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.
A Sense of Danger

A Sense of Danger

2020 was a unique year in many senses, and one worrying change in 2020 was an increase in violence that seems to be continuing through 2021. Crime rates have been falling across the United States since a peak in the 1990s, until a reversal in the trend in 2020. We have not yet seen whether it is an anomaly related to the COVID-19 Pandemic that will dissipate, or whether it reflects a new trajectory of violence that we need to be concerned about. Nevertheless, crime has recently been on an uptick after a long decline.
People may currently be aware of an increase in crime, but that likely doesn’t mean that the increase in crime feels new to them. Despite the recent falling crime rates, people’s general perception of crime is that it had been increasing before 2020. The perception of increasing crime did not match the continual drop in crime, at least not until 2020. Part of the misperception seems to come from the constant news reporting of crime and better measures of crime by police and the FBI. Christopher Jencks wrote about this in his book The Homeless, “police have spent billions of dollars computerizing their record keeping systems, so crimes that get reported are more likely to become part of the office record. Improved reporting and record-keeping plus highly selective news reporting have, in turn, helped convince the public that their neighborhoods are more dangerous.”
Having good information, data, and statistics for crime is a good thing. It is important that we have a good and accurate sense of how much crime and violence is taking place in our cities, who is committing the crime, and who tends to be the victims. However, new data reporting and collecting abilities can make it seem like there is more crime than there used to be, simply because we can better collect and report that information. Better collecting and reporting means that news stations can run more stories about crimes that previously would have gone unreported, increasing the prevalence of crime in the news, building the sense of danger that people feel. With broader news reporting and an online news system driven by clicks, we also see more crime that takes place outside our communities, even when browsing local news websites.
This can ultimately have negative effects for society. While it is good to have accurate information, that information can be misleading and misused. Increasing people’s sense of danger for political ends can erode social trust and lead to profiling and dangerous policing policies that have racial disparities. It can lead to disinvestment in areas that people deem dangerous and can limit the interactions that people are willing to have in their communities, furthering disinvestment and reinforcing a sense of danger. Context is the key and is easy to leave out when reporting crime and discussing individual crimes within larger trends. Our recent uptick in crime against a background of misperception could be especially dangerous, with extreme reactions against increases in crimes that may end up being driven by the peculiar circumstances of the Pandemic. We should work to make our cities and communities safer, but we should also work to make sure people have an accurate perception of the safety or danger of their communities.
Community & Trauma

Community & Trauma

In many ways I think it is a good thing that our nation does so much to celebrate the individual. We mythologize our greatest national founders, we try to embody the spirit of our greatest leaders, and we look up to great entrepreneurs today who are trying to solve some of our most challenging problems. Hard work, ingenuity, personal responsibility, and talent are the things we praise the most in these individuals, focusing on how great our society can be if we all strive to be as good as these leaders. Unfortunately, this hyper-individualism focus of the United States seems to be pulling us away from engagement with our communities as we focus inward on our selves, and can have devastating effects.
 
 
US Surgeon General Vivek Murthy has argued, especially with the COVID-19 Pandemic, that our nation faces a crisis of loneliness. We have fewer social groups and organizations that we engage with. We spend more time in our homes watching TV and less time participating in social and community focused groups. When we are shut away inside, this puts some individuals at risk of domestic violence, drug abuse and addiction, and mental health challenges like depression. Ultimately, as our community institutions are left to dwindle with our relentless focus on the individual, we risk increasing the trauma that individual members experience, which has a positive feedback loop on diminishing notions of community.
 
 
In the book Evicted Matthew Desmond writes, “Milwaukee renters who perceived higher levels of neighborhood trauma – believing that their neighbors had experienced incarceration, abuse, addiction, and other harrowing events – were far less likely to believe that people in their community could come together to improve their lives. This lack of faith had less to do with their neighborhood’s actual poverty and crime rates than with the level of concentrated suffering they perceived around them.” Trauma destroys community, and destroyed communities create more opportunities for trauma. The more trauma and the weaker a sense of community, the more isolated and hopeless people become.
 
