Sapiens by Yuval Noah Harari

Sapiens by Yuval Noah Harari

Over the last week I had a project to complete. In the lull period in the middle of lambing I wanted to extend our goat yard to create an adjacent sheep and goat pen, with hard standing and some cover, where we could undertake activities like drenching, shearing or foot clipping. We had a good area just next to the barn for this and all we needed to do was make planks and create a post and rail enclosure. While doing this kind of work I like to have a good book with me. It can be a handy companion when the work is laborious, or the weather turns foul. I found “Sapiens” by Dr Juval Noah Harari, who lectures in history at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, and saw that the majority of reviews had been favourable. I thought it might be a good choice.

I was glad I did. This is a book written on a huge scale, as the title proclaims it aims to be a “brief history of humankind” and it does not shirk from trying to cover a broad story and starts millions of years ago with the evolution of groups of humans (Neanderthals, erectus, sapiens, etc) and the commences in the stone age. The bulk of the book concerns the last 200,000 years and sapiens’ history and covers the periods through the cognitive revolution, the agricultural revolution, the development of religion and money, the scientific revolution and the industrial revolution. Obviously with such a large filed to cover he needs to use a broad brush. However, this keep the book readable and lively and there are many things covered which will challenge the notions that you had held of our past. Harari has a deft writing style and make difficult concepts easy to comprehend without, I believe, oversimplifying them. He also has a good sense of humour so even sections on potentially leaden subjects become enjoyable.

There are two main strands to the book. Firstly he proposes that “inter subjective realities”, shared beliefs that humans hold (money, God, femininity, Nationhood, etc) act as the foundations of our cultures and these and the cultural impact they have are what have allowed our species to develop to extensively. The second strand of the book is to remind us of just how recent the majority of this development has been: the cognitive revolution and the emergence of language started about 70,000 years ago, but the scientific revolution only 500 years ago, and the industrial revolution only 200 years ago. The last 20 years has witnessed, with the development of the internet, a further revolution with major changes in our species’ community structures.

There is a warning running throughout the book. There is always a tendency to view the world from the viewpoint of humans and to marvel at our progress, our expansion in numbers to every corner of the globe, the domestication of our animals and the taming of our environment. However, if one looked at the history from the viewpoint of other animals now extinct, or enslaved, by our activities; or from the viewpoint of other humans in our genus (Neanderthals or Homo floriensis for example) who we probably drove to extinction; or from the viewpoint of the planet as a whole; then the picture is not as rosy and perhaps history will not be kind to our species. As our powers increase, and our desires also, we have become a very rapacious and dangerous animal. Capitalism, our current stage of development, demands constant growth and expansion to generate increasing wealth and this growth is based on ever increasing consumption. Though there are many benefits from this growth, there are also many dangers, and it is far from clear that this system makes us happier as people. Our religions served us well in times of scarcity and upheld our morals, but they do not seem to have weathered the passage of time. We are increasingly rootless individuals, atomised and alienated, and requiring the state to replace the families and communities we evolved, as a species, to rely upon. In planning for our future, we need to know of our past as blindly ploughing on carries huge risks. As Harari ends his book :-

We are more powerful than ever before but have very little idea what to do with all that power. Worse still, humans seem to be more irresponsible than ever. Self-made gods with only the laws of physics to keep us company, we are accountable to no one. We are consequently wreaking havoc on our fellow animals and on the surrounding ecosystem, seeking little more than our own comfort and amusement, yet never finding satisfaction. Is there anything more dangerous than dissatisfied and irresponsible gods who don’t know what they want ?

Harari, Yuval Noah. Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind (p. 415). Random House. Kindle Edition.

I finished the yard and the book in about the same time and, having thought about our species handling of animals, was glad I’d done something that hopefully will improve their lot.

Brave New World by Aldous Huxley

I have, over a period of nearly half a century, read this book three times. Interestingly it has made a very different impression on me on each occasion.

