The Biological Possibilities of He and She

The Biological Possibilities of He and She

In his book Sapiens, Yuval Noah Harari writes, “most of the laws, norms, rights, and obligations that define manhood and womanhood reflect human imagination more than biological reality.” Throughout human societies, imagined orders and hierarchies define the way that humans interact and relate to one another.  These hierarchies matter in terms of how people understand their role in the world, understand what is good and evil, and understand how they should behave. However, these hierarchies are not necessarily grounded in any scientific fact or objective reality. They are often influenced by chance historical events and myths that societies adopt as they develop. Some myths are helpful for development. Some myths lose their grip and cease to function in a helpful way over time. And other myths never manage to get beyond a fringe group.
 
 
Often, the status quo that is produced by chance events and myths become entrenched and defended as natural. Those who stand to benefit from the status quo, and those who do not wish to believe that their lives are driven by myths, will argue that biology, economy, or other seemingly objective sciences inevitably produced the society and culture in which they live. But this is a mistake. We can see that throughout time and space human societies have differed in many important ways. There is far more variation possible than we often recognize. “Biology is willing to tolerate a very wide spectrum of possibilities,” writes Harari. Whatever organization we choose to adopt, for whatever reason we choose to adopt such organization, can be defended as natural. Harari continues, “whatever is possible is by definition also natural.”
 
 
This can be seen in the ways in which cultures and societies relate to concepts of gender. Biology is often used to define men and women as purely XY and XX, as having male anatomy and female anatomy, and as occupying certain roles that are determined and entirely influenced by biology. But if Harari’s quote from earlier is correct, much of the way we think about masculinity, femininity, and gender is not based in biology, but in human constructs. Perhaps our sex chromosomes and the biological differences that our genes reliably produce (in most individuals) is the basis for the differences we see in how we understand gender, but that doesn’t explain why the picture of manliness changes so much throughout time or why so many people don’t seem to fit with the dominant gender roles of any given period.
 
 
Harari contrasts a picture of King Louis XIV of France with a picture of Barack Obama. Both men are in poses of masculine domination, but the pictures could not be more different in how they demonstrate masculinity. King Louis XIV is wearing tights, has a long flowing wig, is dressed in something like a ball gown, and is even wearing make-up and high heeled shoes. President Obama, on the other hand, is wearing a dark relatively fitted suite. He has little jewelry on and the only thing with any shine are his polished black dress shoes. He sits on the desk in the oval office with a confident, yet calm look on his face. The masculinity presented in each photo could hardly be more different.
 
 
Our ideas about gender are not set in stone and constantly change and evolve. Technology, global relationships, and the type of labor that is rewarded in society can all influence what is manly, what is feminine, and what is acceptable within both spaces. Throughout history the way masculinity and femininity have been defined has hardly been stable, and has hardly been fair. “Gender is a race in which some of the runners compete only for the bronze medal,” Harari writes to describe the inequalities that women have faced throughout much of history. There is no reason this inequality  has to exist. It is not truly biologically based, though men and women typically do have predictable biological differences, and there is no reason we have to consider such discrimination natural. The biological possibilities of he and she are greater than what we usually realize and accept.
A Vicious Circle

A Vicious Circle

How did discrimination against black people in the United States become so bad? In Sapiens, Yuval Noah Harari argues that two competing desires, economic self-interest and a desire to see themselves as pious, just, and objective drove white slave owners to develop myths and excuses for the enslavement of black people. The myths created were powerful. Harari writes, “theologians argued that Africans descended from Ham, son of Noah, saddled by his father with a curse that his offspring would be slaves. Biologists argued that blacks are less intelligent than whites and their moral sense less developed. Doctors alleged that blacks live in filth and spread diseases – in other words, they are a source of pollution.”
 
 
These myths dominated the mindset of both white and black people with regards to race. They played on fear, used faulty evidence to justify white slave owners’ inherent self-interest, and allowed white slave owners to see themselves as benevolent, not as oppressive. Harari argues that these myths were so effective and persuasive that even when slavery officially ended, the influence of these myths lived on. While it was a huge change of events and culture to make slavery illegal, the power of myths found a way to live on.
 
