This is the blog and homepage of Mark R. Kelly, the founder of Locus Online in 1997 (for which I won a Hugo Award in 2002 — see the icon at right) and of an index to science fiction awards in 2000 that became in 2012. I’m retired from my day job of 30 years, from 1982 to 2012, as an aerospace software engineer, supporting the Space Shuttle and the International Space Station.

Posts here are mostly about my reading, of science fiction and of books about science, history, philosophy, and religion; and comments to articles in newspapers that I link to. Movie reviews and pics from travels are posted on Facebook.

More on my About page, including a photo of the Hugo Winners the year I was among them, and links to an index of my columns and other writings, and to my earliest homepage with links to some of my work.


Feb 2020: Here I’m linking posts about some of the best nonfiction books I’ve read in recent years. Posts are less traditional reviews than they are summaries (some quite long) intermixed with my comments and reactions. Posts for some of the books in the photo aren’t done yet.

  • Sean Carroll. THE BIG PICTURE: On the Origins of Life, Meaning, and the Universe Itself (2016). Read 2016. post
  • A.C. Grayling. THE GOD ARGUMENT: The Case Against Religion and for Humanism (2013). Read 2013. post
  • Jonathan Haidt. THE RIGHTEOUS MIND: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion (2012). Read 2015. 1st post; 2nd post; 3rd post
  • Yuval Noah Harari. SAPIENS: A Brief History of Humankind (2015). Read 2017, again 2018. Post
  • Yuval Noah Harari. HOMO DEUS; A Brief History of Tomorrow (2017). Read 2017. post
  • Elizabeth Kolbert. THE SIXTH EXTINCTION: An Unnatural History (2014). Read 2015. post
  • Carl Sagan. THE DEMON-HAUNTED WORLD: Science As a Candle in the Dark (1996). Read 1996, again 2020. Post
  • Edward O. Wilson. ON HUMAN NATURE (1978). Read 1980, again 2019. post
  • Edward O. Wilson. THE MEANING OF HUMAN EXISTENCE (2014). Read 2014. Post #1, #2, #3, #4, #5
Posted in Personal history | Leave a comment

Yuval Noah Harari, HOMO DEUS: A Brief History of Tomorrow (2017; 2015 in Israel)

This is, in effect, a sequel to SAPIENS.

Top level summary:

  • It opens with a long prologue: now that humanity has largely overcome famine, plague, and war, what next? Three possibilities: immortality, happiness, divinity. However these are predictions; this book is not a manifesto. They are the ideals of humanism, but humanism has flaws: that’s what this book is about.
  • He reviews human history from the agricultural revolution, emphasizes the idea of the algorithm, and wonders how humans are superior to animals: it’s our ability to connect, to use ‘imaged orders’ (money, law, gods, empires) to manage groups larger than 150 people. Meanings exists only within the networks of stories people tell each other. Science, meanwhile, has given rise to humanistic religions. [[ He still uses that word in a problematic sense, as noted for the first book. ]]
  • Religion is a social function that confers superhuman legitimacy on human laws, norms, and values. Modern history is about forming a deal between science and one particular religion: humanism.
  • Modern power comes from scientific progress and economic growth; free-market capitalism is virtually a religion. But it can’t go on forever: we’ll run out of resources, or risk collapsing the ecology.
  • So humanism is about being true to oneself, prioritizing personal feelings over scriptures. There is now no serious alternative to the “liberal package of individualism, human rights, democracy, and a free market.” The old religions have nothing relevant to say about the world.
  • And yet—some of liberal presumptions may not be true—e.g. free will. Brain studies show the complexities of our minds; there is no one authentic self. Thus one’s ‘true’ self is an imaginary story too, like nations, gods, and money. People live their lives as if living one type of story or another.
  • The final chapters explore three possible futures, ways that liberalism might be made obsolete: humans will lose economic and military usefulness (e.g. by being replaced by robots); the system will value humans collectively, but not individually; or the system will find some individuals valuable, and they will constitute a new elite. Useless people, their lives supported by robots that rend them unemployable, take drugs and play computer games. Or income inequality might lead to gaps in physical and cognitive abilities, rendering ideas of equality and civil rights obsolete.
  • Some in Silicon Valley want to upgrade humanity—e.g. by pursuing immortality. Alternatively, data might take over the world, an expanding internet of everything, with the new value of sharing everything, uploading experiences to the internet.
  • Finally: so what should we pay attention to: In the short term, immigration, refugees. Over decades: global warming, inequality. And in the long term: examining the dogma that organisms are algorithms and life is a data process; whether intelligence is decoupling from consciousness; whether intelligent algorithms may come to know us better than we know ourselves. Are these valid?

General comments:

Again, note how frequently Harari rolls out concepts in groups of three. I’m still irritated of his use of the word religion to describe value systems that explicitly revoke traditional religion, e.g. secular humanism. He does so because he wants to identify those values with the analogous presumption about the world that religions make, so that he can challenge them and thus consider whether the western liberal project is doomed. There are lots of interesting ideas here, but I’m not as alarmed about the future as he seems to be. For example, does it matter if free will doesn’t exist in some fundamental sense? People still act as if they have free will. Perhaps it only matters if these intelligent algorithms he anticipates learn to manipulate us to what we think we are choosing freely is really chosen for us. But this already happens—we are guided in our tastes by culture; we are guided in our beliefs by our families and social groups.

He examines many of these same themes in this third big book, which I’ll cover next.

Detailed summary (with key points in bold and my comments [[ in brackets ]])

The book begins with a long, 70-page, prologue: “The New Human Agenda.” To some extent this recalls themes from SAPIENS, and to some extent it gives the impression that he forgot about another triad of ideas—or perhaps one cut for space—and is filling it in here. But no; reflecting on this book’s theme, instead what he’s doing is setting the stage, by explaining how several eternal trials of human existence have largely been overcome. Which leads to the book’s theme: what do we do now? But first, review those eternal trials.

  • Humanity has largely overcome the three ancient problems—famine, plague, and war. Now that these have been addressed, what do we do now? Consider history.
  • Famines—example of France in 1694. Ironically, now more people are obese than die from famine.
  • Plagues—recalls the Black Death, about which people could do nothing by pray, or assign the problem to demons. Other examples: Europeans coming to the Americas, and spreading plagues, 1520; later Hawaii, 1778. In world war I, the Spanish flu.
  • Now child mortality is down. Smallpox is gone. The recent plagues, SARS et al, even AIDS, have been relatively small by historical examples.
  • And doctors are getting better at diagnosing new diseases. When something goes wrong now, we don’t blame god or demons, we demand responsibility and arrange investigations. [[ Well, some simple-minded evangelical types still blame God—or blame whatever social matter they personally don’t like, e.g. homosexuality or abortion, for having triggered God’s wrath. This egocentric bias will never go away. ]]
  • Wars, p14. Statistics, 15t. We have overcome the ‘law of the jungle’, wherein people live their lives assuming that at any moment a neighboring country might invade them. No governments make plans with contingencies for war, anymore. There are exceptions – e.g. where the author lives (Israel).
  • True, there is a potential for cyber warfare. Yet we have also broken Chekhov’s Law [i.e. by the 19th century Russian playwright], the notion that if a gun appears [in a play], it must be used; that is, we’ve nuclear weapons for decades, and not used them.
  • Terrorism? It has worked only by provoking its enemies to overreact, 18.7, then rage like a bull in a china shop, doing the terrorists’ work for them. [[ Every time I go through airport security, I can’t help but reflect, here at least the terrorists have won. ]]
  • So—
  • What will replace these threats in the human agenda? Well, we might take steps to protect the planet from our influence.
  • What else? 21t – three things: immorality, happiness, divinity.
  • About death – religions have depended on it. They don’t make much sense if death did not exist.
  • Nowadays, death is viewed as a technical problem, with potential technical solutions. A few talk about defeating death entirely – like Ray Kurzweil, Peter Thiel. But by 2050? That’s optimistic. A-mortals would be cautious. [[ an idea already exploited by sf ]]
  • If even human life-spans were only doubled, it would greatly change social arrangements – families; how long individuals would reign over corporations or religions. Ideas would linger. 26.
  • Note that the *natural life span* has not been extended; people in the past sometimes did live until 70 or 80. We’ve just been eliminated causes of early death. Extending the life span will be more difficult.
  • But science, and capitalism, seem to inevitably drive the search for extended life spans.
  • P30, the right to happiness. Epicurus; Jeremy Bentham; nations provided education and health care as a means of making the nation stronger (not to make people happy). By now there is the idea that nations *should* make people happy. By GDP, Singapore must now be happiest. Is this true? It’s hard work to be happy; advanced nations aren’t necessarily ‘happier’ than less fortunate ones. Quality of life has increased, but not overall happiness. [[ A recurring theme; one of the closing ideas in SAPIENS. ]]
  • Why? First, happiness depends on expectations rather than objective conditions. Second, happiness is a matter of pleasant sensations and lack of unpleasant ones. Beyond that, said John Stuart Mill, there’s no objective good and evil. And this is, in effect, current scientific orthodoxy. The problem is, pleasant sensations don’t last long; they must be constantly renewed.
  • One answer might be drugs—pharmacology. We increasingly take drugs to mediate moods and behavior; to calm soldiers. This recalls the Buddhist view of the transience of existence.
  • P43, the gods of planet earth. Upgrading into gods might happen in three ways: biological engineering; cyborg engineering; or through non-organic beings. We can’t grasp what new minds would think to do.
  • Attaining divinity doesn’t mean becoming omnipotent—p47.5; it’s more like becoming Greek gods, with great powers but still with human foibles.
  • Recall that ancient agricultural societies, their religions weren’t metaphysical, so much as about attaining superhuman powers.
  • Is this moving too fast? It will happen bit by bit. It may take only decades. Recall the internet in 1993.
  • But if it’s scary, can we hit the brakes? No; we don’t know what the brakes are; if we put a halt to such efforts, the economy would collapse; and we can’t even separate these three goals.
  • Examples: Viagra; plastic surgery; in vitro testing. Three-person embryos. Upgrades are always first about healing, then about applying them for enhancements.
  • P56, the paradox of knowledge—four points: 1, only a few people will be engaged in these activities [[ recalls Gibson comment about how the future is already here, just not evenly distributed ]]; 2, these comments are only predictions based on history, not a manifesto; 3, they may not succeed!, and 4, these are about choices. New knowledge changes behavior; e.g. Marx’s writings were read by capitalists, who accommodated his thinking, so his revolution never came. That’s the paradox.
  • So why study history? To understand the choices we have. Example: lawns, a history of status symbols—then follow 7 pages beginning p59, with photos, about how lawns have been status symbols.
  • These goals are the ideals of humanism, which has ruled for 300 years. But there are flaws in humanism—and that’s what this book is about; these plans are likely to cause its disintegration, 66b.

[[ He may be right to the extent that, in the sense that humanism endorses continued expansion of the species, we’ll destroy the planet and thus ourselves. That’s why I’ve never been entirely happy with the idea of ‘humanism’ – what’s really needed is an *understanding* of our place on earth and in the universe, and the goal should be long-term sustainability, not continued expansion. (Which might subvert the SF fantasy of exploring and colonizing the universe.) And certainly the commandments of religions to keep reproducing and fill up the globe. ]]

Part I, Homo sapiens conquers the world

1, The Anthropocene

  • There are very few lions or wolves left; humans have impacted the world over the past 70k years, recently by mixing up all the previously separate (on various continents) ecologies.
  • Early human were likely animists, believing in a network of beings.
  • The story of the expulsion from Eden reflects the agriculture revolution, p77ff; changed the relationship between humans and animals; now animals were domesticated, subjected to humans. Today 90% of animal mass on earth is domesticated animals. And those animals live in misery; their evolutionary drives haven’t changed. Pig farms, etc.
  • We understand that organisms are algorithms, collections of needs and survival strategies….  83.7: “’Algorithm’ is arguably the single most important concept in our world.”
  • Example of recipes, and machines that follow algorithms; they work in humans through sensations, and emotions, and thoughts 85.3; humans are algorithms that produce copies of themselves, 85.1.
  • Animals like baboons operate through feelings and sensations—but these are in fact algorithms, built into their instinctive thinking. 86.2. even in humans, 99% of our decisions are based on subconscious algorithms (sensations, emotions, and desires) 87.2, note 18, citations of books by Kahnemann and Ariely.
  • In the early 20th century experts denied the idea of human nature; theories were behaviorist. Harry Harlow demonstrated the instinctive mother-infant bond, among monkeys, in the ‘60s. The animal industry violates this, 90.4
  • P90, The agricultural deal: Farmers justified their behavior toward domesticated animals through… theist religions, in which a parliament of beings was reduced to humans and their relationship with a god or gods, with only humans having souls, in which the gods played intermediary, 92b. “The gods safeguarded and multiplied farm production, and in exchange humans had to share the produce with the gods. This deal served both parties, at the expense of the rest of the ecosystem.”
  • 92.3, “Much of theist mythology explains the subtle details of this deal.” Gilgamesh! Example even cites how the gods smelled the savor of sacrificed animals (!!) – because the animals weren’t for safekeeping, they were for sacrifice! [[ important point to relate back to biblical reading! ]] (a good example of, why these stories and not others?) 93.8: “Non-human organisms have no intrinsic value; they exist only for our sake.” And see 94t.
  • Some religions are more animal-friendly; but all justify human exploitation of animals, and the subsequent classification of people into classes, 96b. “The farm thus became the prototype of new societies, complete with puffed-up masters, inferior races fit for exploitation, wild beasts ripe for extermination and a great God above that gives His blessing to the entire arrangement.”
  • P97, Five Hundred Years of Solitude. Science silenced the gods. The new paradigm was curiosity leading to greater control, another step toward paradise on earth.
  • Science gave rise to the humanistic religions. [[ He is still using the word religion in a problematic sense here. ]] But what makes humans special, that artificial intelligence wouldn’t be moreso? Is there some human spark?

Ch3, The Human Spark

  • Why are human lives superior? The tradition is that only humans have souls; it’s a central pillar of society.
  • Yet there’s no evidence of ‘souls’; in fact the idea of evolution contradicts it, which is why so many hate Darwin and evolution.
  • Why no such anger about relativity etc? [[ I’ve long though this is a key point; fundamentalists hate evolution, but are indifferent to cosmology, even though the latter just as much contradicts the Bible. Why? Because evolution offends people’s sense of being special. ]] Because evolution contradicts prior beliefs. … or is it because we are conscious and animals aren’t?
  • Yet we have no good idea about what consciousness is… what is the evolutionary advantage of subjective experience? What happens in the mind that doesn’t happen in the brain? No one knows.
  • Can we discard the idea? … no; perhaps it is real but performs no useful function. Perhaps our analogies are wrong.
  • 121, so do animals have minds? Examples of dogs, chimps, lab rats; legal acts, p123.
  • So what gives our species an edge? Tools? Intelligence? No—it’s the ability to connect, 132.7. [[ 2018—yes, this echoes ideas about how human social cooperation has been more important than merely using tools, a key theme of EO Wilson. ]]
  • Historical examples—communism, how it fell apart; example: the video of people booing Romanian leader Ceausescu, p135.
  • Communists held power for three reason, 136b: they placed loyal apparatchiks in control of everything; they prevented the creation of rival organizations; third, they relied on support from parties in other countries.
  • 138, So how is human life sacred? What makes humans able to cooperate so well? Our group size is limited, only up to about 150. And we are not ‘logical’… examples.
  • Larger groups depend on ‘imagined orders’, 143b – 144: sets of rules that exist only in our imagination yet we believe to be as real as anything – these are ‘intersubjective’, p144. Examples are money, laws, gods, empires. It can happen, e.g. that some currency is defined to suddenly be without value.
  • 146.4: Maybe hard to accept; “Yet in truth the lives of most people have meaning only within the network of stories they tell one another.” And following: “Meaning is created when many people weave together a common network of stories…” Why does anything mean anything? Because it did to our parents, etc, examples. [[ aligns with idea of understanding reality via narrative – and the stipulations that all such narratives, stories, are made up ]]  [[ again – the smart ones understand that these are just stories, that we tell ourselves to provide meaning, and that they could easily be entirely different stories. ]]
  • Long historical example of how meaning at the time of the crusades changed over the centuries.
  • The idea of human rights might be just as absurd in another century. 150.6.
  • Only human understand these chimeras – intersubjective realities. That’s our advantage. This is what separate humanities from life sciences; the latter depend on complete understanding…
  • So, 152 last lines, “If you want to understand our future, cracking genomes and crunching numbers is hardly enough. We must also decipher the fictions that give meaning to the world.”

Part II: Homo Sapiens Gives Meaning to the World

Ch4, The Storytellers, p155

  • Animals are a dual reality – objective entities, and subjective experiences. Humans add a third reality – those intersubjective stories.
  • We had the cognitive revolution 70kya, but fictional webs remained weak. With the agricultural revolution, 12kya, the Sumerians imagined gods like modern corporations. Only with the invention of writing, and money, were these enabled. The idea of pharaoh, a living god, became a personal brand. Society’s rules became written down, i.e. became algorithms, p160m. Now we have ‘the system’, e.g. hospitals, where everything is a matter of procedure and rules. These worked so well that the Egyptians could create pyramids and an enormous lake, even without iron or the wheel…
  • P163, Living on Paper. Written texts became so important that, example of visas in Portugal, 164.5. Yet they could backfire: the Chinese effort to expand led to imaginary reports which led eventually to government actions that led to famine.
  • Writing reshaped reality, 167t. –it could describe, and then it could reshape, reality, to the extent that reality had to give way to what was written.
  • Examples: how African borders, drawn up by Europeans, ignored local circumstances. How school function to aim for high marks [grades] rather than knowledge or understanding.
  • 170b: “In theory, if some holy book misrepresented reality, its disciples would sooner or later discover this, and the text’s authority would be undermined. Abraham Lincoln said you cannot deceive everybody all the time. Well, that’s wishful thinking. In practice, the power of human cooperation networks depends on a delicate balance between truth and fiction. If you distort reality too much, it will weaken you, and you will not be able to compete against more clear-sighted rivals. On the other hand, you cannot organize masses of people effectively without relying on some fictional myths. So if you stick to unalloyed reality, without mixing any fiction with it, few people will follow you.” [[ nice summation of this current quandary ]]
  • Thus the power of money; even of holy scriptures, which become self-fulfilling prophecies in the way they function in society. P172b, “Even when scriptures mislead people about the true nature of reality, they can nevertheless retain their authority for thousands of years. …”  A monotheistic view in which my good fortune or bad luck must be about my relationship with an all-powerful god. P173.4, “Such self-absorption characterizes all humans in childhood. Children of all religions and cultures think they are the centre of the world, and therefore show little genuine interest in the conditions and feelings of other people. … Most people grow out of this infantile delusion. Monotheists hold on to it till the day they die.”
  • In contrast, ancient animist religions actually had a more accurate view of the world—as a playground of numerous different powers rather than a single god. Historians like Herodotus and Theucydides…
  • And yet the Bible won—because “No matter how mistaken the biblical world view was, it provided a better basis for large-scale human cooperation” [[ –the essence of the human tragedy? To survive we must believe in what is not real? ]]
  • 174, “Fictions enable us to cooperate better.” At least by the criteria of those fictions. Examples. Yet real entities suffer; gods don’t suffer; even nations don’t suffer, exactly. “That is exactly why we should strive to distinguish fiction from reality.” And last line p178: “Being able to distinguish fiction from reality and religion from science will therefore become more difficult but more vital than ever before.”

Ch5, The Odd Couple

  • Has modern science replaced the importance of stories, of myths? No; in ways science has made some myths stronger. So what is the relationship between science and religion?
  • 181, Germs and demons—there are many faulty definitions of religions; they’re not about superstition or belief in gods. Religion rather is a social function that confers superhuman legitimacy on human laws, norms, and values. 182.4; moral laws that exist and that we cannot change. Examples of boys asking questions of their fathers. Thus liberals and communists don’t like to be called religions, yet in fact they believe in some system of moral laws that wasn’t invented by humans, that humans must obey. And all societies have some version of this. All believers think theirs is the one true religion.
  • 184, If you meet the buddha—distinction between religion and a spiritual journey. Religions are about cementing a worldly order; journeys are about escaping it. If you meet Buddha on the road, kill him – i.e., if you encounter a fixed law, free yourself from it, 186. Such ideas are threats to religions, thus Martin Luther; details.
  • 188, Counterfeiting god—so what about the relationship between science and god? Sworn enemies? All scientific projects require religious insights, 189m. How to determine which projects to build?
  • Or are they separate kingdoms? Yet this ignores the factual statements made by religions. Abortion; biological facts, about when life begins. Religious stories almost always involve ethical statement, factual statements, and the conflation of the two, p191. Science has a lot to say about factual statements. Example about the Donation of Constantine, in AD 315… which later historians agree was forged, in the 8th century.
  • 193, Uganda criminalized homosexual activities, inspired by the Bible; long example.
  • 196, Holy dogma—it’s not easy to separate ethical judgements from factual statements. Philosophers like Sam Harris have argued that science can always resolve ethical dilemmas. And yet, what is happiness? We can’t measure it. And without the guidance of some religion [ in the broadest sense of course ], we can’t maintain large-scale social orders, 198.3.
  • 198, The witch hunt—history. In theory, both religion and science are interested in truth. “In fact, neither science nor religion care much about the truth, hence they can easily compromise, coexist and even cooperate.” 199.4 Religion is interested in order; science is interested in power, over truth. [[ Really? At best this is a cynical take. ]]
  • Thus modern history is about forming a deal between science and one particular religion: humanism.
  • Next two chapters about this covenant; and the final part of the book about how this covenant is disintegrating, and what might replace it.

