembering Numbers

Remembering Numbers

A common theme throughout Yuval Noah Harari’s book Sapiens is the argument that Homo sapiens changed so quickly thanks to our brains that our evolution, both physiologically and psychologically, couldn’t keep up. Evolution is a slow process, but human technological and sociological change has been incredibly rapid. Our minds and bodies are still adapted to live in a world that Homo sapiens no longer inhabits.
 
 
As an example, Harari writes, “no forager needed to remember, say, the number of fruit on each tree in the forest. So human brains did not adapt to storing and processing numbers.” Math is hard, and part of the reason it is so hard is that our minds didn’t evolve to do lots of math.  Our foraging ancestors had incredible brains (as we still do) capable of keeping track of the social and political alliances within groups of 50 to 250 individuals – a huge number of potential combinations of friends, enemies, or frenemies. But foragers were not collecting taxes, were not trying to hang multiple pictures of different sizes equally on a wall, or trying to quickly remember which basketball player made a jump shot at the same time that another player committed a foul and tabulate a final score.
 
 
The human mind was not evolved for remembering numbers, and that is why recording and calculating numbers is so difficult. It is why we can be so easily confused by graphs and charts that are not well organized and put together. It is part of why it is so hard to save money now to retire later, and why credit card debt can be such an easy problem to fall into. We are good at remembering about 7 digits at once in our short term memory, but beyond that we easily become confused and start to lose track of information. The Agricultural Revolution made numbers more important beginning about 70,000 years ago, but our brains have not caught up. To make up for the difficulty of storing numbers in our heads we write numbers down on paper (or stone tablets in the distant past), use calculators to crunch numbers quicker than we can by hand, and rely on tools that can save numbers and data so that we don’t have to hold it all in our heads. Our brains simply are not up to the task of holding all the numbers we need to remember, so we have developed tools to do that for us. Don’t feel bad if you can’t remember tons of numbers, and don’t make fun of others who can’t do the same. 
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.

Evolutionary Success & Individual Experience

In his book Sapiens, Yuval Noah Harari shares examples of how evolutionary success for an entire species doesn’t always mean positive things for individuals within the species. His conclusion, and the evidence of evolutionary success for humans, livestock animals, and other species, is similar to the Repugnant Conclusion, an idea common in ethical psychology. As a quick summary, the Repugnant Conclusion can be thought of in the following way. Imagine our planet has 10 billion people living, and all 10 billion people would score their happiness at a 7. If you summed up the total happiness of the planet you would get 70 billion. But imagine that our world could support the lives of 100 billion people, but only if each person had a miserable life and rated their happiness level as 1 – just barely worth living rather than not living. If you summed up the total happiness of all 100 billion people, you get 100 billion, an increase of 30 billion in terms of total happiness over the planet with 10 billion fairly happy people.
 
 
Hardly any of us would want to live in the planet where there were more living people, but almost all of them were unhappy, with lives they considered only barely worth living. But evolution doesn’t really care about happiness. Evolution seems to just care about whether lives are barely worth living, and whether genes are being passed along. Yuval Noah Harari would argue that throughout history numerous species have successfully evolved through strategies that seem to follow the Repugnant Conclusion.
 
 
When we imagine evolution, we tend to think of everything getting better. Humans, plants, and animals evolve to become bigger, faster, stronger, and better able to survive. Surely, we imagine, that means that each individual has a better life and experience than the individuals that came before it. After all, each successive generation, per evolutionary pressure, should be a better fit for survival than its predecessors. Unfortunately, we can evolve in the direction of the Repugnant Conclusion, with fitness for survival having nothing to do with actual individual level fitness and happiness. Greater numbers of individuals may be able to survive if they are all a little less happy, require a little less in terms of resources, and can better manage being crammed into a tight space. Harari writes, “this discrepancy between evolutionary success and individual suffering is perhaps the most important lesson we can draw from the Agricultural Revolution.”
 
 
When we think about evolution, Harari argues that, “we have to consider how evolutionary success translates into individual experience.” Today, there are far more chickens alive than at any other point in history. By evolutionary standards, chickens have done great. They continuously pass their genes along and even have another species invested in the continued survival and population growth of chickens. However, individual chickens have miserable lives, often confined to cages they cannot move around in or stand-up in. Their lives are also very short, very congested, and their deaths can be brutal. The individual experience for a chicken is about as bad as it could be, but the species as a whole is booming. Harari argues that similar things have happened in Human Evolution. We might not all be trapped in cages, but we have had changes in our species that have made the individual lives of humans worse while propelling the survival and continued evolutionary success of the species forward. Evolution does not simply mean better. It means continued survival and change in the face of challenges for survival. Sometimes the experiences of the individuals can improve, but that is not always the case.
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.
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.
The World that we Subconsciously Still Inhabit

