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Sapiens - Part One: The Cognitive Revolution 
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Post Re: Sapiens - Part One: The Cognitive Revolution
DWill wrote:
The Smithsonian's "Human Origins" hall at Natural History... sets out the puzzle Harari dwells on: why did humans start to raise food and become sedentary when such a change meant worse lives for the majority?

This problem, that agricultural progress reduced quality of life, is to my mind the key anthropological question behind the Judeo-Christian mythology of the fall from grace into corruption. It illustrates the power of social evolution and group selection, that a champion team beats a team of champions.

Humans found at the dawn of the Holocene ten thousand years ago that growing cereals and domesticating livestock could make life safer and simpler and richer. The trade-offs were a loss of personal freedom, a growth of social hierarchy, and a lower nutritional quality of diet, compensated by reliable quantity.

The amplifying feedback of these social evolutionary processes meant that social coordination to grow crops enabled social control by chiefs and kings. The king then came to embody the group, turning it into a unified evolutionary entity in military and religious competition with other groups.

Monarchy was able to institute methods of coercion to enslave the peasantry, so this loss of the old hunter-gatherer liberty became the rigid enabler of technological and economic progress.

Part of the coercion involved the mechanism of consent, whereby religion was used to co-opt the slaves into supporting their own enslavement, preferring the safety and belonging of the tribal group to the perceived anarchy and risk of isolated individual freedom.


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Last edited by Robert Tulip on Fri Jun 08, 2018 8:18 pm, edited 1 time in total.



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Post Re: Sapiens - Part One: The Cognitive Revolution
DWill wrote:
It would appear that what put our team over the top was the complexity of our symbolic systems, just as Harari says.
I am having some trouble with Harari's way of talking about the advantages of symbolic systems. By exaggerating "stories" and "fiction" he skips over the functionality which is obvious when he gives examples of the beginnings of this theme.

This may be partly because I am concurrently reading "The Horse, the Wheel and Language" about the origins of Indo-European culture. It is mostly a dry, tedious work with one foot in the world of scholarship, but it tells some important stories from the heart of anthropological learning. For example, the author just made the vital point that raising domestic animals required a delay of gratification that the surrounding hunter societies might have found pointless and beyond their self-control (at least at first).

An even more important point is that cultural practices spread across cultural boundaries (which are usually also ecological boundaries) as a result of higher status. So for example the herders could throw big feasts, which the hunters could not, giving the herders a status advantage. And of course feasts became central to the rituals and artifacts of religion.

In terms of the success of the species, what became the ability to declare fiat money and define nation-states did not start with such grandiose feats of imagination. More likely it had to do with the location and timing of salmon runs, or the greater durability of tanned leather, or some such highly tangible matters. What we are really talking about is the ability to conceptualize things not present by using words about them. Language is so ubiquitous among humans that it absolutely has to have a genetic basis, probably a quite direct genetic basis.

DWill wrote:
In the roughly 6 million years of the homo genus' development, climate changes were more frequent and pronounced than at any time previous.
I had not heard that. Of course we have all heard about the ice ages, but were they really uniquely dramatic in fluctuation?

It certainly does suggest some possible advantages to the communication systems that Harari says were evolving. That enormous investment of energy may have paid off in knowing how to shelter or where to flee to, or in making possible other adaptations to the shifts. Even the idea of being able to conceptualize "things are getting colder, let's go where it's warmer," etc. would be an advantage - somehow one doubts that the great herd migrations work off of knowledge and planning.
DWill wrote:
Robert Tulip wrote:
Harari makes the excellent point that a nation is a fiction, an imaginary idea. The USA is held together by its constitution, the myth of the founding fathers and the military. These are excellent imaginative institutions, but their capacity to sustain shared purpose has its limits.

Christianity might serve better as a social glue, with its themes of love, truth and redemption, except that the churches are hypocritical, constrained to adopt a conservative stance by the need to oppose the aggressive secularity of the political left.

