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

Does the Arc of Humanity Bend Toward Justice?

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