 
I don’t think anyone can overcome trauma on their own. People who have experienced any trauma, from minor to extreme, need the help of stable, compassionate, and trained individuals to live healthily. However, our hyper focus on the personal responsibility of the individual fails to account for trauma. You cannot pull yourself up by the bootstraps, demonstrate extreme grit, or maintain self-control when dealing with trauma. You need community, you need other people to help create safe places where you can engage in the world around you, and you need caring people who can serve as role mentors and coaches to help you get through.
 
 
As we have allowed community to dwindle, we have removed the supports that help us overcome trauma. We have removed safe spaces for us to see that we can interact with others, come together to have fun and complete socially beneficial projects, or to provide support for one another. We focus on what we as individuals can do (even when it is being socially responsible and volunteering our time), not on what we can be as a community. This drives our isolation, leaves those who experience trauma without positive and healthy outlets, and diminishes our sense of community, further crumbling the lives and institutions of those living in poverty or trying to get through deep trauma. Celebrating the achievements and success of the individual is great, but not when it comes at the expense of our community and the institutions that help support all of us.
George Herriman and the Complexities of Racial Identity

George Herriman and the Complexities of Racial Identity

Race is a social construct. Genetic studies reveal how misplaced ideas of racial differences truly are. Individuals on the African continent sometimes have more genetic differences than individuals across continents, yet race throughout human history has been used, at a genetic level, to explain the differences between people, and in the worst of  times, to justify discrimination and biases. However, even though race is more of a social construct than a biological fact, humans still identify differences in appearance, customs, behaviors, and psychologies and treat individuals differently based on how they are perceived.
The book Krazy: George Herriman, a Life in Black and White demonstrates the power of this discriminatory way of identifying people, and how complex racial identities can be when we insist race is more than a social construct and use it to define people. Michael Tisserand, the book’s author, explains that Herriman existed at an intersection of white and black, and that he was able to pass as white to enter a professional world that excluded blacks. Doing so, however, meant that he had to abandon other identities, including those of his mixed Creole and black family from New Orleans.
In a sentence that demonstrates just how complex racial identification can be, Tisserand writes the following, “when questioned as part of court proceedings if he was colored, George Herriman Sr.’s {Herriman’s grandfather] brother in law, Charles Sauvinet, replied, when I go among strangers I am received as a gentleman. He added I never inquire whether I was received as a white or colored man.” Herriman’s family displayed ambiguous racial characteristics for several generations, and much of their racial identity was dependent more on how other people treated them than on how they chose to identify. Race was not within their own control and varied from place to place and situation to situation.
The implication in Charles Sauvinet’s response is that he was received as a white man, that people identified him and treated him as a white gentleman. His non-answer was effectively a way of saying he was white while simultaneously acknowledging that white did not capture the full complexity of his racial background. His identity, the race assigned to him, and whether he was considered a valuable and worthy gentleman or something less than was not dependent on his own personal qualities, but on how other people perceived his race. These ambiguous edge cases are helpful in exploring the role and power of race in the United States. The racial state of America today is improved over the days of Charles Sauvinet and George Herriman, but discrimination and racial bias still exists, and still fails to address the realities of people’s lived experiences and racial backgrounds, even if race is nothing more than a social construct.
Knowledge and Perception

