Wednesday, March 13, 2019

Humans Behaving Badly


Each summer Bill Gates picks a stack of books to take on a solitary retreat for a couple of weeks. When we lived on Whidbey Island, Bill’s annual hideout was just up the road from us, in a comfortable beach cottage on Steve Ballmer’s estate. 

Here’s a summary of Bill’s favorite books from the last few years. My current wait-list queue at Bellingham Public Library includes several of Bill’s recent recommendations, along with suggestions from the year-end reading lists published by the New York Times, Slate, Entertainment Weekly, and the University of Evansville's Provost.

My first two books from Bill Gates' list turned out to be polar opposites.


As you can see, Bill Gates provided a tepid blurb for Steven Pinker’s new book Enlightenment Now:  the Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress: “My new favorite book of all time.

Pinker, like Gates, is a congenital optimist. He’s not na├»ve – the first sentence of Enlightment Now acknowledges that the Trump era “would not seem to be an auspicious time to publish a book on the historical sweep of progress and its causes.” According to Pinker, Enlightenment ideals “are timeless, but they have never been more relevant than they are right now.” Pinker then goes on for 450 pages deploying statistics and other evidence to establish why these are the best of times. Cultural and technological improvements that began during the Enlightenment three centuries ago have brought dramatic improvements to every meaningful human measure:  life expectancy, health, nourishment, wealth, equality, freedom, happiness….

Pinker was motivated to write Enlightenment Now not by recent Trumpian developments, but rather by the reception to his 2011 book The Better Angels of Our Nature. In Better Angels, Pinker demonstrated that the impact of war, genocide, crime, and every other category of human violence has been steeply declining for decades, centuries, and even millennia. But Pinker was surprised how few critics and readers believed him. Fake News and poor math skills had turned everyone into a bunch of irrational pessimists.

Pinker acknowledges the “appeal of regressive ideas is perennial, and the case for reason, science, humanism, and progress always has to be made…  But there is no limit to the betterments we can attain if we continue to apply knowledge to enhance human flourishing.”

Humanism stresses the potential value and goodness of all human beings, emphasizes common human needs, and seeks rational ways of solving human problems. Humanist values should be part of any healthy worldview, whether you happen to be an atheist, materialist, agnostic, spiritual, or religious. 

Pinker himself is a prominent member of the “New Atheists” crowd, and can’t help criticizing anything he perceives as involving superstition. But his tone is not juvenile like Richard Dawkins, or snarky like Christopher Hitchens. Instead, Pinker’s basic message is “Gosh, aren’t humans neat?”


Yuval Noah Harari’s book Sapiens puts humans firmly in their place.

Life on Earth began 3.8 billion years go. Around 200 million years ago, evolution produced the first dinosaurs and mammals. Sixteen million years ago, our developmental branch within the Primate order diverged from the oranguatangs' path. A mere six million years ago, humans shared a common grandmother with our two closest primate cousins, chimpanzees and bonobos. The genus Homo eventually emerged four million later. (In the biological classification system, genus is the level above species.) Our species, Homo sapiens, finally appeared about 200,000 years ago.

As Harari is quick to point out, Homo sapiens aren’t very special, even within genus Homo. To the contrary, just 100,000 years ago we were one of at least six extant human species. Homo neanderthalensis had already been living in Europe and the Middle East for hundreds of thousands of years before the first Homo sapiens appeared in East Africa. 

Like the other Homos, we sacrificed useful traits like strength and speed in favor of disproportionately massive brains. Even though human brains only take up 2% of our body mass, they consume 25% of our energy. Other primates spend at most 8% of their energy powering comparably sized brains. Nevertheless, even after we tamed fire and invented a few stone tools, the human investment in big brains was hardly paying dividends. According to Harari, 

We assume that a large brain, the use of tools, superior learning abilities and complex social structures are huge advantages. But humans enjoyed all of these advantages for a full two million years during which they remained weak and marginal creatures… Genus Homo’s position in the food chain was, until quite recently, solidly in the middle.

Our bodies, including our brains, were honed by competition with other species and within hunter-gatherer tribes for hundreds of thousands of generations. Harari argues that a major qualitative improvement in Homo sapiens’ brain capacity occurred very recently, about 75,000 years ago. He refers to this development as “The Cognitive Revolution.” Since then, there hasn’t been enough time for natural selection to accomplish further genetic evolution. Instead, our improved human brains are responsible for the havoc wrought by immense cultural evolution that continues at an ever-accelerating pace.  

Unlike other successful predators, such as lions, tyrannasaurus, and orcas, humans have only been at the top of the food chain for the evolutionary equivalent of the blink of an eye. Harari observes that in contrast with the gradual ascendence of other species, nature never had a chance “to develop checks and balances” for humans. Instead, we’re like evil young King Joffrey in Game of Thrones, handed a crown before we learned how to handle our anti-social urges.

As the writer Barbara Ehrenreich observes, we cannot comprehend human violence “without understanding that before they were warriors, or even hunters, our ancestors were the prey of more skillful and far better armed nonhuman predators.” As a result, Harari argues humans are terribly insecure – “like a banana republic dictator.”


I hope you're not too insulted by the comparison to King Joffrey. Even before you consider our recent role in climate change, humans already were the most successful perpetuators of genocide in global history (other than dinosaur-killing asteroids). 

