Discovering That Humans Don't Know Everything

Discovering That Humans Don’t Know Everything

Humans have a great ability to explain the world through narratives that seem to make sense. One problem, however, is that our narratives may feel coherent, but fail to accurately reflect the true nature of reality. We are great at explaining why things happen a certain way, at identifying causal relationships between phenomenon, and creating reasons for why things are the way they are. We are not great at recognizing when we don’t know something and when our explanations couldn’t possibly be correct.
 
 
Yuval Noah Harari sees humans overcoming our tendency to create incorrect explanations of the world as a major development toward the Scientific Revolution. In his book Sapiens, he writes, “The great discovery that launched the scientific revolution was the discovery that humans do not know the answers to their most important questions.” From our modern vantage point, this is obvious. We just launched the JWST into space to help us understand questions to which we do not have answers. And even with the incredible power that the telescope has, it won’t tell us why there is a universe at all rather than nothing. There are questions we realize that we do not have actual scientific answers for.
 
 
In the past, we used narratives to explain the unexplainable. Religious explanations are not scientifically based, but create compelling and relatable narratives to why the world is the way it is. Magic and other supernatural phenomena explained everything from earthquakes to human economic behavior. They felt correct on an intuitive level, but couldn’t possibly explain reality in an accurate way.
 
 
The Scientific Revolution required that humans acknowledged gaps in knowledge. It required acknowledging that narratives and myth were insufficient to explain the true nature of the world. From this starting point humans could begin to make objective measures of the world around them, could test their causal explanations, and could begin to understand the world in a way that assumed there were lessons to learn and that myth and stories didn’t contain all the answers we need.
Syncretism - Yuval Noah Harari - Sapiens

Syncretism

Modern Christianity, along with other dominant religions (though I know very little about any world religion besides Christianity – and even then I don’t know that much), is a monotheistic religion. If you attend a church service in the United States then you are likely to hear about a single tripartite deity who controls the world. The deity is omnipotent and omniscient, yet allows humans a level of autonomy and free will, for reasons human mortals cannot understand. At the same time, however, modern Christianity, as you may hear it described on a typical Sunday in the United States, also has many dualist characteristics. The religion claims to be purely monotheistic, with frequent denouncements of false idols such as money, the Dallas Cowboys, or other spirit gods (like the gods of traffic lights who shine their green lights upon us – or punish us with red lights at every intersection when we are running five minutes late), yet still manages to violate it’s own monotheistic principals.
 
 
In his book Sapiens, Yuval Noah Harari writes about the incredible ability for humans to create religious organizations and institutions that simultaneously hold and violate ideas of monotheism, dualism, polytheism, and other structures. Harari writes,
 
 
“The average Christian believes in the monotheist God, but also in the dualist Devil, in polytheist saints, and animist ghosts. Scholars of religion have a name for this simultaneous avowal of different and even contradictory ideas and the combination of rituals and practices taken from different sources. It’s called syncretism. Syncretism might, in fact, be the single great world religion.”
 
 
Syncretism is an amalgamation of beliefs and belief structures formalized into a religious framework, as described in the passage above. But syncretism really isn’t that different from anything else we may come to believe. I consider myself a pretty rational person, but I have conflicting and contradictory beliefs in terms of personal responsibility. I have even gone so far as to believe in two different forms of personal responsibility based on reference points. I think we should view ourselves as responsible for our life outcomes, while viewing everyone else basically as a victim of circumstances and luck. This ensures that each of us individually works hard and does our best to reach our goals and be successful, while looking at others in a sympathetic light, giving them a pass for bad behavior and seeing them as deserving of a helping hand. These two beliefs contradict each other, but just as Christianity demonstrates, there is no reason opposing and contradictory beliefs cannot be tied together in an influential manner.
 
