Does the Arc of Humanity Bend Toward Justice? - Yuval Noah Harari Sapiens - The Better Angles of our Nature Steven Pinker - Joseph Henrich the WEIRDest People in the world - Joe Abittan

Does the Arc of Humanity Bend Toward Justice?

In his book Sapiens, Yuval Noah Harari writes, “there is absolutely no proof that human well-being inevitably improves as history rolls along. There is no proof that cultures that are beneficial to humans must inexorably succeed and spread, while less beneficial cultures must disappear.” Harari effectively argues that there is not a grand arc of humanity bending toward justice, that our cultures and civilizations around the globe are not necessarily moving toward being more cooperative and peaceful, that cultural evolution is not driving us toward better lives. If that is happening, then it is chance, Harari may argue, or we may be moving in a better direction, but that our path is not necessarily the most optimal for humans. Harari continues, “There is no proof that history is working for the benefit of humans because we lack an objective scale on which to measure such benefit.”
 
 
Around the same time that Harari published Sapiens, Steven Pinker published The Better Angles of Our Nature, and in that book he argues that the grand arc of humanity does bend toward justice, and that humans are becoming better and building better cultures over time. Pinker presents many objective scales on which humans are less violent, less impulsive, and are living better lives compared to humans of the past. Across multiple measures and various perspectives, humanity is improving and the history of humans does seem to be working toward our benefit. It may not feel that way, but cultures are becoming less violent and impulsive, and we can measure it in many ways.
 
 
In 2021, about 6 years after Sapiens was published, Joseph Henrich published The WEIRDest People in the World, in which he examines what cultural values contributed to western, educated, industrialized, rich, democracies, and how Europe and the Untied States became so WEIRD. He suggests that history could have taken different paths and that chance events could have moved history in different directions, but shows how certain cultural arrangements seem to have had different outcomes for humans, and how some cultural arrangements were more favorable and spread in an evolution-like manner. There may not have been a specific WEIRD end goal of this cultural evolution and one could argue that human culture lost some valuable aspects along the way, but Henrich’s argument seems to suggest that Harari is incorrect in stating that beneficial cultures for humans do not outcompete less beneficial cultures.
 
 
Harari may be correct if the evolution of humanity moves in a similar direction to the evolution of chickens. Chickens are some of the most abundant living things on the planet. There are more chickens alive than humans. What  they did to become so evolutionarily prosperous was become incredibly valuable to humans as a food source. However, this evolutionary success in terms of overall numbers is not good for individual chickens. Their lives are short and brutal. Their species population has exploded at the cost of the individual chicken’s life quality deteriorating. If this is the ultimate fate of humans, then Harari may be correct, human evolution does not move in a direction that makes the most out of life and existence.
 
 
However, that doesn’t seem to be where our species is headed. Birth rates globally are declining. While humans face great challenges with climate change and technological development we certainly don’t seem to be heading toward a world of more and more humans with ever less enjoyable lives. And Harari is incorrect in saying that we cannot find a universal measurement with which we can evaluate human progress. We fight fewer wars, kill each other less, and are less violent toward others, as Pinker demonstrates. By all measures (possibly with the exception of happiness measures from physically dominant 25 year-old males who want to fight everyone) this is an objectively good thing. Additionally, Henrich demonstrates that cultural factors which favored increasing trust with strangers, as opposed to only being able to trust family clans, favored a more civilized and peaceful society, thus outcompeting less beneficial cultural arrangements.
 
 
In short, both Pinker and Henrich provide examples which refute this post’s opening quotes from Harari. The arc of humanity does seem to bend toward justice and human cultures do seem to evolve in a direction that is better for humans over time, even if that evolution is slow, more complex than we fully understand, and not necessarily the most optimal pathway of all possible pathways. 
Why Study History? Yuval Noah Harari Sapiens - Joe Abittan Blog

Why Study History?

In his book Sapiens, Yuval Noah Harari asks why we should study history if history is not deterministic. If history was deterministic, then we would be able to look back in time at what has happened and determine where things will go next. We would  be able to see clear causal links between events of the past and easily adjust our behaviors and decisions moving forward. If history was truly deterministic, then the trite saying, “those who don’t understand history are doomed to repeat it,” would actually mean something.
 
 
But history is not deterministic. There are random changes, chance events, and other unpredictable factors that influence everything from technological development, to GDP, and even marriage and family structures. We can look back and create a compelling narrative, but the causal power of our explanations is extremely low. We can see the how of history, that is how things unfolded, but not the why, not the causal structures underlying everything.
 