Knowledge and Perception

We often think that biases like prejudice are mean spirited vices that cause people to lie and become hypocritical. The reality, according to Quassim Cassam is that biases like prejudice run much deeper within our minds. Biases can become epistemic vices, inhibiting our ability to acquire and develop knowledge. They are more than just biases that make us behave in ways that we profess to be wrong. Biases can literally shape the reality of the world we live in by altering the way we understand ourselves and other people around us.
“What one sees,” Cassam writes in Vices of the Mind, “is affected by one’s beliefs and background assumptions. It isn’t just a matter of taking in what is in front of one’s eyes, and this creates an opening for vices like prejudice to obstruct the acquisition of knowledge by perception.”
I am currently reading Steven Pinker’s book Enlightenment Now where Pinker argues that humans strive toward rationality and that at the end of the day subjectivity is ultimately over-ruled by reason, rationality, and objectivity. I have long been a strong adherent to the Social Construction Framework and beliefs that our worlds are created and influenced by individual differences in perception to a great degree. Pinker challenges that assumption, but framing his challenge through the lens of Cassam’s quote helps show how Pinker is ultimately correct.
Individual level biases shape our perception. Pinker describes a study where university students watching a sporting event literally see more fouls called against their team than the opponent, revealing the prejudicial vice that Cassam describes. Perception is altered by a prejudice against the team from the other school. Knowledge (in the study it is the accurate number of fouls for each team) is inhibited for the sports fans by their prejudice. The reality they live in is to some extent subjective and shaped by their prejudices and misperceptions.
But this doesn’t mean that knowledge about reality is inaccessible to humans at a larger scale. A neutral third party (or committee of officials) could watch the game and accurately identify the correct number of fouls for each side. The sports fans and other third parties may quibble about the exact final number, but with enough neutral observers we should be able to settle on a more accurate reality than if we left things to the biased sports fans. At the end of the day, rationality will win out through strength of numbers, and even the disgruntled sports fan will have to admit that the number of fouls they perceived was different from the more objective number of fouls agreed upon by the neutral third party members.
I think this is at the heart of the message from Cassam and the argument that I am currently reading from Pinker. My first reaction to Cassam’s quote is to say that our realities are shaped by biases and perceptions, and that we cannot trust our understanding of reality. However, objective reality (or something pretty close to it that enough non-biased people could reasonably describe) does seem to exist. As collective humans, we can reach objective understandings and agreements as people recognize and overcome biases and as the descriptions of the world presented by non-biased individuals prove to be more accurate over the long run. The key is to recognize that epistemic vices shape our perception at a deep level, that they are more than just hypocritical behaviors and that they literally shape the way we interpret reality. The more we try to overcome these vices of the mind, the more accurately we can describe the world, and the more our perception can then align with reality.
Pluralistic Ignorance

Pluralistic Ignorance

TV shows and movies frequently have scenes where one character has been putting up with something they dislike in order to please another character, only to find out that the other character also dislikes the thing. I can think of instances where characters have been drinking particular beverages they dislike, playing games they don’t enjoy, or wearing clothing they hate, just because they think another character enjoys that particular thing and they want to share in that experience with the other person. It is a little corny, but I really enjoy the moment when the character recognizes they have been putting themselves in agony for the benefit of the other person, only to realize they have been in agony as well!

 

This particular comedic device plays on pluralistic ignorance. We don’t ever truly know what is in another person’s head, and even if we live with someone for most of our life, we can’t ever know them with complete certainty. When it comes to really knowing everyone around us and everyone in our community or society, we can only ever know most people at a minimal surface level. We follow cues from others that we want to be like, that we think are popular, and that we want to be accepted by. But when everyone is doing this, how can any of us be sure that we all actually want to be the way we present ourselves? We are all imagining what other people think, and trying to live up to those standards, not realizing that we may all hate the thing that we think everyone else considers cool.

 

The whole situation reminds me of AP US History from my junior year in high school. My friend Phil sat toward the back of the classroom and the year he and I had the class was the very last year for our teacher before he planned to retire. He was on autopilot most of the year, a good teacher, but not exactly worried about whether his students payed attention in class or cheated on tests. For one test, Phil was copying off the girl next to him, only to realize halfway through class that she was cheating off him! When Phil told the story later, we all had to ask where any answers were coming from if they were both cheating off each others test.

