Sapiens -- A Brief History of Human Kind

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Dragline
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Sapiens -- A Brief History of Human Kind

Post by Dragline » Fri Feb 27, 2015 11:14 pm

Anyone else read this:?

http://www.amazon.com/Sapiens-A-Brief-H ... 0062316095

Its quite thought provoking and provides some interesting models and ideas for a lot of the things we have talked about here, including basic human psychology, the human capacity to believe in and use abstractions or fictions (including the concept of money), the commonalities of secular and religious ideologies, empires, the rise of the growth-driven consumerist ideology, the role of science and its drivers, what drives human happiness and artificial intelligence.

The author has also put up many talks that cover a lot of the same material, including a lecture series that essentially covers the whole book: https://www.youtube.com/channel/UC2m77K ... 0Kw35-4shQ

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Re: Sapiens -- A Brief History of Human Kind

Post by jennypenny » Sat Feb 28, 2015 5:16 pm

My son put a hold on it at the library for me, but there were several people ahead of me in the queue, so I haven't read it yet.

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Re: Sapiens -- A Brief History of Human Kind

Post by Ego » Sat Feb 28, 2015 11:46 pm

I've placed a library hold for the digital version. The kindle version seems to be very expensive. Is that true for everyone? I hope Amazon is not adjusting for those using VPN like hulu has.

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Re: Sapiens -- A Brief History of Human Kind

Post by C40 » Sat Feb 28, 2015 11:52 pm

Kindle price is $14.44 for me

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Re: Sapiens -- A Brief History of Human Kind

Post by Ego » Sun Mar 01, 2015 9:41 am

Hum, I could swear it was $29 earlier. Now I see it as $14.44. I must have been half asleep as i put a hold on a hard copy.

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Re: Sapiens -- A Brief History of Human Kind

Post by Dragline » Sun Mar 01, 2015 8:25 pm


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Re: Sapiens -- A Brief History of Human Kind

Post by Dragline » Sun Mar 01, 2015 8:33 pm

Dragline wrote:An interesting interview: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2Vllgib842g
A very critical issue discussed starting at minute 34 or so about the potential future of medicine.

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Re: Sapiens -- A Brief History of Human Kind

Post by Ego » Fri Mar 06, 2015 10:49 am

He makes some interesting points about the Faustian bargain hunter-gatherers made when they transitioned to an agrarian lifestyle. The idea that hunter-gatherers are more anti-fragile over the long haul thanks to their relative flexibility and their reliance on a wide variety of food sources had never occurred to me. I enjoyed the section on how the transition might have happened, how wheat domesticated us rather than us domesticating wheat, and how hunter-gatherers traded a good quality of life for one that was much worse in exchange for the agriculturalist illusion of security.

Sounds familiar.

Humans, from an evolutionary perspective, have been the most successful large mammal to spread its DNA, followed by cows, chickens and pigs. He made the point that he quality of life of modern farm animals is horrendous when compared to that of their pre-domesticated versions. It made me wonder if genetic propagation is the ultimate measure of evolutionary success. I wonder if sapiens’s position at the top of the list of mammals that successfully spread DNA hasn’t come with a similar cost to our quality of life.

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Re: Sapiens -- A Brief History of Human Kind

Post by jacob » Fri Mar 06, 2015 11:08 am

I think that explains why that squirrel outside my window is always smirking.

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Re: Sapiens -- A Brief History of Human Kind

Post by theanimal » Fri Mar 06, 2015 12:49 pm

Hunter gatherers traded their lifestyle for poverty, famine, inequality, war, more work, shorter lives (took until the 18th-19th century for medicine to allow the majority to live as long as the hunter-gathers did) and poorer health among other negatives. Why did they do this?!

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Re: Sapiens -- A Brief History of Human Kind

Post by cmonkey » Fri Mar 06, 2015 2:18 pm

Very powerful lecture! It hit me while watching that I work with things that don't exist (virtual computers and software) for something that doesn't exist (money) giving up the one thing that actually has the most value in life - time.

ERE cannot come soon enough.

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Re: Sapiens -- A Brief History of Human Kind

Post by Dragline » Fri Mar 06, 2015 2:35 pm

@theanimal:

I don't think anyone really can say with much certainty. But Harari posits a few interesting ideas/hypotheses:

-- He doesn't subscribe to the idea that hunter gatherers were less violent. But there were fewer of them. He posits that humans were always pretty violent and that they wiped out other human species (neanderthals and erectus) to take over their hunting grounds.

-- Hunter/gatherers also killed off all of the mega fauna (like giant kangaroos and woolly mammoths) as they spread, which were rather easy pickings because they often didn't even run away from beings smaller than them. Eventually, they had to start focusing on eating other things, including more plants that could not be digested without cooking them (like grains and potatoes).

