Category: History

Yuval Noah Harari: Why We Dominate the Earth

Why did Homo sapiens diverge from the rest of the animal kingdom and go on to dominate the earth? Communication? Cooperation? According to best-selling author Yuval Noah Harari, that barely scratches the surface.

***

Yuval Noah Harari’s Sapiens is one of those uniquely breathtaking books that comes along but rarely. It’s broad, but scientific. It’s written for a popular audience, but never feels dumbed down. It’s new and fresh, but not based on any new primary research. Sapiens is pure synthesis.

Readers will easily recognize the influence of Jared Diamond, author of Guns, Germs, and Steel, The Third Chimpanzee, and other similarly broad-yet-scientific works with vast synthesis and explanatory power. It’s not surprising, then, that Harari, a history professor at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, has noted Diamond’s contributions to his thinking. Harari says:

It [Guns, Germs, and Steel] made me realize that you can ask the biggest questions about history and try to give them scientific answers. But in order to do so, you have to give up the most cherished tools of historians. I was taught that if you’re going to study something, you must understand it deeply and be familiar with primary sources. But if you write a history of the whole world you can’t do this. That’s the trade-off.

Harari sought to understand the history of humankind’s domination of the earth and its development of complex modern societies. He applies ideas from evolutionary theory, forensic anthropology, genetics, and the basic tools of the historian to generate a new conception of our past: humankind’s success was due to our ability to create and sustain grand, collaborative myths.

To make the narrative more palatable and sensible, we must take a different perspective. Calling us humans keeps us too close to the story to have an accurate view. We’re not as unique as we would like to believe. In fact, we’re just another animal. We are Homo sapiens. Because of this, our history can be described just like that of any other species. Harari labels us like any other species, calling us “Sapiens” so we can depersonalize things and allow the author the room he needs to make some bold statements about the history of humanity.  Our successes, failures, flaws and credits are part of the makeup of the Sapiens.[1]

Sapiens existed long before there was recorded history. Biological history is a much longer stretch, beginning millions of years before the evolution of any forbears we can identify. When our earliest known ancestors formed, they were not at the top of the food chain. Rather, they were engaged in an epic battle of trench warfare with the other organisms that shared their habitat.[2]

“Ants and bees can also work together in huge numbers, but they do so in a very rigid manner and only with close relatives. Wolves and chimpanzees cooperate far more flexibly than ants, but they can do so only with small numbers of other individuals that they know intimately. Sapiens can cooperate in extremely flexible ways with countless numbers of strangers. That’s why Sapiens rule the world, whereas ants eat our leftovers and chimps are locked up in zoos and research laboratories.”

— Yuval Noah Harari, Sapiens

These archaic humans loved, played, formed close friendships and competed for status and power, but so did chimpanzees, baboons, and elephants. There was nothing special about humans. Nobody, least of all humans themselves, had any inkling their descendants would one day walk on the moon, split the atom, fathom the genetic code and write history books. The most important thing to know about prehistoric humans is that they were insignificant animals with no more impact on their environment than gorillas, fireflies or jellyfish.

For the same reason that our kids can’t imagine a world without Google, Amazon and iPhones, we can’t imagine a world in which have not been a privileged species right from the start. Yet we were just one species of smart, social ape trying to survive in the wild. We had cousins: Homo neanderthalensis, Homo erectus, Homo rudolfensis, and others, both our progenitors and our contemporaries, all considered human and with similar traits. If chimps and bonobos were our second cousins, these were our first cousins.

Eventually, things changed. About 70,000 or so years ago, our DNA showed a mutation (Harari claims we don’t know quite why) which allowed us to make a leap that no other species, human or otherwise, was able to make. We began to cooperate flexibly, in large groups, with an extremely complex and versatile language. If there is a secret to our success—and remember, success in nature is survival—It was that our brains developed to communicate.

Welcome to the Cognitive Revolution

Our newfound capacity for language allowed us to develop abilities that couldn’t be found among our cousins, or in any other species from ants to whales.

First, we could give detailed explanations of events that had transpired. We weren’t talking mental models or even gravity. At first, we were probably talking about things for survival. Food. Water. Shelter. It’s possible to imagine making a statement something like this: “I saw a large lion in the forest three days back, with three companions, near the closest tree to the left bank of the river and I think, but am not totally sure, they were hunting us. Why don’t we ask for help from a neighboring tribe, so we don’t all end up as lion meat?”[3]

Second, and maybe more importantly, we could also gossip about each other. Before religion, gossip created a social, even environmental pressure to conform to certain norms. Gossip allowed control of the individual for the aid of the group. It wouldn’t take much effort to imagine someone saying, “I noticed Frank and Steve have not contributed to the hunt in about three weeks. They are not holding up their end of the bargain, and I don’t think we should include them in distributing the proceeds of our next major slaughter.”[4]

Harari’s insight is that while the abilities to communicate about necessities and to pressure people to conform to social norms were certainly pluses, they were not the great leap. Surprisingly, it’s not our shared language or even our ability to dominate other species that defines us but rather, our shared fictions. The exponential leap happened because we could talk about things that were not real. Harari writes:

As far as we know, only Sapiens can talk about entire kinds of entities that they have never seen, touched, or smelled. Legends, myths, gods, and religions appeared for the first time with the Cognitive Revolution. Many animals and human species could previously say, “Careful! A lion!” Thanks to the Cognitive Revolution, Homo sapiens acquired the ability to say, “The lion is the guardian spirit of our tribe.” This ability to speak about fictions is the most unique feature of Sapiens language…. You could never convince a monkey to give you a banana by promising him limitless bananas after death in monkey heaven.