I first read the book in my late teens. This book was one of the important texts of the day and every young man and woman had read it. One would have risked being seen as uncultured if one hadn’t read this book. I knew that it was an acclaimed dystopian vision of the future and an important warning of the dangers of totalitarianism by one of the century’s greatest thinkers. However, I have to be honest and say that much of this was lost upon me. At the time I was in the revolutionary socialist phase of my development and thus found the warnings about the dangers from an over powerful state rather fanciful. Though I did see the risks associated with increasing consumerism I couldn’t really see the risks of increasing technological advancement. As a child of the 60s the Harold Wilson’s “white heat of technology” speech was still ringing in my ears. But essentially the major problem was that I was an adolescent male. The idea that a future could be full of easy sex and free recreational drugs didn’t really scare me. At some level I think I might have thought it a utopia rather than a dystopia.

A few decades passed until I read the book again. Now I was a middle-aged man with a mortgage, children and many responsibilities. I re-read this book and discovered what all the fuss was about. This was a book that really frightened me. As a parent of children, I could see the dangers that he foresaw. The risks of the loss of liberty, the debasement of relationships and art, the dangers in shallow and glib answers to deep and difficult problems were all things I now knew first hand. He was warning us of an exploitative, consumerist society where little matters other than consumption and the fulfilment of appetites. As a ‘baby boomer’ I had witnessed these changes first hand and worried, if the changes continued unabated, what the future my children might inherit.

Recently, again after an internal of some decades, I read the book again (It had been chosen by my book club).If my first reading had led to disbelief, and the second to anxiety, the third reading led to depression. Now with enough years under my belt I was able to see that the book was not just a dystopian novel but Huxley has been shown to be eerily prescient and the book is, with hindsight, rather prophetic. The decoupling of sex from reproduction and relationships now seems almost complete in our days of contraception and tinder. The predicted use of psychotropics to cure us of our angst and unhappiness is now well established. His warning that there would an assault on the idea of the family (as it suits neither capitalism nor communism) seems to be starting in earnest. Many aspects of family life (the education of children, the care of the elderly, for example) and now the responsibility of the state and when the family is discussed it is often seen as a problem – the place where unspeakable evils happen to children or where parents fill their childrens’ heads with antiquated cultural views. Huxley feared that we would not be able to play without the use of gadgets we have to buy and anyone who has watched the changes to play in children and adults can see that this is a growing problem. He feared art would become debased, and films (or rather the “feelies”) would descend to simple tales of excitement, ” .. plays, where there’s nothing but helicopters flying about, and you feel the people kissing’; anyone who has seen Die Hard 5 or The Fast and The Furious 9 know that this has already happened. Some of his wildest predictions have some echoes to recent changes:-

‘Why do the smoke-stacks have those things like balconies round them?’ enquired Lenina. ‘Phosphorus recovery,’ exclaimed Henry telegraphically. ‘On their way up the chimney the gases go through four separate treatments. P2O5 used to go right out of circulation every time they cremated someone. Now they recover over ninety-eight per cent of it. More than a kilo and a half per adult corpse. Which makes the best part of four hundred tons of phosphorus every year from England alone.’ Henry spoke with a happy pride, rejoicing wholeheartedly in the achievement, as though it had been his own. ‘Fine to think we can go on being socially useful even after we’re dead. Making plants grow.‘ Brave New World (p. 31). Random House. Kindle Edition.

We now presume consent for organ donation, our dead bodies are not a gift to others but presumed property of the state – just as the motto of the Brave New World proclaims – “Everybody belongs to everyone else“.

If there is a problem with the novel it is that it tries to cover too much ground and there are many, many themes. There are trenchant discussions on the role of suffering in life, the place of religion in society and whether truth and happiness can ever be compatible. It does rather lead the penultimate chapter to be less part of the novel and more a philosophical essay. However, these are minor flaws in what is an excellent novel. If you have not read it you really should. If you have already read it then it may be worthwhile reading it again if, like me, you were a callow youth first time around.

Parabolic

Parabolic

I sometimes feel that I, and the rest of our society, are sitting atop a giant inverted parabola. For millennia we have tried to elevate ourselves individually and as a culture with the exhortation and hope that we are not simply animals. We felt we were something set apart and duty bound to try and live lives that were better than the lowly animals. We may never have hoped to be gods but we always hoped to be closer to our God.

