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.

Son of Saul

It was International Holocaust Memorial Day yesterday here in the U.K. . There was surprisingly little note paid to it and the fears that we could forget this monstrous horror in our history seemed more likely this year than before. Thankfully the BBC had shown the film ‘Son of Saul’ the evening before and I decided to watch this in order to think on the significance of the day.

It is unfortunate that this film is not son_of_saul_28saul_fia29better known. It is a stunning debut by László Nemes  and hard to believe that this is a first film. Although there are a number of eminent films focussing on the holocaust, I think it is fair to say that none are as effective as this one in evoking a sense of the horror that this entailed. This film follows Saul, a Sonderkommando in Auschwitz, over the last two days of his life.

The film is shot, almost entirely, in close proximity to Saul so that his head and shoulders almost fill the frame. We follow him as he makes his way through the hell in which he is living. This has a duel effect.

Firstly, due to the shallow depth of field much of what happens around Saul is out of focus and blurred. We can work out what is happening and know the depravity that is there. This gives the effect of placing us, like Saul,  in the position of trying to not look at what is happening but being unable to ignore what is occuring all around.

Secondly, as Saul moves from place to place at the whim, and under the blows of others we share his feeling of loss of control. He moves in a sea of sounds; cries, yelps, barked orders and screams. Various languages are used and little is explained but everything is understood in brutal clarity. Saul’s face remains impassive and blank throughout most of the film , as  the ‘learned helplessness’  and need to appear submissive act as his protection – internally against despair and externally against beatings and retributions. There are only a couple of short periods when his face shows feeling and the acting, by Géza Röhrig  , in this regard is simply stunning – with minimal movement entire emotions are revealed.

During the two days, we share of Saul’s life, he is in a desparate quest to try and arrange the burial of a boy who survived the gas chamber only to be deliberately suffocated by a medical attendant. We are never really sure why the boy is important to Saul and why his body has taken such signifiance (Compared to all the other bodies, bluntly termed “pieces“, of which the Sonderkommandos disposed). But this little fragment of humanity, and link to his faith, give him for a period some purpose.

However, this sense of purpose does not necessarily mean hope. Unlike other films tackling this subject, such as Schindler’s List or Life is Beautiful, there is no respite here. There are people acting heroically in the face of overwhelming odds but there are no heroes hiding on the sidelines. There are few glimmers of light and while it does remind us that the human spirit can sometimes survive against all the odds it also, much more importantly, reminds us of the depravity to which mankind can descend. The increasing reports of antisemitism in the UK and on mainland Europe have made Holocaust Memorial Day more important than before. Films, like this one, may counter the danger of the passage of time making our memories weak and leaving us unaware of the true nature and  danger of fascism. The first step in protecting ourselves is to ensure that we never forget.

The Wizard Trump

It is sometimes odd how we stumble into knowledge of matters. I was listening to a podcast which was discussing President Trumps’ potential legacy when the contributors began to make reference to “The Wizard of Oz”. They argued that many of the aspect of populist politics in today’s America echoed those of a hundred years ago and the satire about the Wizard of Oz could equally be applied to Donald Trump. I had not been aware of the political analysis of L. Frank Baum’s book “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz and it was fascinating to hear these.

When the book was written American politics and economy were in turmoil. There had been major changes in monetary standards and the Fourth Coinage Act had devalued silver. There were major financial difficulties and one of the movements aiming to address these was a move for bimetallism – money backed by both gold and silver. This was taken up in 1896 by the William Jennings Bryan , leader of the Democratic Party, as well as some populist groups and Republicans from silver mining areas (“Silver Republicans“). Bryan won the leadership by his ‘Cross of Gold convention speech where he stated “The gold standard has slain tens of thousands.” and urged the convention “You shall not press down upon the brow of labor this crown of thorns, you shall not crucify mankind upon a cross of gold.” It was felt that gold helped the rich get richer while ‘free silver’ would create cheaper money with a wider base and provide help for the poorer sectors of society.