Predictably, Harari mentions religion as one of the important fictions. But just as important are fictions like the limited liability corporation; the nation-state; the concept of human rights, inalienable from birth; and even money itself.

Shared beliefs allow us to do the thing that other species cannot. Because we believe, we can cooperate effectively in large groups toward larger aims. Sure, other animals cooperate. Ants and bees work in large groups with close relatives but in a very rigid manner. Changes in the environment, as we are seeing today, put the rigidity under strain. Apes and wolves cooperate as well, and with more flexibility than ants. But they can’t scale.

If wild animals could have organized in large numbers, you might not be reading this. Our success is intimately linked to scale. In many systems and in all species but ours, as far as we know, there are hard limits to the number of individuals that can cooperate in groups in a flexible way.[5] As Harari puts it in the quotation at the beginning of this post, “Sapiens can cooperate in extremely flexible ways with countless numbers of strangers. That’s why Sapiens rule the world, whereas ants eat our leftovers and chimps are locked up in zoos and research laboratories.”

Sapiens diverged when they—or I should say we—hit on the ability of a collective myth to advance us beyond what we could do individually. As long as we shared some beliefs we could work toward something larger than ourselves—itself a shared fiction. With this in mind, there was almost no limit to the number of cooperating, believing individuals who could belong to a belief-group.

With that, it becomes easier to understand why we see different results from communication in human culture than in whale culture, or dolphin culture, or bonobo culture: a shared trust in something outside of ourselves, something larger. And the result can be extreme, lollapalooza even, when a lot of key things converge in one direction, from a combination of critical elements.

Any large-scale human cooperation—whether a modern state, a medieval church, an ancient city, or an archaic tribe—is rooted in common myths that exist only in people’s collective imagination. Churches are rooted in common religious myths. Two Catholics who have never met can nevertheless go together on crusade or pool funds to build a hospital because they both believe God was incarnated in human flesh and allowed Himself to be crucified to redeem our sins. States are rooted in common national myths. Two Serbs who have never met might risk their lives to save one another because both believe in the existence of the Serbian nation, the Serbian homeland and the Serbian flag. Judicial systems are rooted in common legal myths. Two lawyers who have never met can nevertheless combine efforts to defend a complete stranger because they both believe in the existence of laws, justice, human rights, and money paid out in fees.

Not only do we believe them individually, but we believe them collectively.

Shared fictions aren’t necessarily lies. Shared fictions can create literal truths. For example, if I trust that you believe in money as much as I do, we can use it as an exchange of value. Yet just as you can’t get a chimpanzee to forgo a banana today for infinite bananas in heaven, you also can’t get him to accept three apples today with the idea that if he invests them wisely in a chimp business, he’ll get six bananas from it in five years—no matter how many compound interest tables you show him. This type of collaborative and complex fiction is uniquely human, and capitalism is as much an imagined reality as religion.

Once you start to see the world as a collection of shared fictions, it never looks the same again.

This leads to the extremely interesting conclusion that comprises the bulk of Harari’s great work: If we collectively decide to alter the myths, we can relatively quickly and dramatically alter behavior.

For instance, we can decide slavery, one of the oldest institutions in human history, is no longer acceptable. We can declare monarchy an outdated form of governance. We can decide women should have the right to as much power as men, reversing the pattern of history. We can also decide all Sapiens must follow the same religious text and devote ourselves to slaughtering the resisters.

There is no parallel in other species for these quick, large-scale shifts. General behavior patterns in dogs or fish or ants change due to a change in environment, or to broad genetic evolution over a period of time. Lions will likely never sign a Declaration of Lion Rights and suddenly abolish the idea of an alpha male lion. Their hierarchies are rigid, primal even.

But humans can collectively change the narrative over a short span of time, and begin acting very differently with the same DNA and the same set of physical circumstances. If we all believe in Bitcoin, it becomes real for the same reason that gold becomes real.

Thus, we can conclude that Harari’s Cognitive Revolution is what happens when we decide that, while biology dictates what’s physically possible, we as a species decide norms. This is where biology enables and culture forbids.  “The Cognitive Revolution is accordingly the point when history declared its independence from biology,” Harari writes. These ever-shifting alliances, beliefs, myths—ultimately, cultures—define what we call human history.

A thorough reading of Sapiens is recommended to understand where Harari takes this idea, from the earliest humans to who we are today.