 
And that makes it reasonable to ask why we should bother studying history at all. Harari responds to this inquiry by writing, “history is not a means for making accurate predictions. We study history not to know the future but to widen our horizons, to understand that our present situation is neither natural nor inevitable, and that we consequently have many more possibilities before us than we imagine.”
 
 
History helps us see that racial hierarchies, monarchies, and other aspects of life and culture are based on little more than chance. It helps us understand that humans can live in more ways than we imagine and can have more experiences than we imagine. History doesn’t help us predict what is going to happen in the future and doesn’t tell us how we should live now, but it does help us see that the world is not as rigid as we may imagine. History should expand our knowledge of the possible and humble us in the choices and decisions we make.
Level Two Chaos & History

Level Two Chaos and History

“It is an iron law of history that what looks inevitable in hindsight was far from obvious at the time,” writes Yuval Noah Harari in his book Sapiens. History seems pretty clear when we look backwards. It is certainly complex, but whether it is our own lives, a sports season, or the rise and fall of an empire, we generally do a pretty good job of creating a compelling narrative to explain how history unfolded and why certain events took place. But these narratives create what we call the hindsight bias, where past events (in this case the course of human history) appear nearly deterministic. The reality is that small changes could shape the course of history in dramatic ways, and that the future is never clear at any point – as our current uncertainty about social media, climate change, and political polarization demonstrate. Harari continues, “in a few decades, people will look back and think that the answers to all of these questions were obvious,” but for us, the right answers are certainly far from obvious.
 
 
History, for human beings, is shaped by the innumerable decisions that we make every day. The course of history is not deterministic, but is instead chaotic. Harari argues that history is a level two chaotic system and writes, “chaotic systems come in two shapes. Level one chaos is chaos that does not react to predictions about it … level two chaos is chaos that reacts to predictions about it, and therefore can never be predicted accurately.”
 
 
The weather is a level one chaotic system because it doesn’t respond (on a day to day basis) to our predictions. Whether our computer models suggest a 1%, 45%, or 88% chance of rain on a given day doesn’t change what is going to happen in the atmosphere and whether it will or will not rain. Despite our sometimes magical thinking, scheduling a wedding or stating our hopes for or against certain weather patterns does not influence the actual weather.
 
 
History, is not a level one chaotic system. History is shaped by elections, the general beliefs within the public, the actions that people take, and how key actors understand risk and probability. Our predictions can greatly influence all of these areas. Predicting a landslide victory in an election can demotivate the losing side of a political divide, possibly turning what could have been a marginal victory into the predicted landslide as a sort of self-fulfilling prophecy. Reporting that general beliefs are becoming more or less prevalent among a population can influence the rate and direction of changing beliefs as people hear the predictions about belief trends (this seems like it may have happened as marijuana and gay marriage gained acceptance across the US). Our reactions to predictions can influence the final outcomes, contributing more uncertainty and chaos to the system.
 
 
We cannot predict exactly how people will react to predictions about the systems they participate in. It makes the predictions and forecasts more challenging since they have to incorporate different levels of response to various inputs. History cannot be thought of deterministically because so many small factors could have changed the outcomes, and those small changes in turn would have influenced exactly what predictions were made, in turn influencing the reactions of the people involved in the various actions of history. Our confidence in understanding history and why history played out as it did is not warranted, and is simply a fallacy.
Complexity and Cultural Decisions

Complexity and Cultural Decisions

In the United States, and in much of the world, people are reexamining the histories and cultures that built the lives that people live. There is a push to disavow ancestors who were brutal to other people, to disavow groups that committed genocides and atrocities against others, and to disavow the cultural practices of people’s who dominated other groups. Whether it is the Black Lives Matter movement and the 1619 Project in the United States, countries formerly dominated by the British Empire working to redefine themselves beyond their colonial past, or native peoples trying to reestablish a culture that was oppressed by explorers hundreds of years ago, people across the globe are attempting to make difficult decisions about how to understand their culture of oppression and celebrate that culture moving forward without becoming as bad as their former oppressors.
 
 
In his book Sapiens, Yuval Noah Harari writes about the dilemma such people face. He writes, “whatever path we take, the first step is to acknowledge the complexity of the dilemma and to accept that simplistically diving the past into good guys and bad guys leads nowhere.” History is challenging. For example, while we generally dislike the history of British colonization, arguments can be made that countries colonized by the British had better outcomes than countries that were not colonized. Additionally, it is hard to separate what is truly derivative from one culture relative to another, especially after decades or centuries of cultural dominance and back and forth cultural influence. Simply arguing that history would have been better one way or another, or arguing that a culture should get rid of everything associated with “bad guys” is an insufficient way to think about how a culture should relate to its past.
 