After the Cognitive Revolution, Homo sapiens continued our simple hunter-gathering ways for tens of thousands of years. But we suddenly had a bigger footprint, and a broader range. After leaving East Africa, humans settled new continents like Australia and the Americas. Each time we promptly burned down forests and hunted all the local megafauna into extinction. Meanwhile, every other Homo species, including the Neanderthals, suspiciously disappeared. 


Twelve thousand years ago, humans decided to give up their hunter-gatherer lifestyle and settled down. Harari describes the Agricultural Revolution as "history’s biggest fraud.” 

Agriculture was good for certain plant species, such as wheat, corn, and rice. In Harari’s words, “These plants domesticated Homo sapiens, rather than vice versa.” A few animal parasites also exploited our domestication, like dogs, cats, and cockroaches. As Michael Pollan points out in The Botany of Desire, “there are fifty million dogs in America today, and only ten thousand wolves.”

Everyone else was a loser – from countless extinct species, to millions of chickens, hogs, and cattle living short miserable lives on industrial farms today, to the great mass of humanity who lived and died during most of recorded history. Hunter-gatherer tribes previously enjoyed nutritious diets, generous leisure time, and vibrant egalitarian communities. In contrast, agriculture’s “sivilizing” forces brought pestilence, over-crowding, crushing labor, patriarchy, poverty, and inequity. As evolutionary biologist Robert Saplosky observes, “When humans invented material inequality, they came up with a way of subjugating the low ranking like nothing ever before seen in the primate world.” As a species, we’re like family farmers who went deep into debt to buy some newfangled tractor long ago, and never recovered.

Harari’s book goes on to cast a similarly jaundiced eye on other human inventions like money, writing, religion, capitalism, empires, and science. Harari even lumps humanism in with Marxism and other destructive ideologies. According to Harari, everyone would have been much better off if humans had stuck with primitive animism or polytheism.


With most species, social network capacity closely correlates with the size of the social areas in the species' brains. Based on these calculations, both Harari and Sapolsky point out that the human brain was originally designed to interact with about 150 people. That’s how hunter-gatherers lived for innumerable millennia. 

Humans learned to enhance our brain power by offloading many tasks to tools like writing and technology. According to Harari, however, the real breakthrough occurred with the Cognitive Revolution. Evolutionary biologists characterize the revolutionary cognitive development that occurred around that time as human's capacity for “Theory of Mind.” This phrase comes from an influential 1978 paper by David Premack and Guy Woodruff, entitled “Does the chimpanzee have a theory of mind?” As far as we know, Homo sapiens is the only species with the ability to understand our experience and act based on the proposition that other individuals possess a mental state that may differ from our own

Harari focuses on one important aspect of Theory of Mind:  because each individual’s mental state is independent of the real world, humans can feel, believe, and foresee things that are not true and may never be. According to Harari, “large numbers of strangers can cooperate successfully by believing in common myths.” Harari uses the example of the car conglomerate “Peugot,” which exists as legal fiction separate from any real world person, automobile, factory, or brick-and-mortar bank. Other powerful communal fictions include capital, nations, Fortnite, and religion. (Remember that particular fictions may or may not turn out to be true.)

Humans’ collective fiction ability allows us to manage social relationships that extend far beyond a 150-person tribe. As Harari points out, sharing cultural memes allows us to make rapid, substantial changes to our species and to the world around us – without waiting around for natural selection to do its slow work at the gene level.

Other philosophers and scientists are less cynical than Harari. They focus on different aspects of the cognitive revolution that occurred when humans developed the capacity for Theory of Mind. For example, in his book Behave: The Biology of Humans at our Best and Worst, Sapolsky discusses the role of the brain’s Anterior Cingulate Cortex region. The ACC monitors our internal and external environments for any discrepancies with our expectations. A fully-developed ACC plays a key part in a uniquely human trait:  empathy.  Observing and understanding feelings – ourselves’ and others’ – is essential to our shared humanity.

So what happened when Homo sapiens finally evolved enough to share fictions and feel empathy?

Our brains grew three sizes. And our hearts. Now we just need to figure out how to solve some of the world's pressing problems together. Isn't that what being human is all about?





I’m no Bill Gates, but here's my list of the books I’ve read so far in 2019:

Leslie Jamison, The Recovering: Intoxication and its Aftermath

Susan Orleans, The Library Book

Emily Esfahani Smith, The Power of Meaning:  Crafting a Life that Matters

Barbara Eherenreich, Living with a Wild God: A Nonbeliever's Search for the Truth About Everything

Eric Idle, Always Look on the Bright Side of Life: A Sortabiography

Steven Pinker, Enlightenment Now:  the Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress

Christopher Hitchens, Hitch-22: A Memoir

Neil deGrasse Tyson, Astrophysics for People in a Hurry

Amy Chua, Political Tribes:  Group Instinct and the Fate of Nations

Lauren Weisberger, When Life Gives you Lululemons

Patton Oswalt, Silver Screen Fiend:  Learning about Life from an Addiction to Film

Edmund White, Inside a Pearl:  My Years in Paris

P.G. Wodehouse, Jeeves in the Offing

Craig Brown, Ninety-nine Glimpses of Princess Margaret

Jordan Ellenberg, How Not to Be Wrong: the Power of Mathematical Thinking

Adam Aptowitzer, Starting and Maintaining a Charity in Canada

William James, Varieties of Religious Experience

Sally Field, In Pieces: a Memoir

Yuval Noah Harari, Sapiens: a Brief History of Humankind

Judith Grisel, Never Enough:  the Neuroscience and Experience of Addiction

Anne Lamott, Almost Everything:  Notes on Hope

Viktor Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning






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