 
“Notably,” Harari writes of British anti-slavery actions and subsequent American actions, “this was the first and only time in history that a large number of slaveholding societies voluntarily abolished slavery. But, even though the slaves were freed, racist myths that justified slavery persisted. Separation of the races was maintained by racist legislation and social custom. The result was a self-reinforcing cycle of cause and effect, a vicious circle.”
 
 
We celebrate the achievements of those who overturned and outlawed slavery in the Untied States, but we often fail to recognize how powerful the myths surrounding black inferiority were, and in many ways have continued to be to this day. It is a mistake to say that when slavery ended, that when blatantly racist legislation was repealed, that when a black man was elected president, the power of the myths which bolstered slavery and in some ways established our country dissipated. When myth creates the circumstances for a vicious circle, passively hoping that racism and inequality established by such myths will fade away is inadequate. The power of a myth must be replaced, Harari would argue, by another more powerful myth. Myths do not go away and cease to be influential on their own.
A Few Dominant Myths

A Few Dominant Myths

“Friends giving advice often tell each other, follow your heart. But the heart is a double agent that usually takes its instructions from the dominant myths of the day,” writes Yuval Noah Harari in Sapiens. What we want, what we believe is possible for us, and how we experience the world is often dominated by the larger culture that we are a part of. This means that how we relate to and understand the world is constantly changing both through our own lifetimes and across the lifetimes of individuals of our entire species. What we believe, what we think is good and worthy of our time and energy, and how we go about pursuing our goals and desires changes based on the dominant myths of our time and the resources available to us.
 
 
To demonstrate this point, Harari shows how two myths, Romanticism and Consumerism can be found in the idea of follow your heart. Regarding Romanticism, Harari writes, “Romanticism tells us that in order to make the most of our human potential we must have as many different human experiences as we can.” The value of being human, within this framework, is the experience of being alive. Doing the same thing each day, becoming really good at one particular thing, living in the same spot, and having a few consistent experiences each day is not valuable. Uniqueness, openness, and diversity are praised within the individual.
 
 
Regarding Consumerism, Harari writes, “Consumerism tells us that in order to be happy we must consume as many products and services as possible. If we feel that something is missing or not quite right, then we probably need to buy a product.” Within this view, things, possessions, and services are of inherent value, as is owning things and consuming services. A lack of possessions is seen as failure, and the goal is to continually obtain more, bigger, and better possessions.
 
 
It is easy to see why Harari is able to lump these two myths together. Being unique compliments buying lots of different things. Having many varied possessions, purchasing many varied services, and utilizing possessions to engage in new and diverse activities tie Romantic ideas of the individual pursuing a diverse and exciting lifestyle with the consumerism urge to possess and own things and experiences. “Romanticism, which encourages variety, meshes perfectly with consumerism,” Harari writes.
 
 
But there is no reason that our culture needs to favor these two myths over others. It is nice to have a diversity of experiences. It can be helpful to see and view the world from different perspectives and to understand how others live and the full potential of humanity. It is also nice to be able to purchase comforts, and a helpful byproduct of consumerism is an advancing technological landscape that rewards innovations which improve life satisfaction. But Humans can be satisfied in life with a few possessions. We can be satisfied with a stable and predictable routine. We can find joy in becoming very good at doing the same things each day and mastering those tasks. There is no reason that Romanticism or Consumerism has to be understood as better than Stoicism or Minimalism, or any other myth that we might adopt. Within the United States, few of us truly challenge the ideas of Romanticism or Consumerism. They are the dominant myths of the day, and eschewing them is strange. Even when we do try to give up one myth, it is hard to give up both. Deciding not to purchase many products and services is seen as a way of being unique and self-sufficient, a Romantic framing of non-Consumerist behavior. Minimalism often still rewards carefully curated purchases and possessions. If you are not going to have a lot of things, then you better have the absolute best of the few things you do have, many Minimalists might argue.
 
 
How we understand ourselves, the values we pursue, and how we exist in culture is often determined by myths that work well when we all embrace them in a collective manner. That doesn’t mean that one myth is inherently better than another. Additionally, myths can be complimentary to each other, and even contradictory myths can be understood as complimentary and not conflicting. We do not exist in isolation or in a vacuum, and it shows in the ways in which cultural myths influence us. Follow your heart is a message to tap into the dominant myths of the day, and it is a saying that is influenced by those same myths.
Political Myths

Political Myths

Throughout the book Sapiens Yuval Noah Harari argues that modern humans are able to cooperate and live in large societies because we share common myths. There are certain institutions which we have developed based on little more than myths that smooth our interactions with others, allow us to follow basic norms, and create a shared understanding of the world. This allows us to buy food from people we have never met, to bestow authority on others, and to coordinate movements over vast distances. But at the heart of our system is myth.
 