 

 

 

Sources:

[1] This biological approach to history is one we’ve looked at before with the work of Will and Ariel Durant. See The Lessons of History.

[2] It was only when Sapiens acquired weapons, fire, and most importantly a way to communicate so as to share and build knowledge, that we had the asymmetric weaponry necessary to step out of the trenches and dominate, at least for now, the organisms we co-exist with.

[3] My kids are learning to talk Caveman thanks to the guide at the back of Ook and Glook and it doesn’t sound like this at all.

[4] It’s unknown what role ego played, but we can assume people were not asking, “Oh, does this headdress make me look fat?”

[5] Ants can cooperate in great numbers with their relatives, but only based on simple algorithms. Charlie Munger has mentioned in The Psychology of Human Misjudgment that ants’ rules are so simplistic that if a group of ants starts walking in a circle, their “follow-the-leader” algorithm can cause them to literally march until their collective death.

Are Great Men and Women a Product of Circumstance?

Few books have ever struck us as much as Will Durant’s 100-page masterpiece The Lessons of History, a collection of essays which sum up the lifelong thoughts of a brilliant historian.

We recently dug up an interview with Durant and his wife Ariel — co-authors of the 11-volume masterpiece The Story of Civilization — and sent it to the members of the Farnam Street Learning Community. While the interview is full of wisdom in its entirety, we picked one interesting excerpt to share with you: Durant’s thoughts on the “Great Man” (and certainly, Great Woman) theory of history.

Has history been Theirs to dictate? Durant has a very interesting answer, one that’s hard to ignore once you think about it:

Interviewer: Haven’t certain individuals, the genius, great man, or hero, as Carlisle believed, been the prime determinants of human history?

Will Durant: There are many cases, I think, in which individual characters have had very significant results upon history. But basically, I think Carlisle was wrong. That the hero is a product of a situation rather than the result being a product of the hero. It is demand that brings out the exceptional qualities of man. What would Lenin have been if he had remained in, what was it, Geneva? He would have a little…. But he faced tremendous demands upon him, and something in him responded. I think those given us would have brought out capacity in many different types of people. They wouldn’t have to be geniuses to begin with.

Interviewer: Then what is the function or role of heroes?

Will Durant: They form the function of meeting a situation whose demands are always all his potential abilities.

Interviewer: What do you think is the important thing for us, in studying the course of history, to know about character? What is the role of character in history?

Will Durant: I suppose the role of character is for the individual to rise to a situation. If it were not for the situation, we would never have heard of him. So that you might say that character is the product of an exceptional demand by the situation upon human ability. I think the ability of the average man could be doubled if it were demanded, if the situation demanded. So, I think Lenin was made by the situation. Of course he brought ideas, and he had to abandon almost all those ideas. For example, he went back to private enterprise for a while.

One way we might corroborate Durant’s thoughts on Lenin is to ask another simple question: Which U.S. Presidents are considered the most admired?

Students of history have three easy answers pop in (and polls corroborate): George Washington – the first U.S. President and a Founding Father; Abraham Lincoln – the man who held the Union together; and finally Franklin Delano Roosevelt – unless the U.S. amends its Constitution, the longest serving U.S. President now and forever.

All great men, certainly. All three of which rose to the occasion. But what do they share?

They were the ones holding office at the time of (or in the case of Washington, immediately upon winning) the three major wars impacting American history: The American Revolution, the American Civil War, and World War II. 

It raises an interesting question: Would these men be remembered and held in the same esteem if they hadn’t been handed such situations? The answer pops in pretty quickly: Probably not. Their heroism was partly a product of their character and partly a product of their situation.

And thus Durant gives us a very interesting model to bring to reality: Greatness is in many of us, but only if we rise, with practical expediency, to the demands of life. Greatness arises only when tested.

For the rest of Durant’s interview, and a lot of other cool stuff, check out the Learning Community.

Frozen Accidents: Why the Future Is So Unpredictable

“Each of us human beings, for example, is the product of an enormously long
sequence of accidents,
any of which could have turned out differently.”
— Murray Gell-Mann

***

What parts of reality are the product of an accident? The physicist Murray Gell-Mann thought the answer was “just about everything.” And to Gell-Mann, understanding this idea was the the key to understanding how complex systems work.

Gell-Mann believed two things caused what we see in the world:

  1. A set of fundamental laws
  2. Random “accidents” — the little blips that could have gone either way, and had they, would have produced a very different kind of world.

Gell-Mann pulled the second part from Francis Crick, co-discoverer of the human genetic code, who argued that the code itself may well have been an “accident” of physical history rather than a uniquely necessary arrangement.

These accidents become “frozen” in time, and have a great effect on all subsequent developments; complex life itself is an example of something that did happen a certain way but probably could have happened other ways — we know this from looking at the physics.

This idea of fundamental laws plus accidents and the non-linear second-order effects they produce became the science of complexity and chaos theory.