Ch6, The Modern Covenant, p200

  • Modernity is a deal: “humans agree to give up meaning in exchange for power” 200.7. This deal shapes our entire culture, and ourselves from the moment of birth. [[ it doesn’t seem to matter to Harari that the meaning given up is false – fictitious – and invented by humans; doesn’t reality matter? ]]
  • Modern power comes as a result of scientific progress and economic growth. There was no such ‘growth’ for much of history; productivity was steady, etc. It was for lack of funding. The miracle of credit enables economic growth. (reference to zero-sum, p204b) Example vampire bats, who loan blood to each other, but without interest, unlike bankers.
  • Modern economic growth is vital. We must produce more in order raise the standard of living, handle expanding population, and making any headway against poverty. And economic growth turns out to be the solution for everything, p207, e.g. to solve religious and political strife.
  • And so free-market capitalism has become virtually a religion, 210.1; certainly it “helped global harmony far more than centuries of Christian preaching about loving your neighbor and turning the other cheek.” P201.5
  • The first commandment of capitalism is: reinvest profits. Thus a typical conservation today is about how best to invest one’s gains. P211. Even games these days are oriented around capitalism, e.g. Civilization.
  • 212, But can this go on forever? Only if we have a store of resources. We used to rely on the discovery of new lands. Now, despite talk of “new planets and even galaxies” (212.7 !? – perhaps the only allusion to space travel in this book?), we need other methods.
  • That new resource, beyond raw materials and energy, is knowledge, provided by science. People used to believe the holy scriptures contained all knowledge worth knowing, 213.4.
  • Now the danger is ecological collapse. Do we slow growth? Or expect that expanded knowledge, and more growth, will solve the problem? In some quarters people are taking measure to shut out the consequences of ecological collapse, e.g. in China, protection against the smog. Yet the poor, as always, will suffer the most. And despite understanding the danger, greenhouse gases haven’t slowed, despite international agreements.
  • 218, The Rat Race. And so we’re always under pressure to produce more. We *need* upheavals; all that is solid melts into air. And it feeds on the natural human tendency toward greed. And it’s been a huge success, 220. Yet, how did we avoid the loss of meaning? By a new religion: humanism.

Ch7, The Humanist Revolution (60 pages)

  • We’ve managed to find a new meaning. Ironically, the greatest danger these days come from those who cling to the old meaning of a grand cosmic plan, 222b: “Yet today, those who pose the greatest threat to global law and order are precisely those people who continue to believe in God and His all-encompassing plans.”
  • So absent that, what keeps world order? Humanism. “The humanist religion worships humanity, and expects humanity to play the part of that God played in Christianity and Islam, and that the laws of nature played in Buddhist and Daoism.” [[ I still take great exception to use of the loaded term ‘worship’…..]]
  • In past centuries no one trusted human thinking; we needed God for meaning, and authority. Compare 1300 to now.  [[ again, Harari sidesteps the obvious point that ideas of God and God’s meaning and authority *were invented by humans* ]]
  • Today, the humanist theme is everywhere: be true to oneself. What do you feel? People marry for love. When conflicts arise, the resolution is about feelings, not scripture. Even zealots – e.g. religious zealots upset by gay pride parades – resort to their hurt feelings, 228t.
  • And in politics: democracy, never remotely conceivable in the middle ages, when even art was attributed to superhuman inspiration—the Holy Spirit, represented by the dove.
  • Now, anything can be art, e.g. Duchamp’s urinal. [[ again, saying “feelings” makes it sound wishy-washy; one could just as well talk about trust and accountability… ]]
  • Again: the customer is always right; education is about thinking for oneself. The cosmos has changed—236m, the exterior universe became empty; the interior world became deep and rich with meaning. And so even belief in God is a *choice* about what one feels…
  • The medieval formula for knowledge was Scriptures X Logic. (multiplied; just one won’t do). With the scientific method it became Empirical Data X Mathematics.
  • Now the humanist formula is Experience X Sensitivity. Now understanding is about having a wide variety of experiences, and interest in what they mean, and being able to change one’s views 239.6. Thus author might cultivate fine teas. 240.7, “The highest aim of humanist life is to fully develop your knowledge through a wide variety of intellectual, emotional and physical experiences.”
  • Thus we have a yin and yang, a balance between science and humanism, between power and meaning.
  • In premodern narratives, there was no change—heroes killing monsters or villains. Modern narratives are all about inner lives, how people change, from Ulysses to Survivor, Oz to Trek etc. [[ Thus the standard definition of modern literature, which science fiction subverts, as being about someone’s inner life, typically about the most important events of that life. There was no such literature until about 150 years ago. ]]
  • 243, War. Similarly, attitudes about war changed; used to be depicted as the results of fearless leaders; now about the experience of the common soldier, rather than about dying in battles ordained by God. Examples of paintings.
  • 248, Yet the humanist movement split into three schisms: ‘liberalism’, 249.7; socialist humanist; and evolutionary humanism. They all deal differently with the contradictions that arise. E.g., what to do about refugees, Angela Merkel.
  • Liberal humanism is about allowing each person to experience their own life fully, and not valuing any one over others. This can lead to nationalism, a mild sort where the shared values of an entire country must be protected from outside influence.
  • Socialist humanism focuses on others’ feelings and how one’s actions influence others. These people might consider liberalism a capitalist trap, a self-absorption, a naivety about how the system really works and how it came to be. The goal of socialist humanism is to understand the system; thus an emphasis on political parties and trade unions.
  • Evolutionary human keys off Darwin to emphasize that conflict is necessary, because only the fittest should win; the superior beings and cultures should prevail. Famous quote from the film The Third Man. This attitude is popularized by Nietzsche –what doesn’t kill me makes me stronger—and in the memories of soldiers who’ve gone to war, an experience that pales all others.
  • Author cautions that the extremes of Hitler or Stalin don’t mean these approaches have no value – they are all sections of the ‘human horizon’, 259t.
  • An extended example: consider four experiences, listening to Beethoven, to Chuck Berry, to a tribal chant, or to a wolf’s howling. Which is most valuable? The liberal might dismiss only the wolf – thus the Voyager record. The socialists look at context of each. The evolutionary humanists are eager to declare Beethoven as obviously best, there I said it., p262
  • Are these distinctions frivolous? No—these schisms have widened. At the start of the 20th century, liberalism thought history was on their side. Then they were assaulted on both the left and right. (Long brilliant sketch of 20th century history p264-269). Liberalism eked through only by virtue of nuclear bombs, the MAD stalemate. And eventually prevailed, as the 21st came around, as more and more countries became liberal democracies.
  • There is now no serious alternative to “the liberal package of individualism, human rights, democracy and a free market”, 269.2
  • Not the religious fundamentalists? No; they have nothing relevant to say about the world. Technology depends on a kind of ‘religion’ to give it purpose, but the ancient fundamentalist religions have nothing to say about new technologies. Hundreds of millions may go on believing, but numbers don’t count much in history – history is made by small groups of engineers and financiers who change the technological world.
  • There’s never been a shortage of “priests, mystics, and gurus who argued that they alone held the solution to all of humanity’s woes…” 272.2
  • Examples of religious reactionaries—a religious leader in Sudan, in 1881, who beheaded the local British commander and established an Islamic theocracy that lasted until 1898. A Hindu revival movement for Vedic knowledge; Pope Pius IX, who discovered the principle of papal infallibility; a Chinese scholar named Hong had visions of being Jesus’ younger brother that led to wars that killed 20 million people. While elsewhere factories and railroad and steamships filled the world.
  • P275 Now, in the early 21st century, the last train of progress is leaving the station – after which there may be no more homo sapiens. It’s about 21st century technology to create bodies, brains, and minds.
  • Traditional religions are reactive, not creative. Contraceptives, the internet, … religious leaders fret.
  • Compare the most important influential inventions or discoveries of the 20th century – there are so many to choose from – to the influential discoveries or inventions of traditional religions – of which there are virtually none? Except perhaps the industry of torture, via YouTube.
  • New ideas come from new thinkers, not ancient religious texts, 277-278: when considering new ideas. “Yet Christian true-believers – however progressive – cannot admit to drawing their ethics from Foucault and Haraway. So they go back to the Bible, to St. Augustine and to Martin Luther, and make a very thorough search. They read page after page and story after story with the utmost attention, until they finally discover what they need: some maxim, parable or ruling that, if interpreted creatively enough means God blesses gay marriages and women can be ordained to the priesthood. They then pretend the idea originated in the Bible, when in fact it originated with Foucault. The Bible is kept as a source of authority, even though it is no longer a true source of inspiration.”
  • Yet—liberalism may become obsolete.

Part III: Homo Sapiens Loses Control

Ch8, The time Bomb in the Laboratory, p283

  • Some of Liberalism’s ‘factual statements’ don’t stand up to scientific scrutiny. In particular: free will, the elephant in the lab.
  • Brain studies show that biological functions are either deterministic or random – but not free. Even though we ‘feel’ free. Studies show our minds make decisions a few hundred millisecond before we are consciously aware of them. We feel, but we don’t choose.
  • [[ tempted to wonder why author doesn’t simply acknowledge soul and free will as ‘stories’ like his others… ]]
  • Further, we can manipulate and control the mind, e.g. robo-rats, treatments for depression, and ‘transcranial stimulators’ that enable a person to play first-person shooter games without the ‘voices in the head’ causing doubts, 291.2.
  • This undermines the belief in individualism; there is no one authentic self. Our minds have two hemispheres; experiments and accidents; our minds concoct explanations for things the other side has already perceived. Kahneman: we have a narrating self. We’re subject to the ‘peak-end rule’ as in childbirth, colonoscopies.
  • We identify with our narrating self, as opposed to our experiencing self.
  • 301, A Borges story. We cling to justification; ‘our boys didn’t die in vain’ – that causes us to pursue lost causes, send even more soldiers to die in battle. Priests know this too—by making people sacrifice, it cements their commitment to the cause they are sacrificing for. [[ this is the sunken cost fallacy, though he doesn’t use the term ]] Applies to economics, etc. Our ‘self’ is just another such story, 306m—
  • “We see then that the self too is an imaginary story, just like nations, gods and money. Each of us has a sophisticated system that throws away most of our experiences, keeps only a few choice samples, mixes them up with bits from movies we’ve seen, novels we’ve read, speeches we’ve heard, and daydreams we’ve savoured, and out of all that jumble it weaves a seemingly coherent story about who I am, where I came from and where I am going. This story tells me what to love, whom to hate and what to do with myself. This story may even cause me to sacrifice my life, if that’s what the plot requires. We all have our genre. Some people live a tragedy, others inhabit a never-ending religious drama, some approach life as if it were an action film, and not a few act as if in a comedy. But in the end, they are all just stories.”  [[ one gets used to such passages, but taken in isolation, such passages like this are quite extraordinary…
  • Thus, 307.2: “Medieval crusaders believed that God and heaven provided their lives with meaning; modern liberals believe that individual free choices provide life with meaning. They are all equally delusional.”
  • And yet even people like Dawkins and Pinker cling to liberal values…

Ch9, The Great Decoupling

  • So what are the practical implications? There are three points about how 21st century development might make liberalism obsolete:
    • 1, Humans will lose economic and military usefulness;
    • 2, The system will find value in humans collectively, but not in unique individuals;
    • 3, The system will find some value in particular unique individuals, and they will constitute a new elite
  • Historical sketch that notes how conscription, beginning in the French revolution, came with civil rights… even women’s suffrage, since women were required to support America’s wars.
  • Yet, with modern cyber warfare, individual warriors are no longer needed. Computers are as *intelligent* as us without being conscious. Autonomous cars; etc
  • So unenhanced humans may become useless. We have algorithmic stock market trading; lawyer searching; digital teachers; even doctors; Watson. There are technical problems to be solved – but they only need to be solved once. Pharmacists.
  • 322, So what to do with this useless class? Humans over history have specialized into various specialized professions – which make them *more* easily replaced by algorithms.
  • Humans are algorithms; even things like facial recognition and chess have now been done better by machines. Baseball. Truck driving.
  • Might algorithms become legal entities? Even art, and music. Examples. Poetry.
  • So what to do with all the useless people? Estimates of various professions being taken over by computer algorithms, p330. What will they do all day? Take drugs and play computer games? Or would an advanced AI simply exterminate humanity? –note scenario 332t, in which a computer assigned to compute pi takes over the universe – is this an SF scenario?
  • So, 332, summary. Algorithms may know us better than we know ourselves.
  • 334.7, “People will no longer see themselves as autonomous beings running their lives…” [[ really? Why not? Most people today see themselves in the context of ancient religions… ]]
  • Algorithms need not be perfect, only better. Medical devices; health monitors. Angelina Jolie and her genetic test. In theory, if Google monitored all emails, it could detect flu epidemics more quickly than ever. 23andm3; Google’s life advance 342.
  • The system will know you better. Would elections become obsolete? [[ again, can’t imagine this actually happening ]]
  • Through our interaction with google and Fb, we are giving away our lives for free.
  • 346, Waze, and driving system. What if it goes from being an oracle, to a sovereign – that is, it *runs* all traffic to best efficiency?
  • Similarly, Cortana, and Siri, and Amazon recommendations, and Kindle’s statistics.
  • And yet, these devices are subject to attacks…
  • 351, Third threat: that a group of elites might emerge. We already have huge income inequality; what if real gaps of physical and cognitive abilities emerge?
  • The age of the masses may be over, and thus the idea of equality or civil rights for all.
  • What new ideologies might emerge?

Ch10, the Ocean of Consciousness

  • The new religions will emerge from labs, e.g. in Silicon Valley. Two alternatives: techno-humanism, or data religion.
  • The first uses technology to upgrade humanity to achieve the humanist goals.
  • 358, The gap between our perceptions and mental states, with all those possible – the spectrum; the “vast ocean of alien mental states”. Psychology has only closely studied sub-normatives and WEIRD (i.e. Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, Democratic) people, especially psychology students themselves. Yet many exotic mental states may be unique, as in primitive cultures. [[ really?? Never seen any suggestion why this might be so, only cf Haidt about cultural attitudes ]]
  • Thus we can’t know how Neanderthals thought, let alone bats, or other animals.
  • We’ve lost some of our earlier senses. ‘Positive psychology’ tries to explore not damaged minds but prosperous minds. Our sense of smell is no longer so important; we’re not so attentive as in the past; we dismiss insights from dreaming.
  • Yet attempts to explore these senses might *downgrade* humans…
  • 368, So do we listen to our inner voices, or control them? We can do that through chemicals – drugs that calm nerves and so on. Yet doesn’t this violate the humanist first commandment? 370t, to listen to oneself? That is, what is the authentic self? Where do we peg the nail of authentic self?
  • It’s the humanist dilemma. And so what could replace desires and experience? Information.

Ch11, The Data Religion

  • The idea of ‘dataism’ is the result of Darwin and Turing – biology and computer science. There’s no longer a chain from data to information to knowledge to wisdom. The idea that biology is about data is now scientific dogma, 373.8
  • It’s seen in the dynamic between central vs distributed data-processing, i.e. communism vs capitalism. The former failed, e.g. Lysenko, because it couldn’t deal with change as well as the latter.
  • 378, Where has all the power gone? Political systems can’t keep up with technology, e.g. the internet. Thus voters selected Brexit, etc.
  • Thus, currently, no politicians have grand visions. As if they are leaving everything for the market to decide.
  • And yet, of course, market forces cannot address global warming, or the threat of AI, 382t.
  • So what might emerge? p383, history in a nutshell, as:
    • 1, increasing number of processors;
    • 2, increasing the variety or processors;
    • 3, increasing the number of connections between processes; and
    • 4, increasing the freedom of movement along existing connection.
  • And then a sketch of history along these four methods. What is the output? The internet of all things.
  • 386. Dataism becomes a religion through its values: the flow of information should be free; everything should be linked…
  • This is the first new ‘value’ since 1789.
  • About Aaron Schwartz, who felt information should be free, and hung himself before he was convicted.
  • And so, we have communal cars, and Wikipedia, and how young people these days welcome the connectivity 391.8—“What’s the point of doing or experiencing anything if nobody knows about it, and if it doesn’t contribute something to the global exchange of information?” [[ brilliant, but – isn’t modern technology simply allowing a human tendency that has always existed? And here I am posting these notes on the web! ]]
  • And so: share! Upload! Otherwise nothing has any value, 392b, “We must prove to ourselves and to the system that we still have value. And value lies not in having experiences, but in turning these experiences into free-flowing data.”
  • 393, Know Thyself. So this trend is not humanist nor anti-humanist. Music is mathematical patterns.
  • Hollywood pictures about how love defeats aliens; how simplistic; is that the best you can do?
  • Whatever happens, it will take decades, or centuries.
  • Feelings remain as encapsulating millions of years of evolution, 397t—“When you read the Bible you are getting advice from a few priests and rabbits who lived in ancient Jerusalem. In contrast, when you listen to your feelings, you follow and algorithm that evolution has developed for millions of years, and that withstood the harshest quality-control tests of natural selection.” …
  • “Yet in the twenty-first century, feelings are no longer the best algorithms in the world….”
  • And so what are our new guidelines: get a DNA sequence! Monitor your body! Put everything online! Allow Google and Fb to access all your email and posts!
  • Where do these algorithms come from? Some are designed… some emerge.
  • 399, There are critiques. We don’t know how ‘data flows’ produce consciousness; so maybe life is more than data flows. And maybe there’s more to life than decision making. A critical examination of this dogma is in order. But even if it’s wrong, it might still take over.
  • If it does—initially it would promote health, happiness, and power. Eventually though individual humans would become less and less important than the internet-of-everything. Humans may just become another ripple in the data flow.
  • All the ideas in this book are just possibilities, not prophecies. So what should we pay attention to? We need to decide what to pay attention to. In the short term, immigration, refugees. Decades: global warming, inequality.
  • Long term:
    • 1, A scientific dogma that organisms are algorithms and life is data process;
    • 2, Intelligence is decoupling from consciousness;
    • 3, Non-conscious but intelligent algorithms may come to know us better than we know ourselves.
  • Are these valid? What will happen if they are?
Posted in Book Notes, Evolution, Human Progress, Religion, Science | Comments Off on Yuval Noah Harari, HOMO DEUS: A Brief History of Tomorrow (2017; 2015 in Israel)

A note about book notes

I’ve always intended to post notes about my reading on this blog. It’s a way of making my reading not just a selfish, personal endeavor, but a way to pass along the my experiences, along with my reactions, to books I find worth reading, to anyone else who might read this blog. (Though in the background, I have in mind certain fam– well, I shouldn’t say that.)

But I read a lot more books than I get around to posting about here. I almost always take detailed notes on my reading, in part because I have a poor memory (unlike eidetic readers like Isaac Asimov, and apparently Gary Westfahl), and in part because I want to capture points, and even specific quotes, for use in my own later projects (i.e. writing my own book). Those notes are far longer than a conventional review, or blog post, and so the impediment to posting about my reading here has been taking the extra time to boil down my notes into a blog post.

I think with the Carl Sagan book I reread last month, I’ve given up on needing that extra step. Instead, I’ll just clean up the notes I’ve taken while reading (more and more, I read books while sitting at the computer and writing notes as I go), create a summary at the top, and post that. So that’s what I did with today post about Harari’s SAPIENS — the most important recent book I haven’t yet blogged about — even though my notes about it are almost 10,000 words long. (And even trying this shortened process, it took 3 hours to review and clean up my notes from 2 years ago and compile a summary at the top.)

I should say that the tipping point, perhaps, was when, in mid-December, John O’Neill of Black Gate asked to repost my EARLY ASIMOV post from my blog here. (I don’t think he reads my blog; he saw my plug for that post on Facebook.) I asked if the format was OK — a somewhat sorted set of summaries, with my comments — or if he wanted a more traditional review. No, he said, he liked my posts as they were. And so it went, and my second post for him was another virtually unchanged summary with comments and conclusions, that for Stewart’s EARTH ABIDES.

And I’ll continue, over the next few weeks, to capture my readings of books I’ve read in recent years that I think important, and even create a short list of those important titles in the sticky Intro post that appears on the homepage here.

Posted in Personal history | Comments Off on A note about book notes

Yuval Noah Harari, SAPIENS: A Brief History of Humankind (2015)

Yuval Noah Harari, SAPIENS: A Brief History of Humankind (2015)

This is a history of the human species in the context of “Big History” – the first page sketches the history of the entire universe as a backdrop – and is a history of trends, discoveries, concepts, and ideas, not of wars and conquests and politicians. It’s been a perennial bestseller since its English-language publication in 2015, and seems to have established itself as part of the cultural zeitgeist, much as Jacob Bronowski’s The Ascent of Man and Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs, and Steel have. Harari has since published two further books, Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow and 21 Lessons for the 21st Century, which I’ll summarize here too.

The prime virtue of this book is that it covers an enormous amount of material about the growth and expansion of our species, using the widest possible perspective, and not getting bogged down by the names and dates of conventional history. Harari likes big ideas. Yet at times he’s overly reductionist in collapsing many ideas into those few big ideas.

Top-level summary:

  • Harari demarks human history by three great revolutions: the cognitive, the agricultural, and the scientific.
  • He echoes Diamond’s assessment of the agriculture revolution as a ‘fraud,’ i.e. not so much a great leap forward as the cause for many of our problems today.
  • A principle theme is the notion of ‘imagined orders’ based on shared myths to build societies larger than small tribes in which everyone knew each other. These are ‘inter-subjective’ ideas like religion, nationalism, and legal system, that depend on the beliefs of many people in the society to sustain them. (E.g. without a shared belief about money, the coins and paper would be valueless.) And that modern society is impossible without them.
  • Between the agricultural and scientific revolutions he traces the history and significant of…
    • Writing, numbers, and hierarchies;
    • Money, empire, and religion.
  • (Opinion: In his discussion of religion his penchant for reductionism becomes problematic, by equating religion with ideologies, like communism, and considering secular philosophies to be ‘humanistic religions’! Thus a lack of worship of gods is, to him, a worship of humanity.)
  • And then he relates:
  • The idea of ignorance and how science admits ignorance and thus allows discovery and progress
  • How science and empire supported each other to allow humanity to expand across the world
  • How economic growth became the trend of history; how this depends on increased productivity, and the discovery of new kinds of energy, and the necessity of consumerism
  • How this threatens the ecology of the planet; how modern life has replaced family and local community with the state and the market, with imagined communities, with the idea that we live with incessant change
  • But how this threatens the ecology of the planet, and how it hasn’t necessarily led to an increase in human happiness.
  • Finally he considers the end of the species, threatened by various kinds of engineered creatures, biological or cybernetic.
  • He concludes: we are powerful as gods, but don’t know where we’re going.