 

Pluralistic ignorance feels like Phil and his AP US History test. However, pluralistic ignorance can be much more important than my little anecdote. Yesterday’s post was about collective conservatism, a form of groupthink where important decision-makers stick to tradition and familiar strategies and answers even as the world changes and demands new and innovative responses. Pluralistic ignorance can limit our responses to change, locking in tradition because we think that is what people want, even though people may be tired of old habits and patterns and ready for something new.

 

In Nudge, Cass Sunstein and Richard Thaler write, “An important problem here is pluralistic ignorance – that is, ignorance, on the part of all or most, about what other people think. We may follow a practice or tradition not because we like it, or even think it defensible, but merely because we think that most other people like it.”

 

A real world example I can think of would be driving cars. Many people in the country absolutely love cars and see them as symbols of freedom, innovation, and American ingenuity. Thinking that people would be willing to give up their cars or change anything about them seems delusional, and public policy, advertising campaigns, and car designs reflect the idea that people want more, bigger, and faster cars. But is this actually true for most Americans?

 

Our cars emit toxic fumes, tens of thousands of people die annually in crashes, and the lights and sounds of cars can keep those who live along busy streets or next to car enthused neighbors awake at night. People have to pay for auto insurance, vehicles break down frequently, require constant costly maintenance, and in the US there is a constant pressure to have a newer and nicer car to signal how well off one is. My sense is that people generally dislike cars, especially anything dealing with purchasing or repairing a car, but that they put up with them because they think other people like cars and value and respect their car choice. I believe that if there were enough reliable, fast, and convenient alternative transportation options, people would start to ditch cars. I think lots of people buy fancy, powerful, and loud cars because they think other people like them, not necessarily because they actually like the car themselves. If we could come together in an honest way, I think we could all scale back our cars, opting for smaller, quieter, less polluting vehicles or public transportation. There are certainly a lot of problems with public transportation, but I think our obsession and connections with cars is in part pluralistic ignorance as to how much other people actually like and value cars. We are trapped in a vehicular arms race, when we would really all rather not have to worry about cars in the first place.
The Remembering Self and Time - Joe Abittan

The Remembering Self and Time

Time, as we have known it, has only been with human beings for a small slice of human history. The story of time zones is fascinating, and really began once rail roads connected the United States. Before we had a standardized system for operating within time, human lives were ruled by the cycle of the sun and the seasons, not by the hands of a watch. This is important because it suggests that the time bounds we put on our lives, the hours of our schedules and work days, and the way we think about the time duration of meetings, movies, a good night’s sleep, and flights is not something our species truly evolved to operate within.

 

In Thinking Fast and Slow, Daniel Kahneman shows one of the consequences of human history being out of sync with modern time. “The mind,” he writes, “is good with stories, but it does not appear to be well designed for the processing of time.”

 

I would argue that this makes sense and should be expected. Before we worked set schedules defined by the clock, before we could synchronize the start of a football game with TV broadcasts across the world, and before we all needed to be at the same place at precisely the right time to catch a departing train, time wasn’t very important. It was easy to tie time with sunrise, sunset, or mid-day compared to a 3:15 departure or a 7:05 kick-off. The passage of time also didn’t matter that much. The difference between being 64 and 65 years old wasn’t a big deal for humans that didn’t receive retirement benefits and social security payments. We did not evolve to live in a world where every minute of every day was tightly controlled by time and where the passage of time was tied so specifically to events in our lives.

 

For me, and I think for Daniel Kahneman, this may explain why we see some of the cognitive errors we make when we remember events from our past. Time wasn’t as important of a factor for ancient humans as story telling was. Kahneman continues,

 

“The remembering self, as I have described it, also tells stories and makes choices, and neither the stories nor the choices properly represent time. In storytelling mode, an episode is represented by a few critical moments, especially the beginning, the peak, and the end. Duration is neglected.”