-- Wild wheat spread with abandon when humans started carrying it around and grinding it up, and became much more prevalent. Eventually, it was easier to tend the wheat than hunt/gather other food. (This is the "wheat domesticated humans" idea.) Harari points out that the first domesticators probably had it pretty good, reproduced more, and still did lots of hunting and gathering. But as population rose, life became more nasty. Like a city is great until it becomes a polluted slum.

-- What ultimately drove humans to the top of the food chain was not in their DNA, but in their ability to create and believe in collective narratives. This allowed cooperation on a much larger scale than any animal herding or group instincts. This ability was something developed by hunter gatherers and was a prerequisite to forming stable agricultural communities. (This contradicts what some other pre-historians have posited, which was that agriculture was a prerequisite to developing collective narratives.)

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Re: Sapiens -- A Brief History of Human Kind

Post by theanimal » Fri Mar 06, 2015 3:12 pm

Dragline wrote:@theanimal:

I don't think anyone really can say with much certainty. But Harari posits a few interesting ideas/hypotheses:

-- He doesn't subscribe to the idea that hunter gatherers were less violent. But there were fewer of them. He posits that humans were always pretty violent and that they wiped out other human species (neanderthals and erectus) to take over their hunting grounds.
Yes, it was more of a rhetorical question.

The idea that humans have always been a warring people has proven to be quite flawed by many anthropologists. Many of the figures who champion this idea, such as Steven Pinker and Jane Goodall, do so based off false information (such as looking at non-hunter gather groups and extrapolating that information to actual hunter gatherer groups or looking at “hunter-gatherer” groups in modern, densely populated areas). What reason would hunter-gatherers have to fight? They lived in a world with abundant food, no private property and in egalitarian groups. If there was a conflict, they’d move. We are also talking about population numbers that reached around 3 million worldwide at its max and were often much lower than that, estimated even as low as around 300 (!!) individuals worldwide around 70,000 years ago. That being said, there weren’t many opportunities to fight, and when they did come in contact, there wasn’t much reason for it.

When humans moved to agricultural based societies, they needed more land to cultivate in order to get more food. More land and more food= more people. Resulting in a never ending loop of need to acquire more land/create more food. Hunter-gatherer bands were often killed to acquire it.

Also, if we were to look at our closest relative in the primate world, the bonobo, we would encounter a similar story. Bonobos have peaceful, egalitarian “societies” (or groups). This is similar to what many researchers believe human society was like pre-agriculture.
-- Hunter/gatherers also killed off all of the mega fauna (like giant kangaroos and woolly mammoths) as they spread, which were rather easy pickings because they often didn't even run away from beings smaller than them. Eventually, they had to start focusing on eating other things, including more plants that could not be digested without cooking them (like grains and potatoes).
This point is highly contested and thought to be pretty unlikely. Check out the book 1491 for more info. In short, the estimated arrival of humans to the Americas does not coincide well with the mass extinction of many animal species. It is more likely that this is due to a significant change in climate rather than by human doing.

-
- Wild wheat spread with abandon when humans started carrying it around and grinding it up, and became much more prevalent. Eventually, it was easier to tend the wheat than hunt/gather other food. (This is the "wheat domesticated humans" idea.) Harari points out that the first domesticators probably had it pretty good, reproduced more, and still did lots of hunting and gathering. But as population rose, life became more nasty. Like a city is great until it becomes a polluted slum.
Grinding wheat without modern tools is incredibly time consuming. Having multiple children in short succession also slows down the groups. One also has to note that hunter-gatherers were estimated to only spend around 15 hours obtaining food/week. That’s obviously pretty small amount of time! I have a hard time believing that wheat was easier to process back then.
-- What ultimately drove humans to the top of the food chain was not in their DNA, but in their ability to create and believe in collective narratives. This allowed cooperation on a much larger scale than any animal herding or group instincts. This ability was something developed by hunter gatherers and was a prerequisite to forming stable agricultural communities. (This contradicts what some other pre-historians have posited, which was that agriculture was a prerequisite to developing collective narratives.)
Agreed. Hunter-gatherers were highly communal societies.

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Re: Sapiens -- A Brief History of Human Kind

Post by Dragline » Fri Mar 06, 2015 4:28 pm

theanimal wrote:
Dragline wrote:@theanimal:

Yes, it was more of a rhetorical question.