Detailed summary, with key points bolded and [[ my comments in brackets ]]

Part One, The Cognitive Revolution

1, An Animal of No Significance

  • Book begins with thumbnail recap of history—summarized in timeline, several pages earlier. In this history there are three revolutions: the cognitive revolution, 70Kya (i.e thousand years ago, my abbreviation), the agricultural, 12kya, and the scientific, 500ya.
  • There were humanlike minds 2mya, but those creatures were insignificant on the world stage. Species come in families, and humans used to belong to a family too, i.e. other humans, including the Neanderthals and others, which have become extinct. At one time thousands of years ago there were several such species existing simultaneously; there was no linear progression from one to the next. He calls our species ‘Sapiens’ to emphasize that there were other ‘human’ species.
  • Author doesn’t expect that our species will last another 1000 years, 6b [my abbrev. For page 6 bottom].
  • Our success came from our large brains, and our ability to walk upright. Human babies are born relatively prematurely, 10m, and require years of care, requiring social ties (it takes a village).
  • The earliest tools were likely used to extract marrow from bones of animals killed by other animals; humans were in the middle of the food chain. What changed was the use of fire, which enabled cooking, and reduced the amount of time needed to eat each day.
  • About 70kya we emerged from Africa, to places other human species already resided. Did we interbreed, or replace them? Most favor the second theory, though recent evidence does show that modern humans have some Neanderthal DNA; this has implications for notions of racial equality, but that’s what the evidence shows.
  • What drove those other species to extinction? Were we more resourceful, or simply more violent? Key observation about intolerance toward humans of even slightly different groups, 80.0: “Tolerance is not a Sapiens trademark. In modern times, a small difference in skin colour, dialect or religion has been enough to prompt one group of Sapiens to set about exterminating another group.”
  • What if those other species had survived? How would religion and politics have been different?
  • So why did we prevail? Perhaps language.

[[ Passing thought: is the rejection of evolution, by a large part of the modern population, in part due to distaste at being related to chimps and gorillas—which trigger the same disgust attitude that racists feel when encountering other colors of their own species…? ]]

2, The Tree of Knowledge

  • We acquired our current intelligence by 30K years ago, presumably due to random mutations. This was the Cognitive Revolution.
  • Language is supple, enables gossip, and enables the thinking of things that don’t exist—collective myths, that enabled cooperation.
  • Chimps are highly hierarchical, with an alpha male ruling, and coalitions among members of groups, which typically have 20-50 members each.
  • Our own threshold for groups is about 150 – beyond that, we cannot keep track of inter-relationships. [[ this is a commonly cited psychological limitation; e.g. you may have 500 Facebook friends but most of them you don’t know very well. ]]
  • In order to manage larger groups, humans need common myths—religious, national, and legal.
  • Example: the lion of Peugeot (the car maker), representing the legal fiction of an LLC or corporation.
  • We tell stories and need others to believe them. These aren’t lies, but sincere beliefs. [[ as I’ve long thought, ‘rights’ are simply social agreements, not anything handed down from on high or pre-existing in nature. ]]
  • These are ‘imagined realities’, 31b that come to override genetic dictates. Changing stories can lead to changed behavior. Thus the emergence of childless elites… trade between groups (Neanderthals didn’t trade), cooperative hunting… cultures… and history. It’s our mythical glue that makes all this possible.
  • He summarizes, p39.

[[ This keys with ideas about how religion is *useful*, like nationalism, and perhaps why it should not be disabused? –issue to consider: if every person could recognize all these myths for what they are—would society collapse? What would hold society together? Well, the answer might be, how do freethinkers of various types keep on living? What makes them keep on going? ]]

3, A Day in the Life of Adam and Eve

  • We’ve spent almost our entire history as hunter-gatherers, and that has shaped our eating habits and much else; thus now we have obesity because we crave sweets, which used to be rare. There are also suggestions that primitive tribes were communities without monogamy, where children were imagined to have multiple fathers; a ‘commune’ theory, controversial [[ author footnotes the Sex at Dawn book I read some years ago, by Christopher Ryan and Cacilda Jetha, and reviewed here: ]]
  • This was how humans lived from roughly 70,000 to 12,000 years ago. They left few artefacts. We can look at modern forager societies for clues – yet these are highly variable. There is/was no single ‘way of life’.
  • Yet these societies generally consist of small bands, of only humans – except, at some point, dogs. Contact between them was rare, and only valuables were traded. Still, slow wandering or spreading of these tribes would have reached China in 10K years.
  • These were the original ‘affluent society’. The earliest settlements were fishing villages along rivers, perhaps 45K ya. Most people had intimate knowledge of the natural world, and led more interesting lives, than people today, who exist in niches of specialty. They worked less. They had high infant mortality. They had a more varied diet, and fewer infectious diseases (which came with settlements).
  • Animistic beliefs were common; these were not a religion, but rather assumptions about individual animals, rocks, etc. Not theism, 55t, which “is the view that the universal order is based on a hierarchical relationship between humans and a small groups of ethereal entities called gods.”
  • We don’t know much about whether these people lived mostly at peace, or in war. They exist behind a ‘curtain of silence’.
  • What they *did* do was reshape the ecology of the planet.

4, The Flood

  • (Author uses term ‘flood’ to mean how Sapiens spread across the globe and killed off many other species)
  • Early sapiens lived in the Afro-Asian region, while around the world were many independent eco-systems, with different animal species. Sapiens didn’t reach Australia until 45K ya, and quickly became the deadliest species. Soon most large marsupials became extinct. Life there had survived multiple ice ages, and humans didn’t affect sea life, so human cause is virtually certain. This happened around the world; New Zealand, reached only 800 years ago (!).
  • Three reasons: those large mammals or marsupials were slow breeders; humans had fire, and could burn down forests (which is how eucalyptus, formerly rare, thrived and became dominant); and climate change at the time did contribute.
  • The Americans, 16K ya, and the very southern tip of South America by 10K bc. Many species lost, p71.
  • Again and again: Madagascar, 1500ya, Hawaii in 500, NZ in 1200. There were three waves of extinction: the first, by the foragers; the second, by the spread of farmers; the third, by industrial activity today. It may well reach sea life as well.

[[ all of this echoes the big extinctions in Kolbert’s book; in hers everything humans have done is part of her big Six. ]]

Part Two, The Agricultural Revolution

5, History’s Biggest Fraud

  • The transition to agriculture began around 9500-8500 BC in Turkey, western Iran, and the Levant [middle east]. It developed independently elsewhere, but only certain areas, because so few plant and animals species were amenable to domestication. See map p79.
  • The idea that the agricultural revolution was a great leap forward for humanity—is a fantasy, p79. In fact, people weren’t more intelligent at the time, and the life of farmers was generally less satisfying than that of hunter-gatherers, and farmers worked harder; it led to population explosions and pampered elites. It was history’s biggest fraud, 79b.
  • The culprits were the plants themselves, esp wheat, rice, and potatoes. The transition was slow; there was no planned series of steps. Wild wheat etc was part of the hunter-gatherer diet. The plants domesticated the humans. To maintain the plants, humans settled into communities, with rises in violence and spread of diseases. (Note violence rates, p82—compare Pinker?)
  • The one benefit was the expansion of the human population, an evolutionary success only in that way, even if their conditions were worse.
  • The luxury trap—as throughout history, people were unable to fathom the full consequences of their decisions, p86.7. People worked hard, had more children, then had to keep working hard. An iron law of history is that luxuries become necessities, 87b. Thus it was never practical to abandon the settlement and go back to foraging. This is an important lesson…88.
  • P89, possibly there were cultural motivations: evidence has been found of monuments built in 9500 BC by foragers. For some religious purpose? Did building the temple require a village to support it? Gobekli Tepe in Turkey.
  • Meanwhile the domestication of animals was underway, especially by breeding docile varieties of sheep etc, managing the young to keep the milk coming, slaughtering the males for food. Ironically, these few species—sheep, pigs, cattle, chickens—number in the billions in today’s world, but live miserable lives. A few other species—dogs, cats, horses—live pampered lives. But again, evolutionary ‘success’ for most came at the cost of misery, p97.

6, Building Pyramids

  • There was no turning back from the agricultural revolution. By the 1st century, there were 1 or 2 million foragers left, and 250 million farmers.
  • With that came a shift in human sensibilities: an attachment to home and neighbors. As late as AD 1400, farmers occupied just 2% of the planet’s surface—the rest was too hot, dry, cold, wet, etc. Most people felt tied down.
  • The farming life entailed concern about the future—seasons, preparing against bad years—with worry and stress.
  • Growing communities brought rulers and elites, including soldiers, priests, artists, and thinkers – “History is something that very few people have been doing while everyone else was ploughing fields and carrying water buckets.” 101b.
  • Throughout history wars have more often been triggered by these elites, not by food shortages. The cooperation of large groups required myths to bind them. It turns out mythology was much stronger than fables about spirits and totems. Mighty empires were created when “people invented stories about great gods, motherlands and joint stock companies to provide the needed social links” 103.3.
  • History: a few hundred people in Jericho, 8500 BC; Anatolia, a town of some 10,000 in 7000 BC; 3100 BC the first Egyptian kingdom in the Nile valley; 2250 BC Sargon’s empire of Akkadia, with a million subjects. By 1000 BC to 500 BC, the mega-empires of the middle east, 103.8. 221BC, the Qin dynasty in China; later the Roman Empire with 100 million subjects.
  • These ‘cooperation networks’ were seldom benign, but they were ‘imagined orders’ based on shared myths.
  • Two examples. In 1776 BC, the code of Hammurabi in Babylon laid out rules for various offenses, p106-7, with examples like “If a superior man should blind the eye of another superior man, they shall blind his eye.” The order entailed three classes of people, superior people, commoners, and slaves, and two genders, with different values placed on each combination. Families were hierarchical; children were property of their parents.
  • In 1776 AD, the Declaration of Independence also claimed to be divinely inspired, but with much different tenants: that “all men are created equal” and so on. Both of these declarations were wrong; they reflect no objective reality; they were both imagined realities about universals that exist only in the minds of Sapiens. For example, we can replace the presumptions of the Declaration with what we know about the reality of biology and sociology, and come up with “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men evolved differently, that they are born with certain mutable characteristics, and that among these are life and the pursuit of pleasure.” P110.4
  • [[ Of course Harari is being cheeky; what the founders meant wasn’t that all men were literally equal, but they were intended to be treated equally before the law. Or as much as seemed feasible at the time, without the 14th amendment. ]]
  • The point is these imagined orders are *useful*:
  • Quote:
    • We believe in a particular order not because it is objectively true, but because believing in it enables us to cooperate effectively and forge a better society. Imagined orders are not evil conspiracies or useless mirages. Rather, they are the only way large members of humans can cooperate effectively.

[[ and my personal theme is that it’s possible to, privately, understand that all these schemes are not objectively true, and that an objective truth about the nature of the universe can be found, is available to be found, and understood ]]

  • At the same time, there needs to be ‘true believers’ in these orders for them to survive; Voltaire: “There is no God, but don’t tell that to my servant, lest he murder me at night.” Natural orders are fragile, prone to collapse if people stop believing. A society can not survive merely by force. Those who lead cannot all be cynics, p112.

[[ this recalls a theme among atheist writers, that perhaps it’s not wise to disabuse people of their beliefs, for the maintenance of social order; and the counter-theme that this is condescending, to think that people are not able to handle the truth. Harari suggests that the social order depends on some kind of myth – if not a shared religious one, then a shared nationalist one, or similar. This is why my project only addressed the individual’s ability to step away from the myths and apprehend reality for what it has been found to be, not any attempt to revolutionize society. ]]

  • So, how do make people believe? First, never admit that the order is imagined, 112b. Educate them from birth in this order. The humanities and social sciences are all about how the imagined order is woven into the tapestry of life, 113m. There are three factors that keep people from realizing that these orders exist only in their imagination:
  • 1, The imagined order is embedded in the material world. Thus, modern belief in individuality is reflected in modern house’s divisions into individual bedrooms for each child, where they can maintain privacy; this was never true in medieval times.
  • 2, The imagined order shapes our desires. Thus romantic ideals shape both our consumerism, and our desire to travel to exotic locations, a notion expressed in ancient societies by the building of pyramids, in times when travels abroad would have made no sense.
  • 3, The imagined order is inter-subjective. Not objective, like radiation; not subjective, like imaginary friends; but subjective among the larger group, p117, shared by many people. “Inter-subjective phenomena are neither malevolent frauds nor insignificant charades. They exist in a different way from physical phenomena such as radioactivity, but their impact on the world may still be enormous. Many of history’s most important drivers are inter-subjective: law, money, gods, nations.” 117.
  • To change these imagined orders is difficult, given they might require a change of consciousness of a billion people. “A change of such magnitude can be accomplished only with the help of a complex organization, such as a political party, an ideological movement, or a religious cult.” And to change the imagined order, we must first believe in an alternative imagined order.
  • There is no escape. When we break down the walls or a prison and run towards freedom, we are merely running into the more spacious yard of a bigger prison. 118b.

[[ again, you can escape the prison through science, but likely only privately ]]

Ch7, Memory Overload

  • Rules for games allow even strangers to play. As societies grew the rules became too elaborate and complex to be remembered—laws, taxes, etc. Human brains are inadequate: their capacity is limited; they die; they are only adapted for certain kinds of information, p121, e.g. about flora and fauna, and about personal relations among the tribe.
  • And so complex societies required—numbers. Growing societies collapsed if they could not manage the information to manage them.
  • The earliest solution came from the Sumerians, in 3500bc – writing, on clay tablets. Those tablets show accounting records, about who sold what to whom.
  • These early systems of writing were ‘partial scripts’, like math and music notation – systems to record only particular kinds of information. They didn’t capture poetry. The Andeans used knots tied on cords, the quipus, p125.
  • Full scripts came by 2500 BC, in Sumeria, that became cuneiform. The issue then became, how to store and maintain huge amounts of information inscribed on clay tablets? P127. Some cultures did develop methods of storing and retrieving such records; they had catalogues; they had schools for scribes. This entailed developing ways of categorizing, of thinking about the world—free association and holistic thought gave way to compartmentalization and bureaucracy. 130.3.
  • Then came numbers. The ‘Arabic’ numerals were invented by the Hindus. Mathematical notation has become the world’s dominant language (example of equations, p131). They are needed because “With rare exceptions, human brains are simply incapable of thinking through concepts like relativity and quantum mechanics.” 131.5
  • Entire fields of knowledge require mathematics.
  • And the extension – the binary script of computers.

Ch8, There is No Justice in History

  • How did humans organize themselves into large mass-cooperation networks, without instincts to do so? They created imagined orders and devised scripts.
  • But these imagined orders were neither neutral nor fair. Thus Hammurabi established classes of people; even the American order created a hierarchy between whites and others, between rich and poor.
  • Ironically, every imagined hierarchy claims its order is natural and inevitable. Ordained by gods; Aristotle’s natures; white supremacist theories. Hindus cosmic forces. All of these are of human origin. Modern Americans are shocked by racial ideas—yet are OK with the hierarchy of the rich and poor, who both get what they deserve, 136m.
  • And yet—complex societies seem to *need* some imagined hierarchies and unjust discrimination; there are no known societies that have no discriminations. Hierarchies serve functions; they enable people to know how to interact with others, though social cues.
  • The vicious circle, p138—all hierarchies arose through accidents of history, e.g. the Hindu caste system, from the invasion by the Indo-Aryan people 3000 years ago; thus outcasts == untouchables.
  • 140, Purity in America—Europeans imported slaves from Africa because 1, Africa was closer than, say, Asia; 2, there was already a slave trade in Africa itself; and 3, Africans were partially immune to the malaria and yellow-fever that plagued the plantations. And then religious and scientific myths were created to justify it. These myths remained even after the slaveholders gave up, in a vicious circle of cause and effect; Jim Crow laws; see diagram p143.
  • 144, He and She—every society has a hierarchy that divides men and women, and almost everywhere men prevail. Girls are thought unlucky; wives ‘belong’ to their husbands. Is this an imagined system, or why is it so widespread? Is there a biological basis? Similar concerns about homosexuality, p146, which has been perfectly fine in some societies. Rule is: biology enables, culture forbids. Whatever is possible, is by definition natural p147.2. The idea of the unnatural comes from Christian theology, with its ideas about the purpose of each limb and organ. In fact, organs have evolved to perform many functions; evolution has no purpose. Mouths, wings, sex organs.
  • 148, Sex and Gender—are different things; diagram p149. Standards of masculinity have varied; compare Louis XIV to Obama, p150-1. Gender is serious business; men must prove themselves their whole lives.
  • 152, What’s So Good About Men?—so why are men preferred? Many theories, none satisfactory. Because men are stronger? This is true only on average; and social power doesn’t depend on muscle power. Because men are more aggressive? But again, the lower classes are more often employed to fight, while the upper classes stay at home. Because of differing reproduction strategies? P157. Men are more ambitious; women more choosy. Yet other species are matriarchal, as in elephants and bonobos. Humans are a cooperative species; why then don’t more cooperative women lead the way? So we don’t know the answer to this. We do know that gender roles have changed greatly in recent decades: women can vote, hold high offices; homosexuality now taken for granted.

Part III: The Unification of Mankind

Ch9, The Arrow of History

  • A century ago it was thought different cultures were unchanging, each with its own essence. Now it’s the opposite: cultures are in constant flux. All manmade orders are packed with internal contradictions, e.g. Christianity and chivalry in medieval Europe; freedom and equality now, with the battle between Democrats (more equality) and Republicans (more freedom). This cognitive dissonance drives cultural change; it’s an asset, 165.
  • 166, the spy satellite—history does have a direction, when seen from on high: small simple cultures coalesce into bigger and more complex cultures. History is moving relentlessly towards unity, 166b. thousands of years ago there were many separate human worlds. By 1450, there were five: the whole Afro-Asia world; the Mesoamerican world; the Andean world; the Australian world; and the Oceanic world, map p169.
  • Today we all follow the same geopolitical system, the same economic system, the same legal system, the same scientific system, 168b. The foods we think of as ethnic are really imported from elsewhere, 170t. Indians adopted horses from Europeans.
  • 170 the global vision—homo sapiens evolved to distinguish between us and them. Now we are shifting to a universal order, driven by three universal orders: the monetary order; the imperial order; and the order of universal religions. These are the next three chapters.

Ch10, The Scent of Money

  • When Cortes arrived in Mexico in 1519, the locals didn’t understand his interest in gold, to them a useless metal. When coins became common, they were exchanged with tolerance for the varieties of opposing sides.
  • 174, how much is it?—small tribes bartered; as larger cultures allowed specialization, the barter system was impractical, e.g. p176. The largest barter experiment, the Soviet Union’s, failed miserably.
  • 177, shells and cigarettes—money was created many times in many places. Money is anything to mark an exchange, not just coins and banknotes; cowry shells were used, cigarettes are used in modern prisons. And now money resides on computer servers. It’s a way to store wealth, where some kinds of wealth cannot be moved, e.g. real estate.
  • 180, how does money work?—it works by trust, in the figments of collective imagination; money is the most universal and efficient system of mutual trust ever devised, 180.6. Early money had intrinsic value, e.g. barley. Later the shekel (mentioned in the Bible) is a standard 3 oz. weight of silver. Coins came in 640 BC, with ID marks and a stamp of authority. They didn’t have to be weighted. Roman denarius became the dinars of many cultures. Once one group believed in the value of gold, or any money, it spread automatically to other groups, based on common belief.
  • 186, two universal principles: convertibility, and trust.
  • Some things are ‘priceless’ like honor and loyalty, which is why certain things can’t be done, like selling one’s child. But money keeps working its way into everything. And it comes to be valued for itself, turning the world into a heartless marketplace. Money itself isn’t enough to explain the world….

Ch11, Imperial Visions

  • An empire like Rome could be defeated in battle, if it kept winning the war. They responded to Numantia by starving them, a story that became enshrined in myth and Spanish culture—ironically.
  • 190, what is an empire?—it rules over a significant number of distinct peoples, and it has flexible borders and an unlimited appetite, constantly acquiring new territories. Other factors, like its origin, form of government, etc., are not relevant.
  • 191, evil empires? – we now regard empires as evil. But they work, and the argument that it’s somehow immoral for one group to rule over another is problematic, because history is constant stream of empires, one take over by another, lasting for centuries. And they exploit conquered peoples by enabling artists and other elites. Today’s world is a legacy of empires, 194t.
  • 194, it’s for your own good—the first empire was the Akkadian Empire of Sargon, c2250 BC. It didn’t last long, and was subsumed by the Persian empire by 550 BC, whose attitude was that being part of an empire is for a nation’s own good. Other imperial visions, 196b, presumed legitimate authority from heaven, to rule over all for the good of all. The Quin of China.
  • 197, When they became us—empires have brought together smaller diverse cultures, entailing standardization and legitimacy, and a sense of a large family of common people, sometimes including barbarians who needed to be converted to the one true faith in a moral imperative, 198b. Examples.
  • 202, Chart of the ‘imperial cycle’—empire established; its culture adopted by subject peoples; they demand equal status in the name of those values; the empire’s founders lose their dominance; the culture continues to flourish and develop.
  • 204, Good guys and bad guys in history—it’s tempting to label the emperors as bad, but we all derive from imperial legacies. There are no pure authentic cultures. Would the Indians want to abandon the legacy of British rule—democracy, English, the railways, etc.? There is no dividing the world into good and bad.
  • 207, The new global empire—now, nationalism is losing ground; more people feel part of all humankind. Then why not a global government? The problems of the modern world cannot be solved by any one nation.