 

When we think back on our lives, on moments that meant a lot to us, on times we want to relive, or on experiences we want to avoid in the future, we remember the salient details. We don’t necessarily remember how long everything lasted. My high school basketball days are not remembered by the hours spent running UCLAs, by the number of Saturdays I had to be up early for 8 a.m. practices, or by the hours spent in drills. My memories are made up of a few standout plays, games, and memorable team moments. The same is true for my college undergrad memories, the half-marathons I have raced, and my memories from previous homes I have lived in.

 

When we think about our lives we are not good at thinking about the passage of time, about how long we spent working on something, how long we had to endure difficulties, or how long the best parts of our lives lasted. We live with snapshots that can represent entire years or decades. Our remembering self drops the less meaningful parts of experiences from our memories, and holds onto the start, the end, and the best or worst moments from an experience. It distorts our understanding of our own history, and creates memories devoid of a sense of time or duration.

 

I think about this a lot because our minds and our memories are the things that drive how we behave and how we understand the present moment. However, duration neglect helps us see that reality of our lives is shaped by unreality. We are influenced by cognitive errors and biases, by poor memories, and distortions of time and experience. It is important to recognize how faulty our thinking can be, so we can develop systems, structures, and ways of thinking that don’t assume we are always correct, but help guide us toward better and more realistic ways of understanding the world.
Experiencing Versus Remembering

Experiencing Versus Remembering

My last two posts have been about the difference in how we experience life and how we remember what happens in our life. This is an important idea in Daniel Kahneman’s book Thinking Fast and Slow. Kahneman explains the ways in which our minds make predictable errors when thinking statistically, when trying to remember the past, and when making judgements about reality. Kahneman describes our mind as having two selves. He writes,

 

“The experiencing self is the one that answers the question: Does it hurt now? The remembering self is the one that answers the question: How was it on the whole? Memories are all we get to keep from our experience of living, and the only perspective that we can adopt as we think about our lives is therefore that of the remembering self.”

 

In my post about the Peak-End Rule I highlighted findings from Kahneman that show that the remembering self isn’t very good at making accurate judgments about a whole experience. It more or less averages out the best (or worst) part of an experience with the ending of the experience. The ups and downs throughout, the actual average quality overall, isn’t that relevant to the way we think back on an experience.

 

Duration Neglect also demonstrates how the remembering self misjudges our experiences. A long monotonous experience with a positive ending can be remembered much more fondly than a generally positive short experience with a bad ending.

 

When I think about the experiencing and remembering self, I try to remember that my remembering self is not able to perfectly recall the reality of my experiences. I try to remember that my experiencing self is only alive in the present moment, and when I am experiencing something great, I try hard to focus on that moment, rather than try to focus on something I want to remember (this is the difference between sitting and watching a beautiful sunset versus trying to capture the perfect picture of the sunset for social media). Keeping in mind the distinctions between the experiencing and remembering self is helpful for avoiding the frustration, guilt, and pressure that the remembering self heaps on you when you don’t feel as though you have done enough or accomplished enough. The remembering self is only one part of you, and its revisionist view of your history isn’t real. There is real value in finding a balance between living for the experiencing self and living with the knowledge of what fuels the remembering self. Tilting too far either way can make us feel frustrated and overwhelmed, or unaccomplished, and we all want to be somewhere between the two extremes, giving up a little to prop up the other in different ways at different times of our lives.
Scared Before You Even Know It

Scared Before You Even Know It

In Thinking Fast and Slow, Daniel Kahneman demonstrates how quick our minds are and how fast they react to potential dangers and threats by showing us two very simple pictures of eyes. The pictures are black squares, with a little bit of white space that our brains immediately perceive as eyes, and beyond that immediate perception of eyes, our brains also immediately perceive an emotional response within the eyes. They are similar to the simple eyes I sketched out here:

In my sketch, the eyes on the left are aggressive and threatening, and our brains will pick up on the threat they pose and we will have physiological responses before we can consciously think through the fact that those eyes are just a few lines drawn on paper. The same thing happens with the eyes on the right, which our brains recognize as anxious or worried. Our body will have a quick fear reaction, and our brain will be on guard in case there is something we need to be anxious or worried about as well.