Gell-Mann discussed the fascinating idea further in a 1996 essay on Edge:

Each of us human beings, for example, is the product of an enormously long sequence of accidents, any of which could have turned out differently. Think of the fluctuations that produced our galaxy, the accidents that led to the formation of the solar system, including the condensation of dust and gas that produced Earth, the accidents that helped to determine the particular way that life began to evolve on Earth, and the accidents that contributed to the evolution of particular species with particular characteristics, including the special features of the human species. Each of us individuals has genes that result from a long sequence of accidental mutations and chance matings, as well as natural selection.

Now, most single accidents make very little difference to the future, but others may have widespread ramifications, many diverse consequences all traceable to one chance event that could have turned out differently. Those we call frozen accidents.

These “frozen accidents” occur at every nested level of the world: As Gell-Mann points out, they are an outcome in physics (the physical laws we observe may be accidents of history); in biology (our genetic code is largely a byproduct of “advantageous accidents” as discussed by Crick); and in human history, as we’ll discuss. In other words, the phenomenon hits all three buckets of knowledge.

Gell-Mann gives a great example of how this plays out on the human scale:

For instance, Henry VIII became king of England because his older brother Arthur died. From the accident of that death flowed all the coins, all the charters, all the other records, all the history books mentioning Henry VIII; all the different events of his reign, including the manner of separation of the Church of England from the Roman Catholic Church; and of course the whole succession of subsequent monarchs of England and of Great Britain, to say nothing of the antics of Charles and Diana. The accumulation of frozen accidents is what gives the world its effective complexity.

The most important idea here is that the frozen accidents of history have a nonlinear effect on everything that comes after. The complexity we see comes from simple rules and many, many “bounces” that could have gone in any direction. Once they go a certain way, there is no return.

This principle is illustrated wonderfully in the book The Origin of Wealth by Eric Beinhocker. The first example comes from 19th century history:

In the late 1800s, “Buffalo Bill” Cody created a show called Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show, which toured the United States, putting on exhibitions of gun fighting, horsemanship, and other cowboy skills. One of the show’s most popular acts was a woman named Phoebe Moses, nicknamed Annie Oakley. Annie was reputed to have been able to shoot the head off of a running quail by age twelve, and in Buffalo Bill’s show, she put on a demonstration of marksmanship that included shooting flames off candles, and corks out of bottles. For her grand finale, Annie would announce that she would shoot the end off a lit cigarette held in a man’s mouth, and ask for a brave volunteer from the audience. Since no one was ever courageous enough to come forward, Annie hid her husband, Frank, in the audience. He would “volunteer,” and they would complete the trick together. In 1880, when the Wild West Show was touring Europe, a young crown prince (and later, kaiser), Wilhelm, was in the audience. When the grand finale came, much to Annie’s surprise, the macho crown prince stood up and volunteered. The future German kaiser strode into the ring, placed the cigarette in his mouth, and stood ready. Annie, who had been up late the night before in the local beer garden, was unnerved by this unexpected development. She lined the cigarette up in her sights, squeezed…and hit it right on the target.

Many people have speculated that if at that moment, there had been a slight tremor in Annie’s hand, then World War I might never have happened. If World War I had not happened, 8.5 million soldiers and 13 million civilian lives would have been saved. Furthermore, if Annie’s hand had trembled and World War I had not happened, Hitler would not have risen from the ashes of a defeated Germany, and Lenin would not have overthrown a demoralized Russian government. The entire course of twentieth-century history might have been changed by the merest quiver of a hand at a critical moment. Yet, at the time, there was no way anyone could have known the momentous nature of the event.

This isn’t to say that other big events, many bad, would not have precipitated in the 20th century. Almost certainly there would have been wars and upheavals.

But the actual course of history was in some part determined by small chance event which had no seeming importance when it happened. The impact of Wilhelm being alive rather than dead was totally non-linear. (A small non-event had a massively disproportionate effect on what happened later.)

This is why predicting the future, even with immense computing power, is an impossible task. The chaotic effects of randomness, with small inputs having disproportionate and massive effects, makes prediction a very difficult task. That’s why we must appreciate the role of randomness in the world and seek to protect against it.

Another great illustration from The Origin of Wealth is a famous story in the world of technology:

[In 1980] IBM approached a small company with forty employees in Bellevue, Washington. The company, called Microsoft, was run by a Harvard dropout named bill Gates and his friend Paul Allen. IBM wanted to talk to the small company about creating a version of the programming language BASIC for the new PC. At their meeting, IBM asked Gates for his advice on what operating systems (OS) the new machine should run. Gates suggested that IBM talk to Gary Kildall of Digital Research, whose CP/M operating system had become the standard in the hobbyist world of microcomputers. But Kildall was suspicious of the blue suits from IBM and when IBM tried to meet him, he went hot-air ballooning, leaving his wife and lawyer to talk to the bewildered executives, along with instructions not to sign even a confidentiality agreement. The frustrated IBM executives returned to Gates and asked if he would be interested in the OS project. Despite never having written an OS, Gates said yes. He then turned around and license a product appropriately named Quick and Dirty Operating System, or Q-DOS, from a small company called Seattle Computer Products for $50,000, modified it, and then relicensed it to IBM as PC-DOS. As IBM and Microsoft were going through the final language for the agreement, Gates asked for a small change. He wanted to retain the rights to sell his DOS on non-IBM machines in a version called MS-DOS. Gates was giving the company a good price, and IBM was more interested in PC hardware than software sales, so it agreed. The contract was signed on August 12, 1981. The rest, as they say, is history. Today, Microsoft is a company worth $270 billion while IBM is worth $140 billion.