 
The truth is that humans and our societies are complex and we don’t understand society by thinking in terms of statistical chance and variation. When someone yells at a an employee of a company when being told to pull their mask up over their nose, we assume that there was a personal and individual reason for why the mask-averse individual yelled at the employee. We don’t see it as simple statistical chance that some amount of people are generally disagreeable, won’t have enough coffee on a given day, will have lost something important while running late, and will be short tempered when told to fix their mask. We don’t do a good job holding statistical chance in our minds and instead view causal explanations, even when chance and randomness may be the better perspective. In the end, we pull a lot pieces together in how we understand the world, and those pieces may narratively work together, but may not be the best rational fit together.
 
 
Syncretism is the result of an amalgamation of different narratives with individual perspectives and experiences as they relate to religious beliefs. We have different experiences and interactions with the world which manifests in different ways of explaining and interpreting the world. We fit all these contradictory and complimentary understandings into larger frameworks, fudging the edge when necessary and adopting beliefs that are convenient and consistent with the narratives that support our experiences.  The result is a worldview and belief system that seems jumbled together, like a monotheistic religion where an all powerful deity allows an antagonistic lesser deity to run amuck . This normally isn’t a problem of human existence, but rather a feature that allows us to come together with various shared beliefs for cooperation and trust among a diverse group of individuals and experiences.
A Radical Shift in Ideas of Deservingness

A Radical Shift in Ideas of Deservingness

I think a lot about deservingness. I think most of us think about deservingness all the time, but I’m not sure many of us really think about the concept and idea of deservingness itself. As a student of political science, however, deservingness was something that I was taught as being central to how we understand our relationships between each other, and how we make political decisions with scarce resources. Deservingness plays a central role in how we decide who gets what and when.
 
Deservingness is a tricky and complex idea that includes concepts of seniority, judgments of effort, evaluations of value, and considerations of disability. In the end, however, we generally rely on vague intuitions and general notions of worthiness to determine who is and is not deserving. In the United States we have decided that senior citizens who have worked for 40 years and paid taxes are deserving of social security checks. We have decided that men and women who have served in the armed forces are deserving of government sponsored insurance and healthcare. And we have decided that people addicted to opioids don’t deserve much of anything (though this sentiment is slowly changing as the demographic of opioid addicts slowly changes to include senior citizens, war veterans, and other deserving people).
 
I highlight ideas of deservingness to serve as a background context for a quote in Yuval Noah Harari’s book Sapiens. Harari writes, “A significant proportion of humanity’s cultural achievements owe their existence to the exploitation of conquered populations.” We are in a movement today where the contributions of exploited peoples are gaining more recognition. We are seeing people who have historically been marginalized and exploited celebrated for their perseverance, grit, and achievements despite their oppression. Rather than viewing exploited people as inferior and justifying their exploitation on the grounds of higher crime among impoverished neighborhoods and low education among such people, the narrative is being flipped. Oppressed people are being seen as more deserving for the dirty jobs they do and the ways in which they have supported the upper classes which have produced incredible cultural achievements. (I will note, in the United States this particularly applies to minority communities. In my sense, white communities of oppressed people are not being recognized to the same extent, likely contributing to the racial anxiety of our times.)
 
Harari’s quote can be seen in the infrastructure of America. The Capitol Building and some monuments around Washington DC were built by slaves. An oppressed people enabled our founding fathers to pursue philosophy, art, and a political revolution. In this way, America rests on an exploited and oppressed population.
 
Much of the animosity and hostility we see between different political parties today is a result in the radical shift in ideas of deservingness that we see with relation to oppressed peoples in our country. The backlash against Critical Race Theory, against Black Lives Matter, and against changing cultural values is in many ways a backlash against the way we view deservingness. Younger generations today are seeing exploited people as being more deserving than those who perpetuated their exploitation. The oppressors were the ones who were educated, lived hygienically, pushed scientific and technological breakthroughs, and created artistic and culturally valuable masterpieces. Yet they did all this while standing on the shoulders of an exploited population. For generations, the oppressors were the ones seen as deserving, but increasingly, the oppressed are now seen as deserving, while the oppressors are not. In this radical shift, groups that have historically been higher in terms of socials status and wealth are threatened, and I believe that is a substantial contributor to the anger and animosity we see in our political system today.
 