 
In the United States this seems to be part of the problem with the sharp divide over the Black Lives Matter movement or Critical Race Theory. White people see these movements and fear that their cultural history is immediately tainted as bad and evil. Rather than feeling as though their cultural heritage has anything worth celebrating, they feel as though people are turning on their cultural heritage and disavowing anything that came from it, ultimately threatening the lives of white people today. If we want to address the cultural problems of white slave holders, it is important to recognize how difficult and thorny our cultural histories in the United States are, and to recognize that we cannot simply say that white people are evil (or have been evil). We cannot paint with a broad brush and must instead consider the nuances and complexities as we think about how American culture can move forward. In the United States this means that black people must be considerate of how their culture was influenced by white dominance, but also how their culture persisted and influenced the United States in positive ways. White people must also look back and not see their ancestors as purely evil. We can eliminate statutes and monuments to people who do not deserve to be praised, but we can also still celebrate aspects of our historical culture that propelled us to where we are. It is a difficult path to navigate, and probably doesn’t lend itself to a solid sense of balance, because cultures are too complex for dichotomies and balance. 
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.
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.
History and Culture

Culture and History

In Sapiens, Yuval Noah Harari writes, “The immense diversity of imagined realities that Sapiens invented, and the resulting diversity of behavior patterns, are the main components of what we call ‘cultures’. Once cultures appeared, they never ceased to change and develop, and these unstoppable alterations are what we call ‘history’.”
Across the globe humans have different ways of living, different ways of relating to each other, and different ways of understanding the universe. Harari would argue that many of  these differences stem from different realities invented at different times by different peoples across the globe. I would agree with him. We can argue over whether some differences are good or bad, whether some some differences are fair or unjust, and whether some differences reflect the nature of reality more or less accurately, but in the end, a great deal of what we call culture is more or less random, based on invented realities that fit the time.  History is the study of how these invented realities and associated customs and behaviors change.
I have written before about the fact that human rights do not exist. At least, and Harari would agree, they are not anything tangible that you could identify in the real world if you autopsied a human. Ultimately, human rights fall into the same category as spirits and the human soul. For many years humans investigated the human body, trying to find the soul, trying to weigh the soul as it left a dying human body, and trying to confirm that it was indeed a tangible thing. In the end, reasonable scientists had to conclude that the soul was an invented reality, not an objective reality, and human rights fall in the same category. They are an invention that we make real through institutions, customs, and behaviors. The idea of human rights helps us understand how we relate to each other and the systems and structures of governance that we have established in the United States. They have been helpful in organizing society and helping us develop, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they reflect a true reality about the universe, or that they always will serve humans well. They are a specific product of culture that has grown out of Western, educated, industrialized, rich, and democratic (WEIRD) societies.
Humans have not always had human rights, as we can see by studying and exploring history. Cultures, and the values that cultures cary, such as human rights, have altered through time. Harari argues that these changes are unstoppable, and that new invented realities are constantly arising to fit the new developments and needs of human beings. Much to the chagrin of those who lean toward conservatism, desiring a stasis rather than a progression, culture doesn’t stand still, the stories we invent about reality don’t stay the same. cultures move, invented realities morph, and history progresses. Ideas that serve us well in one cultural setting may not serve us well in the future, and may evolve into something entirely different.
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.
Three Major Revolutions

Three Major Revolutions

Yuval Noah Harari explains the evolution of humankind through three major revolutions in his book Sapiens. Harari takes a long view of humanity, trying to understand our very origins as a species and how we became who we are today. The three revolutions he identifies changed the course and direction of the evolution of humankind, and might lead to us becoming something unrecognizable in the future.
Harari writes, “the Cognitive Revolution kick-started history about 70,000 years ago. The Agricultural Revolution sped it up about 12,000 years ago. The Scientific Revolution, which got under way only 500 years ago, may well end history and start something completely different.”
This quick quote shows that the development of humans has been long and slow, but that recent changes have been dramatically quick in comparison. Human brains began to change dramatically during the Cognitive Revolution, but those changes did not spark instant societies and further tool use or manipulation of nature. 50,000 years of evolution took place before an Agricultural Revolution, which marked another change in human behavior, thinking, social structures, and life. What it meant to be human and the experience of living humans changed little in the 50,000 years between the Cognitive and Agricultural Revolutions, even though our minds were evolving dramatically.
But in the last 500 years, with the Scientific Revolution, the human experience has changed dramatically. It is possible that these dramatic changes and advances will continue, to the point where humans will no longer be recognizable as human when compared to the species that kicked off the Cognitive Revolution or the Agricultural Revolution. The Scientific Revolution put us on a new path that may end up with humans fusing with computers and machines to be human in a way, but not in a way that a human from 12,000 years would recognize.