At any point in that story, business history could have gone a much different way: Kildall could have avoided hot-air ballooning, IBM could have refused Gates’ offer, Microsoft could have not gotten the license for QDOS. Yet this little episode resulted in massive wealth for Gates and a long period of trouble for IBM.

Predicting the outcomes of a complex system must clear a pretty major hurdle: The prediction must be robust to non-linear “accidents” with a chain of unforeseen causation. In some situations this is doable: We can confidently rule out that Microsoft will not go broke in the next 12 months; the chain of events needed to take it under quickly is so low as to be negligible, no matter how you compute it. (Even IBM made it through the above scenario, although not unscathed.)

But as history rolls on and more “accidents” accumulate year by year, a “Fog of the Future” rolls in to obscure our view. In order to operate in such a world, we must learn that predicting is inferior to building systems that don’t require prediction, as Mother Nature does. And if we must predict, must confine our predictions to areas with few variables that lie in our circle of competence, and understand the consequences if we’re wrong.

If this topic is interesting to you, try exploring the rest of the Origin of Wealth, which discusses complexity in the economic realm in great (but readable) detail; also check out the rest of Murray Gell-Mann’s essay on Edge. Gell-Mann also wrote a book on the topic called The Quark and the Jaguar which is worth checking out. The best writer on randomness and robustness in the face of an uncertain future is of course Nassim Taleb, whom we have written about many times.

Using Multidisciplinary Thinking to Approach Problems in a Complex World

Complex outcomes in human systems are a tough nut to crack when it comes to deciding what’s really true. Any phenomena we might try to explain will have a host of competing theories, many of them seemingly plausible.

So how do we know what to go with?

One idea is to take a nod from the best. One of the most successful “explainers” of human behavior has been the cognitive psychologist Steven Pinker. His books have been massively influential, in part because they combine scientific rigor, explanatory power, and plainly excellent writing.

What’s unique about Pinker is the range of sources he draws on. His book The Better Angels of Our Nature, a cogitation on the decline in relative violence in recent human history, draws on ideas from evolutionary psychology, forensic anthropology, statistics, social history, criminology, and a host of other fields. Pinker, like Vaclav Smil and Jared Diamond, is the opposite of the man with a hammer, ranging over much material to come to his conclusions.

In fact, when asked about the progress of social science as an explanatory arena over time, Pinker credited this cross-disciplinary focus:

Because of the unification with the sciences, there are more genuinely explanatory theories, and there’s a sense of progress, with more non-obvious things being discovered that have profound implications.

But, even better, Pinker gives out an outline for how a multidisciplinary thinker should approach problems in a complex world.

***

Here’s the issue at stake: When we’re viewing a complex phenomena—say, the decline in certain forms of violence in human history—it can be hard to come with up a rigorous explanation. We can’t just set up repeated lab experiments and vary the conditions of human history to see what pops out, as with physics or chemistry.

So out of necessity, we must approach the problem in a different way.

In the above referenced interview, Pinker gives a wonderful example how to do it: Note how he carefully “cross-checks” from a variety of sources of data, developing a 3D view of the landscape he’s trying to assess:

Pinker: Absolutely, I think most philosophers of science would say that all scientific generalizations are probabilistic rather than logically certain, more so for the social sciences because the systems you are studying are more complex than, say, molecules, and because there are fewer opportunities to intervene experimentally and to control every variable. But the exis­tence of the social sciences, including psychology, to the extent that they have discovered anything, shows that, despite the uncontrollability of human behavior, you can make some progress: you can do your best to control the nuisance variables that are not literally in your control; you can have analogues in a laboratory that simulate what you’re interested in and impose an experimental manipulation.

You can be clever about squeezing the last drop of causal information out of a correlational data set, and you can use converging evi­dence, the qualitative narratives of traditional history in combination with quantitative data sets and regression analyses that try to find patterns in them. But I also go to traditional historical narratives, partly as a sanity check. If you’re just manipulating numbers, you never know whether you’ve wan­dered into some preposterous conclusion by taking numbers too seriously that couldn’t possibly reflect reality. Also, it’s the narrative history that provides hypotheses that can then be tested. Very often a historian comes up with some plausible causal story, and that gives the social scientists something to do in squeezing a story out of the numbers.

Warburton: I wonder if you’ve got an example of just that, where you’ve combined the history and the social science?