[[ ironically things have backslid a bit since he wrote this ]]

Ch12, The Law of Religion

  • Description of the holy Ka’aba in Mecca. P210:
    • Today religion is often considered a source of discrimination, disagreement and disunion. Yet, in fact, religion has been the third great unifier of humankind, alongside money and empires. Since all social orders and hierarchies are imagined, they are all fragile, and the larger the society, the more fragile it is. The crucial historical role of religion has been to give superhuman legitimacy to these fragile structures. Religions assert that our laws are not the result of human caprice, but are ordained by an absolute and supreme authority. This helps place at least some fundamental laws beyond challenge, thereby ensuring social stability.
  • So religion is “a system of human norms and values that is founded on a belief in a superhuman order.” This entails both this superhuman order, and that this order establishes norms and values that are binding. Thus football is not a religion, and beliefs in ghosts and fairies are not a source of moral standards, and are not a religion.
  • To unite peoples, a religion must espouse a *universal* superhuman order, and it must spread this belief: both universal and missionary. Many ancient religions were local and exclusive. The universal and missionary religions appeared in the first millennium BC.
  • 211, Silencing the lambs—the earliest beliefs involved animism, the idea that every animal and rock represented some kind of spirit. [[ Author doesn’t address the psychological source of these beliefs, i.e. agency detection. ]] These were very locale-specific. The agricultural revolution made plants and animals into property, creating a problem. The answer: gods. Ancient mythology often involves a contract with these gods for mastery over plants and animals—see Genesis. Recall animal sacrifices. [[ recall Equus: a thousand ‘local gods’ ]]. This development raised the status of humans.
  • 213, The benefits of idolatry—some of these polytheistic religions nevertheless identified a single power or law. Greeks had a head god. Hindus identified Atman. The principle here was that this supreme power has no interest in human wants and desires. Whereas the lower gods with partial powers can be dealt with. Polytheistic religions rarely persecute heretics, or tried to convert subjects. The local gods of conquered people were fine.
  • Except for the Christians under Rome, who refused to pay respect to the divinity of the emperor, 215b. Thus the Romans treated them as a subversive faction, though in 300 years only a few thousand Christians were killed, compared to the millions killed by fellow Christians over the next 1500 years. Especially in wars between Catholics and Protestants, in disagreement about the nature of Christ’s love, p216, gruesome examples.
  • 217, God is one—some followers of polytheistic gods came to believe that their own particular patron was the only god, the supreme power, but moreover that he did have interest in humans and could be bargained with. “Thus were born monotheist religions, whose followers beseech the supreme power of the universe to help them recover from illness, win the lottery and gain victory in war.”
  • The first was that of Akhenaten, c 350 BC, whose worship of Aten was abandoned after his death.
  • Others remained marginal, like Judaism, who believed the supreme power’s interest was only in their tiny Jewish nation.
  • The breakthrough was Christianity, who believed Jesus of Nazareth was their messiah, and who leader Paul of Tarsus reasoned that this news should be spread to the entire world. “In one of history’s strangest twists, this esoteric Jewish sect took over the mighty Roman Empire.” 218t.
  • This served as the model for Islam, in the 7th century. “In an even stranger and swifter historical surprise it managed to break out of the desert of Arabia and conquer an immense empire stretching from the Atlantic Ocean to India.” [[ this would have to be because of the appeal of such a belief to human nature… obviously not because of any actual evidence from the real world. ]]
  • Monotheists have been more fanatical and missionary than polytheists, part of their mission being to exterminate all rival religions. It worked. Monotheistic religions spread across the globe, by the end of the first millennium and by today, outside East Asia.
  • And yet, the idea of monotheism doesn’t always settle well. Thus Christians have their patron saints, each one to watch over this country or that specialty—an analog to the polytheistic gods, sometimes the same old gods in disguise, 220.
  • 220, The battle of good and evil—and there were dualistic religions, which claimed two opposing powers: good and evil, that the universe is a battlefield between two forces. This explained the famous Problem of Evil.
  • Yet it begs the problem of order: if there are two forces, who created this set-up and what are the rules? 221m. Monotheism explains order, but is mystified by evil; dualism explains evil, but is puzzled by order. One possible answer: there’s one single omnipotent God, but He’s evil.
  • An early example of dualism was founded by Zoroaster (Zarathustra) by 1000 BC. Later, Gnosticism and Manichaeanism. The latter creed rivaled Christianity for dominance of the Roman Empire, but lost.
  • Yet dualism survived; belief in the Devil or Satan are now commonplace, though such claims are not to be found in the Old Testament. Humans believe in logical contradictions. Another dualistic concept led to the distinction between body and soul, matter and spirit. Why, if all was created by God? Led to the belief in the dualist heaven and hell—again, though not in the OT.
  • “The average Christian believes in the monotheistic God, but also in the dualist Devil, in polytheist saints, and in animist ghosts. Scholars have a name for this simultaneous avowal of different and even contradictory ideas and the combination of rituals and practices taken from different sources. It’s called syncretism. Syncretism might, in fact, be the single great world religion.” 223m
  • 223, The law of nature—there have been other religions, that do not focus on gods, creeds which think a superhuman order is a product of natural laws; if there were gods, they too were subject to those laws. The prime example is Buddhism, whose central figure was a young prince who, around 500 BC, reflected on suffering and realized that people are never content. He meditated for six years and realized the problem was in the human mind, and the solution is to simply understand things as they are, and avoid suffering through practices of meditation, achieve a state of contentment and serenity known as nirvana. “…the only way to be liberated from craving is to train the mind to experience reality as it is” 226b.
  • Still, most Buddhists don’t attain nirvana and continue to worship various gods, 227.7… many Buddhas and bodhisattavas. [[ so the belief in gods has some root in human nature, the idea of deferring to authority perhaps? Parents? ]]
  • 228, The worship of man—the last 300 years has seen growing secularism, but not if you consider ‘natural-law religions’. These are liberalism, communism, capitalism, nationalism, and Nazism. These are usually called ideologies, not religions, but they all entail belief in a superhuman order. [[ Here his conflation of religion with ideology, and calling a non-religion a religion, becomes annoying. ]]
  • Thus communists believe the law of nature was discovered by Karl Marx, et al. It has its holy script, Das Kapital. It has its holidays.
  • Author admits this line of reasoning is dicey, p229. [[ Yup. ]]
  • These modern creeds are also syncretic: a typical American is a nationalist, a capitalist, and a liberal humanist, p230t. More on these later.
  • Humanist religions worship humanity 230m (!???); the world and all other beings exist solely for our species. [[ Nope; humanists merely deny any supernatural order superseding human values, which isn’t the same thing at all. ]]
  • There are three sects, depending on the definition of humanity.
  • There is liberal humanism, in which the quality of individual humans is paramount; its priority is human rights; it reflects monotheist beliefs about eternal individual souls.
  • Socialist humanism, that believes humanity is a collective, that equality is the priority; it also reflects monotheistic beliefs in the idea that all souls are equal before God.
  • And evolutionary humanism, which believes humankind is a species that can evolve or degenerate. The most famous representatives are the Nazis, who prioritized the Aryan race as the finest, against degradation by other races or by the infirm. Their ideas have been debunked, but similar ideas survive; thus racist laws have persisted. They emphasized what they thought was the struggle for survival, 235-6.
  • And now today ideas about projects to upgrade humans are back in vogue. Life sciences have undermined belief in eternal souls, but this recognition has not filtered down to our laws or political science, 236e.

[[ The end of this chapter is extremely problematic in that author thinks deference to human values is ‘worship’. No no no no no. It’s realism, the recognition that there are no gods to worship, that humans are able to establish their own values. At best his descriptions are analogies. Furthermore it’s increasingly recognized by ‘humanists’ of various shades (and not by folks who think that God is in charge) that it’s not true that “the world and all other beings exist solely for our species” because acting like they do will destroy the planet, and thereby humanity. ]]

[[ I note that conservatives in the US treat the constitution as a kind of holy script, and the founders as some kind of infallible gods. This is again a reflection of a certain kind of thinking; a psychological matter. ]]

[[ p236, might be worth exploring how natural selection, the ‘struggle for survival,’ isn’t about weeding out the weak; the process preserves almost everyone. The process is about responding to changes in the environment, mostly. ]]

Ch13, The Secret of Success

  • What can we saw about why the world exists as it does, rather than some other way?
  • First, the Hindsight Fallacy. Why did Rome choose Christianity, when there were so many other options? Some have come up with deterministic explanations – about geography, genetics, or economy [[ pretty sure he’s alluding to Jared Diamond here ]] – but in fact the future is always a fog; the iron rule of history is that what looks inevitable in hindsight was far from obvious at the time, 239.2.
  • And it’s easy to imagine alternate scenarios. But history cannot be predicted; it’s chaotic. And history is a Level Two chaotic system—it reacts to predictions about it. [[ well this is why Hari Seldon kept his predictions secret! ]]
  • Then why study history? Precisely to understand that our present situation is neither natural nor inevitable, 241m.
  • Second, Blind Clio. History’s choices are not made for the benefit of humanity. There’s no reason to believe that the way things turned out was for the best. The victors always believe their definition of good is the correct one.
  • But maybe cultures are ideas that spread at the *expense* of their hosts, an idea variously called memetics [[ after Richard Dawkins’ ‘memes’ ]] , or in post-modernism ‘discourses’, or game theory, e.g. arms races.

Part Four: The Scientific Revolution

Ch14, The Discovery of Ignorance

  • Things have changed more in the past 500 years than over any comparable time before that; since then we’ve circumnavigated the earth, landed on the moon, become aware of micro-organisms, and become able to end history, with atomic bombs.
  • This process, the scientific revolution, entailed the realization that life was not static, that new discoveries could be made that improved the human condition. The feedback loop involved resources to do research, research that provided new powers, and powers that provided new resources. P250 How did the bond between science, politics, and economics emerge?
  • 250, Ignoramus. First by the willingness to admit ignorance; then the centrality of observation and mathematics; and then using new theories to acquire new powers.
  • This is contrast to the scriptures, which were assumed to possess all-encompassing wisdom; anything they excluded (like details about how spiders built their webs) was irrelevant. Anyone who suspected that religious traditions were ignorant of important things… were treated as heretics. Modern science allows for collective ignorance on such issues. “The willingness to admit ignorance has made modern science more dynamic, supple and inquisitive than any previous tradition of knowledge.” 253.4 But doesn’t this undermine the shared myths that enable society? There are two responses. First, simple declare some theory to be true—as the Nazis and communists did. Second, declare a non-scientific truth and live with that, as liberal humanism does.
  • 254, The scientific dogma. There is no dogma; there is always the possibility of completely new knowledge. Traditional rules were told as stories. Science resorts to math, and when calculus didn’t work, statistics were developed, at first by life-insurance people, to identifies trends where uncertainties prevails in individual cases. P256, in 1744. These techniques were so useful they changed education, making math something no longer for elites.
  • 259, Knowledge is power. Yet most people find math hard, because its finding often defy common sense. [[ key point ]] 259.4 Science and technology only became aligned only by World War I, with aircraft, poison gas, etc p261. In the past, military advantages were organization; it didn’t occur to general to search for new technology.
  • 264, The ideal of progress. Yet most societies have thought the golden age was in the past; that progress was not possible. Stories taught about the dangers of human efforts; lightning; poverty. [[ p264, note how progress moves beyond the idea that human efforts are fruitless, or evil ]]
  • 266, The Gilgamesh project. The most ancient problem is that of death: Gilgamesh follows his best friend into the underworld, and emerged persuaded that death was inescapable. But now death is a technical problem, to be solved, 268.2. Examples from the past, how common injuries led to death; child mortality; how many children of Queen Eleanor died before she produced a male heir. And modern religions have lost interest in understanding death. [[ well, that’s because author’s modern ‘religions’ aren’t really religions…. P271 ]]
  • 271, The sugar daddy of science. Science is expensive, and it’s naïve to think that science is funded for any reason other than for some political, economic, or religious goal. Science can’t make such judgements itself, or decide what to do with the results.

Ch15, The Marriage of Science and Empire

  • How far is the sun from the Earth? In the 18th century it was realized this could be determined from transits of Venus, of which there would be two, in 1761 and 1769. So expeditions were sent to far places around the world, including one led by Captain Cook, who used citrus to avoid scurvy. The expedition had both a scientific and a naval mission; he ‘discovered’ Australia, and within a century, many of its natives died, and the Tasmanians were wiped out completely.
  • 278 Why Europe?—Europe was relatively a backwater; the world was dominated by Asia until 1850 or so. But then Europe discovered technology, like railroads, that quickly spread around the world. Why Europe? Modern science, and capitalism.
  • 283, The mentality of conquest—the key factor in the spread of Europe’s science was its imperial mentality. Europeans admitted ignorance; they sought out new knowledge, rather than merely spreading their own view of the world, 284.
  • 286, Empty maps—earliest world maps were full of the known world; by 1525 the Salviati world map had lots of empty space, for lands yet to be explored. The discovery of America was key, because it was aa area unknown to scripture—new knowledge was possible. The European voyages to explore and conquer were unprecedented in world history, p289b. Compare Zheng He’s expedition, which did not try to conquer or colonize.
  • 291, Invasion from outer space—The Aztecs knew of no other world; when they were invaded, it was as if from outer space. Cortes captured Montezuma. Pizzaro used the same strategy for the Inca. China and other nations weren’t interested in the new world. Only in the 20th century did non-European nation adopt a global vision.
  • 297, Rare spiders and forgotten scripts—when Britain conquered India, they studied it (unlike the Muslims before them); they deciphered the cuneiform script, and the languages; these conquerors knew their empires. They identified this as a progressive, altruistic project, thus the ‘white man’s burden’ p301. OTOH some discoveries led to racist theories that later became anathema. These days we don’t speak in terms of race; we talk in terms of cultural purity.
  • Thus science and empire building supported each other, 304.

Ch16, The Capitalist Creed

  • Modern economic history is all about growth—unlike most of history, when the size of the economy stayed the same. To grow, you needed the concept of credit, and the idea that the future would be better. Example about a baker, a banker, etc. The idea that the future would be better was new. The idea that life was a zero-sum game was the reason wealth was considered sinful (in the Bible); to be wealthy meant someone else was deprived, 308b.
  • 310, A growing pie—the scientific revolution brought the idea of progress. Adam Smith wrote in 1776 that greater profits enable businessmen to hire more assistants; thus increase in profits is what drives collective wealth. Greed is good. But it depends on the rich using profits to open new factories, rather than counting their coins like Scrooge. Medieval noblemen gave way to today’s corporate elite, in dreary suits. Economic growth became the supreme good, and became possible through science’s new discoveries every few years. If that bubble bursts, we’d be in trouble.
  • 315, Columbus searches for an investor—Asia was a powerhouse, but did not use much credit. Columbus tried several nations before resorting to Spain. Financial systems became more complex. The Dutch succeeded with credit, by repaying their loans and protecting property rights; while the Spanish fought wars. Example of two sons who invest differently. Famous Dutch joint-stock company was VOC, which drove the conquest of Indonesia, and the settlement of New Amsterdam—New York, when the Dutch lost it. France did the Mississippi Company, for the lower M valley, including New Orleans, but a stock bubble led to a huge crash, which triggered the French Revolution, p324. M/w the British settled North America, and India.
  • 325, In the name of capital—eventually governments did the bidding of companies, as in the first opium war of China, 1840, in which free trade (to sell opium to the Chinese and create millions of addicts) was defended by war. Similarly the UK funded a Greek war with Turkey.
  • 328, The cult of the free market—how much should capital and politics influence each other? Capitalists argue that politics should do nothing—reduce taxation and regulation; this is the most common creed today. Yet this belief is naïve; all markets have some political bias. The job of politics is to protect against cheats and enforce the law—if not, we get the Mississippi bubble, or the 2007 US housing bubble and recession.
  • 329, The capitalist hell—another reason markets shouldn’t have free rein is that monopolies can grow and take over freedom of the employees. Thus the slave trade, driven by markets to supply workers for sugar plantations. The slave trade wasn’t a government operation; it was a free market enterprise, p331. Free markets don’t guarantee that profits are made in a fair way. Capitalism has killed millions out of cold indifference coupled with greed, 331.6.
  • Another example: Belgian Congo, exploited for its rubber, the natives exploited; 6 million died.
  • Capitalism has two answers: first, only capitalists are capable of running the modern world. Second, we need patience for the pie to grow big enough for everyone to have a slice.
  • But can the economy grow indefinitely? What will happen if we exhaust the raw materials and energy of the planet? [[ Still an important question, which is why some thinkers are exploring ideas for sustainability, how societies can thrive without growing indefinitely, like cancer. ]]

Ch17, The Wheels of Industry

  • Answer: the amount of energy and raw materials to be exploited have *increased*. [[ But they can’t increase indefinitely; the planet is finite. ]] Before the Industrial Revolution, humans were unable to convert energy except by muscle power, from plants and from the sun.
  • 336, The secret in the kitchen—one method was staring people in the face: steam. The first steam engines were invented to clear flooded coal mines – after Britain had cut down all their forests—and the coal powered those engines. By 1825 steam locomotives were invented, and people became obsessed by the idea that machines could convert one type of energy to another. Internal combustion engines converted petroleum into power. Then electricity.
  • 339, An ocean of energy—so we keep discovering new sources of energy. This solved the scarcity of raw materials; cheap methods were found to refine aluminum for example.
  • 341, Life on the conveyer belt—productivity swelled, especially in agriculture, with tractors and refrigerators. Even animals became machines, locked into pens or put down conveyer belts to be harvested. This led to the discovery of distress in animals. Now only 2% of the population is involved in agriculture. Increased production raised another problem: who would buy all that stuff?
  • 347, The age of shopping—thus consumerism, a new kind of ethic, replacing the thrift of never throwing anything away, 347. Now we are all good consumers, and products are designed with short-term lifespans. Religious holidays have become shopping days. This holds true in the food market, where ironically obesity is now more of a problem than starvation. And now it’s the rich who invest, and the poor who buy all that stuff they don’t need. Capitalist and consumerist ethics are two sides of the same coin.

[[ of course SF anticipated this in the 1950s, in Pohl et al. ]]

Ch18, A Permanent Revolution

  • And so the population has expanded, and there are few large animals left, part of the ecological degradation that threatens homo sapiens. It’s not that nature is being destroyed—only changed.
  • 352, Modern time—daily life has become aligned with industry. We live by timetables and clocks now. The advent of trains required nationalized time. Which happened in 1880. Everything in our daily life… 355m.
  • 356, The collapse of the family and the community– And this led to the collapse of the family and local community, to be replaced by the state and the market. Most of us no longer live with a nuclear family, an extended family, and a local intimate community. In the old days family was everything, and the community performed favors without payment; government intervention was limited. The Industrial Revolution gave the market immense powers—education, police, courts. With this came the notion of being individuals, to do whatever one wants without regard to family or community—the state will take care of you, 359m. [[ This is the state that conservatives want to dismantle. Problem is there’s no going back, without vastly reducing the population. ]]
  • And women and children were recognized as individuals. The cost was weak families and communities, and diminishment of parental authority (to discipline children, etc).
  • 362, Imagined communities—and so now markets provide ‘imagined communities’ of people with common interests, including national identities, and more recently fans of pop stars, or fans of sports teams.
  • 364, Perpetuum mobile—once humans assumed the social order was stable; now it changes so quickly that every year is revolutionary, e.g. how the internet emerged only 20 some years ago, 365t. Now we live with incessant change, with a presumption that things will improve; even conservative politicians don’t strive to return to the past, but at best keep things as they are. [[ well arguably there is some reactionary movement currently. ]]
  • And the past seven decades have been remarkably peaceful…
  • 366, Peace in our time—we forget how violent the world used to be. Deaths from wars are far fewer than from car accidents, etc. [[ recalls Pinker ]]. This decline is due to the rise of the state [[ that conservatives want to dismantle ]].
  • 368, Imperial retirement—and so the empires gradually retired—the British, the French, the Soviet. They went away peacefully.
  • 370, Pax atomica—there are few international wars; countries don’t invade each other much anymore (examples 370). Humans have broken the law of the jungle, 371.5. The price of war is too high, with the threat of nuclear annihilation. And profits have declined from invading other countries. Intellectual wealth can flee. Peace is more profitable. The elites see war as evil. And there is positive feedback among these four forces. The result is most countries are no long truly independent—they are inter-dependent on each other, 374m.
  • Thus we are witnessing the formation of a global empire, which effectively enforces world peace.
  • But is this a genuine trend, or could we swing back toward war and destruction? We could go either way.

Ch19, And They Lived Happily Ever After

  • Summary. But are we happier? Such questions are rarely studied. The assumption might be that as our capabilities increase, alleviating miseries, we become happier (the progressive account). Or, is it that evolution shaped us as hunter-gatherers, and the modern world takes us far away from that environment, away from Eden? P478. Both are oversimplifications.
  • While it’s true that the last few decades have been a golden age, 379t, perhaps our timeframe is too narrow. And we are ignoring looming ecological havoc, and the harm we cause to other animals.
  • 380, Counting happiness—what makes people happy? Surveys have been done. Money does buy happiness—but only to a point. And illness reduces happiness, but only to a point. Beyond these points people readjust. Family and community help. But the most important finding is that happiness is relative—it depends on subjective expectations of objective conditions. 382b. It’s about expectations.
  • Mass media and advertising erode satisfaction (example of football star marketing underwear, p385). And this suggests that immortality would bring about rage among those who could not afford it.
  • 385, Chemical happiness—we don’t stay happy for very long; there’s no evolutionary advantage in staying happy, and the pleasure of sex quickly subsides; if it did not, males would be uninterested in anything else, 386b.
  • Different people do have different innate levels of contentment. And these can be adjusted with drugs—like Huxley’s soma. What would be wrong with that?
  • 390, The meaning of life—people often say what makes them happy is doing something meaningful, e.g. raising a child, which is hard work. Kahnmann. Thus the faithful might be very happy, and a faithful person from the middle ages might have been just as happy. 391.6: “So our medieval ancestors were happy because they found meaning to life in collective delusions about the afterlife? Yes. As long as nobody punctured their fantasies, why shouldn’t they?” And yet as far as we can tell, there is not purpose or cosmic plan (that is, those beliefs are delusions). So does happiness depend on self-delusion?
  • 392, Know thyself—they idea that people know their own happiness is a liberal idea, because liberalism sanctifies individuals. Whereas religions held that objective standards to be met, that individual desires were irrelevant or sinful. Modern geneticists point out that DNA is about promoting genes, and happiness is irrelevant.
  • Buddhism has studied ideas of happiness and reached different conclusions: that the problem is suffering and wanting, and the solution is to understand these feelings and stop craving them. The ideal is serenity. Western cultures have turned these insights upside down: “Happiness Begins Within” 395b, what we feel inside. This is the opposite of Buddhism.
  • So perhaps the issue isn’t whether people are fulfilled and enjoy pleasant feelings. Perhaps the question is whether people know the truth about themselves. Do people today understand this truth better than the ancients? Most history has ignored this theme.

