Cal and I read Sapiens: A Brief History of Mankind by Yuval Noah Harari. He explores the development of our species from the Stone Age to the 21st century and beyond. Easy to read and well written from beginning to end. He asks broad questions and answers them systematically and scientifically. We decided to change it up a bit and have a question and answer session on this particular work. There are ten questions total that we asked each other that will be listed below with our answers. Hopefully this will inspire you to explore the topics we discuss by reading this book yourself.
Michael McPhail: In Part One, The Cognitive Revolution, Harari writes that our ability to think, “declared independence from biology” largely due to the creation of shared myths thus cultures developed. Do you think that the very thing that united our species (cultures) will drive it apart?
Cal Wilkerson: Culture is a very interesting thing, because it largely stems from our sense of the “other” or the “not us”. A case study of this is the religion of Western liberalism, which attempts to fit all “valid” cultures into the pantheon of inclusivity. However, there are certain cultures that it must by nature exclude (bigots, homophobes, racists, etc.). It excludes these sub-cultures on account of their being exclusive, but ironically this results in Western liberalism becoming itself an exclusive sub-culture. Personally, I think cultures are here to stay, and that while they have the power to unite, the existence of multiple cultures will always necessitate division. I don’t see much possibility for all communists and capitalists, Muslims and Christians, nationalists and globalists, coming together and uniting under one universal human banner anytime soon. As such, culture will continue to unite humanity on the micro level but drive it apart on the macro level.
Michael McPhail: In Part Two, The Agricultural Revolution, the quote that stuck out to me was, “The Faustian bargain between humans and grains was not the only deal our species made. Another deal was struck concerning the fate of animals such as sheep, goats, pigs and chickens.” In your opinion did the agricultural revolution have more pros or cons?
Cal Wilkerson: This section was particularly fascinating to me. As Harari points out, the word “domesticate” is derived from the Latin word domus, meaning house or home. Before humans began to care for specific crops and animals, they did not live in homes; rather, they were nomads and hunter-gatherers. The need to build homes and permanent settlements arose from a need to care for the crops and animals. So who was really domesticated? Humans are the ones who built houses to live in and formerly did not have them. Additionally, a few species went from being largely insignificant (corn, barley, oats, wheat, rice, sheep, cows, pigs, goats, chickens) to being absolutely ubiquitous! They ensured their evolutionary survival via alliance with humans, and humans greatly diminished the types and variety of food they eat on a daily basis. We were able to grow more food and store away surpluses, but this prompted us to reproduce more, have more mouths to feed, and have to grow more food. This cycle has continued more or less to the current population of 7 billion people, still utterly reliant on these staple crops on the global market. However, I believe that now with the robotics revolution and genetic engineering, the scales have tipped in the favor of humans. We now can genetically engineer our crops to be insect-resistant, kill neighboring weeds, grow to a specified height in a specified time, etc, and we can do all of this by using drones to fertilize our fields and self-driving tractors. No longer do humans have to “eat their food by the sweat of their brow”. Furthermore, we have begun the large-scale enslavement and massacre of millions of domesticated meat-animals to satisfy the insatiable appetite of a world obsessed with meat. Go to a modern chicken plant and you will see the horrific life that these animals endure so that we can get our fried chicken tenders. In the long run, humans won the agricultural revolution, but the battle has just been won recently with robots and genetic-engineering. Ask a slave in the 1800s working on a rice plantation if the pros outweighed the cons, and he would probably prefer to be a hunter-gatherer. But as an American with the world’s market of consumable goods at my fingertips, the pros definitely outweighed the cons to get here. What a time to be alive.
Michael McPhail: In Part Three, The Unification of Humankind, I found myself pondering this quote, “We do not trust the stranger or the next door neighbor. We trust the coin they hold. If they run out of coins, we run out of trust. As money brings down the dams of community, religion and state, the world is in danger of becoming one big and rather heartless marketplace.” My question for you is, what is your take on the concerning nature of our societal make up the more and more we evolve?