Pinker: One example is the hypothesis that the Humanitarian Revolution during the Enlightenment, that is, the abolition of slavery, torture, cruel punishments, religious persecution, and so on, was a product of an expansion of empathy, which in turn was fueled by literacy and the consumption of novels and journalis­tic accounts. People read what life was like in other times and places, and then applied their sense of empathy more broadly, which gave them second thoughts about whether it’s a good idea to disembowel someone as a form of criminal punish­ment. So that’s a historical hypothesis. Lynn Hunt, a historian at the University of California–Berkeley, proposed it, and there are some psychological studies that show that, indeed, if people read a first-person account by someone unlike them, they will become more sympathetic to that individual, and also to the category of people that that individual represents.

So now we have a bit of experimental psychology supporting the historical qualita­tive narrative. And, in addition, one can go to economic histo­rians and see that, indeed, there was first a massive increase in the economic efficiency of manufacturing a book, then there was a massive increase in the number of books pub­lished, and finally there was a massive increase in the rate of literacy. So you’ve got a story that has at least three vertices: the historian’s hypothesis; the economic historians identifying exogenous variables that changed prior to the phenomenon we’re trying to explain, so the putative cause occurs before the putative effect; and then you have the experimental manipulation in a laboratory, showing that the intervening link is indeed plausible.

Pinker is saying, Look we can’t just rely on “plausible narratives” generated by folks like the historians. There are too many possibilities that could be correct.

Nor can we rely purely on correlations (i.e., the rise in literacy statistically tracking the decline in violence) — they don’t necessarily offer us a causative explanation. (Does the rise in literacy cause less violence, or is it vice versa? Or, does a third factor cause both?)

However, if we layer in some other known facts from areas we can experiment on — say, psychology or cognitive neuroscience — we can sometimes establish the causal link we need or, at worst, a better hypothesis of reality.

In this case, it would be the finding from psychology that certain forms of literacy do indeed increase empathy (for logical reasons).

Does this method give us absolute proof? No. However, it does allow us to propose and then test, re-test, alter, and strengthen or ultimately reject a hypothesis. (In other words, rigorous thinking.)

We can’t stop here though. We have to take time to examine competing hypotheses — there may be a better fit. The interviewer continues on asking Pinker about this methodology:

Warburton: And so you conclude that the de-centering that occurs through novel-reading and first-person accounts probably did have a causal impact on the willingness of people to be violent to their peers?

Pinker: That’s right. And, of course, one has to rule out alternative hypotheses. One of them could be the growth of affluence: perhaps it’s simply a question of how pleasant your life is. If you live a longer and healthier and more enjoyable life, maybe you place a higher value on life in general, and, by extension, the lives of others. That would be an alternative hypothesis to the idea that there was an expansion of empathy fueled by greater literacy. But that can be ruled out by data from eco­nomic historians that show there was little increase in afflu­ence during the time of the Humanitarian Revolution. The increase in affluence really came later, in the 19th century, with the advent of the Industrial Revolution.

***

Let’s review the process that Pinker has laid out, one that we might think about emulating as we examine the causes of complex phenomena in human systems:

  1. We observe an interesting phenomenon in need of explanation, one we feel capable of exploring.
  2. We propose and examine competing hypotheses that would explain the phenomena (set up in a falsifiable way, in harmony with the divide between science and pseudoscience laid out for us by the great Karl Popper).
  3. We examine a cross-section of: Empirical data relating to the phenomena; sensible qualitative inference (from multiple fields/disciplines, the more fundamental the better), and finally;  “Demonstrable” aspects of nature we are nearly certain about, arising from controlled experiment or other rigorous sources of knowledge ranging from engineering to biology to cognitive neuroscience.

What we end up with is not necessarily a bulletproof explanation, but probably the best we can do if we think carefully. A good cross-disciplinary examination with quantitative and qualitative sources coming into equal play, and a good dose of judgment, can be far more rigorous than the gut instinct or plausible nonsense type stories that many of us lazily spout.

A Word of Caution

Although Pinker’s “multiple vertices” approach to problem solving in complex domains can be powerful, we always have to be on guard for phenomena that we simply cannot explain at our current level of competence: We must have a “too hard” pile when competing explanations come out “too close to call” or we otherwise feel we’re outside of our circle of competence. Always tread carefully and be sure to follow Darwin’s Golden Rule: Contrary facts are more important than confirming ones. Be ready to change your mind, like Darwin, when the facts don’t go your way.

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Still Interested? For some more Pinker goodness check out our prior posts on his work, or check out a few of his books like How the Mind Works or The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature.

The Map is Not the Territory

12 Things Lee Kuan Yew Taught Me About the World

“It’s no accident that Singapore has a much better record, given where it started, than the United States. There, power was concentrated in one enormously talented person, Lee Kuan Yew, who was the Warren Buffett of Singapore.”
— Charlie Munger

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Singapore seemed destined for failure or subservience to a more powerful neighbor. The country is by far the smallest in Southeast Asia and was not gifted with many natural resources. Lee Kuan Yew thought otherwise. “His vision,” wrote Henry Kissinger, “was of a state that would not simply survive, but prevail by excelling. Superior intelligence, discipline, and ingenuity would substitute for resources.”