[[ and of course the answer is YES, at least for some people – those who study reality and try to understand it, i.e. scientists and philosophers, and likely NO for the vast majority who live their lives in the ancient human roles. And this is perhaps my ultimate PvC: it’s all about understanding reality outside the bubble of merely being human. ]]

Ch20, The End of Homo Sapiens

  • Now the in the 21st century we are beginning to break the laws of natural selection, replacing them with the laws of intelligent design. Scientists are engineering creatures, like a green rabbit. This may be the most important biological revolution since the appearance of life on earth, 399.4. This process could happen three ways: biological engineering; cyborg engineering; engineering inorganic life.
  • 399, Of mice and men—People have been doing this for millennia—castrating bulls. But now we can grow an ear on a mouse. We can transfer genes from one creature to another.
  • 402, The return of the Neanderthals— we might revive extinct animals, or even Neanderthals. Or we could redesign sapiens, despite ethical concerns; the changed species might no longer be sapiens.
  • 404, Bionic life—cyborgs from animals or humans. Replacement limbs. Brain computer interfaces. (lots of sf ideas here) again, the results might no longer be human.
  • 408, Another life—computer viruses, that mutate on their own. Is this life? What if human brains were backed up to a hard drive?
  • 409, The singularity—mapping DNA. The issue of rights arises—could companies discriminate based on DNA traits? Most SF [movies] depict humans like us in the far future with fast spaceships, 411t, but the real potential is changing the species itself.
  • 411, The Frankenstein prophecy—Frankenstein created a monster; the lesson is that if we try to play god, we’ll be punished. But we are nearly able to do that now. We find comfort in that story because we like to think we are the best of all beings, that nothing can be better. But we may need to decide, what do we want to become? This will dwarf all current problems. The real question may be, what do we want to want? 414e

Afterword: The Animal that Became a God

  • 415. summary. We remain unsure of goals; nobody knows where we’re going. Yet we are powerful as gods. “Is there anything more dangerous than dissatisfied and irresponsible gods who don’t know what they want”?

[[ The final chapter echoes Wilson, in THE MEANING OF HUMAN EXISTENCE, that humanity is on the verge of transforming itself. ]]

Posted in Book Notes, Evolution, Human Progress, Religion, Science | Comments Off on Yuval Noah Harari, SAPIENS: A Brief History of Humankind (2015)

Carl Sagan’s THE DEMON-HAUNTED WORLD: Science As a Candle in the Dark

This is a book I think of as one of my foundational nonfiction books, i.e. a major book of central importance for its discussion of a critical theme. That theme, essentially, is that given the prevalence of pseudo-scientific claims in modern society (in the 1990s alien abductions were a popular theme) science is the methodology for determining what’s real and what’s bunk. Furthermore, there are psychological reasons for why people are attracted to pseudo-science (and religion) and put off by real science. And there are ways in which the ideals of science and democracy align.

I first read it in 1996, not long after it was published. Rereading it now, I have to temper my assessment just a tad; it’s a less than perfect book, because it’s not a single sustained thesis and development leading to an overall conclusion. Rather, like Sagan’s first book THE COSMIC CONNECTION, it’s composed partially of pieces originally published separately, in magazines or newspapers, making the book instead a collection of essays around a common theme, and perhaps inevitably giving some topics more attention than you might think they deserve. In that, the book reflects its era: over 100 pages, chapters 4 through 10, discuss the then-current phenomenon of alien abductions, together with related topics of UFOs and the (legitimate) search for extraterrestrial life. That supposed phenomenon has pretty much faded away, I think, perhaps replaced by conspiracy theories and fake news on more strictly political themes.

A chapter-by-chapter summary follows, with comments, but first some highlights:

  • The key chapter is 12, “The Fine Art of Baloney Detection.” Skeptical thinking in a nutshell. The positive steps for constructing a sound argument, and the counterpart steps for recognizing a fallacious or fraudulent argument. As it happens, the key points have been posted online, here:
  • And a key metaphor, which later writers have cited, is the “dragon in my garage” described in chapter 10. How, for example, one might claim to have a dragon in one’s garage, and for every request for any kind of evidence, provide some reason why such evidence isn’t possible. What’s the difference between an invisible, incorporeal dragon, and no dragon at all?
  • Chapters 2, 14, and 15 have strong discussions of the methods and values of science, how it’s different from pseudo-science and religion, and answering criticisms of science.
  • And several of the later chapters, written with Ann Druyan, discuss how the values of science relate to those of democracy, [[ Implicitly aligning the values of religion and pseudo-science to those of authoritarianism; the current example being evangelical support for Donald Trump. ]]
  • A running theme is about how science is a balancing act between being open to wonder, and being skeptical when drawing conclusions. Followers of pseudoscience are open to wonder but lack all skepticism. (Ch17 especially)

Detailed summary with some key points bolded and [[ my comments in brackets ]].

Preface: My Teachers.

Sagan recalls his childhood in 1939, especially the 1939 New York World’s Fair and the World of Tomorrow. His parents weren’t scientists, but they introduced him to skepticism and wonder, pxiii.6. They supported his idea to become an astronomer. He recalls no inspirational teachers. Schoolwork was rote, with no broad perspectives. With college came fulfillment; professors, etc. (see bullets). Still, his parents provided the most essential things…

  • He mentions the value of being able to do back-of-the-envelope calculations.
  • And, page xiv bottom: at U of Chicago “It was considered unthinkable for an aspiring physicist not to know Plato, Aristotle, Bach, Shakespeare, Gibbon, Malinowski, and Freud—among many others.” [[ I confess I had to look up who Malinowski was. ]]
  • [[ My parents provided no such support. The best things my parents did was to fill the house with certain kinds of books: various kinds of encyclopedia, and the Harvard Classics. But they never provided story books, or chapter books, and they never consulted those encyclopedias themselves. When I started buying my own books – paperbacks from Scholastic, e.g., or science fiction – they were mostly indifferent, except to wonder why I couldn’t just check such books out of the library. My father was anti-elitist, sneering at scientists who thought they knew everything (as he thought) so far as to doubt religion. And I had no inspirational teachers, not even in college. I discovered everything through books, many of them encountered quite by happenstance. ]]

Ch1, The Most Precious Thing

Author tells of a limo driver asking him about various conspiracies and pseudo-science. Author reluctantly dissuades him, and asks what he knows about real science – not much. There are hundreds of books about Atlantis, and crystals, with no evidence. Little in public view of evidence, or skepticism, which doesn’t sell. In popular culture, bad science drives out the good; Gresham’s Law. Every generation thinks educational standards are decaying, e.g. quote from Plato.

  • [[ Note! —just as some always think the “good old days” were in the past, it’s common to think “kids these days” don’t measure up to past standards. Neither is true. ]]

Yet such ignorance is more dangerous now than ever – long list of topics, p7t – given how politicians ignore the experts. How do Americans make decisions about such matters?

Hippocrates brought some insight into medicine that had previously been entirely superstitious. He emphasized observations. Most of this was lost during the dark ages. [Because religion] Queen Anne, late 17th century. Things have improved enormously since then. (Despite Christian Science.) Life expectancy is increasing. For humanity to continue to thrive requires science and technology. Not that they are always for the good: there have also been nuclear weapons and all the other military applications; thus the image of the mad scientist. …

Do we care what’s true? Does it matter? P12. Serious question. Some think too much knowledge is damaging; author disagrees, better to know that persist in delusion. A maturing. Anyway, we are stuck with the discoveries of science; there is no way back. Yet pseudoscience keeps getting in the way. Based on insufficient evidence or ignoring contrary evidence. Pseudoscience speaks to emotional needs; to fantasies about personal powers; reassurances of our importance.

Pseudoscience is the counterpart of misunderstanding science. It reflects the way humans have always thought. The cases here are mostly American, but these afflictions are present around the world. Many examples p15-16. Most recently, TM, transcendental meditation. Russia encouraged ideological religion, and considered critical thinking dangerous. [[ as do some modern state educational boards ]] China. Summary 19.4.

So what’s going on? The situation relates to what religions are and how they arise. There is a natural selection of doctrines, how some thrive and most quickly vanish. There’s a continuum from pseudoscience and superstition to religion based on revelation. Some religions reign in their excesses; yet they are reluctant to challenge their extreme fundamentalists.

Pseudoscience is not erroneous science. The former often frame hypotheses that are immune to potential disproof, and often appeal to conspiracy theories.

We don’t appreciate how our perceptions are fallible—mention here of the first Gilovich book, p21m. Science better appreciates human fallibility.

And it’s just as important to teach the methods of science, as its conclusions. Otherwise scientific claims seem arbitrary. And to acknowledge how in the history of science there were often stubborn refusals to accept new discoveries…

Ch2, Science and Hope

To love science is to want to tell the world about it. More than a body of knowledge; a way of thinking. Foreboding—p25b, about the dumbing down of America. Can already be seen in the media. “A Candle in the Dark” was a 1656 book attacking the notion that anything bad must be due to witches. Now, any kind of threat or stress seems arouse the demons of ignorance.

Science doesn’t claim to know everything. It’s not perfect, just the best instrument of knowledge we have. It has a built-in error correcting mechanism. Error bars. Absolute certainty is unattainable. Mistrust arguments from authority. Scientific findings are at times unsatisfying, but there is deep satisfaction in understanding the methods of science. Science can be “spiritual” without presuming anything outside the realm of science.

Science may be hard to understand, but it delivers the goods—no religion delivers prophecies with anywhere near the accuracy of science. This is not ‘faith’ in science, it is using what works best. It works best because of that error-correcting machinery. Science is relentlessly self-critical, in papers, in conferences, in theses.

Science is not arrogant; it’s humble in its taking seriously what nature tells it. Thus Newton was superseded by Einstein, p33. Now, even general relativity may break down, e.g. if gravity waves don’t exist. [[ They’ve been found since this book ]]

You never hear of religion questioning itself and rewarding critics. Science always reminds you that you might be wrong.

Example: two paragraphs about electrodynamics. From Einstein: concise and clear. Scientists experiment wherever possible. Whereas metaphysics has no laboratory.

There are four main reasons to convey science to every citizen.

  • Science is the means to escape poverty and become wealthy.
  • Science provides early warning systems for damage we may be doing to our world.
  • Science teaches us the deep issues of our origins and fates, our place in the universe, in a way no other endeavor has done.
  • The values of science and democracy align. Without them both, we risk being a nation of suckers.

What would an extraterrestrial think of us by reading our papers?

Ch3, The Man in the Moon and the Face on Mars

Every field of science has its counterpart pseudoscience—see long para p43. Author starts with those related to his area of study, the planets: the face on Mars, and that aliens are visiting earth.

Cultures have seen many things in the face of the moon; in ours, a “man in the moon.”

Infants recognize faces. It’s hardwired. And so we sometimes see faces from patches of light and dark where there are none. Thus there are geological formations named faces or body parts. Shapes in clouds, or wood grain, etc. Insects that have evolved to look like sticks.

Recalls book by John Michell, and Richard Shaver and Antonin Artaud, who thought artifacts like these were evidence of ancient civilizations, p47, dismissing rational explanations as “materialism” p48t, and that nature intends more than that.

Then we had the canals on Mars. Inspiring much popular fiction. But of course spacecraft never found them. They were errors of pattern recognition. The advent of space flights brought thousands of amateurs perceiving amazing things. We see familiar shapes in galactic nebulae. Geological features look like pyramids.

And then Cydonia, on Mars, and the ‘face’ found by Viking in 1976. Speculation went wild. Accusations of NASA cover-ups. Tabloids made wild claims. E.g. about suppression of evidence to avoid world panic. But scientists are not secretive by nature.

So what do we know about the ‘face’? Blurry images. Worth further examination, however unlikely they’re alien artifacts.

Such phenomena will not go away. Further ‘discoveries’ are announced. Other tabloid stories., p56-57. It would be funny if many readers didn’t take the tabloids quite seriously. Some people need the thrill of such possible discoveries, p58. The tabloids have the pretense of using science to validate ancient faiths and superstitions.

But there are enough real wonders out there without inventing any.

[[ Note he doesn’t mention Richard Hoagland, the most notorious author to promote the “Mars Face”, even indirectly. ]]

Ch4, Aliens

Author describes scenario of waking in the night, being abducted, probed. Sometimes not remembering until later. Polls indicate widespread belief in such abductions, from UFOs. Who are we to doubt them? Yet, how could such an alien invasion be taking place? Why would they be doing that? Why not in a more efficient way?

How strong is the actual evidence? The early ‘flying saucers’ seemed partly plausible given the number of stars out there. And there were plenty of photos.

The 1841 book Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds told of similar events throughout history—of scams and delusions. Usually with some political or religious motivation. Mesmer.

Also Martin Gardner’s Fads and Fallacies book. More examples. Thus the fallibility of humans might easily explain flying saucers. It all depends on evidence. The more we want something to be true, the more careful we have to be.

Examples of misquotations, frauds, pranks, hoaxes. The last go back to Richard Shaver and his Lemuria, in Amazing Stories.

Similar credulousness and shoddy standards of evidence are seen in reports of crop circles. Enthusiasts credited superior aliens. In 1991 two pranksters admitted being behind them. Copycats followed. But few heard about the hoaxers.

The tools of skepticism aren’t difficult, but are seldom taught—too many politicians, advertisers, and religious leaders rely on discouraging skepticism.

Ch5, Spoofing and Secrecy

UFO is a more general term than flying saucer. We hear many claims, but none where evidence requires them to be alien spacecraft. We seldom hear about those that are explained. Author has spent some time concerning UFOs. People ask if he ‘believes’ in them. Many have no problem assuming a government conspiracy to cover them up. Project Bluebook was so shoddy it reinforced that impression. And it makes perfect sense that the government should study the phenomenon. Military balloons were a thing. Roswell is likely explained by such balloons carrying classified equipment.

In this era there was much experimentation into missiles for carrying nuclear bombs, and into how they reentered the atmosphere. Those indeed were top secret. Another idea is ‘spoofing’ where an enemy craft sees how far they can get into southern US airspace before being detected. Again, such incidents would be secret. Also, routine surveillance of tv, radio, and mail is subject to secret, and even FOIA releases are heavily redacted…

The most credulous UFOlogists seem unaware of this secrecy culture, taking it as evidence of a government coverup of alien spacecraft. And the so-called MJ-12 documents, likely a forgery that served the interests of its discoverer. (also: Deuteronomy, p 91m, and the Donation of Constantine.)

And how could such a worldwide conspiracy be maintained? 92.5 Why wouldn’t NASA be interested? Or the DoD? This isn’t to say the subject isn’t worthy of study. And there are many other (unlikely) explanations. Sidebar about a secret government plane, Aurora, which the air force denies exists.

[[ This whole chapter reads like a sidebar, reflecting Sagan’s special interest in debunking UFOs. ]]

Ch6, Hallucinations

Consider the advertisements in an issue of the magazine UFO Universe, p99, all appealing to unlimited gullibility.

Sometimes someone in ‘contact’ with aliens will ask Sagan for a question to ask the aliens – but questions about math, say, are never answered. Aliens seem preoccupied by current concerns of humans.

George Adamski. Betty and Barney Hill. James E. McDonald. Author met the Hills.

Another kind of explanation are hallucinations. Drugs. Some cultures venerate them—vision quests. Religious quests. A signal-to-noise problem. Some percent are subject to them; it’s part of being human. The stories alien abductees tell are like those in other cultures of meeting goblins, elves, etc. Only recently in human history did children sleep alone; thus their being afraid of the dark.

Once the idea of extraterrestrials became popular, people imagined contacts with aliens. But after the canals were debunked, stories of visits by Martians disappeared….

Ch7, The Demon-Haunted World

Belief in demons was widespread in the ancient world. They were taken to be natural, not supernatural, often thought intermediaries between humans and God. Socrates, Plato. The early church tried to distance itself from ‘pagan’ beliefs. But St. Augustine was vexed with demons. Psellus in the 11th century. Incubi and succubi. The external reality of demons was almost entirely unquestioned from antiquity through late medieval times. The obsession reached a crescendo with a Bull of 1484, by Pope Innocent VIII, which justified the pursuit and torture and execution of ‘witches’ throughout Europe. The Protestants followed suit. Handbooks about how to torture and kill witches. Accusation was sufficient; confessions were exacted through torture. The priests were obsessed with the details of orgasms and bodily parts. P122 in one small city there 100 or so immolations in one year.

Anyone who doubted the justice of this was said to be attacking the church and thus committing a mortal sin. The inquisitors and torturers were doing God’s work. Heresy was also a crime, e.g. attempting to publish an English language bible, Tyndale in the 16th century.

Burning witches has declined since then. But we still use language like pandemonium and most Americans say they believe in the Devil; modern Christians accuse rock music of being demonic.

And what did these demons do? They interfered with copulation; they transferred human semen and transferred it. Either demons really exist, or for centuries, unto today, most people suffered shared delusions.

Which brings us to alien abductions. In many cultures there are stories of gods appearing to humans, e.g. the Greek gods impregnating women. Lilith. A 1645 case about fairies.

Now we have alien abductions, beginning with a 1982 book. Edward Gibbon describes the credulity of the ancients. James I wrote a book on demons. They were imagined to be everywhere.

If the aliens are real, why were there no reports of flying saucers before 1947? And why haven’t their experiments finished by now?

In fact, some believe the aliens are really demons—the Raelians; Whitley Strieber; fundamentalist tracts. Christians are split on whether scripture allows for the existence of aliens, e.g. Hal Lindsey.

Since the early 1960s author has argued that UFO stories were crafted to satisfy religious longings. They’re rewrites of older stories about supernatural beings. Our hallucations interpret what we see according to the assumptions of culture of the day, see 131t. People remember fragments of experiences from childhood that emerge later. And now popular culture is full of alien imagery, often with the assumptions that aliens will be small framed but with large heads.

What most reports reveal is a failure of imagination and a preoccupation with human concerns. “The believers take the common elements in their stories as token of verisimilitude, rather than as evidence that they have contrived their stories out of a shared culture and biology.”

Ch8, On the Distinction Between True and False Visions

If we see something or hear a sound and wonder if it’s just our imagination, do we tell others? Depends on the surrounding people and culture; on what other people might think, doubt or credulity. In therapy reticence is often overcome. Hypnosis encourages fantasy, or incorporation of the hypnotist’s beliefs. Hypnotists can cue their patients. People are suggestible; they’ll accept false evidence and claim they saw it too, 139m; false memories. Children especially. Reagan famously told of liberating concentration camp prisoners—but he didn’t; it was a movie. We form memories that are seldom challenged by new facts.

Most common are apparitions of religious figure, e.g. the Virgin Mary. Shrines are built; the local economies thrive.

In 1400 a book [title of this chapter] was written about which visions could be taken as true and which not. Authorities were not to be challenged; ordinary objects were compelling.

Motives are easy to imagine. That doesn’t mean they just made things up. Many were likely species of dream—or hoaxes and forgeries. Such apparitions were welcome by the church in medieval times. This changed around the time of Reformation; they then became threats church order. Thus Joan of Arc was burned at the stake.

Needless to say, the requests of Virgin Mary were prosaic—e.g. pay your tithes. Never any revelations of knowledge that could only have come from God. Why doesn’t Mary approach the authorities herself? None of the saints criticized the torturing and burning of witches.

There are many parallel with the alien abduction stories. In our time there are as many apparitions of Jesus.

Why would people invent abduction stories? Perhaps simple notoriety. Like claimants of product tampering. Which happen even without therapists encouraging them. As they are for alien abductees.

Ch9, Therapy

Author cites Harvard psychiatrist who interviewed abductees and became convinced—based entirely on the emotional power of those experiences. This is a bad guide to truth. Perhaps they are remembering childhood sexual abuse. Therapy tries to draw them out. But memories can be confabulations too. Claims of alien abduction are similar to ‘recovered memories’ of childhood sexual abuse. A third class of claims come from satanic cults. To some, satanism is any religious belief system other than their own, p159b. Much abuse has been done in the name of religion. Consider five cases. Many such cases don’t hold up to scrutiny. Long example involving man who went to prison for 20 years. Why does all this happen? Perhaps a way for evangelicals to ward off threats of new religious movements, 163b. They have no patience for skeptics.

All three of these classes of ‘recovered memories’ have their own specialists. What is the larger picture? A kind of hysteria; people are suggestive and gullible; the specialists validate their fantasies. In a few cases therapists have been found guilty of negligence. Therapists have no motive to identify simple solutions.

[[ As in much of this book, the lessons aren’t so much about, say, alien abductions per se—it’s about how easily we can fool ourselves, or be misled by others, or manipulated by circumstances, into believing things that aren’t real. ]]

Ch10, The Dragon in My Garage

Suppose author claims to have a dragon in his garage, and you want evidence. But it’s invisible, incorporeal, and so on—no evidence is possible. Even if many people make such claims. Scant evidence is likely faked. The best conclusion is to wonder why so many people are having delusions about invisible dragons. Similar reasoning applies to claims of alien abduction.

Recalls case from 1954 about a physicist who had an elaborate fantasy life of a far future starship pilot. The psychoanalyst found himself being sucked into the fantasy. Until the patient confessed, he made it all up. The two had switched roles.

Consider radio search for ETs. Signals detected from CTA-102, later called a quasar. And in 1967, pulsars. All the reasons scientists are careful before announcing aliens. P180: “I try not to think with my gut. … Really, it’s okay to reserve judgment until the evidence is in.”

We must rely on the evidence. No anecdote is good enough. And there isn’t any verified evidence that couldn’t have been scammed. Photos are faked. Scars are claimed but can’t be seen. Explanations resort to ‘other dimensions’, a notion from physics; borrowing its language without its methods.

What’s needed is critical thinking, even for psychiatrists. P184. As you would when buying a used car. A 1995 TV broadcast of an alien autopsy might easily have been faked. No physical evidence from alien spaceships has ever turned up. Discoveries of real evidence would be momentous.

It’s good to keep an open mind. But evidence must be strong.

Ch11, The City of Grief

The previous 7 chapters were summarized in Parade magazine (a supplement to many Sunday newspapers) in 1993. It provoked much reaction, including misunderstandings. What follows is a representative sampling of mail on the subject…  almost all skeptical of his conclusions, many spouting crazy ideas of their own. Including religious ones.

Ch12, The Fine Art of Baloney Detection

Author recalls parents and how there are moments he thinks perhaps they’re not really dead. There’s something within us ready to believe in life after death. Regardless of whether there’s any sober evidence for it. Why don’t channelers ever provide information otherwise unavailable? Secrets lost to the past? Better the hard truth than the comforting fantasy, 204.4. Examples: JZ Knight and Ramtha. Ramtha offers no details, e.g. 205t, only homilies. –another good example of specific evidence that never turns up. Another, 205b.

JBS Haldene supposed in an infinite universe, everything would happen again… infinite times.