Deservingness is not static. It shifts and changes based on the narratives our cultures believe. We always fight over ideas of deservingness because they can be the difference between government financial support and bankruptcy or the difference between prison and rehabilitation programs. The narratives of deservingness are important and our current radical shift in how we understand deservingness is a big part of the political turbulence we are all experiencing. 
hierarchies and unjust discrimination

Hierarchies & Unjust Discrimination

In his book Sapiens, Yuval Noah Harari writes, “unfortunately, complex human societies seem to require imagined hierarchies and unjust discrimination.” This idea seems grim, and my first response is to begin thinking about a just utopia that I hope the United States is working toward. The idea that even my idealized utopia would still be based on imagined hierarchies and tacitly accept unjust discrimination is an idea I would want to reject.
 
 
However, political science theories such as Social Construction and Narrative Policy Frameworks seem to suggest that Harari is correct. Our understandings of how we relate to others within society is often based more on narrative than something objective. Movie stars may entertain us a lot, but few would argue that their work is truly more important and valuable for the future of humanity than the work of a teacher, but we clearly reward movie starts with much more money and status than teachers. Additionally, our world has limited resources, meaning that we cannot provide everyone with everything they want. We have different concepts for dividing things in an equitable manner, and we often argue over what values are used when making such decisions.
 
 
In the United States, children have no political power, because they don’t vote. Veterans are celebrated, but are relatively few in number and similarly lack political power, though they are a powerful rhetorical tool and audience. Business owners are also celebrated while drug users are denigrated. While we say that all men are created equal and strive toward equality among all people, our imagined hierarchies make true equality impossible. We may have good reasons for valuing retirees and small business owners more than drug users and community college students, but at the end of the day, the hierarchies in place are based on a host of social and cultural factors, not entirely on objective differences in merit and value between people. Within complex societies with limited resources, hierarchies seem inevitable, with some people being advantaged and others being discriminated against.
Hierarchies that Disavow Fictional Origins - Joseph Henrich - The WEIRDest People in The World - Yuval Noah Harari - Sapiens - Joe Abittan

Hierarchies that Disavow Fictional Origins

In Joseph Henrich’s recent book The WEIRDest People in the World he discusses a study he performed where he offered rural tribal people in South America a choice between getting a spice block today, or two spice blocks at a later time. This type of delayed gratitude study is common, but what was uncommon was Henrich’s subject. Most delayed gratification studies are conducted in WEIRD (western, educated, industrialized, rich, democratic) societies and provide insights about who is going to be successful as an investor, in going to college, or generally in being less impulsive throughout life.
 
 
In Henrich’s study, tribal people living with little contact with people from more WEIRD regions of South America were less likely to take more spice blocks tomorrow compared to one spice block today. However, Henrich argues this was not due to an inability to delay gratification, an inability to think about the future, or some sort of personal shortcoming that has left people in rural areas stuck behind people in WEIRD areas. The reason, Henrich argues, that people in rural areas were not willing to delay gratification was that the institutions of their tribes didn’t provide any real incentive for them to do so. The individuals Henrich studied lived in communities where it was expected that surplus resources would be shared back with the larger tribe. The individuals themselves were not delaying their own gratification, they were simply choosing to accept one spice block they could use today, rather than accept a surplus tomorrow that they would be expected to share with the rest of their tribe later.
 