To give you an idea of the magnitude of success that Lee Kuan Yew achieved, when he took over, per capita income was about $400 and now, in only about two generations, it exceeds $50,000.

Here are 12 things I learned from Lee Kuan Yew about the world and the source of many of our present ills reading  Lee Kuan Yew: The Grand Master’s Insights on China, the United States, and the World

  1. You need a free exchange of ideas. “China will inevitably catch up to the U.S. in absolute GDP. But its creativity may never match America’s, because its culture does not permit a free exchange and contest of ideas.”
  2. Technology will change how governance operates. “Technology is going to make (China’s) system of governance obsolete. By 2030, 70% or maybe 75% of their people will be in cities, small towns, big towns, mega big towns. They are going to have cell phones, Internet, satellite TV. They are going to be well-informed; they can organize themselves. You cannot govern them the way you are governing them now, where you just placate and monitor a few people, because the numbers will be so large.”
  3. Don’t try to install a democracy in a country that has never had one. “I do not believe you can impose on other countries standards which are alien and totally disconnected with their past. So to ask China to become a democracy, when in its 5,000 years of recorded history it never counted heads; all rulers ruled by right of being the emperor, and if you disagree, you chop off heads, not count heads.”
  4. Welcome the best the world has to offer. “Throughout history, all empires that succeeded have embraced and included in their midst people of other races, languages, religions, and cultures.”
  5. It’s about results, not promises. “When you have a popular democracy, to win voices you have to give more and more. And to beat your opponent in the next election, you have to promise to give more away. So it is a never-ending process of auctions—and the cost, the debt being paid for by the next generation. Presidents do not get reelected if they give a hard dose of medicine to their people. So, there is a tendency to procrastinate, to postpone unpopular policies in order to win elections. So problems such as budget deficits, debt, and high unmployment have been carried forward from one administration to the next.”
  6. Governments shouldn’t have an easy way out. “American and European governments believed that they could always afford to support the poor and the needy: widows, orphans, the old and homeless, disadvantaged minorities, unwed mothers. Their sociologists expounded the theory that hardship and failure were due not to the individual person’s character, but to flaws in the economic system. So charity became “entitlement,” and the stigma of living on charity disappeared. Unfortunately, welfare costs grew faster than the government’s ability to raise taxes to pay for it. The political cost of tax increases is high. Governments took the easy way out by borrowing to give higher benefits to the current generation of voters and passing the costs on to the future generations who were not yet voters. This resulted in persistent government budget deficits and high public debt.”
  7. What goes into a standard of living? “A people’s standard of living depends on a number of basic factors: first, the resources it has in relation to its population . . .; second, its level of technological competence and standards of industrial development; third, its educational and training standards; and fourth, the culture, the discipline and drive in the workforce.”
  8. The single most important factor to national competitiveness … “The quality of a nation’s manpower resources is the single most important factor determining national competitiveness. It is a people’s innovativeness, entrepreneurship, team work, and their work ethic that give them the sharp keen edge in competitiveness. Three attributes are vital in this competition—entrepreneurship to seek out new opportunities and to take calculated risks. Standing still is a sure way to extinction. . . . The second attribute, innovation, is what creates new products and processes that add value. . . . The third factor is good management. To grow, company managements have to open up new markets and create new distribution channels. The economy is driven by the new knowledge, new discoveries in science and technology, innovations that are taken to the market by entrepreneurs. So while the scholar is still the greatest factor in economic progress, he will be so only if he uses his brains—not in studying the great books, classical texts, and poetry, but in capturing and discovering new knowledge, applying himself in research and development, management and marketing, banking and finance, and the myriad of new subjects that need to be mastered.”
  9. Earning your place in history … “A nation is great not by its size alone. It is the will, the cohesion, the stamina, the discipline of its people, and the quality of their leaders which ensure it an honorable place in history.”
  10. Weak leaders rely on opinion polls. “I have never been overconcerned or obsessed with opinion polls or popularity polls. I think a leader who is, is a weak leader. If you are concerned with whether your rating will go up or down, then you are not a leader. You are just catching the wind … you will go where the wind is blowing. . . . Between being loved and feared, I have always believed Machiavelli was right. If nobody is afraid of me, I am meaningless. When I say something … I have to be taken very seriously.”
  11. We are fundamentally competitive. “Human beings are not born equal. They are highly competitive. Systems like Soviet and Chinese communism have failed, because they tried to equalize benefits. Then nobody works hard enough, but everyone wants to get as much as, if not more than, the other person.”
  12. The value of history: “If you do not know history, you think short term. If you know history, you think medium and long term.”

 

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Lee Kuan Yew: The Grand Master’s Insights on China, the United States, and the World offers Yew’s timeless wisdom.

Civilization and its Fundamental Passions

“To describe a culture is to describe the structure of its institutions.”
— Joseph Tussman

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In his book The Burden of Office, the educator and philosopher Joseph Tussman, who brought us profound wisdom, does a remarkable job, in just a few short pages, of describing one of the fundamental truths of human life: The same things we cherish are also the things that destroy us. It is exactly the qualities which give us vitality that create our problems. This is a fundamental truth. (Gary Taubes made a similar point recently, calling the thirst for knowledge a tightrope walk.)