 

Regarding a study that was conducted where subjects in a brain scanner were shown a threatening picture for less than 2/100 of a second, Kahneman writes, “Images of the brain showed an intense response of the amygdala to a threatening picture that the viewer did not recognize. The information about the threat probably traveled via a superfast neural channel that feeds directly into a part of the brain that processes emotions, bypassing the visual cortex that supports the conscious experience of seeing.” The study was designed so that the subjects were not consciously aware of having seen an image of threatening eyes, but nevertheless their brain perceived it and their body reacted accordingly.

 

The takeaway from this kind of research is that our environments matter and that our brains respond to more than what we are consciously aware of. Subtle cues and factors around us can shape the way we behave and feel about where we are and what is happening. We might not know why we feel threatened, and we might not even realize that we feel threatened, but our heart rate may be elevated, we might tense up, and we might become short and defensive in certain situations. When we think back on why we behaved a certain way, why we felt the way we did, and why we had the reactions we did, our brains won’t be able to recognize these subtle cues that never rose to the level of consciousness. We won’t be able to explain the reason why we felt threatened, all we will be able to recall is the physiological response we had to the situation. We are influenced by far more than our conscious brain is aware, and we should remember that our conscious brain doesn’t provide us with a perfect picture of reality, but nevertheless our subconscious reacts to more of the world than we notice.
Base Rates Joe Abittan

Base Rates

When we think about individual outcomes we usually think about independent causal structures. A car accident happened because a person was switching their Spotify playlist and accidently ran a red light. A person stole from a grocery store because they had poor moral character which came from a poor cultural upbringing. A build-up of electrical potential from the friction of two air masses rushing past each other caused a lightning strike.

 

When we think about larger systems and structures we usually think about more interconnected and somewhat random outcomes that we don’t necessarily observe on a case by case basis, but instead think about in terms of likelihoods and conditions which create the possibilities for a set of events and outcomes. Increasing technological capacity in smartphones with lagging technological capacity in vehicles created a tension for drivers who wanted to stream music while operating vehicles, increasing the chances of a driver error accident. A stronger US dollar made it more profitable for companies to employ workers in other countries, leading to a decline in manufacturing jobs in US cities and people stealing food as they lost their paychecks.  Earth’s tilt toward the sun led to a difference in the amount of solar energy that northern continental landmasses experienced, creating a temperature and atmospheric gradient which led to lightning producing storms and increased chances of lightning in a given region.

 

What I am trying to demonstrate in the two paragraphs above is a tension between thinking statistically versus thinking causally. It is easy to think causally on a case by case basis, and harder to move up the ladder to think about statistical likelihoods and larger outcomes over entire complex systems. Daniel Kahneman presents these two types of thought in his book Thinking Fast and Slow writing:

 

Statistical base rates are facts about a population to which a case belongs, but they are not relevant to the individual case. Causal base rates change your view of how the individual case came to be.”

 

It is more satisfying for us to assign agency to a single individual than to consider that individual’s actions as being part of a large and complex system that will statistically produce a certain number of outcomes that we observe. We like easy causes, and dislike thinking about statistical likelihoods of different events.

 

“Statistical base rates are generally underweighted, and sometimes neglected altogether, when specific information about the case at hand is available.
Causal base rates are treated as information about the individual case and are easily combined with other case-specific information.”

 

The base rates that Kahneman describes can be thought of as the category or class to which we assign something. We can use different forms of base rates to support different views and opinions. Shifting the base rate from a statistical base rate to a causal base rate may change the way we think about whether a person is deserving of punishment, or aid, or indifference. It may change how we structure society, design roads, and conduct cost-benefit analyses for changing programs or technologies. Looking at the world through a limited causal base rate will give us a certain set of outcomes that might not generalize toward the rest of the world, and might cause us to make erroneous judgments about the best ways to organize ourselves to achieve the outcomes we want for society.