Cal Wilkerson: This is something that I have thought about being in Malawi, Africa, for these past two and a half months. As a Westerner, I am treated differently in this country, largely due to (I suspect, though I cannot prove) the assumption that I have a great deal of disposable income. While this is true in the relative sense, I wonder what the Malawian’s perception of me is. Am I an intruder, an opportunity for an exchange of money, someone who has been exceptionally blessed by God, someone who has worked very hard to get to the position that I am in, someone that the cold hands of fate have favored irrationally? For whatever reason, I have money and others do not. This is true (to some limited extent) of everyone who is born in America, regardless of social class. I think the more important societal question to be asked is – why is this so? What does having capital tell about the essential aspects of a person? Why do we trust a person who has money more than one who does not have money? Whether implicit or explicit, we make certain character judgments rather quickly based off the liquidity of a person. I believe that each society, and each person, must take a personal journey through why this is so for them subjectively. Only then can it be analyzed as concerning or not.
Michael McPhail: In Part Four, The Scientific Revolution, Harari hits on, “Ardent capitalists tend to argue that capital should be free to influence politics but politics should not be allowed to influence capital.” Living a year in the global south, what negative repercussions have you seen from this dominant line of thinking?
Cal Wilkerson: As Noam Chomsky so elegantly put it in his documentary “Requiem For the American Dream”: “power concentrates wealth; wealth concentrates power”. There is an undeniable alliance between the wealthy and the powerful not just here in Africa, but also everywhere that capitalism exists. You see it in the campaign finance laws that were implemented by the United States Supreme Court in Citizens United. The capitalist consensus seems to be that industries and shareholders should be able to use their capital to elect government officials who will keep regulations loose and bureaucratic red tape to a minimum. Additionally, capitalists should be able to invest in huge lobbying conglomerates that will work around the clock to ensure that only policies beneficial to said capitalists are moved forward in the political arena. But by and large, the government should be laissez-faire as pertains to the market. The market should be pure, free, and unhindered by the meddling hands of a central power that does not understand the market forces it tinkers with. Here in the global south, this line of thinking is problematic for several reasons. First of all, workers here have no voice. There are no unions to speak of, people are dirt poor and will do just about any grueling or backbreaking work in order to bring home some currency to care for their families. Without the ability of politics to influence capital, these poor and downtrodden workers will be manipulated, taken advantage of, and cast aside by the titans of industry. Furthermore, the organizational structure just isn’t here in Africa yet. So much of the culture here is still based on villages and tribes. The land is owned by whoever happened to plant corn in that particular plot this year, with no clear fences or boundaries or borders. Ostensibly, the government could own it all, but the reality is that no one really knows or cares who owns what. There is no concept of private ownership in Malawi (outside of the cities); although it is not a communist country, things are shared and held in common to an astonishing degree. In a country this poor, the government really does have to give industry a kick in the pants to get things started, or else villagers will be living in mud huts for the next 50 years. At least here in Malawi, Harari’s “capitalist dilemma” does not yet exist on the large scale. I suspect it is the same in many other underdeveloped countries globally.
Michael McPhail: Lastly, after finishing this book what do you think will be the ultimate end to our species and what will our lasting legacy be? Good? Bad? or simply how you choose to view it?
Cal Wilkerson: To be quite honest, I don’t think the prognosis is looking very promising. One need only look at Malthusian population predictions to see that we are very near our carrying capacity as a species. I am tempted to agree that our short-term gains in standard of living will be eventually outpaced by the astronomical growth of the human population, ultimately driving humans back towards the animal struggle for survival. The human population grew from just 1 billion in 1800 to 7 billion in 2012. Some statisticians place the carrying capacity of human beings at 10 billion, and estimates of population growth predict that we will reach 9.5 billion by 2050. Now inequities abound within the inequitable human species, but currently (if every human lived in absolute equality and necessity), it would take approximately 1.5 Earths to sustain the population. By 2050, assuming trends continue (and I believe that there is good reason to believe they will), we will need 3 Earths to equitably sustain the population. Global food supply is only the beginning of the problem – the greatest problems lie with the destruction of the earth in the name of economic progress. The deforestation of the rain forests, melting of the global ice caps and rising sea levels due to increased greenhouse gas emission and large scale extermination of myriad species name just a few of these problems. The question is – where do we go from here? We can either make the pie bigger (improve technology so that we do less damage to the environment, are able to feed more people with less labor and capital, explore and colonize another world), or we can eat with fewer and smaller forks. It is not likely that any humans living in a currently opulent society are going to want to consume less; so likely I think that the lower classes are going to suffer as a consequence. I think that things will get worse for everyone in the long run, but especially so for those who are already marginalized and without power. I truly fear that very soon we will see the worst of humanity come to the fore, as the struggle for scarce and limited resources becomes all the more apparent. Now – as an optimist – I hope that after the inevitable struggle and crisis has taken its toll and the damage is done, that the enduring legacy of humans will be their ability to overcome this particular moment in history – the dilemma of the looming carrying capacity. It is the first truly global problem, against which EVERY human is going to be called into the struggle. I do not believe that the solution will be clean, equitable, fair or humane (resolution to human problems throughout history seldom have been), but I believe that humanity will learn from it and endure. As famed author William Faulkner said at his Nobel Prize acceptance speech: “I decline to accept the end of man. I believe that man will not merely endure: he will prevail.”