 
I like this anecdote because it shows that sometimes we reach wrong conclusions. Sometimes we assume we know what it means for someone to behave a certain way, but we fail to recognize all of the complex incentives and motivations that may be driving the person’s behavior. We often fall back on relatively simple and reductive explanations. The people in rural villages are “backward” because they cannot delay gratification and that is necessary to catch up with WEIRD societies. People in poverty are poor because they are lazy and don’t work. Rich people got to where they are by making smart choices and working hard. Each of these examples is overly simplistic, and possibly wrong. They are also all examples that can be, and have been, used to justify hierarchies that are ultimately based on little more than imagination.
 
 
In his book Sapiens, Yuval Noah Harari writes, “it is an iron rule of history that every imagined hierarchy disavows its fictional origins and claims to be natural and inevitable.” Kings in Medieval Europe argued that they were naturally and divinely chosen to lead their peoples. Slave owners in the American Antebellum South argued that they were naturally superior to their slaves. Hitler argued that the Aryan race was naturally superior to all others. The rich today, in basically any country, argue that they are naturally superior (or more deserving of their wealth and fortune) than poor people. But in each case, the hierarchy is imagined. No one wants to admit that they are unfairly at an advantage, that they have more resources, leisure, power, or wealth than others simply by chance or at least partly due to some amount of random luck in success.
 
 
As Henrich’s study shows, wealth disparities don’t have to be considered “natural.” In the tribal villages he studied, village elders were the leaders who made decisions regarding resources. There were no individuals or households that had dramatically more resources than anyone else. Households and individuals responded to the incentives of the system accordingly. In the United States, we respect our elders, but don’t place them in leadership positions just because they are old and wise. We have institutions and systems in place that encourage individual accumulation of resources, and we stash our old people in storage in retirement homes – basically the opposite system of the tribe that Henrich studied. The institutions, cultures, and incentives around us matter a lot, and they determine what we find natural. We often ignore those factors, however, when we think about the hierarchies in place within our society, and chose to disavow the fictional origins of our hierarchies and believe that they reflect a natural and unavoidable aspect of humanity. 
Inter-Subjective Linking - Tying Star Wars, Marvel, Sports Rankings, Democracy, and Marriage Norms Together - Yuval Noah Harari - Joe Abittan - Sapiens

Inter-Subjective Linking

In my own mind I like to play out lots of fictional scenarios before I go to bed. If I have recently watched a Marvel movie, then I might be teaming up with Iron Man or Captain America in my own superhero story while I brush my teeth. If I was listening to a Star Wars audio book, then I might be engaged in a space battle while my day winds down. Since I was a kid I have had my own running fantasies with me as a main character in some of the science fiction stories I like the most. In my own mind, these stories are as real as the stories that appear on the big screen.
 
 
My individual stories, something the nerd community might call my own “head canon,” are subjective. They exist only within my own consciousness, and as a result I can change them or abandon them and they will no longer exist. They are subjective to my own individual consciousness, not dependent on the subjective consciousness of others and if I want I can completely ignore the rest of the world or certain aspects of the larger story.
 
 
Contrasting my individual fictions are the larger narratives that I engage with in my mind. The stories that make it on the big screen, onto a streaming platform, or into official books are inter-subjective. In the book Sapiens Yuval Noah Harari describes the existence of the inter-subjective by writing, “the inter-subjective is something that exists within the communication network linking the subjective consciousness of many individuals.” Iron Man has died in the current Marvel story line, and his death is now part of the inter-subjective communication network linking all the fans of the Marvel movies. In my own mind Iron Man might come back to life, but my individual consciousness doesn’t change the larger story which is inter-subjectively linked.
 
 
Outside the world of science fiction, inter-subjective linking is an important part of human societies. We see it in sports rankings, political organization, and marriage and family norms. We debate which sports team is better and have our individual opinions about who is a great player and what teams are the best. We can individually believe that our team will win the championship, should be ranked #1 in the country, or got screwed out of the playoffs without our subjective beliefs influencing how the sports season actually plays out. We can also have inter-subjective beliefs about sports that drive the narratives around the season and can lead to coaches being fired, players being traded, and coordinated booing at bad officiating calls.
 
