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. 
Miserable Early Farming and Parallels to Modern Life

Miserable Early Farming and Parallels to Modern Life

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

There is No Natural Way of Life

Are human beings naturally peaceful, or naturally violent? Are they naturally traders, or are they naturally competitors? Is it natural for them to pursue progress, or natural for humans to stick to tradition and avoid new ways of organizing the world around them? These questions rage every day in academic circles, on the news, in our offices, and everywhere that people gather. We like to believe that there are things that are simply natural for human beings, and things we consider natural are considered broadly good, while things that are unnatural are lumped in with everything bad and evil.
However, in his book Sapiens, Yuval Noah Harari argues that there is no natural way of life for Homo sapiens. Instead, according to Harari, there is a wide horizon of possibilities which includes, “…the entire spectrum of beliefs, practices, and experiences that are open before a particular society, given its ecological, technological, and cultural limitations.” Even for people living in the most remote, technologically limited, and culturally strict villages on Earth, there is a wide horizon of possibilities for what any individual or group could do. For those of us lucky enough to live in the United States, the horizon of possibilities is effectively endless. The ways in which we could live and experience the world are greater than what any of us could imagine, and all the different perspectives and permutations could be considered natural from a certain point of view – or unnatural from another. Trying to attach values such as good or bad, through labels of natural or unnatural, doesn’t really make sense for any given permutation chosen from the horizon of possibilities.
Harari continues, “The heated debates about Homo sapiens’ ‘natural way of life’ misses the main point. Ever since the Cognitive Revolution, there hasn’t been a single natural way of life for Sapiens. There are only cultural choices, from among a bewildering palette of possibilities.” Dating back at least 70,000 years ago, human tribes have varied and differed based on numerous factors. Looking at a single ancient tribe or group of humans and deciding that how they lived was natural gives us a misleading understanding of how we should live today. We can look back and find tyrannical leaders who conquered other tribes and sacrificed their victims to their gods, but this doesn’t mean it is natural for humans to be lead by a single genocidal tyrant. It is just as fair to look around today and see transsexual men and women cooperating and sharing virtual resources in a video game and make conclusions about what is natural for humans as it would be to look back at the genocidal tyrant, to look back at human groups from the days of the first books in the Christian Bible, or to look back at any other group of humans from any part of the globe since the Cognitive Revolution and decided that how people live, interact, behave, and interpret the world is ‘natural’. At each point in space and time there are options available to us based on the ecology of where we find ourselves, based on the technology and knowledge available to us, and based on many other factors we cannot enumerate. Some ways of living are more likely to help us and others survive, some ways of living are more likely to help us enjoy our lives, but that doesn’t mean they are natural, good, or will continue to help us survive and enjoy our lives indefinitely. There is no natural way of life for a human, only a staggeringly large set of possibilities.
Natural Doesn't Mean Anything

Natural Doesn’t Mean Anything

I am generally not a fan of the term ‘natural.’ I’m fine with it in the context of human talents and skills, such as saying that someone is a natural runner or painter, but applying natural in other contexts, such as to foods, human social orders, and behaviors is often problematic. In the first context I mentioned, relating to human skills, we use the term natural to mean that something comes easily to someone. They have a proclivity toward something as a result of genes, epigenetic factors, or a lucky upbringing that gave them lots of exposure to the thing from a young age. In the other context, we are using the term natural to make normative judgements that don’t sound like normative judgements. We are attaching our values to what is desirable or undesirable, and cloaking that judgement in an idea that something simply happens because it happens and its a good thing.
To demonstrate this phenomenon, we can look at what might be considered ‘natural’ for human beings in terms of living and social arrangements. When looking back at human history in his book Sapiens, Yuval Noah Harari writes about the evolution of Homo sapiens in tribal groups. He writes, “Even if a particularly fertile valley could feed 500 archaic Sapiens, there was no way that so many strangers could live together. … In the wake of the Cognitive Revolution, gossip helped Homo sapiens to form larger and more stable bands. But even gossip has its limits. Sociological research has shown that the maximum ‘natural’ size of a group bonded by gossip is about 150 individuals. Most people can neither intimately know, nor gossip effectively about, more than 150 human beings.”
What has helped Homo sapiens form societies larger than about 150 individuals are technologies such as religions and political institutions. Man-made structures for organizing human life have propelled us beyond our small tribes which would compete, fight, and  break down. Harari’s quote suggests that what is ‘natural’ for humans is to live in small bands where we are distrustful of strangers we don’t know intimately. What is unnatural is for us to exist and coordinate across large groups of human beings.
The way that Harari describes the ‘natural’ state of being for humans helps us see that ‘natural’ is often used to propel certain ways of being without actually considering whether the idea of ‘natural’ is a good or bad thing. It would be ‘natural’ for humans to live in small groups that fought each other, but that wouldn’t be good for the flourishing of humanity. So when we make arguments that eating the paleo diet is good because it is ‘natural’ or that political leaders need to be tough, strong men because that is ‘natural’, we are simply hiding a normative judgement behind the phrase ‘natural.’ What we can see, however, is that ‘natural’ is not a good or bad thing on its own. We should be responsible and stop using ‘natural’ as an argument or as a way to advertise products. It doesn’t mean what we purport it to mean.