I wouldn't have chosen religion as myth suitable to make a nation feel bound together. Well, maybe if we're talking about a single religion for all, but otherwise hasn't religion been more a reinforcer of division?
Sorry to be tedious, but America pioneered the idea of tolerating a variety of religions, (along with Netherlands, which did have an established religion). There is a lot of cohesiveness and good will fostered by religion to go along with its divisiveness and triumphalism. For every Ted Cruz there is a Ben Carson, and for every Robert Jeffress there is a Rick Warren.

Religion opens a door to vocabularies of common purpose. Whether it be city on a hill, better angels, mighty fortresses or inner lights, the ability to hook concepts which inspire (a religious concept) is one that is vital to the American experiment. America, from the beginning, was building a nation from many backgrounds, unified not out of the mutual defense to which the clan has almost no alternative, but (if at all) out of the common purpose of building a society of opportunity.

DWill wrote:
What might work just as well as one religion would be no religion, which is the condition we're told applies in northern Europe, an area that has high levels of social cohesiveness. It might be that agreement on secular goals is easier to reach than agreement on matters of faith.

The current cleavage is between the small town world of traditional white culture and the more anonymous, individualized culture of the cities. The suburbs are the battleground, and their churches are at the center of the culture wars.

The cities are winning, not surprisingly, but they have neglected the matter of binding wounds, acting as though winning is the point rather than building a society which functions well.

Note that African-Americans, who arguably provided the margin of victory to Obama, have natural sympathy on both sides. Most of us also feel some pull of patriotism and nuclear families and trade protectionism. If the cosmopolitans reject those basics, they abandon the emotional center of society. The same applies to religion. The result would be a decapitation of American society.

DWill wrote:
At any rate, I don't think the U.S. has ever been characterized by either social or religious homogeneity. We may feel today that we are particularly splintered, but could that concept of the past be a myth in itself? It could be, or we could be harkening back to an exceptional rather than a typical period, say the confident and complacent 1950s.
To say the least, we have never been homogeneous. The 50s were the time of McCarthyism and Little Rock, of the integrated military and quotas on Jews at universities. Anti-Catholicism was strong, and lynchings were frequent.

DWill wrote:
What held the U.S. together might be the myth of opportunity. As long as people felt free to pursue their own vision of happiness, it didn't matter so much that people thought and worshiped differently. The myth was strong enough even to give hope to people who seemed stuck in hopeless conditions.

I think that's the idea. But the stories of opportunity should not disparage the stories of cohesion. Phrases like "Capra-corn" are tribal put-downs from the cosmopolitans, and they could lose the superior attitude without losing opportunity.



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Post Re: Sapiens - Part One: The Cognitive Revolution
Just wanted to register that I think I am now (just at the start of "Adam and Eve" - sorry, not my favorite kind of read) on the right wavelength to appreciate Harari's messages.

In the same few paragraphs with which he argues that Neanderthals in groups would have no chance against Sapiens in groups, he also argues that we don't understand Sapiens organizational principles using biology. The combination of seeming to obsess on the biological (the difference between two species), and seeming to declare independence from it, was more than a little jarring for me.

Then I realized he is implicitly critiquing sociobiology. Many of the supposed insights of sociobiology have come from arguments that certain kinds of human behavior (e.g. the sexual double-standard, in which women must be monogamous but men can be promiscuous) can best be understood based on adaptive biological pressures and genetic inheritance. While the arguments of the sociobiologists should be taken seriously, they should also be taken skeptically - cultural adaptations change faster and adapt better.



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Post Re: Sapiens - Part One: The Cognitive Revolution
Harry Marks wrote:
I am having some trouble with Harari's way of talking about the advantages of symbolic systems. By exaggerating "stories" and "fiction" he skips over the functionality which is obvious when he gives examples of the beginnings of this theme.

This may be partly because I am concurrently reading "The Horse, the Wheel and Language" about the origins of Indo-European culture. It is mostly a dry, tedious work with one foot in the world of scholarship, but it tells some important stories from the heart of anthropological learning. For example, the author just made the vital point that raising domestic animals required a delay of gratification that the surrounding hunter societies might have found pointless and beyond their self-control (at least at first).