The idea that humans have always been a warring people has proven to be quite flawed by many anthropologists. Many of the figures who champion this idea, such as Steven Pinker and Jane Goodall, do so based off false information (such as looking at non-hunter gather groups and extrapolating that information to actual hunter gatherer groups or looking at “hunter-gatherer” groups in modern, densely populated areas). What reason would hunter-gatherers have to fight? They lived in a world with abundant food, no private property and in egalitarian groups. If there was a conflict, they’d move. We are also talking about population numbers that reached around 3 million worldwide at its max and were often much lower than that, estimated even as low as around 300 (!!) individuals worldwide around 70,000 years ago. That being said, there weren’t many opportunities to fight, and when they did come in contact, there wasn’t much reason for it.
-- Hunter/gatherers also killed off all of the mega fauna (like giant kangaroos and woolly mammoths) as they spread, which were rather easy pickings because they often didn't even run away from beings smaller than them. Eventually, they had to start focusing on eating other things, including more plants that could not be digested without cooking them (like grains and potatoes).
This point is highly contested and thought to be pretty unlikely. Check out the book 1491 for more info. In short, the estimated arrival of humans to the Americas does not coincide well with the mass extinction of many animal species. It is more likely that this is due to a significant change in climate rather than by human doing.

-
- Wild wheat spread with abandon when humans started carrying it around and grinding it up, and became much more prevalent. Eventually, it was easier to tend the wheat than hunt/gather other food. (This is the "wheat domesticated humans" idea.) Harari points out that the first domesticators probably had it pretty good, reproduced more, and still did lots of hunting and gathering. But as population rose, life became more nasty. Like a city is great until it becomes a polluted slum.
Grinding wheat without modern tools is incredibly time consuming. Having multiple children in short succession also slows down the groups. One also has to note that hunter-gatherers were estimated to only spend around 15 hours obtaining food/week. That’s obviously pretty small amount of time! I have a hard time believing that wheat was easier to process back then.
-- What ultimately drove humans to the top of the food chain was not in their DNA, but in their ability to create and believe in collective narratives. This allowed cooperation on a much larger scale than any animal herding or group instincts. This ability was something developed by hunter gatherers and was a prerequisite to forming stable agricultural communities. (This contradicts what some other pre-historians have posited, which was that agriculture was a prerequisite to developing collective narratives.)
Agreed. Hunter-gatherers were highly communal societies.
I really don't have the personal background to argue much about this, one way or another, but I'll tell you what I read.

As for the mega fauna being killed, Harari thinks that Australia provides the best example of that about 45,000 years ago (along with New Zealand as a modern example -- about 800 years ago and Madagascar -- 1500 years ago). But he recognizes the climate change theory as well.

Regarding the reasons hunter-gatherers would be violent towards other groups, first other non-sapiens and then other sapiens, his thesis is that this behavior became magnified when humans started to create tribal and quasi-religious narratives about themselves. He calls this "The Cognitive Revolution." And again, he posits that this occurred before the agricultural revolution -- i.e., during the time when everyone was a hunter-gatherer.

As for why they would pursue agriculture when it made the average life suck, its for the same reason that people pursue consumerism (the "rat race") and then complain about how their lives suck. One of my favorite passages in his book, in a section called "The Luxury Trap", discussing why people never tried to undo the Agricultural Revolution:

"Then why didn’t humans abandon farming when the plan backfired? Partly because it took generations for the small changes to accumulate and transform society and, by then, nobody remembered that they had ever lived differently. And partly because population growth burned humanity’s boats. If the adoption of ploughing increased a village’s population from a hundred to 110, which ten people would have volunteered to starve so that the others could go back to the good old times? There was no going back. The trap snapped shut.

The pursuit of an easier life resulted in much hardship, and not for the last time. It happens to us today. How many young college graduates have taken demanding jobs in high-powered firms, vowing that they will work hard to earn money that will enable them to retire and pursue their real interests when they are thirty-five? But by the time they reach that age, they have large mortgages, children to school, houses in the suburbs that necessitate at least two cars per family, and a sense that life is not worth living without really good wine and expensive holidays abroad. What are they supposed to do, go back to digging up roots? No, they double their efforts and keep slaving away.

One of history’s few iron laws is that luxuries tend to become necessities and to spawn new obligations. Once people get used to a certain luxury, they take it for granted. Then they begin to count on it. Finally they reach a point where they can’t live without it. Let’s take another familiar example from our own time. Over the last few decades, we have invented countless time-saving devices that are supposed to make life more relaxed – washing machines, vacuum cleaners, dishwashers, telephones, mobile phones, computers, email. Previously it took a lot of work to write a letter, address and stamp an envelope, and take it to the mailbox. It took days or weeks, maybe even months, to get a reply. Nowadays I can dash off an email , send it halfway around the globe, and (if my addressee is online) receive a reply a minute later. I’ve saved all that trouble and time, but do I live a more relaxed life?