Cal Wilkerson: Harari suggests that money isn’t a material reality – it is rather a psychological construct. As a banker, how does this concept of money as a universal system of mutual trust play out in your work?
Michael McPhail: I tend to agree with Harari’s analysis of capital. The way the banks and their customers operate is based around the construct of money. The numbers and paper lose meaning once that agreement is terminated on the actual value of it. I see it played out everyday whether through credit limits, profit and loss statements and just simply bank account balances. The numbers represent the agreement of the psychological construct of capital. On another note I see the way it makes people act, which is far more unsettling but also shows the incredible ingenuity of humans as well. I stand in fear and awe every day of it.
Cal Wilkerson: In his section, “The Law of Religion”, Harari claims, “without recourse to eternal souls and a Creator God, it becomes embarrassingly difficult for liberals” to claim universal human rights. Why do you think liberal humanism is so popular in an increasingly secular Western society?
Michael McPhail: Our connected world allows people to see the plight of our less fortunate brothers and sisters around the world and even a few streets over. I think it is a response from those of us who have far more than we need towards those who have far less than we can imagine. We all want to some extent want others to have opportunity like ourselves but how it plays out is subject to debate. Liberal humanism is a natural response to so many of the injustices that we are exposed to.
Cal Wilkerson: When speaking on the Gilgamesh Project, Harari mentions that the leading project of the Scientific Revolution is to give humankind eternal life and that by 2050 some humans will become a-mortal. Will we see this in our lifetime? More importantly, should we see this in our lifetime?
Michael McPhail: A-mortality is something that is encroaching in our lifetime but if the goal is simply to avoid death itself then I think that shows our species lashing back at nature and the limits of time that have been placed on us. I wouldn’t be surprised if we saw it in our lifetime at the rate of scientific advances. My biggest question is what would it look like to see this implemented? Who would have access to it?
Cal Wilkerson: Do you think that happiness is just a succession of biochemical states that can be controlled by synthetic drugs, or is there more to happiness than that? (Admittedly, I do drink and depend on coffee for daily happiness).
Michael McPhail: Coffee is a cruel but necessary master for me as well. As I grow older I think that the biochemical states of happiness cannot be denied but a large part of me wants to believe that there is more to it. I am by no means a neuro-scientist but we pursue relationships, experiences and work that produce happiness so it has to be something more tangible than simply chemicals being released in our brains or at least I want it to be.
Cal Wilkerson: The book ends by discussing the possibility of Sapiens becoming an entirely different type of being – linking human cyborgs on a “brain Internet” to share human memory and consciousness, bionic appendages controlled by human thought, creating a mind inside a computer, etc. Do these possibilities excite or frighten you?
Michael McPhail: I think it is very possible to see humans create a synthetic man over time. It frightens me but mainly due to pop cultures predictions of how those artificial intelligent beings will develop and respond to us that is driven out of fear obviously. It excites me to see the possibilities that could play out while seeing the experiment in work. If you look at a lot of social media platforms that are trying to learn human behaviors then it is obvious what is going on. Through our innate human desire to be connected we propel this. Werner Herzog my favorite documentary filmmakers quoted The Prussian war theoretician Clausewitz, in Napoleonic times, that said “Sometimes war dreams of itself,” in his marvelous documentary Lo and Behold, in reference to the potential development of an AI within the web. It is something I find myself thinking a lot about. If we believe in evolutionary trajectory then it is inventible that a beta species creates an alpha species that will carry on our true immortal legacy long after we are extinct.
Written by Cal Wilkerson & Michael McPhail