It was against this backdrop that “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz” was written.  It may be no coincidence that gold and silver are measured in ounces which are abbreviated to “Oz.” Similarly a “yellow brick road” to the “emerald city” might well signify the power of the gold standard (yellow) to lead wealth to the wealthy (green signifying fraudulent greenback money). In the book, but not the film, the way to sort problems, and get out of trouble and back home, is by the “silver slippers” – the film used the more photogenic ruby red instead. It is quite easy to imagine Dorothy as the common man assisted by a ‘cowardly lion’ (William Jennings Bryan) on their way to find solutions for the Scarecrow (farmers and agricultural workers) and the Tin-man (Steel and other industry workers). Certainly when Baum wrote a stage version of the book in 1902 he made many political references, mainly as jokes against the current luminaries.

At the end of their trek they meet the wizard who is revealed to be a pompous humbug who uses all sorts of tricks to hide his nature from the people. He actually has no ideas and no power and admits to Dorothy that “I am a very bad wizard. And, thinking of Trump, this seems to be where we came in.

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The State : Its historical role. (Piotr Kropotkin)

The State : Its historical role. (Piotr Kropotkin)

One of the great advantages of the e-book and e-readers is the ability to gain access to a huge library of published work for free. Most of the classics from the ancient world are available and a large library of modern and, not so modern, work is available for the easy job of a little bit of browsing. It is hard to believe but most of us now have access to a library that would have made Croesus jealous. Emperors and kings a hundred years ago would not have believed, and would have envied, the texts which I have available today. It is almost impossible to think of a philosopher, political theorist, or other man or woman of letters that is not easily available either for free or for a very modest price. I find this wealth of literature captivating. I browse the 56,00 books available at the Gutenburg Project, or the 15,000,000 texts and books (including 550,000 modern ebooks) of the Internet Archive and wonder at the riches available. But this surfeit of choice does bring problems – ironically, “What to read next ?

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There are problems when choosing books from this library. Some have become very dated and are only really interesting as historical artefacts. Others were a fad of their day and really didn’t need to weather the years. Many other are well written and important but with the passage of time modern readers have changed. Modern readers can find the dense, heavy prose difficult to read and, at times, the vocabulary can be archaic and thus not understood. A further difficulty in understanding can arise from a prior presumption that readers would be familiar with the classics and the bible which is no longer a safe generalization. This having been said, I have been pleasantly surprised how many do stand the passage of time. H.G. Wells still reads as if he were writing yesterday and his science fiction is still enjoyable despite the appearance of the horse and cart along side the rocket ship.

I have tried to cope with this problem by the simple strategy of trying to read the classics of which I have heard. This includes reading books which I thought I had already read, as sometimes I found that I had never actually done so. My knowledge of the book was apparently achieved through cultural osmosis rather than actual reading. Sometimes this has been startling when I discover what was the actual content of the book.  Sometimes I have reread classics simple because I was too young first time around. Some books were wasted on me as a callow youth and it is only reading them now, with the hindsight and hopefully wisdom of age, that they truly make sense. This was my strategy which lead me to Kropotkin’s “The State : Its Historic Role

With regards to readability this is not a problem, it is clearly written and its still is easy on the modern reader. There are references to important political events which would have been known to any informed reader in 1897 but which might be more hazily recalled for the reader over a century later. Occasionally he makes assumptions that authors discussing the Paris Commune, or describing the Lombardy League, will be known to us. However, this is not sufficient a problem to impair the enjoyment from the text.

The basics of the text are his views on the historic development of the state and the crushing of  societal developments which existed before this. He describes the development of the Communes and the Guilds across Europe and how this allowed the mutual aid which provides support for the members of societies. His concern is that society is in our nature, as it was in the animals from whom we evolved,  and mankind will always find way to create supportive societies and does not require the state to do this.

“Man did not create society; society existed before Man.”

“Far from being the bloodthirsty beast he was made out to be in order to justify the need to dominate him , Man has always preferred peace and quiet .”