 
Within politics and marriage and family norms we can have our individual beliefs, such as beliefs that one political system would be better than another, beliefs that polygamy is better than monogamy, or that kids need to leave the house at 18. There is nothing that makes representative democracies inherently better than divine monarchies, nothing that makes monogamous relationships inherently better than polygamous relationships, and no reason kids should be afforded the option to live at home after they turn 18. In each of these areas our inter-subjective beliefs have come to shape the way we understand the world, our relationships to others within the world, and our subsequent beliefs about how the world should ultimately be ordered. Representative democracies fit with other inter-subjective beliefs which have come to discredit divine monarchies. Monogamous relationships have certain advantages in helping ensure more men find romantic and life partners which blends with other inter-subjective beliefs that form the backbone of modern stable societies. The idea that one becomes and adult and full citizen at 18 and not 17, 19, or 21 is also an inter-subjective belief that we support together. It makes no difference if I decide that a young man is an adult at age 17 rather than 18. Inter-subjectively, our culture has agreed that full citizenship begins at 18.
 
 
Thinking about the relationship between the subjective and inter-subjective is helpful for understanding the world. It is helpful to see that our individual beliefs are often little more than our own twist on a fictional story. It is helpful to see that larger institutions and structures in our worlds are based on little more than shared fictions. Recognizing this dynamic can change the way we interpret and approach debates and arguments about topics for how we all should live and coordinate our lives together.
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.
Shepherds

Shepherds

“It was no accident that kings and prophets styled themselves as shepherds and likened the way they and the gods cared for their people to a shepherd’s care for his flock,” writes Yuval Noah Harari in his book Sapiens.
 
 
I don’t like bucolic narratives and I don’t like the way that we equate people we don’t like with sheep in modern American political discussions. Bucolic romanticism requires a reductionist way of looking at history, and equating people to sheep is reductionist way of viewing anyone we disagree with and dislike. As Harari’s quote to open this post shows, both styles of rhetoric are much older than their current usage in modern American politics.
 
 
What Harari is saying in the paragraph that the opening quote came from is that some agrarian societies and ancient (and not too ancient) human civilizations treated their domesticated animals very well. Sheep were well cared for, in order to get the most wool possible from them. War horses and workhorses were well cared for, again for the benefit of humans. And even today we pamper our pets as if they were our children. The narrative of the shepherd comes from the care with which humans are capable of treating animals under their protection. A shepherd is a benevolent god who directs his flock to greener pastures and protects them from wild beasts and the evils of nature. Bucolic imagery calls up a simplistic time when humans lived in nature, protected and shielded from the evils of modernity. Combining these two perspectives allows people to feel a child-like protection under the watchful eye of a benevolent leader while we live in a natural peace and harmony with the planet.
 
 
I think the narrative associated with both narratives is deeply troubling, and untrue. David Deutsch was recently on Tyler Cowen’s podcast, Conversations with Tyler, and argued that the belief that we are living in a simulation is no different than believing that Zeus is the supreme god who directs the course of the world. His argument is that if we live in a simulation, there is a barrier at which we can no longer gain more information about the universe. A Simulation, he argues, is the same as a religion where there is a barrier at which people cannot know more about their god, the course of the universe, and why things happen. Invoking the imagery of a shepherd, to me, seems to be exactly the same. A leader comes along, invokes such a message, and says to the people they wish to lead that only they know how to help them, that there is a barrier which normal people cannot cross in terms of knowledge for what is good for them and how to live their lives. The shepherd seems benevolent, kind, and praiseworthy, but really, they are dehumanizing people. They are making statements that there is knowledge and information that only they can know and appropriately utilize, and they are hiding that from the masses. The same process happens in reverse when we call people sheep. We deny their humanity and assume they are non-thinking morons without preferences who are easily misled.
 