The World we Subconsciously Inhabit

Evolutionary psychology, and evolutionary explanations for modern day human behaviors, have become more popular recently. The argument is that much of what humans do today, some of which makes sense and some of which doesn’t seem to make sense, can be understood by looking into the distant human past and understanding how ancient humans lived. As Yuval Noah Harari writes in his  book Sapiens, “the flourishing field of evolutionary psychology argues that many of our present-day social and psychological characteristics were shaped during this long pre-agricultural era.” The era mentioned by Harari was the tens of thousands of years during which ancient humans lived in small bands as hunters and gatherers.
Humans lived with scarcity for tens to hundreds of thousands of years. Humans were not the most physically dominant and impressive species on the planet, didn’t often have a lot of food to eat, and didn’t have much security in terms of shelter or family. In such an environment, humans evolved specific genes to help them survive as relatively weak scavengers in small groups. But evolution for humans did not stop there. Cognitively, humans continued to improve and brains became more powerful, ultimately allowing humans to shoot up the dominance ladder, creating modern societies. Our new environment is dramatically different than the environment that almost all humans have lived in. Over a few hundred years we have created societies of abundance, of hundreds of thousands to millions of humans living together in close contact, and societies of impressive technological comfort. But evolution is much slower than our ascent, and has created challenges for us.
Regarding our modern environment and situation, Harari continues, “this environment gives us more material resources and longer lives than those enjoyed by any previous generation, but it often makes us feel alienated, depressed, and pressured. To understand why, evolutionary psychologists argue, we need to delve into the hunter-gatherer world that shaped us, the world that we subconsciously still inhabit.”
Harari explains that our bad habit of overeating sugary and greasy food becomes understandable if we look back at the environment that our human ancestors found themselves in and evolved through. Sugary food was rare. Ripe fruit, and greasy meat was hard to come by for a foraging species that couldn’t compete with larger animals to defend a downed antelope or tree full of figs. If a human did find a bunch of ripe fruit or a carcass that wasn’t being attended to by some hungry hyenas, then the human’s best bet was to eat as much as possible in one sitting. Today, in affluent societies, we have all the food we can want – we can even have it delivered to our door – but we still have the  genes that told our ancestors to eat as much as possible when sugary and greasy food was available. This mismatch doesn’t serve us well in the modern day, but the evolutionary psychology argument suggests that it was beneficial for survival in the past. Evolutionary psychology allows us to better understand ourselves today by exploring how our ancestors lived and what genetic pressures were placed on them. The challenge we now face, extending far beyond genes that influence our preference for foods, is that we no longer inhabit the world that our genes and bodies evolved to fit within. Subconsciously, and at an instinctual level likely influenced to a high degree by our genes, we still inhabit worlds that no longer exist. Our evolutionary past and psychology haven’t caught up with the modern world we live in, but we don’t always realize that is the case.
Evolution Beyond the Genome

Evolution Beyond the Genome

I recently wrote about a quote from Yuval Noah Harari’s book Sapiens in which Harari argued that humans jumped up the food chain so quickly that we never psychologically adapted to becoming the most dominant species on the planet. An important aspect of this assertion is how humans were able to make the jump up the food chain. Evolution is a slow process, typically driven by genetic and epigenetic changes to the genome that take a long time to prove useful for survival and spread throughout a population. So how did humans evolve so quickly?
The answer, according to Harari, is that homo sapiens didn’t wait around for genetic changes. The species evolved outside of our genes, with the help of our brains. Sapiens began to cooperate in large numbers, and that changed how sapiens related to the rest of the planet. “the way people cooperate can be altered by changing the myths – by telling different stories.” The Cognitive Revolution and the increasing power of the human brain allowed ancient humans to first change relationships and interactions among themselves, which then changed how they existed in the world more broadly.
I think this can be seen in the way humans have organized themselves politically. A certain amount can be achieved and done when living in small tribes dominated by a single patriarch. More can be done within an autocracy, where a single powerful ruler has managed to bring all the small patriarchal tribes under unified control. And humanity has demonstrated that even more can be achieved through representative democracies. Changing myths allows for changing political organizations and structures, which changes the way people interact with each other and the world.
Harari continues, “Speeding down this fast lane, Homo sapiens soon far outstripped all other human and animal species in its ability to cooperate.” Our myths unlocked new potentials and created an evolution beyond the genome for our species. We didn’t have to wait for small genetic changes. We created social systems and structures for coordination and cooperation based on myths, and those changes supercharged our evolution and competition among other species of the planet.
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.
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.