“Henceforth , the village community consisting entirely or partly of individual families – all united , however , by the possession in common of the land – became the essential link for centuries to come .”

Unfortunately my knowledge of medieval history is rather poor and I find it difficult to assess the accuracy of his descriptions of medieval city life. He is clearly very impressed with the early municipalism and syndicalism that he describes :-

“Was it not in fact the rule of the guild that two brothers should sit at the bedside of each sick brother – a custom which certainly required devotion in those times of contagious diseases and the plague – and to follow him as far as the grave , and then look after his widow and children ? Abject poverty , misery , uncertainty of the morrow for the majority , and the isolation of poverty , which are the characteristics of our modern cities , were quite unknown in those ‘ free oases , which emerged in the twelfth century amidst the feudal jungle ’ .”

But he pays rather scant regard to the problems of the serf in feudal society  and to the other well documented problems for the poor of this time. However, he does detail the developing strategies that were made to provide support and succour which operated at a more local and personal level prior to the development of the state. Though I fear that sometimes he was donning spectacles with a strong rosy hue when reading his source texts.

He sees the state developing through the cooperation of chiefs and Kings, the Church and the priesthood as well as the judiciary :-

“And who are these barbarians ? It is the State : the Triple Alliance , finally constituted , of the military chief , the Roman judge and the priest – the three constituting a mutual assurance for domination – the three , united in one power which will command in the name of the interests of society – and will crush that same society .”

He describes the operation of these agencies to impose their power, in the form of the state, over prior voluntary organizations. He pays particular attention to the role of religious belief in the development of anarchist ideas and thinking. He is very aware that the Protestant revolutions did much to free the minds of men at the same time as the established church tried to limit thought and opinion. He ultimately reports that in this ideological battle for the soul of man the established church won.

“Lutherian Reform which had sprung from popular Anabaptism , was supported by the State , massacred the people and crushed the movement from which it had drawn its strength in the beginning .”

He is scathing of Martin Luther who he views as a turncoat who, by the end,  encouraged “the massacre of the peasants with more virulence than the pope“. In general Piotr Kropotkin deals well with these issues. There was much greater understanding by these seminal authors, compared to contemporary anarchist writers, that to build an anarchist society depended on a change in the hearts and minds of men and women. These early writers saw the importance of personal responsibility and morality and dealt with the need for a root and branch reform of societal relationships in a much more thorough manner. These were not simple economic or political arguments but moral and spiritual also.

Once the state has started on its development he was aware that it would brook no opposition. He describes the hostility the state has to any autonomous societies or support organizations  as it views these are threats. It sees them as “a state within the state” which can not be tolerated. Any alternative forms of mutual aid are opposed and although our instincts are to band together and help each other this is discouraged if it is not done by the agencies, and under the control,  of the state.

“Peasants in a village have a large number of interests in common : household interests , neighborhood , and constant relationships . They are inevitably led to come together for a thousand different things . But the State does not want this , nor can it allow them to join together ! After all the State gives them the school and the priest , the gendarme and the judge – this should be sufficient .”

In our present days where the state has a large welfare component these factors are still important. Self help and mutual assistance is lost while centralised state provision takes it place.

“ The neighbor , the comrade , the companion – forget them . You will henceforth only know them through the intermediary of some organ or other of your State . And every one of you will make a virtue out of being equally subjected to it . ”

“ No direct moral obligations towards your neighbor , nor even any feeling of solidarity ; all your obligations are to the State ”

In many areas of the western world social care, health care, and education are removed from the individual. While basic safety and care may be provided the ability of the individual to participate in these matters is severely curtailed and their personal responsibility reduced. Further, it is the cooperative arrangement of these types of aid and support which creates our societies. It is possible, as we are discovering, that it is possible to have a large state providing many aspects of welfare but at the same time to have small or absent communities , an alienated and atomised population and very little society.