We tell our children fabulous tales to soothe them. They get disabused of Santa Claus, etc; but not the faith of religions. Quotes from Tom Paine, TH Huxley p208. Their thoughts were about religion, but similar remarks can be made about modern advertisements—claims we’re not supposed to question. Paid endorsements corrupt attitudes about scientific objectivity. New Age Expos promote highly questionable products. Psychic healers. Astrologers. Dowsers. Miracle workers.

Scientists employ a baloney detection kit. Tools for skeptical thinking, p210. Skeptical thinking is about constructing a sound argument, and recognizing a fallacious or fraudulent argument. [see here: ]

  • Try to independently confirm ‘facts’
  • Encourage debate on the evidence
  • Arguments from authority carry little weight; at best science has experts.
  • Think of all possible hypotheses to explain the evidence, and think of ways each might be disproven. Keep going until one is left. (Compare the issue of jury trials, where people make up their minds early.)
  • Don’t get attached to a hypothesis just because it’s yours.
  • Wherever possible, quantify.
  • Every chain in an argument must work, not just most of them.
  • Occam’s Razor: choose the simpler of two hypotheses that explain the data equally well.
  • Ask if the question is falsifiable

Key is reliance on carefully designed and controlled experiments. Variables must be controlled. Often experiments must be done “double-blind”.

We must also recognize fallacies of logic and rhetoric—used often in religion and politics, where often two contradictory propositions must be justified.

  • Ad homimen
  • Argument from authority
  • Argument from adverse consequences
  • Appeal to ignorance. (absence of evidence is not evidence of absence)
  • Special pleading
  • Begging the question
  • Observational selection, e.g. counting the hits and forgetting the misses
  • Statistics of small numbers
  • Misunderstanding the nature of statistics
  • Inconsistency
  • Non sequitur
  • Post hoc, ergo propter hoc, i.e. it happened after, so it was caused by.
  • Meaningless question
  • Excluded middle, or false dichotomy
  • Short-term vs. long-term, a subset of excluded middle
  • Slippery slope, also related to excluded middle
  • Confusion of correlation and causation
  • Straw man
  • Suppressed evidence, or half-truths
  • Weasel words

Examples of how the tobacco industry argues against causation from tobacco to lung cancer. And Du Pont with Freon. [[and deniers of climate change.]]  Aren’t low-tar cigarettes a tacit admission…? Data is faked. What does this say about how well free enterprise can police itself? Part of tobacco’s success is due to unfamiliarity with critical thinking and the scientific method.

Ch13, Obsessed with Reality

Epigraph about a man who didn’t worry his ship might sink; he sincerely believed it would not. But from the evidence, his sincerity was not earned (and the ship sank).

There’s a whole range of ideas that are appealing, but not subject to the Baloney Detection Kit by their advocates—long list, p221-2, from astrology and Bermuda triangle to scientology and the remains of Noah’s ark.

Some fundamentalists reject these on the ground of Deuteronomy, 222b—not because they’re false, but because they’re unsuitable for a follower of god. A 12th century writer was more insistent that they just don’t work. It’s always about how good the evidence is. Examples of claimants who fail when examined privately.

And then the long tale of Carlos, a new age figure, supposedly an ancient soul that would take over the body of Jose Luis Alvarez, and their appearance in Australia in 1988, to much media attention. –But it was all an elaborate hoax staged by James Randi with an assistant. The press didn’t do due diligence in checking on his background.

Such fraudsters can be dangerous in situations like faith healing… some people do get spontaneously better, but they likely would have anyway. Placebos often work. Death rates drop before major holidays and events…then rise afterwards. Mark Twain criticized Christian science; cults almost began about JFK, and Elvis.

The Australian press was criticized. But there were still a few believers! What did it all prove? That how readily people are willing to be fooled. And the few random successes sometimes convince charlatans they really do have powers!

Another lesson: if someone is bamboozled long enough, they reject evidence of the bamboozle. [[ Sunk-cost fallacy and religion! ]] it’s too painful to acknowledge we’ve been taken. Thus séance tricksters, and crop circle hoaxers, when they confess, the news doesn’t get out, or believers always say, but what about this other case.

Sending out the same horoscope to 150 people; almost all see themselves in it. The required evidence for sexual abuse, e.g., is often so broad everyone will exhibit some symptom or another.

And these things happen in all nations, not just the US.

Ch14, Antiscience

Epigraph summarizing new age beliefs in which there is no objective truth.

Motivations for doubting the framework of science—science envy; it can be dismissed, p247.

Edward U. Condon and the House Committee on Un-American Activities. Arthur Miller wrote The Crucible. Concon was impugned on the ground that quantum mechanics was ‘revolutionary.’

Quantum mechanics is impossible to understand without the math. Purveyors of religion and new age doctrines often use the same ploy: it takes 15 years to understand all the ‘mysteries’. [[ Jerry Coyne points out that theologians often use this argument. ]] The difference is: we can verify that QM works. And shamans claim their cures work. But do they? Also, science is open to everyone; those who question non-rational authoritarianism are considered disloyal and unfaithful.

Certain kinds of folk knowledge are valuable—but they don’t extend to general principles.

Science has for centuries been attacked by antiscience. That it’s subjective, like history, written by victors to justify themselves—list of historical examples, p252-3. [[ Knowing such examples is another example of being savvy. ]] This subjectivity has been recognized for centuries. Historians have biases, and can try to overcome them. Scientists have biases too, and make mistakes; but it has built-in error-correcting machinery. And science, unlike history, can do experiments.

There’s also the claim that science is arbitrary or reason is an illusion. Ethan Allen—how to argue this without using reason? 255m. [[ Isaac Asimov made the same point, somewhere. ]]

Within the framework of science any scientist can prove another wrong and make sure everyone else knows about it, 255b. Fred Hoyle was so productive of ideas that there were many efforts to prove him wrong, and these led to new areas of knowledge. All the major scientists made serious mistakes. Even author himself: about Venus, Titan, Kuwaiti oil wells.

Arguments about the motivations of this or that scientist are irrelevant if their results work—just as arithmetic is the same everywhere. Examples of arguments against Newton and Darwin. Analogous to Jefferson and Washington owning slaves. Habits of our age that may be considered barbaric in future ages, p259b. Thomas Paine stood out.

Ideas can be misused, but should not be dismissed; who would decide which ideas to suppress? Ideologues do so: Nazi science; Lysenko in Russia, who hampered Soviet science for two generations. And Americans who promote the pseudoscience of creationism, and their efforts to prevent evolutionary theory from being taught in school.

Ch15, Newton’s Sleep

Epigraphs from Blake, and Darwin (about ignorance…)

Blake seems to have meant to criticize the narrowness of Newton’s physics; and it’s true that science rules out, lacking evidence, many wonderful ideas: spirits, souls, angels, and so on. The term scientism is used to condemn the idea that we are nothing but material beings, despite the attraction of psychic or spiritual. Yet there are many things once thought miraculous that we now understand.

Still, life seems unfair; it would be nice if there were some eternal reward, or a second chance. Cultures that believe such things might have a competitive advantage. People want to believe such things. Some people resent the limits of nature that science identifies.

Or that science is too simple-minded or ‘reductionist.’ That it will all be explained by a few laws. Newton’s clockwork universe. That’s just the way the universe is. It used to be thought some ‘vital force’ must exist to explain life. Study of DNA was considered reductionist. But with that we understand are organisms work. Reductionism works especially in physics and chemistry. The universe might have been different, but it isn’t.

Attempts to reconcile science and religion go back to Aquinas. Yet the tenets of religion can be tested scientifically—and this makes believers wary of science. Examples p275. Consider prayers of other religions. Which prayers work, if any? Why are they needed, if god knows all? Why don’t monarchs live long, when so many pray for them? This is data. Those fundamentalist sects that take stands on matters subject to disproof have reason to fear science. If some central tenet of faith were disproved, what would they do? Fortunately some tenets are difficult to prove or disprove. Are there some things it’s better not to know? Author suggests it’s better to know.

Ch16, When Scientists Know Sin

Oppenheimer’s comment about the Manhattan Project; Truman never wanted to see him again. Charges that products of science can be used for evil probably go back to the domestication of fire. It’s a statement about human nature. Some try to have it both ways by attributing evil uses to other agencies. Edward Teller advocated the hydrogen bomb, over Oppenheimer’s concerns. Author warned against prospect of nuclear winter in the 1980s. Teller claimed that he discovered it—but never told anyone. Teller advocated using nuclear bombs for all sorts of purposes. He sold Reagan on the idea of Star Wars. His ideas might be seen as attempting to justify the invention of the hydrogen bomb.

No realm of human endeavor is not morally ambiguous. Aphorisms. Maintain religion. All the slaughter in Joshua and Numbers. You can find something in the bible to justify anything. It is a particular responsibility of scientists to be aware of ethical issues, and issue appropriate warnings.

Ch17, The Marriage of Skepticism and Wonder

It’s impossible to literally tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. We try to weed out bias among jurors. Shouldn’t such biases be accounted for in other areas? We should consider ourselves and our institutions scientifically, with no areas off limits. All societies have incest taboos and belief in supernatural gods of some sort. And a world of myth and metaphor. How can we enjoy the fruits of technology and still believe in creationism or astrology?

True, scientists can sound smug and offensive. Supporters of superstition and pseudoscience are people too. Aren’t their comforts deserving of respect? Or is staying silent harmful to rigorous thinking? A prudent balance takes wisdom.

CSICOP, founded in 1976 by Paul Kurtz, helps challenge credulous reports of every faith healer and visiting alien. And yet the skeptical movement creates polarization, us vs. them. They’re not all crackpots; many are sincerely exploring alternatives to conventional answers to various issues. Yet the defenders dismiss skeptics as atheistic materialists. It’s more important to some that people feel strongly. And the skeptics are a tiny minority.

There are a few ideas from ESP that *might* be true. Author could not endorse Objections to Astrology; some criticisms were beside the point. Astrology remains popular.

Science must be open to any idea, no matter how bizarre or counterintuitive, and at the same time ruthless in its skepticism of all ideas. Creative thinking and skeptical thinking. There are many absurd-sounding ideas that are nevertheless true. Better to be skeptical than credulous. The marriage of these skills should be taught to every child.

Ch18, The Wind Makes Dust

Why should science be hard to learn and hard to teach? Perhaps because science is relatively new. Many cultures made inventions; only ancient Greece developed science, due to numerous factors over 1000 years, p310t.

Yet the early Ionians made no lasting impression. What’s needed are unfamiliar challenges, where fundamental changes are needed. Early Greek science was riddled with error. And science requires experiment. The later idea that the universe was created by one Supreme God was a motive in the development of modern science. Monotheism.

And yet—recall a vignette of Kalahari desert people on a hunt. Forensic tracking skills. Science in action. Like understanding craters on other planets. Techniques passed on from generation to generation. A scientific bent that’s been around for millennia. Skills that enhance survival.

What happened in ancient Greece was the idea of systematic inquiry, and the notion that laws of nature, not capricious gods, govern the world.

So…a proclivity for science is embedded deeply with us, all times and cultures.

Ch19, No Such Thing as a Dumb Question

Stone age tools were the same for long periods of time—techniques were passed down by tradition. When new things must be learned, students complain about relevance, respect for elders diminishes. The skill needed is learning to learn. Young kids ask all sorts of questions; high school seniors memorize ‘facts’. As if asking deep questions is a social blunder. Students must be given tools to think with.

Americans are worse in most subjects than many other countries; why? The larger issue is producing a scientifically literate public. Examples of how few know basic facts 324b. Even more important is understanding *how* we know these things. Religious texts say the earth is flat, and only 6000 years old; and people believe what they want to believe, e.g. about evolution. Children need hands-on experience. American kids need to do more homework. Workers are often incompetent.

Wonders of science. Questions framed to trigger discoveries, p330-3.

Scientists need to talk to general audiences differently than they do other scientists. Speak as simply as possible. Learn which analogies work, etc. List of popular writers, p336

[[ At the same time I’ve begun to wonder if it really matters if modern adults don’t know this stuff? Making a living and being aware might be independent. ]]

Ch20, House on Fire

Parable about a man who escapes his burning house while inside are his sons unaware of the fire…

A short version of previous chapter was published in Parade. He got feedback from students, p339. And from parents, 341. (Note comments about not wanted to stand out, or show up the other kids.) Religious resistance. These issues affect all subjects, of course. Exhibits. Museums—wildly popular. Discusses the film Powers of Ten, and the Sciencenter in Ithaca, as effective ways of teaching science.

Ch21, The Path to Freedom

Only the educated are free.

Recalls slaves, especially in Maryland, 1820, when children separated from their parents, and whipped, as endorsed by the Holy Bible. Illiterate. And the slave boy who became Frederick Douglass, by learning to read.

Books are the key to examining the past. But many Americans are only barely literate. Those with the lowest rates are poorer and less likely to vote. It helps to have parents who read. Good nutrition. Criticizes the book The Bell Curve – which argued that programs to help the poor didn’t work and should be abandoned — for confusing correlation and causation. Programs like Head Start do work.

Tyrants and autocrats understand that learning can be dangerous. Early America had a high literacy rate; now not so much. We bear the costs of illiteracy…

Ch22, Significance Junkies

Television is profit-motivated. Can science programming be successful on TV? Basketball is relatively modern. Can it be used to teach science and math? People absorb sports statistics, and financial news.

Some people are impressed by hot and cold ‘streaks’. But using BDK, such streaks are to be expected. Recall Gilovich. We see streaks and find them meaningful—we’re junkies for significance. Isn’t it harmless to entertain such ideas?

Scientists in TV shows are usually mad, power-crazed. We get credulous shows like In Search Of. (These exhibit much thirst for wonder, but no skepticism.)

The X Files, p374, always choosing the fantastic explanation. Star Trek, which doesn’t come to grips with evolution. Star Wars’ parsec.

Science covers in the news is nil. Author lists several ideas for more science on tv, p377.

[[ An example of how the whole book, and even individual chapters like this, is a grab-bag of assorted ideas not well coordinated. The title here alludes to one specific point, about seeing meaning in randomness, while most of the chapter is about science on TV. ]]

Ch23, Maxwell and the Nerds

Reagan quote: “Why should we subsidize intellectual curiosity?”

Everyone is stereotyped. Even if valid on average, stereotypes are bound to fail in many cases. Recall the bias against women in science. How skeptics tend to be men. How scientists are nerds. There may be reasons why this is sometimes so.

You can’t just order scientists to make some discovery. Suppose in 1860 you imagined a [television], and ordered it to be built. Couldn’t have done it. The technology that made it possible came from James Clerk Maxwell, who was called dafty; he was a nerd. And he was interested in how electricity makes magnetism and vice versa. He developed four equations to describe what was known about both. And what they would be in a vacuum—a changing field of one generates the other. And would propagate at the speed of light. He imagined an ‘aether’ for such waves to travel through. But that was ruled out by Einstein. It’s counterintuitive to think of these fields as not being somehow mechanical. Nature is stranger than human common sense. P392m From these came radio, TV, radar. And much else. Long Feynman quote. Yet Maxwell was never knighted, nor has he been celebrated by film or TV.

Now such electromagnetic signals are being sought from extraterrestrial civilizations. But congress pulled funds for SETI after one year. Yet again and again, discoveries made by scientists have led to widespread technological and medical advances. While politicians like Proxmire make fun of such proposals. The failure of the SSC was due in part to the scientists not making a comprehensible, easy to understand case for it. And the free market would never fund most of these discoveries. No one can predict which research will have practical value. Cutting off basic research funding is like eating the seed corn.

Ch24, Science and Witchcraft

The 1939 world’s fair presented a vision of the future reached through science. But it was oriented to consumer products; it could have been more, with some basic science, as a way of thinking.

50 years later, author wonders if Americans know how to keep their freedom. 1798, the Alien and Sedition Acts. Criticism of Federalist officials was a crime. The French and Irish were seen as threats, undeserving of equal rights. Then there was 1942 and the Japanese; now there’s a war on drugs.

Recall again the witch hunts. In 1631 von Spee wrote a list of charges against those trials—the list follows, for 4 full pages. Whatever happens is proof of witchcraft. And eventually the accusers are accused themselves… A few, like von Spee, protested. Eventually the witch hunts stopped, and not abolished by the church until 1816.

Quote p413 about the witch mania:

Why was it resolutely supported by conservatives, monarchists, and religious fundamentalists? Why opposed by liberals, Quakers and followers of the Enlightenment? If we’re absolutely sure that our beliefs are right, and those of others wrong; that we are motivated by good, and others by evil; that the King of the Universe speaks to us, and not to adherents of other faiths; that it is wicked to challenge conventional doctrines or to ask searching questions; that our main job is to believe and obey—then the witch mania will recur in its infinite variations down to the time of the last man.

Recall Goebbels, and Orwell’s 1984, how they tried to rewrite history. Now [as the author writes] we have the sudden demonization, 1991, of Saddam Hussein. And in the war on drugs, where evidence is distorted and invented. And now with changes in media – fewer newspapers; control of TV by a few corporations, etc. 416t. “It’s hard to tell how it’s going to turn out.”

Nationalism is rife in many parts of the world. Science is international. Note how often scientists are among social critics. Linus Pauling. Edward Teller. Again, the powers of science must come with ethical focus.

[[ how relevant is this chapter in the age of Donald Trump! ]]

Ch25, Real Patriots Ask Questions

The methods of science can be used to improve social, political, and economic systems. Every change of policy is an experiment. Policy can be tested; it would be a waste to ignore results of social experiments because they seem to be ideologically unpalatable, 423b.

Yet humans tend to make the same mistakes over and over. Many of the founding fathers were science oriented. Jefferson described himself as a scientist. He helped spread democracy around the world. Conservatives denounced his Declaration, for its ideas of rights for all, the idea that people could lead themselves. And yet people are easily misled. Thus the balancing of powers. Later he advocated term limits for the president, and a bill of rights. Where are the likes of Jefferson and the other founders today?

Freedoms of expression are broad. There is no mandatory or forbidden ideology. Quotes from narrow-minded abortion critics p430: “Let a wave of intolerance wash over you… Yes, hate is good… Our goal is a Christian nation…We are called by God to conquer this country…We don’t want pluralism.”

But our system has error-correction mechanisms; the exchange of ideas, the criminal justice system.

Once people were tortured for doubting religious leaders; gradually Christianity became more tolerant. The Bill of Rights decoupled religion from the state. The establishment clause.

With rights comes the responsibilities to use them.

Last lines, p434

In every country, we should be teaching our children the scientific method and the reasons for a Bill of Rights. With it comes a certain decency, humility and community spirit. In the demon-haunted world that we inhabit by virtue of being human, this may be all that stands between us and the enveloping darkness.


Posted in Book Notes, Science | Comments Off on Carl Sagan’s THE DEMON-HAUNTED WORLD: Science As a Candle in the Dark

Intuitive Theories about Intuitive Theories

I’m about to read a book (by Andrew Shutlman) about “intuitive theories” and before I do I’m going to write down my take on intuitive theories, since the idea of them has been an occasional theme in these posts, and I don’t think I’ve ever written directly on the subject. And I want to record my thoughts so far before they are overlaid by the new book.

As usual I’ll use bullets to mark distinct points.

  • Intuitive theories are notions people have about how the world works that are seemingly correct, but are upon examination wrong.
  • An example is that heavy objects fall faster than light objects. They don’t (disregarding the effects of atmospheric friction).
  • Another example is if the starship Enterprise is flying past, it must making a swooshing sound.
  • Another example is that spaceships (in Star Wars) maneuver in space as jet fights do in the atmosphere.
  • Another example is that any moving object will eventually come to a rest.
  • Another example is the earth seems obviously flat.
  • Closely related are misconceptions taught us by movies and TV, where effects are enhanced for the sake of drama or spectacle. In ’70s TV action shows especially, whenever a car crashes, it explodes. In TV and films for decades, fist fights are amazingly loud (in contrast to fist fights in films of the ’30s, say, that seem remarkably wimpy by comparison).
  • Intuitive theories arise because our experience of the world is limited to a small slice of time and space, compared to the planet or the entire universe. We see only a small part of the electromagnetic spectrum; we experience moving objects only at certain scales and in certain environments.
  • To some extent intuitive theories are heuristics, in that they are valid in many of these ordinary circumstances.
  • But the point of understanding them is that they are demonstrably not true in general, in all circumstances, and scientific experiment, for example, can demonstrate so.
  • Nevertheless these notions are so powerful they can trump logical demonstration of their invalidity, just as for flat-earthers their intuitive sense that the earth goes on forever in all directions is so powerful that trumps any evidence that the earth is in fact a sphere.
  • Science is the methodology for determining which theories are true and which are not.
  • And by extension (is my own thesis) science fiction serves an analogous function in suggesting that culture, or even reality, is not necessarily what you think it is.
  • Most intuitive theories are benign, I suspect, at least to the extent that it doesn’t matter what people believe as long as it doesn’t interfere with their making a living in the broadest sense–living their lives, having families, participating in their cultures. Whether spaceships make noise as they fly by doesn’t pertain to any of that.
  • On the other hand intuitive theories can be dangerous or malicious if they lead to behavior dangerous to the individual or to others. People who don’t “believe” in germs, for example, because they can’t be seen, might seek “alternative” medicine that appeals to their sense of essence or symbol.
  • And from there the topic leads to the cognitive biases and perceptual illusions that affect us all, but that can be overcome with conscious awareness.

Also: The idea that certain attitudes about how the world works arose because they were evolutionary successful. They *work* even though they’re not actually true.

Also ideas from Kahneman and Haidt about instinctive thinking, our quick take on what we experience, before the more deliberate, slow thinking takes over to draw valid conclusions. Haidt, recall, said that humans aren’t instinctive rationalists; we’re instinctive lawyers, making up our minds quickly based on intuitive notions, then using rationality to justify those conclusions. (The methodologies of science are the correctives to supporting invalid conclusions, when wants to understand the truth and not just win an argument.)

The book by Matthew Hutson cheekily admits the existence of various “irrational beliefs” (which may or may not be precisely what Shtulman considers as “intuitive theories”) but then suggests we live with them and let them make us happy. (E.g. you can understand that a lucky charm doesn’t *really* improve your luck, but if carrying it around with you assuages some insecure corner of you mind, then go for it.)