 
Harari demonstrates this through the political thought of the United States, specifically looking at the founding texts of the United States, such as the Declaration of Independence. Harari compares the founding principals of the United States to the principals of Hammurabi, an early human political leader thousands of years before the United States existed. Demonstrating political myths and their roles in unifying people and creating institutions within society, Harari writes:
 
 
“Hammurabi and the American Founding Fathers alike imagined a reality governed by universal and immutable principles of justice, such as equality or hierarchy. Yet the only place where such universal principals exist is in the fertile imagination of Sapiens, and in the myths they invent and tell one another. These principles have no objective validity.”
 
 
Ideas of divine leadership, equality among all humans, human rights, or reciprocal punishment, are little more than myth. To be clear, these ideas are incredibly useful political myths, and when everyone agrees and accepts these myths a society can function well. But nevertheless, each of these ideas can be demonstrated to be an inadequate way of understanding the universe given various situations. They are not inherently and objectively accurate and correct ways to understand humans and the world we occupy, but they can be incredibly useful ways of organizing ourselves for cooperation and peaceful living within large societies. Harari continues, “It is easy for us to accept that the division of people into superiors and commoners is a figment of the imagination. Yet the idea that all humans are equal is also a myth.”
 
 
Within the United States we have superiors and commoners, but we call them by different names. Business owners, managers, and landlords all fit into a category of superiors with authority over other people. We have specifically written down the ways in which they can and cannot exercise that authority, but they clearly exist within a hierarchy. We strive for a level of political equality among all people, where the law applies equally regardless of ones authority or status as a superior, but we all know that we don’t manage this process perfectly. We believe we are all equal and that one person is not more valuable or inherently better than another, but we can demonstrate that not all people are equal. For example, I don’t have a learning disability and I excelled in school, while others have dyslexia and struggled in school. I was born to a solidly middle class family which offered me a safe and enjoyable childhood, while others grew up in poverty stricken homes and others still grew up in incredibly luxurious homes that provided a great deal of opportunities for future economic success. Clearly there is no real equality either biologically or socially within our society.
 
 
What I am not trying to do with this post, and what I don’t believe Harari is trying to do in his book, is to argue that myths are bad. Instead, I am trying to demonstrate that many of the things we believe and hold as obviously or intuitively accurate, is little more than happenstance. Some ways of living and being are excellent for the current time and place, while others have been excellent in the past or will be more advantageous in the future. It is important that we recognize how much of our lives is driven by myth, so that we can adapt and be flexible where needed in how we understand and approach the world. It is easier to believe that our myths reflect an inherent reality about the universe so that we don’t have to question our beliefs, but that would be incorrect and could lead us to make essentially tyrannical decisions that belie the actual reality of the universe. We can use myths to cooperate and function in a society, but those same myths can be abused when believed too strongly or in the wrong scenarios.
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.
Dual Realities - Yuval Noah Harari - Sapiens - Joe Abittan