After eons of aspiring upwards away from our animal base we now seem to look downwards. We see ourselves as simply a smarter animal driven by the base animal desires we share with our less evolved kin. We no longer look upwards to the skies with soaring urges to exalt our difference, we look down into the depths and express our animal passions as freely and vigorously as we can.

It has never been proven that the path of humankind will always be one that is onwards and upwards, extinct species before us testify to that, our parabola may have both an apex and a nadir. It is a little like sitting atop a giant rollercoaster peering down filled with fear and dread but without having the certainty that this will all work out allright. Our present day large societies may feel that that they can ditch religion and operate on simply secular lines but, as revealed in a recent article in Nature,  religion played an important point in our development. If we ditch our religions and faith we shouldn’t be surprised if some of the effects we see are equally major and potentially damaging.

 

 

The SDP : a new home ?

The SDP : a new home ?

British Politics has become increasingly tribal. Both of the main parties now  have been dragged by their extreme wings away from the centre-ground and towards increasingly exaggerated positions. Both seem to have drifted away from their core purpose and now appear to pander to powerful sects as their leaders try and remain in control. The Conservative leader, Theresa May,  is constantly harried by the European Reform Group whilst the Labour leader, Jeremy Corbyn, is kept in position by the Momentum group. Neither leader commands the respect of the majority of their party and only survive by compromising vision and honesty for pragmatic coalitions which allow them to remain in power.

We were in a similar position in the 1980’s when Labour had its troubles with the hard left Militant Tendency and the Conservatives were being dragged further rightwards by the strength of the Monday Club. There was considerable unhappiness and it looked as if the large parties might split asunder into different parties.  In 1981, four senior  labour MP’s  (David Owen, Bill Rogers, Shirley Winters, and Roy Jenkins ; the Gang of Four) did break away and set up the Council for Social Democracy by issuing the Limehouse Declaration. This subsequently established the Social Democratic Party (SDP) in the UK which had considerable initial success. 28 Labour and 1 Conservative MP joined the party and over the first few years  it had growing electoral success. In 1983 it took 25% of the national vote. However, this was not sustained and by 1987 the party merged with the Liberal Party to become the Liberal Democrats in 1987.

I have some personal experience of these events as I was one of the Labour Party election organisers who helped in the 1987 general election. I worked with the team to make sure that Roy Jenkins lost his Glasgow, Hillhead seat to the Labour Candidate George Galloway. In those days I saw the SDP as turncoats and traitors who were splitting the left vote and was quite convinced that my mission was to get a true socialist goverment into power. How life has changed ! But why am I thinking about the SDP in 2019 ?

It seems the SDP never went away. I was listening to a podcast, by the Anglican priest Giles Fraser, and learnt that the SDP continued and recently issued a renewed declaration. In his podcast he wondered if the SDP would provide a home for many people who, like him, find themselves politically homeless. I read the declaration and had to agree with him; there was nothing objectionable and much with which to agree.

They recognise the failures of our current two major parties :-

The Conservative party has conserved very little and instead, has put everything up for sale. Labour has abandoned the nation’s working men and women.

and recognise that if we are to preserve democracy it is important to keep it local :-

We consider the nation-state to be the upper limit of democracy. Along with the family, we regard it as indispensable to the solidarity of our society and concern for our fellow citizens. We regard supranationalism as a neoliberal ideology aimed at neutering domestic politics and placing the most important issues beyond the reach of ordinary voters.

Socially and personally they  avoid the excesses of libertarianism whilst keeping true to socially liberal beliefs. They are aware that there has been increasing intolerance in our society and a tendency to fragment our communities  by the pernicious use of identity politics. They stress the importance of mutuality, rather than law, to bind communities together and this is an important aspect of politics which is rarely discussed by the main parties :-

We believe ‘fraternity vs division’ to be a key watershed question in all Western societies. Fraternity must prevail.

We regard kindness and mutuality as a political rather than a legal achievement which relies on free consent rather than legal obligation. Excessive individualism – of both the social and economic variety – has regrettably led some citizens to believe they don’t share a common fate with their neighbours. They do.