Posted in Psychology, Science | Comments Off on Intuitive Theories about Intuitive Theories

But What’s at Stake? Hal Clement’s Needle

Needle (Astounding Science Fiction, May-June 1959; expanded to book form: Doubleday, 222 pages, $2.50 in hardcover, 1950)

by Hal Clement

Hal Clement (legal name Harry Stubbs) was one of the stable of science fiction writers developed by John W. Campbell in the pages of Astounding magazine in the 1940s. His first story was “Proof” in the June 1942 issue and his next 10 stories appeared in the magazine throughout the ‘40s. He’s most famous for the 1954 novel Mission of Gravity and his reputation rests on its sort of hard science fiction: alien environments rigorously extrapolated from known physical principles. (Others in this vein were Iceworld, 1953, and Cycle of Fire, 1957.)

His first novel is a little different. This is Needle, serialized in Astounding and expanded to book form the following year for Doubleday. And published, incidentally, as a juvenile, in the “Doubleday Young Moderns” series, despite, as SFE notes, certain themes. (The edition I’m reading, and using pagination from, is a 1974 trade paperback reprint in Avon/Equinox’s SF Rediscovery series, with an odd cover illustration depicting two Greek-like gods fighting in the clouds. Photo upper right.)


The premise is that a good guy alien, Hunter, is pursuing across space a bad guy alien, Killer, and they both emerge from FTL in their separate ships near Earth and crash into the ocean just offshore of an island near Tahiti. The aliens are symbionts and must inhabit other bodies to survive. Hunter occupies a 15-year-old boy lying on the beach, makes himself aware to the boy, and together they engage on a detective hunt to identify what other person, on this small island, is harboring the fugitive Killer. It’s like searching for a needle in a haystack—except that the needle is disguised as a piece of hay.


This is a decent mystery/detective story, in that a quarry must be found, various likely candidate hosts are identified, and circumstances eliminate some or suggest others, until the resolution uses clues we likely haven’t noticed to identify a previously unsuspected suspect. The greatest flaw is that the stakes are arbitrary—the bad guy is bad because we’re told so—while apparently the symbionts are if anything beneficial to their hosts, not harmful. What would have happened if the quarry hadn’t been found? Nothing at all, apparently. It’s a matter of alien justice, only.

Summary and Comments

  • The opening pages describe Hunter and his ship, emerging from FTL and crashing into a planet into shallow water. The ship is just 20 inches by 2 ft (our omniscient author informs us), and Hunter weights just 4 pounds. He has a companion animal called a “perit” which has not survived. (And nothing much is made of what this companion did; perhaps serve as a surrogate host during space travel.) We’re told how Hunter is a metazoan but with extremely small cells; it can reshape itself, e.g. exuding pseudopods, and insinuate itself into other creatures, like a passing shark, which Hunter then kills by depriving it of oxygen.
  • The dead shark washes up on the beach. Hunter observes bipeds approach and play in the water. Hunter disguises himself as a jellyfish to approach them…
    • Up to this point the narrative does a decent job in describing things from an alien point of view, including some things we recognize as ordinary parts of our world that the alien doesn’t quite understand. (There’s a subgenre of such stories – Asimov’s “Green Patches” comes to mind—of SF writers doing this for better or worse.) But at this point the author gives up and tells us…
  • One of the boys is Robert Kinnaird, 15-years-old, and his friends are having a farewell picnic; summer is ending and Robert is heading back to school on the mainland. As the boys sleep on the beach, Hunter creeps across the sand and enters the boy’s foot, moving through his muscles and organs, settling in the abdomen. He reminds himself of his kind’s ancient law: Do nothing that can harm your host!
    • The prose is rather clinical, e.g. page 22 as the boys part: “They were rather silent now, with the awkwardness natural to their ages when faced by a situation which adults would treat either emotionally or with studied casualness.” And throughout, Clement is fond of semicolons. And it’s third-person omniscient; note how the author informs us of the thoughts of both the doctor and the father, on pp56-57.
  • We get some background on Hunter’s race, a race of symbionts that typically live on good, open terms with their hosts. A minority who occupy hosts covertly are regarded as evil and must be terminated—like Hunter’s quarry.
  • Robert returns to school in Massachusetts, and Hunter is inadvertently carried along, panicked that his quarry is now far behind him. Months pass. Hunter learns the boy’s language by observing his physics class.
    • Typically of SF stories of this era, aliens are given the task of learning the humans’ language, rather than vice versa, and do so with remarkable speed (necessary to plot); Clement at least allows this to happen over a period of months.
  • Hunter decides to reveal himself to Robert, which he does by taking control of the boy’s hands, then eyes, eventually projecting words across Robert’s field of vision
    • Robert is initially freaked out by feeling his fingers twitch, and so on, but once communication begins, accepts with remarkable equanimity that an alien creature has secreted itself inside his body. SFE’s Clement entry notes that “This internal symbiosis is a highly loaded theme” but that the story is “told without any of the necessary queasy resonance.” My thought in particular was how an adolescent, especially, might feel angst about some alien, or anyone, witnessing all his bodily functions.
    • Robert also discovers a useful function of his symbiont. In his initial panic he races down the stairs and cuts open his arm, and sees that Hunter has the ability to seal the cut by extruding some glistening substance onto his skin. This puzzles the school nurse! A couple of times later in the book Hunter similarly rescues Bob from serious injury.
  • Robert (Bob) learns to speak out loud to communicate with Hunter. He quickly appreciates Hunter’s situation, and thus the need to return to the island, without any excuse to leave school to do so. In a convenient yet plausible bit of plotting, Bob’s distraction from his schoolwork on this matter leads to his dismissal from school for a rest leave back home.
  • And so Bob (and Hunter) return to his island. At this point we’re at page 61 of a 207 page novel. The bulk of the book consists of…
    • Hunter trying to identify just where offshore the alien ships crashed, and therefore which humans might have been occupied by the quarry.
    • Bob meeting up with friends Kenny, Norman, Hugh, and Kenneth. They spend much time swimming, and exploring the southern edge of the island behind the reef. Bob can’t help but think these friends, on the beach with him that day, are the most likely hosts for Killer.
    • Meanwhile, Bob’s father is busy with a large construction project; the island’s economy rests on creating petroleum products from local plants.
    • Bob confides to the local doctor—who, as was Bob, is remarkably unperturbed by the idea of an alien symbiont. (It’s as if he was officer on some Trek starship, told of an incredible circumstance, accepting it immediately, and dealing with it, because that’s his job. To be fair, Hunter has Bob and the doctor hold hands to 20 minutes to establish contact between the doctor and the alien.)
  • And all of this happens over the space of two or three days, because one of the prime suspects of hosting Killer is about to leave the island, and because Bob, who’s arrived on a Friday, is due to attend the local school on Monday.
    • One by one Bob’s friends seem to be ruled out; they’ve acted in ways a symbiont would not let them. Who is left?
    • Bob doesn’t figure it out; his symbiont Hunter does. It’s…. SPOILER … Bob’s father. Hunter verifies this by emerging from Bob’s body in the middle of the night and oozes into the sleeping Mr. Kinnaird’s room, and makes contact with Killer, in a stand-off.
    • Hunter explains his reasoning to Bob the next morning: he’s observed Mr K. becoming more and more careless over the past few days, with several examples cited from scenes we’ve witnessed on the dock and at the construction site and perhaps not paid close enough attention to.
    • The rationale is that Killer, inside Mr. K’s body, has been protecting him from casual injuries just as Hunter has Bob, and this has made Mr. K less careful as he moves about the docks and the work site.
      • I don’t think this is plausible – if I cut myself and it healed amazing fast, would I become more careless around knives assuming I would heal quickly again? And did Hunter really notice this trend over the space of two or three days?
  • Stalemate? The climax comes as Bob arranges an elaborate stunt, which involves setting a fire that threatens an explosion, to apparently threaten both himself and his father. The reasoning is that the Killer will flee Mr. K’s body if there’s risk to itself.
  • The scheme works and Bob douses the Killer’s bloblike body to kill it.
  • The Asimovian chapter titles (including “Signal,” “Answer,” “Stage…”, “Setting…” and “Players”, and especially “Slip!” and “And Fall!”) helpfully mark key points of plot. “Problem One” was identifying Killer’s host. “Problem Two” was ridding the host of Killer. The final chapter is called “Problem Three”. What would this problem be? Why, fairly obviously, it’s what does Hunter do now? He has no way of leaving Earth to return to his own world. That’s obvious, so perhaps the actual problem is whether Bob is willing to continue hosting him. And without a moment’s hesitation, Bob agrees, and he needs Hunter to concoct an explanation for why he started that fire. The end.


I was reminded somewhere recently that one way of thinking about a story is to consider, what are the stakes? Why should we care? And so my problem with this story is why there is such urgency to find Killer and remove it from its host. We gather that Mr. Kinnaird was never aware of hosting an alien; nor have we been given any reason to think the alien Killer has been manipulating the human to carry off some evil plan. We haven’t even been told that Killer at any time killed anyone; his name begs his evil status. (Or did I miss something?) What was the problem with both Hunter and Killer remaining in their hosts? If anything, these symbionts are beneficial to their hosts, in that they can protect their hosts from bodily injury.

Credit given for Bob’s having the presence of mind to wonder if Hunter is telling him the truth about who he and his quarry are. Mightn’t Killer tell Mr. K an identical story, or some cover story to justify his presence? Yet, though we suspect once or twice that Mr K is aware of, or being manipulated by, his symbiont, we gather by the end of the book that he was entirely unaware of his invader. (I noted a line on page 127, which I thought might be foreshadowing, as Mr. K observes his son Bob napping: “Mr. Kinnaird approached silently and looked down at the boy for some time with an expression that defied interpretation.” Perhaps this is just haphazard omniscient narrative from Clement.)

Much is made of Bob’s not having opportunities to speak with Hunter, since doing so requires talking out loud—but all he has to do is go to the bathroom. Except characters in fiction of this era didn’t go to the bathroom.

The endless details about the geography of the island, how the boys move back and forth across it, get wearying. You have the impression the author lived on such an island and is using it exactly as the model for the nameless island in this book. (Though the bios at SFE and Wikipedia indicate no such connection; Clement spent WWII in Europe.) And the author also seems to know a lot about industrial construction!

I should note that Clement wrote a sequel years later, Through the Eye of a Needle (1978), which I’ve not read. So perhaps he addressed some of these lingering issues there.


Despite a couple gaps in plausibility, this is a good example of Campbellian era problem-solving science fiction. Situations are set up, and problems are introduced that must be solved within the constraints of the situations. How does Hunter establish contact with the human he is occupying? How do they find who’s hosting Hunter’s quarry, with no way to tell externally, only by circumstance? This is the kind of story that invites the reader to solve these problems before the characters do, as in any good mystery novel.

Posted in Book Notes, science fiction | Comments Off on But What’s at Stake? Hal Clement’s Needle

Things Are As They Are: George R. Stewart’s EARTH ABIDES

Here is one of the best science fiction novels of all time. It’s about the entire world, and implicitly the entire human race, and it’s as timely as ever as, for one reason or another, humanity faces the realization that its indefinite survival on planet Earth is not guaranteed.

The novel is EARTH ABIDES by George R. Stewart. It was published in 1949 and was Stewart’s only SF novel (though he wrote a couple earlier novels about natural catastrophes, including one about a storm that inspired the US National Weather Service to give storms names). It won the first International Fantasy Award ( in a year preceding the advent of the Hugos. (Stewart never wrote any other science fiction, and this novel wasn’t published as science fiction, but was later embraced by genre critics, much as the famous novels by Huxley and Orwell were.)

It’s about the aftermath of a worldwide plague that kills off virtually all of humanity, all but a tiny number of people who are naturally immune. We gather this number might be a dozen or two in any large city. It follows one particularly character, Isherman Williams, Ish, as he returns to his city, which happens to be Berkeley, California, from a stay in the mountains, and discovers that the world seems deserted.

That is, the story begins after the initial catastrophe is mostly over, the part of it presumably involving mass panic and people dying in horrible ways. In this way it resembles similar stories, like Wyndham’s THE DAY OF THE TRIFFIDS or the debut episode of The Twilight Zone, “Where Is Everybody?” (and numerous others I’m sure; there was a Martian Chronicle like this too), which invites the personal fantasy of having the entire world to one self, and the temptation of imagining what to do with it, despite the growing panic of not knowing how the world got this way.

The book then follows the rest of Ish’s life. And it does so in varying manners of scope and pace in a way that gives the novel a multi-dimensional impact.

Here’s a bulleted summary with comments indented one tab.

World Without End

In a 345-page book (I’m using the pagination of the 2006 Del Rey trade paperback edition), the first part, “World Without End,” is 127 pages. It follows Ish from day to day as he realizes what has happened and starts to make a new life for himself.

  • He is living in the mountains, is struck by a rattlesnake, and lies in bed in his cabin recovering for the several days. (Perhaps that is what gives him immunity from the plague.)
  • Recovered, he drives to town, finds no one; finds a week-old newspaper that tells of a disease sweeping the US, leaving 25-35% of the population already dead.
  • He drives down the highway to the city, in the Bay Area, and to his parents’ home on San Lupo Drive.
    • A Stewart website,, says the author’s actual house was on San Luis Road, in Berkeley; San Lupo is fictional, but the novel seems to base its house on the actual one. There’s a photo in the scroll at the bottom of the page, linked here:
    • A lot of the older homes in the Oakland and Berkley hills are on narrow lots and so are tall, and/or deep. The location is about a mile north of the UC Berkeley campus.
  • He walks the neighborhood, drives through town, finds only a handful of people, crazy or half-dead. He starts across the deserted Bay Bridge before deciding it’s pointless, and returns home.
  • Ish is remarkably calm about all this, ready to be a spectator to observe what happens to the world in the absence of man. He considers his own qualifications: he has will to live; has always been solitary; did not experience the disaster firsthand. And is not superstitious.
    • During these wanderings has passes through a park with tall rocks, that will become significant later.
  • He packs his station wagon, befriends a dog, and drives cross country, over the Tehachapi Pass, across the Mojave Desert, into Arizona. He encounters an isolated family of timid Negroes. He eventually reaches New York.
  • The city is empty. He meets a couple who hear his car approaching: Milt Abrams and Ann, two random survivors now living together, drinking warm martinis. Ish stays a night but finds them vacant, and departs.
  • Soon he’s back home, gathering food from stores. The water still flows; a public library is nearby; the lights stay on…for a while, then fade.
  • Weeks pass. He reads the Bible—Ecclesiastes, Solomon—pondering the meaning of life. And then he sees smoke from a chimney down the hill. And finds the house, and meets a woman there, Emma. After only a few minutes inside, they embrace.
  • She moves in with him. They talk of having a child. Rat populations explode, and they worry about plague. Emma knows the time will come for her child…and reveals to him, very indirectly, her secret – that she’s half black. It doesn’t matter to him.
  • Ish visits the university library, overwhelmed by its preservation of civilization. He decides to better keep track of time, and uses a surveyor’s transit to follow sunsets to the west across the bay. When sunset reaches furthest south and begins moving back north, that’s the solstice. He resolves to wait for the following solstice and then mark the end of Year One, somehow. Things aren’t finished; the world is without end.


Throughout the book are italicized passages that reveal what has happened outside of Ish’s experience—mostly about what is happening, or will happen, to the world at large, without humanity’s maintenance or interference.

The opening lines of the book are one of these passages, page 3: “…and the government of the United States of America is herewith suspended, except in the District of Columbia, as of the emergency. […] The West Oakland Hospitalization Center has been abandoned. Its functions, including burials at sea, are now concentrated at the Berkeley Center.” And so on.

Page 8: An encyclopedic passage about how populations of animals fluctuate, expanding until being struck by plague. Page 10: How a rodent on Christmas Island went extinct.

Then numerous passages about how the world as maintained by humans will deteriorate. About how pet dogs will die in their houses or merge with their wild counterparts. About how cats will die in their houses or not survive contact with wildcats. About grasses and flowers, gardens withering untended. What will happen to various livestock. Later, how the city decays, how cars will decay. In these we see how the Earth itself is as much a character in this novel as is Ish, as Connie Willis points out in her introduction to this edition. And these passages anticipate Alan Weisman’s striking 2007 book THE WORLD WITHOUT US (, which remorselessly describes how the artifacts of humanity will decay in days, years, and thousands of years after humanity’s hypothetical disappearance.

The farthest perspective is this from page 17:

High overhead, moon and planets and stars swung in their long smooth curves. They had no eyes, and they saw not; yet from the time when man’s fancy first formed within him, he has imagined that they looked down upon the earth.

And if so we may still imagine, and if they looked down upon the earth that night, what did they see?

Then we must say that they saw no change. Thought smoke from stacks and chimneys and campfire no longer rose to dim the atmosphere, yet still smoke rose from volcanoes and from forest fires. Seen even from the moon, the planet that night must have shown only with its accustomed splendor—no bright, no dimmer.

Quick Years

Stewart then shifts into fast forward mode to show what happens to Ish and Emma and others they meet, over the next 20 years, in 19 pages.

  • At the end of the first year, at a small park near their house where tall rocks lean against each other, Ish chisels out the number 1, to mark the first year: the Year of the Baby.
    • Personal aside: as I read this I had a frisson: could he be talking about Indian Rock Park? It was a place I had just visited, with my family, about six months before I reread this novel (which was about a year ago now). It’s a small park of enormous boulders now surrounded by homes in the Berkeley Hills; there are several similar parks in the area, presumably outcrops of rocks the home developers didn’t figure worth clearing. (Various websites devoted to George R. Stewart confirm this as the park described in the book.)
    • Here’s my blogpost about the visit: (Which I’ve made public.) And my photo; the San Francisco skyline is in the distance.
    • And here’s the official website:
  • Back to the book: The years pass, each one chiseled into the rock and given a name. The year of the garden; the year of the fires. Wildfires in northern California were as common then as now (it’s just that now they’re so much more destructive, since humans have been building further into fire-prone areas).
  • A man, Ezra, visits them a while, departs, and returns two years later with two wives, a situation presented matter-of-factly. [[ This was an issue in DAY OF THE TRIFFIDS too. ]] Another couple appears, and stays. They become a small tribe of seven adults, four children, and a half-wit, Evie.
  • They deal with cattle, mountain lions. Ish tries conducting church, for the children’s’ sake; but Ish is a skeptic, and thinks of it as a sham, and ends it.
  • An old man passing through brings them an epidemic, and three children die.
  • Wood carving becomes a fad. In Year 16, the first children get married.
  • In Year 17, a nearby house collapses. (Recall Alan Weisman. As a homeowner myself, I completely sympathize with the idea that, without regular, unending maintenance, a house might simply decay in a decade or two and fall down.)
  • Year 20: a big earthquake, and more houses fall down.
  • Year 21: One boy, Joey, who’s bright but no good at play, learns to read.

The Year 22

This middle section is the longest in the book, running from page 147 to page 304. Having employed three different narrative strategies, from the Stapledonian to the single point-of-view, Stewart now focuses on a single dramatic year in the lives of Ish and his kin.

The epigraph to this section, on page 147, concerns those Europeans who (in the early settlements of America) defected from their settlements to become Indians, while no Indians left their villages to settle with the Europeans. Exactly the same point was made in Sebastian Junger’s 2016 book TRIBE ( to try to understand why “primitive” society is, to many, so much more attractive than “modern” society.

The events of this year:

  • Ish ponders the future and thinks about who might someday lead their tribe. He focuses on Joey, the smart one.
  • The water runs slow; they discover the reservoir is running low.
  • Two boys fix up a jeep and leave on an expedition east.
  • The tribe grows. Ish resumes teaching. He realizes the power of holding a hammer, which is regarded as a holy relic [[ recall LORD OF THE FLIES, the conch! ]]
  • The two boys return, bringing an older but dirty man, Charlie. They’d reached Chicago. The tribe become suspicious of Charlie, a threat to their order, for various reasons, and vote to execute him. And they do.
  • Another disease strikes, perhaps typhoid fever. Ish succumbs, but survives, and learns that – SPOILER, since this is the most emotional scene in the book – among others, Joey, his hope, has died.
  • Ish spends weeks convalescing. He goes for a walk, considers disposing of the hammer, but does not. He walks to the campus, and in the library finds a book he once read about climate: “Climatic change was not a practical problem,” he thinks, and puts the book back.
  • Ish becomes disconsolate. Perhaps Joey may not have been able to change anything. The Tribe won’t rebuild civilization. They will run out of supplies, or ammunition, or matches.
  • He decides: no more school. Instead, he teaches them how to make bows and arrows. The children are fascinated and competitive. Ish takes solace in that they have an invention to fall back on when there are no more rifles.
  • The year ends, and they simply name it, Year 22.


There are several in this section too, some of them thoughts about human society that might well be Ish’s:

  • Page 190, how long the bridges will last.
  • Page 210, how old boundaries, like fences, give way to landmarks.
  • Page 219, education, from a child’s point of view: Civ-vil-eye-za-shun! That is what Uncle Ish talked about. There are lots of quail by the stream today. Two-and-six? I know that! Why should I say it to him? Two-and-nine? That is hard. It is more than my fingers. It is the same as “a lot.”
  • Page 231, what happens to a culture when its promised one is gone. Between the plan and the fulfillment stands always the frail barrier of a human life.
  • Page 233, Ish muses about being treated like a god, receiving sacrifices.
  • Page 293, How people yearn to escape from daily life to go fishing, or camping, or sit in a cabin or on a beach. What a strange thing then is this great civilization, that no sooner have men attained it than they seek to flee from it! […] Why do the legends look back toward some golden day of simplicity? Must we not think then that this great civilization grew up, not by men’s desires, but rather by Forces and Pressures. Step by step, as villages grew larger, men must give up the free wandering life of berry picking and seed gathering and tie themselves to the security (and drudgery) of agriculture… Yes—this is the key.

Quick Years 2

A shorter, 10 page fast forward, taking Ish into old age.

  • Adult members of the tribe die.
  • In Year 34 they meet another group north of the bay and agree to merge, for the sake of wives.
  • Em dies; Ish marries a young woman from the other tribe and has more children.
  • In Year 43 Ish is too tired to carve the rock and given the year a name, and the tradition dies.
  • A fire ravages the city for a week.
  • Then Ezra dies, the last of the original tribe’s adults, and Ish realizes he is the last American.

The Last American

This final section is just 30 pages long.