In the future, our ability to create societies which support our diverse peoples is going to be the biggest challenge in the face of the spreading state and globalisation. Anarchists and libertarians will need to take their part in this challenge and some of the history in the book may usefully guide them. His call to action is still valid as it is not simply and economic change we require but widespread social change.

Throughout the history of our civilization , two traditions , two opposing tendencies have confronted each other : the Roman and the Popular ; the imperial and the federalist ; the authoritarian and the libertarian . And this is so , once more , on the eve of the social revolution .

 

Pwll Y Gele

Pwll Y Gele

Over the recent months I have discovered that one of my favourite morning walks is the meander to Pwll Y Gele. This is a gentle stroll of just over three miles with no difficult terrain being largely on the road or good footpaths. The time of day, nor the weather, really matters much for this walk, as it always holds interest. On the outward leg you have open vistas looking towards Cader Idris and Foel Offerwm and on the return journey there is Aran Faddwy to fill your view.

If the weather is poor it is still worth the walk to see the clouds and winds whipped up like an impressionist painting over the mountains and the rain will soon fill the streams and waterfalls to make them interesting. On a pleasant morning, like today, the sun and its warmth will have brought out the birdsong which changes as you proceed through different birds areas. Although this morning the woodpecker and his tapping seemed to be everywhere

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Beacon

On a pleasant day there is much to be seen which will repay proceeding slowly. This is a meander, or stroll, not a walk to be taken quickly and earnestly.  There are many reminders of older agricultural and industrial practices if one is careful to look and not press on by. There are the oblong raised mounds which are the remains of the  domestic rabbit warrens from the days when rabbit was a staple meat. These are termed cony-garths or  conegars which is not a great deviation from the Welsh word for a rabbit warren of cwningar. The spelling is a little different but the pronunciation is largely the same. The old dry-stone walls show a pattern of farming quite different to that of today with many more smaller active farms. Here are there, there are the reminders of older practices such as the beacon towers used to pass information across long distances in the days before electronic communications.

Other mounds represent reminders of the old charcoal industry which was itself part of the iron industry which was important in these parts. It seems that on the edge of every hill there are the adits, looking like caves, which are the entrances into the many mineral mines in the area. One of the biggest reminders of these changes in industry is Pwll y Gele itself. Those who understand Welsh will immediately have a clue as to this areas importance in history, as Pwll Y Gele translates to The Leeches Pond. Indeed, a few hundred years ago Wales was the centre of the industry breeding leeches for medical use in Europe (In the Victorian days 42,000,000 leeches a year were used medicinally in Britain). Pwll Y Gele was one of the pools used for breeding such leeches. The leeches are no longer here but the area is still a wonderful site to see bird, animal and insect life.

Names, such as Pwll Y Gele, are valuable links to our past and there is a problem in Wales that sometimes these names are being lost. Names, which carry historical information, are sometimes changed by new owners of properties to something that they feel more pleasant on the ear. Thus Bwthyn Y Gof, the Blacksmith’s cottage, is bought and renamed Ashview or similar. People who do not know the meaning of these names, or who find the names difficult in their mouths, often change the names to modern English versions. Sometimes there is an attempt to preserve the historical link but often it is lost and another pleasant but anodyne name replaces an informative name which was part of the history of the area.

Some have suggested laws to prevent this occurring which is not a strategy I’d support People have the right to change the names of their houses as they see fit. It may well be that new names are, in fact required, as time progresses. If I open a church or sanctuary I may wish to rename my property to reflect this and we should not make the mistake of confusing heritage with culture. Out heritage and past do help create us, but our culture is hopefully always developing as we adjust to, and cope with,  new challenges.

However, our links to the past are important and we shouldn’t discard them unthinkingly. People who move into an area need to recognise these links and learn from them, so that they too can benefit from the knowledge they impart. They also need to recognise that when they rename, for example,  Y Hufenfa to The Old Creamery while they may have managed to preserve some information in the name (Hufenfa is Welsh for Creamery) they appear dismiss the indigenous language and to cast it aside. This looks and feels like colonialism ! In changing an established name they  run the risk of looking too aloof to learn new words, or seeming  supercilious in their avoidance of contact with the local tongue. If one wishes to settle in an area it is usually because the culture and history of the area appeal to you. This being the case, it would be anticipated that you would engage with the culture and the local life. If you convert your little bit of Wales into your little bit of England (Or Scotland) then  don’t be surprised if you are thought of as more an occupier or invader than a neighbour. In small communities society is strong and welcoming but you have to want to take part.