On the economic front they recognise the dangers of rampant neoliberalism, and the adverse effects of globalisation,  but appear also to recognise that there needs to be boundaries to the state’s intervention in a social market economy. They see the public and private sectors as complimentary and see a natural boundary between them :-

The correct frontier between the public and private sector is determinable. Natural monopolies – the utilities requiring universal delivery to citizens – should be returned to public ownership and operation or be subjected to significantly more effective regulation.

There are interesting and positive bits on the family, the welfare state, culture and mutuality. On reading it I felt that there was really little to which any reasonable person could take objection. So is this the start of a change ? Or will this be like the 1980’s again ? Can a party which tries to push for a middle-road out of our present chaos ever gain enough traction to get moving ? I would like to think so and will watch their progress closely, although I am aware that in these acrimonious times they are going to have an uphill battle to make any headway. If they do, I will find myself, 30 years later, in the unusual position of being on the exact other side of a political divide. Perhaps my team will win again.

 

Three rolls of fencing.

Three rolls of fencing.

I was on pleasant walk to post a letter this afternoon when I had an opportunity for a short thought experiment. As I walked along the road, with the dog, I noticed that the fence at the side of the road had been removed in preparation for being replaced. Every hundred yards or so there were neatly stacked piles of fence posts and rolls of fencing; some new and some tidily rewound ready to be reused. Everything was left ready for tomorrow’s task of refencing a large field.

I looked at these piles of equipment and recalled that I need to refence or middle field and will need to do this next month before I am able move the sheep. I then had the ‘thought experiment’ – “Why don’t I steal the fencing?”. This equipment, like so many other pieces of farm equipment, had been left here unguarded and with no protection, why don’t I just take some? If would be so easy just to lift it up and take it home.

The first reason I considered was that perhaps I didn’t need or want this stuff. This was easy to dismiss. Fencing is an never ending job on farms, a bit like painting the Forth Road Bridge, once you get to one end it is time to go back to the beginning and start again. Nor was it because this material is so inexpensive as to not be worth stealing. Although fence posts are relatively cheap, the fencing itself is reasonably dear and this is a noticeable cost in the farm budget. These weren’t the reasons.

I then considered the law and issues of crime and punishment. I knew that this was against the law, as taking without permission would be stealing. However, this would only influence my decision if I had a chance of falling into the hands of the justice system. In other words, it would only be an issue if I might, possibly  be caught. The risks of this were really quite negligible. One bit of fence wire is much like any other and who would be able to prove that this was not my wire once it was on my land. No, if I stole this wire punishment by the legal system would not be my biggest concern. Punishment in another way, however, might well be the reason.

The obvious reason I don’t take the wire is because I know it is wrong and that if I acted wrongly I would feel bad. The anticipation of guilt is the main barrier to bad actions. This guilt is modulated by a number of factors but, in today’s walk, community seemed to be the biggest modifier. I know who is repairing that fence. I know who would be hurt by my actions. I know that they, like I have, had left things out because they trust that their neighbours will behave well. My guilt would be even worse if I broke this trust. My knowledge of who was involved was the biggest factor in my decision. If I did steal from them,even if they never found out I would know. This knowledge, that I had stolen from them, would be corrosive to my soul and very difficult to bear.

All our lives, from when we are able to be independant, we are trying to balance the drive to keep our individuality whilst seeking to enjoin ourselves in community. Our first step is usually to find a partner, then to create a family, while all the time trying to find a community, or kinship group, in which to thrive. It is no surprise that the Lord’s Prayer asks for “our daily bread”, rather than “my daily bread”, and to pardon “our trespasses” not “my trespasses”. We only exist, as people, when we are in relationships with others. John Donne described this well in his poem “No Man Is An Island” :-

No man is an island,
Entire of itself,
Every man is a piece of the continent,
A part of the main.
If a clod be washed away by the sea,
Europe is the less.
As well as if a promontory were.
As well as if a manor of thy friend’s
Or of thine own were:
Any man’s death diminishes me,
Because I am involved in mankind,
And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; 
It tolls for thee. 

But as we build bigger and bigger communities there may be a cost. The anthropologist Robin Dunbar estimated, that due to the limitations of the size of our cortex, we can only get truly to know between 100 and 200 people. This number, usually rounded to 150, is Dunbar’s Number and is the limit of people we can know in any real and significant manner. Above this number,  communities start to require stricter rules and regulations to ensure good behaviour from its members. Above this number, the knowing interaction between individuals, and filial feelings, can no longer be relied upon to ensure decent behaviour.