An even more important point is that cultural practices spread across cultural boundaries (which are usually also ecological boundaries) as a result of higher status. So for example the herders could throw big feasts, which the hunters could not, giving the herders a status advantage. And of course feasts became central to the rituals and artifacts of religion.

In terms of the success of the species, what became the ability to declare fiat money and define nation-states did not start with such grandiose feats of imagination. More likely it had to do with the location and timing of salmon runs, or the greater durability of tanned leather, or some such highly tangible matters. What we are really talking about is the ability to conceptualize things not present by using words about them. Language is so ubiquitous among humans that it absolutely has to have a genetic basis, probably a quite direct genetic basis.

Harari frames as a puzzle why people would go from hunting/gathering in small bands to sedentary farming, when we know (or rather some believe, actually) that most people ended up worse off with the change. You help explain that there were probably both real and perceived advantages to domesticating plants and animals. How it all would turn out could not have been in the thinking of anyone on the scene, and no one would have experienced a choice, in the sense that we use the word, anyway. It would have just been felt as the way things were going, and it might have had some necessity behind it. The size of the bands could have been gradually increasing, placing pressure on hunting territories. Later in the book, Harari tells us that history doesn't change in order to make things better for us, so he should not have been surprised if farming didn't improve our overall lot.

Quote:
Sorry to be tedious, but America pioneered the idea of tolerating a variety of religions, (along with Netherlands, which did have an established religion). There is a lot of cohesiveness and good will fostered by religion to go along with its divisiveness and triumphalism. For every Ted Cruz there is a Ben Carson, and for every Robert Jeffress there is a Rick Warren.

Religion opens a door to vocabularies of common purpose. Whether it be city on a hill, better angels, mighty fortresses or inner lights, the ability to hook concepts which inspire (a religious concept) is one that is vital to the American experiment. America, from the beginning, was building a nation from many backgrounds, unified not out of the mutual defense to which the clan has almost no alternative, but (if at all) out of the common purpose of building a society of opportunity.

By now we might hope that trying to peg religion as either good or bad is impossible in the same way that declaring fire to be good or bad, is. I was responding to the suggestion that religion could heal our divisions, and prominent in my mind were instances of "the narcissism of small differences," for example Protestant/Catholic, Shiite/Sunni, and Evangelical/liberal Christian. These examples made religion seem to be less of a go-to for the purpose of common bond. But I agree that the other benefits you point out are real.



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Post Re: Sapiens - Part One: The Cognitive Revolution
DWill wrote:
. . . Harari frames as a puzzle why people would go from hunting/gathering in small bands to sedentary farming, when we know (or rather some believe, actually) that most people ended up worse off with the change. You help explain that there were probably both real and perceived advantages to domesticating plants and animals. How it all would turn out could not have been in the thinking of anyone on the scene, and no one would have experienced a choice, in the sense that we use the word, anyway. It would have just been felt as the way things were going, and it might have had some necessity behind it. The size of the bands could have been gradually increasing, placing pressure on hunting territories. Later in the book, Harari tells us that history doesn't change in order to make things better for us, so he should not have been surprised if farming didn't improve our overall lot.


Yes, I was surprised by Harari's tendency to frame the agricultural revolution in such negative terms. The downside of the ag revolution, of course, is that we greatly increased human population across the planet (though great news from a gene-centric perspective). But there are many upsides, safety and warmth and some sense of security that would have been more difficult as hunter-gatherers. Harari discusses the risks to farmers from drought and other disasters, but of course these risks would have applied to our hunter-gatherer ancestors as well. If anything the ability to store food would have made us more secure.

And, as you say, DWill, there might have been a kind of arms race in those hunter-gatherer days, an advantage to larger tribes over smaller tribes. And as tribes got bigger, the transition to agriculture would have seemed a natural progression in order to feed larger numbers, to protect children, etc.


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