Friday, February 9, 2018

Sapiens, Yuval Noah Harari - A Brief History of Humankind


The subject of Sapiens is a trifle broad, covering as it does, beginning at the beginning, Big Bang and what followed - being physics, chemistry, biology and finally culture, throwing in everything but the kitchen sink, though it is implied.

Once evolution had produced, according to Harari, the last common Grandmother of Chimpanzees and humans, we emerged as the genus Homo, breaking into several main camps - Erectus, Rudolfensis, Neanderthalensis and Sapiens, with other short-lived (relatively speaking) members who didn't make it. Of course, neither did the main ones, except for a ferocious serial killer called Homo Sapien. Harari accuses this group, us, of virtual genocide in bringing to extinction the other members as well as hoards of other species and genera.

You can keep your left thumb marking the timeline just before the first chapter. It informs us that the Universe has been expanding for 13.5 billion years, the earth settled in around 4.5 billion, a billion years later organisms emerged, and the genus Homo appeared about 2.5 million. Homo Sapien comes in at 200,000 years and their (our) cognitive revolution at 70,000. A lot of this stuff you, as a casual reader, have to, like the Trump follower, take on faith, trust the experts, although in this case the “experts” have credibility.

The timeframe in question here is divided up into major revolutions by the author – after hunting and foraging for a few million years someone got the fateful idea, about 12,000 years back, to have an Agricultural Revolution, with its domestication of plants and animals. This was gradual, despite my wit but carried on until the Scientific Revolution of only 500 years ago. What made these revolutions possible also sealed the extinction of the other members of the Homo club, what Harari calls the Cognitive Revolution of about 70,000 years back. This DNA mutation or whatever, enabled Homo Sapien to imagine, which enabled complex social structures. Sapien was no match, one to one, for the stronger Neanderthal but the capacity to imagine, to “fictionalize”, gave us a fatal, for them, advantage. And it laid the ground for our own successor, the non-biological being we are about to create. Harari leads us to this argument but puts off the sales job to his next book, Homo Deus.

And that is an impressive feat, to have another book to follow this comprehensive, dense look at our journey. I would have thought he'd be exhausted and at most, ferreting around for the energy to begin to research his next scholarly project. The guy has already done it. But back to this one. He throws in interesting details like, it took 300,000 years for the daily use of fire to become routine. There is a persuasive description of how animals became domesticated. He credits the quirky adoption, in Western Europe, of an attitude of incomplete knowledge, curiosity, with its eventual dominance, in the form of a capitalist colonialism. That colonialism was (is) cruel with dire consequences AND he would argue, benefits. The mindset retrieved lost knowledge of India's past civilizations, for example, and united a diverse array of people into the present state of India. It also engaged in some serious drug dealing, even going to war with China for its right to sell opium there, gaining also the long-term lease of what came to be Hong Kong.

Harari likes to challenge convention, provoke a little controversy. He suggests that Homo Sapien was more content in the days of hunting/gathering, had more leisure and enjoyment whereas the agricultural life brought us tedium and long work days, extending down the long line to our own over-scheduled lives. He argues that the ability to imagine myths and religions, beliefs, enabled Sapiens to create large cities and empires, something the pre-cognitive peoples lacked. This short-coming limited the size of a band of foragers to less than 150 members. He lays out some perfectly arbitrary and ridiculous beliefs, contrasts them with contemporary thought and suggests that they serve the same function. When someone says they love their country they don't realize that the whole thing is fiction, the “country” is an arbitrary area. That the value of money or property are completely fictive, unreal. He sketches the development of money from early barley to coinage to electronic transfer of funds around the planet, all imaginary and based on trust. Despite the “truth or not” of these beliefs, they unify, provide the cohesion necessary for a society to thrive, even if it's only an elite who actually prospers.

Speaking of controversy, Harari describes Sapien as a vicious, efficient serial killer. He backs this up by showing that we had reached the far corners of the earth, spread from Africa, across Europe and Asia, to Australia, to the tip of South America by 10,000 BC. Wherever we went, vast numbers of other species went extinct. This trend continues though of course, like a virulent parasite, we insure our own demise when we kill our host. We have grown in numbers from one million 150,000 years ago to today's near 7 billion, crowding other species out, with our numbers and with our domestication and thus proliferation of certain species ie, chickens, cows, pigs. All unsustainable.

Along with two colleagues, in the late 90s, I attended a 5 day course called Living on the Edge of Evolution. We covered much of the same ground as Sapiens and there was an emphasis on values. What values brought us to this moment in time? What values do we need to adopt to survive the fate our current values are bringing us to ie, nuclear holocaust, polluted life system, over-population? The three of us returned to Atlanta and did several 7 week workshops using the template of that training in California. The workshops culminated in intensive weekends in North Georgia where we all left rejuvenated and optimistic about the future of Sapiens and the life system. Little did we know what was coming in the Bush/Cheney administrations, the disappointing Obama presidency and now, the calamity.