Tussman breaks down the fundamental passions into five areas: Eros (Love), Indignation (Moral Righteousness), Curiosity, Acquisitiveness, and Pride. These are the things which bless and bedevil us, as Tussman puts it.

On Eros:

Powerful, necessary, the root of self-transcendence, of the varieties of love and all that we value flowing from that. And yet, a source of anguish, of misery, of torment, of unhappiness, of conflict, madness, murder, war. Half of wisdom is learning to tiptoe in the presence of eros.

On Moral Fervor:

A deeply instinctive reaction to something that threatens us, the social group, the basic human unit. Its absence–indifference, genuine carelessness–is a fatal disease. Its moderate presence supports the justice that makes trust and cooperation possible. Its raging presence brings fanatical or holy war, the horrors of unslaked vengeance, the interminable feud.

On Curiosity:

Without it, no knowledge, no science, no arts, no power. But feared today as the human passion that may bring us to the end of the world. In its grip we stop at nothing recognizing no forbidden fruit, undeterred by decency.

On Acquisitiveness:

If we do not leap to a pejorative sense, we see that it begins as a kind of prudent concern to get what we need to satisfy our wants, now and in the future, to provide for ourselves, our families, our friends, our fellows […] But carried away, we can become misers, acquire the Midas touch, turn ugly with greed, cupidity, avarice–transforming a virtue into a destructive vice.

On Pride:

At one end of the scale we find something desirable and necessary–proper pride, self-respect, a sense of dignity, the capacity to know shame, to feel disgrace. At the other end we encounter the thirst for fame, for status, for glory–the arrogance, the heedless autonomy, the pride that goes before a fall.

Civilizing Passion

In the face of these two-faced passions, the whole point of human civilization and culture is to harness them into being useful and safe. This reminds one of the English saying that Politics is the art of marshaling hatreds. In other words, we build our culture knowing full well what the passions are and what they’re capable of.

Some people, of course, hate the rule-making and the institutionalizing of passions. We all probably do, from time to time. Many political campaigns have been run on the idea that society is reigning in the glorious individual too much.

But rarely do we give society much credit for what it accomplishes by creating useful institutions to marshal our passions. Tussman points out a few that have been especially useful. The first one being the modern legal system, which provides a great example of how we tame the passion of moral fury for the sake of civilization.

Moral indignation gives way to legal argument; fury is tied in legal knots–trapped, confined, restrained, transformed, tamed. The passion finds itself institutionalized, learns to express itself in a set of appropriate habits. Impulse and intuition give way to bureaucracy. Morality bows to legality. War gives way to the rule of law. We become civilized.

The story of fury and its taming into law is the story of all the great passions. We develop the forms within which they are both recognized, acknowledged, satisfied, and nevertheless, banked, kept within limits, restrained.

We do this with Eros too — we find ways to tame and institutionalize love, one of the most fundamental biological passions of humanity:

In its most assertive mood, the institution of marriage aspires to a total monopoly of legitimate sexuality. A rather daring claim, not unlike the claim of the institutions of the sovereign to a monopoly of legitimate coercive power, honored only to a degree. But the point is that marriage and its ancillary institutions are cultural attempts to tame eros into a benign form The pattern may vary from culture to culture and time to time, but every human group will erect its temples to this deity.

It’s even true with the passion for knowledge — something we’d all consider a fundamental right and generally a positive passion for the world. It’s given us so much. But we rein it in all the same, recognizing its power to mislead.

The passion for knowledge might not seem to belong in this fevered company, and may not seem to need restraining. At least it may not seem so in the academic world where we commonly worry more about kindling the passion than dampening. But there is a long tradition of the fear of the mad scientist with his unquenchable thirst–Faust and all those restless probing minds uncovering the secrets of the atom, of the genetic code, of the mind, of the soul, of all that heady fruit the taste of which may threaten what remains of innocence. In spite of bold claims to freedom, however, even the pursuit of truth is subject to social and political constraint. Much of it could not even go on without governmental sanction and support.

Yuval Harari makes similar points in his awesome book Sapiens: There is a long marriage between governmental and capitalistic institutions and the pursuit of knowledge. These pursuits don’t exist independently of each other, but work as complements. Karl Popper also wrote deeply about the need for an Open Society–the need for proper institutions to support the growth of knowledge, which can be suppressed under the wrong conditions.

In the end, says Tussman, we are the sum of our passions and our institutions — every culture answers this problem in its own way.

Civilization requires the institutionalization of the necessary but dangerous passions. Any civilization is a particular way of doing so, achieving–growing into–its complex forms more or less by happy accident. To describe a culture is to map its institutions. To criticize or evaluate a culture is to judge the adequacy of its institutions in light of some conception of how the various passions can best be expressed or shaped or harnessed to serve a variety of human purposes.

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Still Interested? Check out Tussman’s brilliant quote on understanding the world.