 
Bucolic imagery can be just as pernicious as the ideas and narratives surrounding the shepherd or equating people to sheep. Just as the idea that there is some boundary on knowledge which normal people cannot surpass, the idea of a bucolic nature to which we should return or maintain is equally flawed and inaccurate. We romanticize a past and a ‘natural’ way of living that never existed. We don’t fully understand what life with nature has been like for the billions of humans that evolved before our modern times. We fail to see the diseases, the dangers, the struggles, and the deaths of humans living in pre-modern times. We call up this idea to put people in a romantic and child-like state of mind, reassuring them that someone else will take care of them and protect them. It is a narrative that combines well with the narrative of the shepherd to create a false view of reality that we can find comforting, and that we may find the motivated reasoning to believe. Ultimately, however, I think bucolic thinking and the narratives of sheep and the shepherd should be tossed aside and discounted if we want to think more accurately and rationally. 
Are Humans Really Hunters?

Are Humans Really Hunters?

One skill that I have is the ability to see the narrative in the way that people understand the world. I think there is some level of an objective reality in the world, but it is often hard to see and understand because we layer so many narratives together to define the reality around us. I think I do a pretty good job of seeing the narratives that people tell themselves and of understanding why people are attracted to certain narratives. One such narrative that I think deserves to be questioned is the idea that humankind are natural hunters, that we are apex animals, and as such, our men (in particular) should be dominant and should exercise their natural urge to hunt and kill.
This is a narrative that has lost a lot of appeal in the United States and other WEIRD – Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, Democratic – countries, but still has a lot of power. People who gravitate toward such a narrative tend to be described as more traditionally conservative than people who eschew such a label in cultures like ours. In other cultures across the globe, the narrative is still a lot stronger, and countries like China are cracking down against sissy men who seem to violate the narrative. But are humans natural hunters? Are we really such powerful apex predators with urges to hunt and kill? Yuval Noah Harari argues that this narrative doesn’t seem to fit the evidence and leading scientific thoughts on exactly where humans have fit within the food chain for most of our evolutionary past.
“Humans who lived a million years ago, despite their big brains and sharp stone tools, dwelt in constant fear of predators, rarely hunted large game, and subsisted mainly by gathering plants, scooping up insects, stalking small animals, and eating the carrion left behind by other more powerful carnivores,” writes Harari. What is important to note is that for humans, who date back about 2 million years, a majority of our evolutionary past was not spent at the top of the food chain. There was a very long evolutionary past where humans were vulnerable, and rarely did any hunting that we would like to associate with early humans if we hold the narrative of humans being natural hunters and the most powerful animal on the planet. Harari continues, “one of the most common uses of early stone tools was to crack open bones in order to get to the marrow.” For much of human evolution, we were more scavengers than hunters, waiting for more dangerous predators (lions, hyenas, and such) to clear a carcass before we came along with our smart brains, deft hands, and insightful tool use to access the bone marrow the animals couldn’t easily get to.
I think it reveals a lot to note that the narrative of man as tough, aggressive, hunter-killers is common, while the narrative of man as a ingenious scavenging coward is not a narrative that anyone adopts. It may be more accurate to say that we are clever and find ways to pick up the scraps that other animals left behind, but no one wants to view themselves or humans broadly as scavengers. No one considers it “natural” to eat road kill, yet many diets are based on eating “natural” caveman diets that are based around the idea of hunting and killing our food.
“Genus Homo‘s position in the food chain was, until quite recently, solidly in the middle. For millions of years, humans hunted smaller creatures and gathered what they could, all while being hunted by larger predators,” writes Harari. The idea that man needs to hunt, that men need to be aggressive and kill, and that our survival is dependent on how tough our men are, is largely a narrative. I realize I am leaving out inter-human conflict and combat, but at least in terms of what humans evolved to eat, it is more narrative than objective reality that we need to eat lots of meat and kill animals for our diets. Humans evolved as scavengers, and only recently jumped to the top of the food chain.