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Walking with an older staid dog

Perhaps there is one caveat I’d add before taking this stroll, that is – Go with quiet companions. I much prefer this walk with the older dog. With the young dog;  he is too excited by the sights and smells to behave sensibly, and 45 kg of excited dog bounding through undergrowth does not make for a relaxing and quiet walk. The same caveat applies to grandchildren. A three and six year old will be keen to have brought their bikes and scooters, the  noisy toy that they just bought, and will want answers to all the questions of the day – “Why is the sky blue ?”, “What is that mountain called ?”, “Why is it Cader Idris and not Cadair Idris ?”, “What’s a leech ?”, “Could a lot of leeches eat a whole sheep ?”, “Are we nearly there yet ?”. This noise will precede you and act as a warning for all the more timid wildlife who can then hide. This is unfortunate, as this walk goes through land which has a large deer population, and if one walks quietly (especially in the morning or at dusk) one is almost guaranteed to meet them as I did today.

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Still not witnessed by the grandchildren. Perhaps next year ?

However, my grandchildren and going to have to mature for a few more years until they are going to be able to share this experience. Meanwhile they are happy enough with the rabbits, squirrels and the dragonflies by the lake who seem less susceptible to the din.

 

 

 

 

 

 

The bookseller’s depressing warning

Perhaps the best reason to join a book club asne_seierstad_the_bookseller_of_kabulis that it will encourage you to read books which otherwise you would have missed. This was certainly the case with the “Bookseller of Kabul” which I ignored since its release in 2003 despite having garnered a considerable degree of praise. For some reason it never captured my attention sufficiently to get to get around to reading it. It was clearly an important book but one which passed me.

It passed me by, that is, until our book club decided to have a year avoiding European and American literature in an attempt to broaden our horizons. This was the second foray further afield, Israel having been our first. Am I glad that I have read this book ? Certainly, it was an interesting and educative read. Did the book deserve the praise it has received ? I am not convinced, it is a rather patchy offering, a rather strange hybrid of fiction and non-fiction.

This book is the result of a Norwegian journalist’s four months spent living with a family in Afghanistan. She has taken the interviews she had with the family members and turned them into a readable family saga. The book is well written and well translated, it is easy to read and she creates good character portraits of the family members. She has managed to convey a sense of life in modern Afghanistan which is revealing.

However, it is because it is this hybrid form that it also disappoints. Had it been non-fiction then supporting information about the historical events would have been valuable as well as some analysis of their relevance. As it is the occupation by the Russians and the Taliban are described as nothing more than scenery as the backdrop to this family story. Had this been a novel then there may have been more emotion. The author has tried to be non-judgemental and simply describe the lives of the participants. There are no heroes here, there is no attempt by anyone to change things, there is no questioning of the rightness of the situation. Like the women in the story, everything is passively accepted.

These snippets of daily life are so depressing, no-one fights or rails against their lot. Nobody has any vision of a better life. The lives of these women in a middle-class afghan household is that of servitude and bondage. Even the members who were older, and able to remember better and freer times, do nothing to try for significant change. The way this life, more suited to the medieval era, is accepted as reasonable leaves the reader with a feeling of hopelessness for the future of Afghanistan and especially its women. So, although this book does open a window to let us see an aspect of life which is often hidden to us, it also hides any causes or solutions (if there are any) from us.

I recommend the book therefore to anyone who doubts the dreadful position that women have in this part of the world; they need the distress of reading this. If you already know this sorry state of affairs it might be better using your reading to search for an explanation or, even better, the start of a solution.