  • One day a young man, Jack, comes to Ish, showing off his bow and arrow. Rifles can’t be trusted. The boy shows his red and white arrows, with points made from different “corns” (i.e. coins) with pictures on them of the Old Ones, who perhaps made the hills and the Americans. Red arrows are for one kind of hunting, white for another. Why?, Ish asks. The boy replies that there is no why, things just are; “It is like the sun that keeps on going round the earth, but naturally no one knows why, or asks why. Why should there be a why?” Ish is tempted to respond, but stops himself. It doesn’t matter; superstitions will arise.
  • Ish asks the boy, are you happy? Jack responds, “Yes, I am happy. Things are as they are, and I am part of them.”
  • Then one morning there’s a fire and the entire group flees, Jack bringing the hammer. They huddle by the rocks as fire sweeps through the neighborhood. Now the second world is gone too, Ish thinks. They hike to the campus and camp there.
  • In the morning they head west. Ish is weak, but clear-headed enough to realize he is dying. They go along the East Shore Highway, US 40 [now Interstate 80/580] and head out onto the bridge. Ish has a seizure, wakes to the boys appealing to him for some decision—about who should get the hammer. He indicates Jack. He sees the hills across the bay, and remembers the passage, “Men go and come, but earth abides.”


  • Page 326: The cuts in the hills and the long embankments for the roads—they will still show as narrow valleys and ridges even after ten thousand years have passed. The great masses of concrete that were the dams—they will remain like the dikes of the granite itself. It goes on: three fires will destroy the rest: of rust, of decay, of flame.
  • Page 331, sounding Biblical: Again, in that day each little tribe will live by itself and to itself and go its own way, and their differences will soon be more than they were even in the first days of Man, according to the accidents of survival and of place…

Notes and other quotes

  • The main character, commentators note, is almost certainly named after Ishi, a Yahi Indian who emerged from the California mountains and into the modern world in 1911. His story was documented by the anthropologist Alfred Kroeber, father of Ursula K. Le Guin (who grew up in Berkeley).
  • If a primary theme of the book is the almost welcoming of a return to a simple way of the life, the counterpart to that is the idea that knowledge, rationalism, escape from superstition (e.g. culminating in Ish’s atheism) are luxuries available only to individuals in a large civilization that can support them. Whereas in a tribalistic way of life, they are unneeded and perhaps counter-productive.
  • P284.4: “Perhaps rationalism—like so much else—had only been one of the luxuries which men could afford under civilization.”
  • P311.8: “Perhaps the brilliant ones were not suited to survive.”
  • On the primary theme: commentaries like Wikipedia point out the reflection of Biblical themes in this novel – the recovery from the global catastrophe, etc. But I see both this novel, and the parables of Genesis, as reflecting the larger issue of the evolution of human culture, in particular the fallout of the transition from the hunter-gatherer way of life through the invention of agriculture to the sedentary way of life, some 10-12,000 years ago. Anthropologists and historians have increasingly recognized the inherent dilemma; Jared Diamond, in GUNS, GERMS, AND STEEL (, called the Neolithic Revolution “the worst mistake in the history of the human race.” I wonder if perhaps the yearning for the simplicity of life before agriculture is what motivates not only the parables of Genesis, but the eternal notion that things were better in the “good old days” (an idea cited in “Death Sentence,” one of the EARLY ASIMOV stories!) all the way up to MAGA.
  • And so this dilemma is surely as profound as any issue in literature: has the expansion of our species and our knowledge of ourselves and the universe through science and rationalism been worth it? Or is it better to be happy as part of a tribe and know nothing of the world? “Yes, I am happy. Things are as they are, and I am part of them.”

One quibble

The quibble is about Del Rey’s cover blub: “The Award-Winning Futuristic Classic.” There’s nothing futuristic about this novel; it’s set in the author’s present and was published in 1949, and the events in it could easily happen now as then.

Of course, this novel is science fiction because science fiction isn’t merely about speculative futures; science fiction is about the humanity’s place in and understanding of a presumably comprehensible universe that objectively exists independent of human desires and motivations. And in the balancing of its portrait of human nature as expressed in its characters and emerging new culture, with the depiction of a planet that is bound to endure whether humanity survives or not, EARTH ABIDES addresses this broadest project of science fiction as well as any novel I know.

Posted in Book Notes, science fiction | Comments Off on Things Are As They Are: George R. Stewart’s EARTH ABIDES

Links and Comments: Secrets of Success, the 2010s, Gibson’s future, History v. Narratives

Here are a few items from recent papers.

1) Nicholas Kristof: The Four Secrets of Success.

Which are:

1. Take a class in economics and in statistics
2. Connect to a cause larger than yourself.
3. Make out.
4. Escape your comfort zone.

By #3 he means to meet lots of people before making any life decisions. Numbers 4 and 2 are familiar and self-explanatory. I endorse #1 but with an even broader scope: take a class, or read a book, about logical fallacies, about cognitive biases, to understand how advertising and politics works, to understand how people make arguments, to understand how every one of us is susceptible to confirmation bias and other motivated thinking. (For that matter, in addition to economics, learn elementary civics, a subject apparently no longer taught in elementary school.)

2) Michio Kakutani, The 2010s Were the End of Normal

Nice summary, including this now-familiar history of similar episodes in US history:

Although the United States was founded on the Enlightenment values of reason, liberty and progress, there has long been another strain of thinking at work beneath the surface — what Philip Roth called “the indigenous American berserk,” and the historian Richard Hofstadter famously described as “the paranoid style.”

It’s an outlook characterized by a sense of “heated exaggeration, suspiciousness, and conspiratorial fantasy,” Hofstadter wrote in his 1964 essay, and focused on perceived threats to “a nation, a culture, a way of life.” Its language is apocalyptic (Mr. Trump’s “American carnage” is a perfect example); its point of view, extremist. It regards its opponents as evil and ubiquitous, while portraying itself, in Hofstadter’s words, as “manning the barricades of civilization.”

The “paranoid style,” Hofstadter observed, tends to occur in “episodic waves.” The modern right wing, he wrote, feels dispossessed: “America has been largely taken away from them and their kind, though they are determined to try to repossess it.” In their view, “the old American virtues have already been eaten away by cosmopolitans and intellectuals,” and national independence has been “destroyed by treasonous plots, having as their most powerful agents not merely outsiders and foreigners but major statesmen seated at the very centers of American power.”

One well-known eruption of the “paranoid style” occurred in the 1950s with the anti-Communist hysteria led by Joseph McCarthy. It would surface again in the 1960s with the emergence on the national stage of George C. Wallace, who ran a presidential campaign fueled by racism and white working-class rage.

And then the religious right, having lost on civil rights, took on abortion, until then a non-issue. It worked.

3) This profile of William Gibson includes this famous remark:

“The future is already here,” he has said. “It’s just not very evenly distributed.”

4) History vs. narratives. Women Have Always Had Abortions, by Lauren MacIvor Thompson.

Concluding with:

The mortality rate dropped significantly, from about 70 patient deaths per 100,000 cases before the ruling to 1.3 after the [Roe v. Wade] decision. It has now become statistically safer to obtain an abortion in the United States than it is to undergo pregnancy or give birth.

Scholars have worked tirelessly to uncover this long history and make sense of it. Nevertheless, false histories of abortion dominate contemporary politics, selling Americans on a past that never existed and creating the possibility of a future that has no precedent. It is a world where somehow no one will ever try to end her pregnancy. But it’s worth taking a close look at the historical record because it tells us one thing over and over and over. Regardless of whether abortion was legal, or how many people believed fetuses had rights or what physicians thought or anything else really, women have always had abortions.

This issue will go away, I predict, as technology perfects ‘abortion pills’ that can be ordered by mail. And then the religious right, no matter how much they might like to interfere in other peoples’ private affairs, will be unable to do so.

Posted in Conservative Resistance, Culture, Economics, Narrative | Comments Off on Links and Comments: Secrets of Success, the 2010s, Gibson’s future, History v. Narratives

Peter Watts essay: “Understanding Sarah Palin, or, God Is In the Wattles”: Summary and Comments

From the book Peter Watts Is An Angry Sentient Tumor: Revenge Fantasies and Essays (Tachyon, November 2019), a selection of posts from the blog of Peter Watts, which has been running since 2007. Watts is the noted author of high concept, hard SF novels like STARFISH and BLINDSIGHT. His blog ranges over many topics, from movie reviews to political commentary. I skimmed the book on a rainy afternoon a couple days ago, reading some chapters completely and getting at least an idea of the others. (I needed to decide if I would recommend it for Locus’ Recommended Reading List, and I will.) Two or three chapters struck me as particularly interesting given my themes here (being summarized on my new “Principles” page recently), and the most interesting one is worth summarizing and commenting on. And since the book chapters are all from the blog, they’re all online — you can easily read the entire original post if you like.

Here’s the one I’m looking at, from October 2008. My comments, this time, are in [[ double brackets ]]

Understanding Sarah Palin: Or, God Is In The Wattles

He starts with:

Here’s a question for you. Why hasn’t natural selection driven the religious right to extinction?

You should forgive me for asking. After all, here is a group of people who base their lives on patently absurd superstitions that fly in the face of empirical evidence. It’s as if I suddenly chose to believe that I could walk off the edges of cliffs with impunity; you would not expect me to live very long. You would expect me to leave few if any offspring. You would expect me to get weeded out.

[[ Right away, I’m eager to see what he has to say. My tentative conclusion has been that survival is not about accurately perceiving the real world; it’s about social cohesion, and shared beliefs, no matter how absurd, build that cohesion. In fact the ‘cost’ of holding especially absurd beliefs works especially to prove dedication to the group. ]]

The post/chapter goes on with recourse to psychology, including the now-famous Dunning-Kruger effect (in which dumb people are too dumb to realize how dumb they are, and actually think themselves pretty smart; world-famous example is an exercise for the reader). Watts even anticipates my comment just made:

You might suggest that my analogy is a bit loopy: young-earth creationism may fly in the face of reason, but it hardly has as much immediate survival relevance as my own delusory immunity to gravity. I would disagree.

…with examples of the Church denying scientific findings, and noting that fundamentalists tend to be climate change deniers.

Evoking group selection, Watts wonders why there aren’t more societies driven by empiricism; “why are god-grovellers so powerful across the globe?”

The great thing about science is, it can even answer ugly questions like this. And a lot of pieces have been falling into place lately. Many of them have to do with the brain’s fundamental role as a pattern-matcher.

[[ To cite the three-nature model of human nature from the Van Schaik & Michel (VS&M) book The Good Book of Human Nature: A Evolutionary Reading of the Bible in my previous post: Here we are back to first nature tendency to see agency everywhere, and the propensity to detect patterns – bunnies in clouds, the Virgin Mary in a tortilla – even when none exist. The cost of false positives (superstitions) is less than the cost of false negatives (death). That does not mean that the false positive patterns are real, or meaningful. ]]

So Watts starts citing recent scientific studies. I’ll bullet-summarize the points he makes.

  • “It turns out that the less control people feel they have over their lives, the more likely they are to perceive images in random visual static.”
  • “Right-wingers are significantly more scared of [spiders] than left-wingers tend to be: at least, conservatives show stronger stress responses than liberals to ‘threatening’ pictures of large spiders perched on human faces.” The strongest responses were from those who “favor defense spending, capital punishment, patriotism, and the Iraq War”.
  • Dunning-Kruger, quoting his bullets:
    • “People tend to overestimate their own smarts.
    • “Stupid people tend to overestimate their smarts more than the truly smart do.
    • “Smart people tend to assume that everyone else is as smart as they are; they honestly can’t understand why dumber people just don’t ‘get it’, because it doesn’t occur to them that those people actually are dumb.
    • “Stupid people, in contrast, tend to not only regard themselves as smarter than everyone else, they tend to regard truly smart people as especially stupid. This holds true even when these people are shown empirical proof that they are less competent than those they deride.”

[[ I did not know this last point! I knew about the dumb people not realizing how dumb they were part, and how they overestimate their own intelligence. But dumb people think smart people are dumb? But after a moment, I understood completely. The idea recalls something conservative firebrand Ann Coulter once said: why can’t liberals just make up their minds? [paraphrasing from memory]. The idea dovetails with the oft-repeated sentiment (see my Quotes page) that “The whole problem with the world is that fools and fanatics are always so certain of themselves, and wiser people so full of doubts.” That is, some people, driven I would think by [to use VS&M’s terminology] first nature thinking, with second nature justification, think all problems are simple matters of good or evil, black or white, and that the answer to any question is simple and obvious. Never mind that third nature thinking (like science) might show that cognitive biases and perceptual illusions are misleading them, because those first two natures are suitable for survival but not for perception of reality. These people wonder why the third nature folks see uncertainty in everything, and thus think them the dumb ones. ]]

Watts summarizes, and then concludes:

Therefore (I would argue) the so-called “right wing” is especially predisposed to believe in moralizing, authoritarian Invisible Friends. And the dumber individuals (of any stripe) are, the more immune they are to reason. Note that, to paraphrase John Stuart Mill, I am not saying that conservatives are stupid (I myself know some very smart conservatives), but that stupid people tend to be conservative. Whole other thing.

[[ I’ve made this last stipulation myself, e.g. along the lines of noting that racists are usually conservatives, but that doesn’t mean all conservatives are racist. ]]

Next, Watts cites studies about the origins of religion. People are less likely to cheat if they think someone is watching them. Even a poster of eyes above a donation jar; even an imaginary god. Thus religious communes last longer than secular ones. Acts of charity are matters of social optics: who sees that I’m being charitable? How religion is more common in areas with water and resource shortages. [[ This dovetails with VS&M’s notion that the reason the formidable legal codes of the Torah evolved where it did, and not anywhere else. ]]

The surveillance issue solves the problem of freeloading [[ this is an idea I’ve noted from other books; solving the problem of freeloading enables larger and larger communities ]]. Thus, religion, and the idea that god is watching over you, enabled groups far larger than those traditional among hunter-gatherer tribes, where freeloading would be easily detected.

And therefore the idea that the cost of religious commitment, even to crazy ideas, validates membership in the group. And here we get to chicken wattles: they may seem purposeless, but in fact they are signs of health, as are peacock tails. Religious communes impose many more costly requirements than others. Watts emphasizes this point:

It’s not the ideology per sé that confers the advantage; it’s the cost of the signal that matters. Once again, we strip away the curtain and God stands revealed as ecological energetics, writ in a fancy font.

And so the power of Palin and her followers, to quote Watts’ bullets:

  • “Fear and stress result in loss of perceived control;
  • “Loss of perceived control results in increased perception of nonexistent patterns ([from a study earlier cited]: ‘The tendency to detect agency in nature likely supplied the cognitive template that supports the pervasive belief in supernatural agents’);
  • “Those with right-wing political beliefs tend to scare more easily;
  • “Authoritarian religious systems based on a snooping, surveillant God, with high membership costs and antipathy towards outsiders, are more cohesive, less invasible by cheaters, and longer-lived. They also tend to flourish in high-stress environments.”

Watts ends by wondering, now that we understand all this, what are we going to do about it?


In the original post, but not in the book chapter, is a coda from a couple days after the initial post:

And as the tide turns, and the newsfeeds and Youtube videos pile up on my screen, the feature that distinguishes right from left seems ever-clearer: fear. See the angry mobs at Republican rallies. Listen to the shouts of terrorist and socialist and kill him! whenever Obama’s name is mentioned. And just tonight, when even John McCain seemed to realise that things had gone too far, and tried to describe the hated enemy as “a decent man”— he was roundly booed by his own supporters.

…These people are fucking terrified.

Indeed, that’s been my impression for some time. Look at the anger, and fear, evident in the rantings of right-wing talk show hosts; and just recently, look at how the Republicans in the impeachments hearings last week engaged in non-stop yelling. (In contrast to the cool, reasoned attitudes of Schiff and Pelosi; or on TV of Rachel Maddow, who’s usually just amused and bemused by the antics of the conservatives, but not angry.) While it’s dangerous to generalize, again: the people who are primarily motivated by first nature thinking and feel threatened in any way, are conservatives.

Posted in Book Notes, Conservative Resistance, Evolution, Religion | Comments Off on Peter Watts essay: “Understanding Sarah Palin, or, God Is In the Wattles”: Summary and Comments

Carel Van Schaik & Kai Michel, THE GOOD BOOK OF HUMAN NATURE: An Evolutionary Reading of the Bible (2016): Introduction

This is a fascinating book because it describes how there really is some rationale (if not reason or logic) to the stories in the Bible. It’s a set of answers to the general question, a sort of meta-question that one can ask about any kind of story—why is *this* story being told, and not some other? And why does the story end *this* way, and not some other way? Remember, they’re stories! The answer is not that they’re literally true, let alone the dictation from some omnipotent being. Even if remotely based on real events, the reality is that the early books of the Bible were transmitted orally for centuries before they were written down – and then the versions that were written down were, ahem, edited by the folks in 300 AD or so who decided which parts went into their anthology, and which others were deemed apocryphal or blasphemous. And stories grow in the telling.

This is a detailed book that I’ll likely not finish until I finish reading and rereading the Bible itself, over the next year, so for this post, just a summary of the 25 page introduction. I’ll alternate my comments with summary.


The Bible documents humanity’s cultural evolution. We can understand this with awareness of recent finding in cognitive science and evolutionary biology. Its odd stories began making sense with this perspective.

In the Bible we find answers to humanity’s greatest questions. We do not mean this in a religious sense. Rather, it teaches us why we fear death, how we deal with misfortunes, and where our deep-seated desire for justice originated. The Bible shows us how we learned to survive in large, anonymous societies, why our modern lives sometimes seem so pointless, and why we are so often nagged by what we would describe as a longing for Paradise.


The gist of their theme is this: We understand that some 10-12,000 years ago, as the last great ice age ended, humanity ‘invented’ agriculture. The agricultural revolution. This led to the formation of fixed villages, towns, and eventually cities. But humanity had spent hundreds of thousands of years as hunter-gatherers, in small tribes with no fixed locations. In these tribes everyone knew everyone else. Based on evidence of the few remaining hunter-gatherers that still exist around the world, these tribes were remarkably egalitarian; everyone shared tribal chores. But being stuck in one place, to grow crops, changed everything. Among the effects: close contact with animals brought about new diseases, whose causes were unknown (and so of course ascribed first to spirits and then to gods). Investment in land required the stability of a family line, leading the primogeniture, with the eldest male inheriting everything, instead of the equal distribution of the estate you read about in some of the early Bible stories. With the men at home, women became commodities, traded like any other property, and thus the subjugation of women.

And so on. The early Bible stories reflect these issues and describe how they were solved, and even if these issues had been around for thousands of years, they were still the most important stories to be told, long enough until they were finally written down.

The grand achievement of this primeval history was the creation of law—Leviticus—all the rules to follow to avoid conflict, to prevent diseases, and so on.

(Of course those rules were created for desert tribes with no electricity or plumbing, with no knowledge of the outside world. To follow those rules now would be, mostly, silly. Yet some people still find the simplicity of an ancient list attractive, so they don’t have to think about the realities of modern life.)

(I’m wondering if in this book there is any acknowledgment that this is only one strand of primeval history. Other cultures, especially in Asia, must have gone through analogous phases. Perhaps we simply don’t know that history? Or people in the West ignores those histories?)

Back to summary:

Why should the current authors be the first to take this approach to the Bible? Because Biblical studies have been carried out in isolation, and with little knowledge by the public; because the study of religion as an aspect of human nature is relatively recent; because of the tensions between religion and science, especially in the US. (Mentions of Steven Pinker, Marvin Harris, Robert Wright, John Teehan.)

We understand now that the evolutionary history of humanity left us with emotions and behaviors adapted to a world that has since disappeared. The single greatest change in the behavior of any species on the planet has been humanity’s adoption of a sedentary way of life. This event, the Neolithic Revolution, has been called “the worst mistake in the history of the human race” (in Jared Diamond’s GUNS, GERMS, AND STEEL). It was certainly a decisive turning point in human evolution: the species has since exploded across the planet. The initial costs were shorter lifespans, more violence, more disease. Scourges that required explanations. And strategies for avoiding them.


I should mention that Isaac Asimov, in his two volume GUIDE TO THE BIBLE in the late 1960s, frequently invokes the perspective of pre-history following the ice ages, the tensions between early farmers and herders, and the effect natural catastrophes might have had on the development of Biblical stories. But the authors here go much further, given recent developments in cognitive science, evolutionary biology, etc.

Back to summary:

Brief history of the Bible. Beginning in the 17th century it became understood that the first five books, traditionally ascribed to Moses, could not have been written by him – too many references to things past his time. The observation that some passages refer to Elohim and others Yahweh (“God” vs. “LORD God” in KJV) enabled the reconstruction of separate original sources, at least four, that were stitched together (likely during the Babylonian exile) to form Genesis. The Hebrew Bible (the OT) was composed from roughly 900-100 BCE, from multiple sources and under varying influences.

Cultural evolution and our three natures: The transition to sedentariazation was too quick for it to be survived via biological evolution; rather, cultural evolution handled the problems it created. And so our ancient human nature has been overlaid, twice, and can now be described as three natures.

The first nature is our innate feelings, reactions, and preferences that evolved over hundreds of thousands of years as hunter-gatherers. These include love between parent and child, a sense of fairness and outrage at injustice, a fear of strangers, a concern for reputation, feelings of obligation and jealousy—and the tendency to see supernatural actors at work everywhere.

Cultural evolution created a second nature that is learned; it varies from culture to culture. These are traditions and customs, religion as a cultural product, and rules of decency, politeness, and good manners.

Our third nature reflects our rational side. These are conscious practices and institutions that enable analysis of a given situation. These are generally taught in schools, and result in all the practices we know are good for us but balk at doing: eating healthily, exercising, not drinking and driving, etc. This third nature comes into play when we face new challenges and old mechanisms to solve problems no longer work.

Our third nature now keeps the world running. But our first nature reactions often conflict, resulting in ‘mismatch problems’ in modern life. Third nature self-discipline is a limited resource. Example: a married woman falls in love with another man. First nature: “love!” Second nature: “fidelity!” Third nature: “think of the mortgage, the lawyers’ fees!” p24. (Monogamy is absent from many parts of the Bible; even that was a second nature development to solve problems brought about by the sedentary life.) Our second and third natures help us survive, but don’t necessarily make us happy. And anytime our gut nature is unhappy, we are detecting another of those mismatches between our evolutionary heritage, and modern life.

Posted in Bible, Book Notes, Evolution, Religion | Comments Off on Carel Van Schaik & Kai Michel, THE GOOD BOOK OF HUMAN NATURE: An Evolutionary Reading of the Bible (2016): Introduction