I found the idea of stealing the wire “unthinkable” and I believe in part this was due to my temptation occuring in a smaller community. Were I tempted in a larger group, with anonymity for me and for my victim, I am not sure I could be relied upon to behave as well. Those of us who wish people to behave well, to seek out the good, and to become better people need to think about this. Rather than devising more, strict rules, which might more strictly control behaviour, but at the expense of weakening moral abilities, we should perhaps ensure that our communities are small and human sized. In larger communities there is a danger we become a myriad of individuals, in a huge shoal of individuals, requiring supervision to ensure we don’t harm one and other. In smaller communities the instinctive urges we have to look after ourselves while working cooperatively with our fellows are well balanced and effective.  Larger societies don’t just end up concentrating power they need to concentrate power and it is for this reason that we should resist this danger.

I know what not to do.

Margaret Anne Bulkley lived the last 56 years of her life disguised as a man. At about the age of 20 she took on the persona of James Barry in order to Matriculate at Edinburgh University and study medicine. Following this, in order to practice medicine, she maintained this pretence by living as adr_james_barry_28surgeon29 man until her death. When she died in 1865 (coincidentally the year Elizabeth Garrett became the first woman to qualify as a doctor) she had pursued a successful medical career and been promoted steadily becoming Medical Inspector General for South Africa. During this period of pretence it is believed that she managed also to give birth to a daughter while the world still respected her as a successful and powerful man.

We only have to look back a little time to see how much progress we have made. In the past so many of our personal and social roles were held to be closely tied to our sex at birth. Today we do not bat an eyelid when a woman wishes to be a surgeon, a man a nurse, a girl a footballer or a boy a dancer. We don’t think of very many roles being necessarily tied to biological sex. The days when women had to pretend to be men to pursue their desires have gone.

We should remember the travails of women who wanted to pursue aims at the time which were held to be only suitable for men – Joan of Arc as she tried to lead armies, Dorothy Lawrence who worked as a war reporter, Margaret Bulkley  wishing to be a doctor, and countless women who fell in love with other women. Remembering these women will stop us forgetting the ignominious aspect of our history which forced pretence on the few who were able to follow their dreams and stopped so many from even taking their first steps towards them.

We now tend to think there is a rather loose relationship between gender roles and biological sex. Something that is more important for groups and averages than something to be applied to individuals. The  biological differences we have are often subtle, and may help explain why one group is over-represented in one area or another, but are rarely felt to be important for the individual in their selection of, or for, activities.

If a child is born today with desires and aims that have been traditionally been seen as the domain of the other biological sex this is not an insurmountable problem. They may face some resistance, but as society improves this should lessen, but there will be no need for transvestitism, nor any pretence. They can aim for their dreams regardless of their biological sex. They don’t have to don the clothes, or names,  of the other sex and they don’t need to hide or alter their biology.

Thus there would seem no call for a boy who wants to follow gender roles traditionally seen as female to transition and alter their biology. Likewise any girl who wishes to pursue traditionally masculine roles or activities  need not alter their bodily appearance. The gender roles that we are often concerned about may have some of their historical development related to our biology (increased muscle mass may have lead us to see the army as a masculine role, for example) but most now are determined purely socially. Thus if someone feels the roles that they wish to pursue are discordant with their biology then the solution is social. The solution is to push for that role to be open to both biological sexes not to alter the person’s biological sex to fit the social role.

If people want to change their biological sex it must be for reasons other than wanting to pursue what are felt to be sex-inappropriate roles as the barriers facing them are considerably less than the barrier posed by the option of changing one’s biological sex. It would seem that the term gender dysphoria does sum up the primary reason for the desire to transition to the other biological sex. It is not a positive desire to be the other biological sex but rather a distaste or unhappiness (dysphoria) in being in the body you find yourself within.