Dual Realities

A little while back I had a post about personal responsibility where I ultimately suggested that we live in a sort of dual reality. On the one hand, I suggested that we believe that we are personally responsible for our own outcomes, and that we work hard to put ourselves in positions to succeed. But on the other hand, I suggested that when we view other people and where they are in life we reduce the role of personal responsibility and see people as victims of circumstance. For viewing other people, I suggested we weigh outside factors more than internal factors, the opposite of how I encourage us to think about our own lives. This dual reality that I suggested felt strange, but I argued that it should work because it is something we do all the time in life.
In the book Sapiens, Yuval Noah Harari suggests that viewing dual realities is central to our humanity. In fact, Harari would argue that being able to perceive dual (sometimes conflicting realities) helped drive our evolution to become modern Homo sapiens. He writes, “ever since the Cognitive Revolutions, Sapiens have thus been living in a dual reality. On the one hand, the objective reality of rivers, trees and lions; and on the other hand, the imagined reality of gods, nations and corporations.” We are adept at seeing the objective reality, layering on narratives and myths, and then inhabiting a new reality that is shaped by both the objectivity underlying our narrative and the mystical nature of the narratives we create. The objective reality is incredibly complicated and our powerful brains are not enough to make sense of that objective reality independently. They need narratives and stories that can help simplify and bring order to the chaos of objective reality.
The question, as Harari ends up reaching – and as I hopelessly found out with my initial blog post on personal responsibility – is how to get people to all adopt the same myths in order to cooperate and bring about the best possible outcomes. “Much of history,” writes Harari, “revolves around this question: how does one convince millions of people to believe particular stories about gods, or nations, or limited liability companies?” My blog post, which ended with a lukewarm suggestion of viewing personal responsibility differently based on whether you were viewing yourself or others, is certainly not going to influence millions of people to adopt a narrative that makes sense from one perspective but simultaneously requires a contradictory perspective. Yet nevertheless, humans throughout history have been able to get people to believe such stories.
In the history of human myths, deities have been all knowing and all powerful, yet humans still have free will and can make unpredictable choices that leave deities baffled and angered. In some myths, humans can influence the weather and climate, change the course of rivers and streams, but gods and spirits are the ones responsible for the productivity of such natural resources. And corporations can exist, dependent upon and comprised of individuals and material objects, yet those individuals are exempt from liability when things go wrong and the individuals don’t actually seem to own any of the material goods of the company. These contradictions exist and can make our brains hurt if we focus on them too much, but we accept them and move on despite the apparent fictions and contradictions. How this happens is beyond the scope of a single blog post, and really a bigger question that what Harari fully answers and explains in Sapiens.
More on Modern Myths - Yuval Noah Harari - Sapiens - Joe Abittan

More on Modern Myths

In the book Sapiens, Yuval Noah Harari writes, “People easily acknowledge that primitive tribes cement their social order by believing in ghosts and spirits, and gathering each full moon to dance together around the campfire. What we fail to appreciate is that our modern institutions function on exactly the same basis.”
My post yesterday gave several examples of modern myths that we believe in, even though we don’t recognize them as such. Harari focuses on the things in our world that are not tangible, but nevertheless are agreed to and recognized by humans across the globe. Many of our institutions are based on little more than trust and agreement, but those two factors, shared among enough people, are able to create shared myths. These shared myths allow us to make real, tangible objects. They allow us to organize and manage huge numbers of people. And they also allow us to come together, enjoy being social humans, and to have shared stories and legends.
I think the easiest way to see how modern humans are not much different than primitive tribes in terms of myths and community cementation is within sports, especially college sports. We will root for a team, often unreasonably given a team’s performance, and come together in unison to yell special chants meant to boost our team’s performance while hindering the performance of the other team. After the game we will discuss miracle plays, debate the performance of gifted, sometimes god-like individuals, and we will share the experience of being present to watch the special ritual of a comeback win or buzzer beater. The part of humanity which brought primitive tribes together around a campfire for bonding is still on full display in sports stadiums and college towns around the country.
But Harari goes further in his book than sports fanatics when exploring institutions, human organizations, and myths. Yesterday’s post referenced corporations, nations, and even human rights as being myths that humans have developed to bring people together around something intangible. Harari explains that human rights have been invented and agreed upon, that you cannot find human rights inside a person the way you can find lungs, bones, or livers. They exist because we agree that they do, much like the deities of ancient civilizations.
Harari also compares lawyers to shamans in his book. A corporate lawyer tells a story by making an argument from a certain point of view. Their words, how they phrase, present, and describe certain actions and situations, can ultimately change the reality of the world. It is not unreasonable, even if it is a creative stretch, to compare a modern lawyer to an ancient shaman who could mutter special incantations to cure the sick or bring rain.
What Harari is ultimately trying to argue is that the myths which helped kickstart societies and human cooperation never really left our human species. The myths changed over time, perhaps became less mystical and less magical, but still exist. We still rely on rituals and hidden forces to bring humans together, but we have shaped them as specific institutions that feel more grounded in reason and rationality than the institutions present in ancient myths. Ultimately, we still depend on stories to hold our societies together and connect millions and billions of humans peacefully and cooperatively.