Sadly not. Back in the snail-mail era, people usually only wrote letters when they had something important to relate. Rather than writing the first thing that came into their heads, they considered carefully what they wanted to say and how to phrase it. They expected to receive a similarly considered answer. Most people wrote and received no more than a handful of letters a month and seldom felt compelled to reply immediately. Today I receive dozens of emails each day, all from people who expect a prompt reply. We thought we were saving time; instead we revved up the treadmill of life to ten times its former speed and made our days more anxious and agitated."

Harari, Yuval Noah (2015-02-10). Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind (pp. 87-88). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.

These are the kinds of things I always look for when I read -- ideas that are the same as others I've encountered, but coming from an entirely different context. Ideas that exist in many contexts are the most powerful ideas.

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Re: Sapiens -- A Brief History of Human Kind

Post by jacob » Fri Mar 06, 2015 7:37 pm

You guys seem more informed than me, so take this with a ton of salt...

It is/was my impression that agriculture won because agriculture can feed more people more consistently per area than hunter-gathering. This in turn results in more people resulting in the consistently strong positive feedback required for exponential growth.

No matter the quality of a steady-state solution, it always losses to exponential growth by human quantity.

Nation states know this. Religions know this. It requires above-average-human insight to recognize the potential and self-defeating limits to such "growth".

@Dragline - What impresses me the most, looking back, is how much of what we consider recent inventions are actually ancient inventions. The British hunter-gatherers traded grain with mainland Europe (you could walk across in those times) 10000 years ago. Ancient urban planning (5k years ago) is not much less sophisticated than modern urban planning. Whenever it comes to human-human organization or human-human understand, people more or less knew what we know now millennia ago.

I'd say the absolute biggest problem and most important solutions that could fix all the problems that humanity keep running into is:
1) How to preserve these insights for eons of time. (How to preserve wise!)
2) How to disseminate them so that most humans make them part of their wisdom. (How to fix stupid!)

I have no idea ...

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Re: Sapiens -- A Brief History of Human Kind

Post by Dragline » Fri Mar 06, 2015 8:45 pm

I think it involves constructing the right narratives. Not that I have any clue what they would be.

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Re: Sapiens -- A Brief History of Human Kind

Post by Ego » Fri Mar 06, 2015 11:45 pm

Dragline wrote: He posits that humans were always pretty violent and that they wiped out other human species (neanderthals and erectus) to take over their hunting grounds.
This was one of the points I found very surprising. I hadn't heard about the 2010 dna analysis that turned anthropology on its head by finding neanderthal and erectus dna in modern day human dna. Perhaps is was not widely reported because of the explosive implications?

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Re: Sapiens -- A Brief History of Human Kind

Post by theanimal » Sat Mar 07, 2015 1:42 am

@Dragline-Fair enough. Regardless, I enjoyed the passage and video. I'll be adding the book to my list.

Some may find this essay from Jared Diamond Interesting. "The Worst Mistake in the History of the Human Race"
http://www.ditext.com/diamond/mistake.html

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Re: Sapiens -- A Brief History of Human Kind

Post by Dragline » Sat Mar 07, 2015 8:44 am

I think Harari would agree, at least for the average individual human. But he would say it was a boon for human DNA.

The book is one of those "theory of everything" books, but it is a lot better than most of those and is very evenhanded in most respects. As you would expect, though, since the author is an historian, he does well with historical facts, nations, empires, etc. and cultural comparisons, but less so with science and related disciplines. His "what's going to happen next" section sound a lot like interesting things he found on the internet. He does very well with relating science to culture, though. One of his more interesting hypotheses is that science itself doesn't drive anything because it doesn't really have a narrative -- its based on the idea that we are ignorant, but is used by cultures who decide what is important to them and invest their scientific research dollars accordingly (or not at all, as the case may be.)

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Re: Sapiens -- A Brief History of Human Kind

Post by Ego » Sun Mar 08, 2015 12:23 am

Dragline wrote:I think Harari would agree, at least for the average individual human. But he would say it was a boon for human DNA.
The point he is making (which he probably go from the Diamond paper that animal linked to above) is that a boon for our DNA is not necessarily a boon for humans.

At this point it's instructive to recall the common complaint that archaeology is a luxury, concerned with the remote past, and offering no lessons for the present. Archaeologists studying the rise of farming have reconstructed a crucial stage at which we made the worst mistake in human history. Forced to choose between limiting population or trying to increase food production, we chose the latter and ended up with starvation, warfare, and tyranny.

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