This is not an unusual feature of psychological disorders arising in early adult life and especially around puberty. In addition to gender dysphoria, dysmorphophobia (a belief that one is disfigured or deformed) and the eating disorders (anorexia nervosa and related disorders) share the core belief by the patient that their body shape or configuration is wrong for them. These are serious, debilitating, and dangerous disorders with extremely high levels of distress and a significant mortality through suicide. Our understanding of these disorders is very poor and our treatments are of only limited efficacy. But we never mistake the faulty body image of the patient with anorexia, or dysmorphophobia, as the solution and make that the target of our treatment. We never offer pointless plastic surgery someone who believes their face deformed nor accept that the patient with anorexia should just continue to fade away and die as they see themselves as too fat. Instead we try and help them adjust to their body, and life, as it is and find ways to live with this.

Unfortunately with transgender patients we break with this tradition and offer to try medications and surgery to make their body fit with their internal thoughts. If such medication and surgery diminished distress and eased the patient it might be seen as a useful, if surprising, therapy. Unfortunately it does not appear to do so. The evidence is scanty but, as the American College of Paediatricans pointed out, work undertaken by Sweden’s Karolinska Institute does not find that surgery to transition people from one sex to another reduces the rate of suicide which remains, sadly, much higher than that in the population as a whole.

I have steadily lost the certainty of youth as I have grown older. I am now much happier to accept that I do not know the answer to many questions. Increased knowledge and experience has lead to reduced acceptance of simple or glib answers. However, although I may not know what to do I sometimes know what we should not do. In this case, whether people want to pursue a life in the gender roles that differ to those of the  body they were born within, either from a desire for the positive aspects of those roles, or from a disgust of their own bodily configuration, then attempts to alter their biological sex would appear unwise. At an individual level, obviously it is their choice and they may do with their bodies as they will, but any unbiased observer would counsel them against this as it is  unlikely to lead them to future happiness. At a societal level, I fear we may look back on this period sadly; we saw the problem of defining peoples’ roles by their genitals which forced the likes of Margaret Bulkley and others into dreadful situations but came up with the solution of making peoples’ genitals match the gender roles ! History may not be kind to us.

Do the comfortable thing.

I am feeling rather ashamed today. I heard that Asia Bibi was released from prison, after her conviction for blasphemy was overturned, and was relieved with this news. However, after a decade unjustly imprisoned, and much of that time spent in solitary confinement, she is at considerable risk in Pakistan. There have been mass demonstrations and riots demanding that she be executed. This is no idle concern, as previously high-ranking officials who took up her case were indeed assassinated. She has wisely asked for asylum and thankfully there have been some offers and it is likely she will go to the Netherlands.

The reason I feel rather ashamed is that one of the countries from which she requested asylum was the United Kingdom. Given the long association between Pakistan and the United Kingdom this would seem to be a natural choice. Given the obvious need for asylum, and the reasons behind her plight, one would have anticipated that an offer of asylum would have been quickly forthcoming. However , it seems that this has been specifically rejected. Wilson Chowdhry, of the British Pakistani Christian Association, reports that British authorities  have said :-

‘I’ve been lead to believe that the UK government had concerns that her moving to the UK would cause security concerns and unrest among certain sections of the community and would also be a security threat to British embassies abroad which might be targeted by Islamist terrorists,’

Religious freedom and a refusal to be intimidated are core facets of what we consider “British Values”. We should be proud to offer asylum to those fleeing persecution and should do this even if there are risks in doing so. We can not be seen to only help when there is no cost to ourselves. It is shameful to reject asylum because of fears of what those doing the oppression might do. If there are those in our community who object to us giving asylum then it is they that are behaving badly, and against the principles of our country. Indeed, if there are any who think that she should be executed we should ensure she comes here, and is kept safely, to clearly echo the point that we think freedom of thought and freedom of religion and vital, and uncontestable, parts of British society. It is those who think othewise who should consider whether they are living in the right place.

Asylum is something that should not be weighed up against trade deals, nor weighed up against possible difficulties to ourselves, it is something we should offer to prove our humanity and moral standing. I feel a little ashamed that today it seems Britain has said moral duties can be trumped by comfort or safety.  It was said that during World War 2 we spent all our energy and lost thousands of lives in order to protect a few moral principles while now we will loose our moral principles in order to save a few lives.