The author's notion of where Sapien is heading does not cheer me up either. When I think of how empires have treated their new subjects, how corporate raiders treat their acquisitions, how the patriarchy treats women, minorities, slaves... I fear for the people of my home country when the next empire rumbles into town, China perhaps, Harari's notion of AI (artificial intellegence) a non-biology critter or an advanced culture from another galaxy or dimension. We can hope, despite discouraging precedent, that they will break with the historical record and come with beneficial intentions. It could, and should, happen from within but in these discouraging times it is hard to muster the imagination in that direction.
Post-script:

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The citizen who identifies with the current leadership supposes that that leadership represents their interests. Why? Probably because the leadership seems to mouth important shared values. One way for the ordinary citizen to free themselves from this association, which I suggest is actually NOT in that citizen's interests, is to examine those supposed shared values – racism for example. The average citizen actually has more in common with workers of other races, ethnicities and nations than with the so-called leadership and those who control them, the 1%.

Wednesday, January 17, 2018

Open Veins of Latin America, Eduardo Galeano



Edwardo Galeano has written a Latin American equivalent of Howard Zinn's People's History of the U.S. As difficult as it has been for the subject of Zinn's book, not your generals and presidents but the people, ordinary workers, the plight of Latin America's people has been much harsher. More akin to the victims of slavery and the land-stealing expansion and massacre of Native Americans. The ruling class in the U.S., or much of it, currently aspires to total control whereas the rulers of our southern neighbors have had it from day one. First the native population was coopted, enslaved and slaughtered. Then came that part of the population not deft, clever, well-placed or ruthless enough to insinuate themselves into the local elite. Slavery, slaughter, hunger and merciless exploitation has been the daily grind of those unfortunates.

Galeano points out that the settlers of the U.S. had to eck out a way to survive, taking cues from the natives at first who knew how to do it. Since there were no particularly desireable resources, like the gold of South Amercia, to hypnotize European royalty, North America became primarily a dumping ground for Europe's access population. The fiercest focus of exploitation was where the gold was, at first, then various natural resources. So, by a sort of distraction the colonies developed an independence not tolerated in the south. Even later, with the settlement of the west, the general population rather than an elite was given land. If they worked it successfully they prospered, or at least survived. With the southern model, workers did not own land but were viewed as disposable slaves or cheap labor, working it for the owners. The owners were sub-colonialists for the European masters. This accounts for the greater prosperity of the north, according to Galeano. This prosperity, obviously, excluded the original inhabitants and slaves, a legacy of unimaginable injustice that lives on, nurtured by white privilege and class division. The 1% profited from the scourge of slavery and continues to profit from the division caused by racism and an abysmal ignorance.

This was the situation in Latin America, colonialism. With national independence a neo-colonialism emerged where a local elite thrived serving the European manipulators, exchanging local resources and cheap labor, for luxury imports and a privileged life. The slaves and later the peasants were kept in line by the usual methods - the whip, the overseer, the police and army. One exception occurred but like the French Revolution, was soon crushed by surrounding nations, threatened by a “bad” example. Paraguay came under the dictatorship of Gaspar Rodriguez de Francia who reversed the usual state of affairs. Torture, prison, police and death squads were put to work but this time against the oligarchy instead of dissidents in the general population. Land reform, locally beneficial projects, industry were all developed for a truly independent Paraguay, escaping the colonialism directed by Eurpoean business interests. These by the way, were primarily British. Even when the gold was flowing to Spain and Portugal, the lion's share ended up in Britain via their business acumen versus the royal families' aristocratic, decadent and unsustainable wars and lifestyles. These frivolous values were exported of course to Latin America, mirrored in elite rule and mass poverty. The Paraguayan experiment lasted from 1814 – 1840 under Gaspar and to about 1865 under his successors who continued and vitalized the policies. Travelers of the times remarked that Paraquay lacked beggars, thieves, hunger, illiteracy and great fortunes held by oligarchs.

Brazil and Argentina, threatened by the subversion of this “bad apple”, invaded Uruguay and from there Paraquay, putting a stop to the experiment in the most decisive and ruthless manner, returning the country to the fold of cheap labor, export economy, elite rule and a seriously outta luck peasantry. The true winner in this endeavor was neither Brazil nor Argentina but British bankers who funded the war, leaving both countries deeply in debt. Eventually Latin America left the British orbit, only to be captured by the U.S. as it became the dominant imperialist power. Remember the Monroe Doctrine?

There have been some hopeful developments since Galeano's book was published in 1971 – Chavez, Castro, Nicaragua but on the whole the oligarchy beats back any threat. The U.S. (under Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and the “liberal” President Obama) was quick to recognize a coup in Honduras that overthrew a democratically elected president on flimsy pretenses, paid mercenaries, terrorists really, to turn back Nicaragua's revolution under Reagan, and of course has been illegally attacking and undermining Cuba since 1959, meddling with Venezuela's attempts to extricate itself from colonialism and supported oppressive regimes and coups all over Central and South America. This is the force running through not just Latin America's history but the world's... a force that has mostly, but not always, overwhelmed the resistance that arises to its injustice. This is the cancerous force that must be subdued if our species is to have any hope of surviving. It is out there, yes, but it is also in here, and seductive. Though it is another discussion, the struggle between greed and justice can be reduced to the question of who will dominate, both personally and societal, ego or presence.

Post Script: Venezuela's President Chavez handed Obama a copy of Open Veins at a function. Obama later said, to his shame, "He can give it to me but I don't have to read it."