Thursday, April 6, 2017

Week 7: April 7: Chapters 16, 17 and 18

Our readings for this week, for those who like to keep up, are Chapters 16, The Capitalist Creed, Chapter 17,  The Wheels of Industry, and Chapter 18,  A Permanent Revolution. However, even if you've fallen a little behind, please come out regardless to enjoy good conversation, make closer friendships, and hopefully broaden and deepen your perspective. Who knows how much longer Sapiens will be here?

Chapter 16: The Capitalist Creed

1. 307- “What enables banks - and the entire economy - to survive and flourish is our trust in the future.  This trust is the sole backing for most of the money in the world.”
308 “Credit enables us to build the present at the expense of the future. It’s founded on the assumption that our future resources are sure to be far more abundant than our present resources.”

Is that human foolishness or brilliance at work, here?

2. Business looked like a zero-sum game…You could cut the pie in many different ways, but it never got any bigger.”  This meant that, if one person got ‘richer’, someone else must be getting poorer - which explains why so many cultures developed a bias against wealth (as sinful).
311 - Adam Smith, The Wealth of Nations .“…[A]n increase in the profits of private entrepreneurs is the basis for the increase in collective wealth and prosperity.”
i.e. Greed is good; by becoming richer I benefit everybody, not just myself. Egoism IS altruism.
Greed is good for the collective. Being rich meant being moral.

Are there any ways in which Smith’s theory was right?  What was problematic about it? 

3. 322 “Today some people warn that twenty-first century corporations are accumulating too much power.”
Agree or disagree?

4. 323 - Story of the Mississippi shares - people given a fantasy story, sold everything to invest — believed they’d found “the easy way to riches.”
323-4:  Mississippi story  -  stocks became worthless; the big speculators sold in time and emerged unscathed.  The little guys lost everything - many committed suicide.
What IS that, in humans?  When will we learn?  Similarities to the Bernie Madoff story of the last few years — a recent suicide connected to him, just this month.  

5. 329  - The rise of European capitalism - hand in hand with rise of Atlantic slave trade. 
“Unrestrained market forces, rather than tyrannical kings or racist ideologues, were responsible for this calamity.” 331 - “did not stem from racist hatred towards africans - those involved rarely thought about the africans.”

Also the Great Bengal Famine - financed by upstanding Dutch - loved their kids, gave to charity — but had no regard for the suffering of 10 million Bengalis.  

How is it that a human can be kind and good in many ways, yet participate in something horrific and be indifferent to others’ suffering?

6. Capitalism - 2 answers to its critics:
1.      capitalism has created a world that nobody but a capitalist could run
2.     paradise is just around the corner - the pie will grow and everyone will get a bigger piece (never equitable, but enough to satisfy everyone)
Do you agree with either of these arguments, and why?

Chapter 17:  The Wheels of Industry - The Industrial Revolution

1. 341 ‘Life on the Conveyor Belt’
“The Industrial Revolution was above all else, the Second Agricultural Revolution.” 

What does he mean? 

2. “Farm animals stopped being viewed as living creatures that could feel pain and distress, and instead came to be treated as machines.” “The industry has no intrinsic interest in the animals’ social and psychological needs (except when these have a direct impact on production).”

“Just as the Atlantic slave trade did not stem from hatred towards Africans, so the modern animal industry is not motivated by animosity.  Again, it is fuelled by indifference.”

What are the similarities or differences in these two instances?

3. 347 “The Age of Shopping”

A new ethic:  Consumerism
For most of history - scarcity, frugality, austere ethics
Today - we buy countless products we don’t really need, and that until yesterday we didn’t know existed.
What are the outcomes of this for us as individuals, as society, as a world?

Previous ethical systems - paradise, but only if you overcome all your vices. Here, it’s the opposite - this ethic allows you to give in to all of them. 
Chapter 18:  A Permanent Revolution

1.352 - Time, clocks
Subject only to the movements of the sun and the growth cycles of plants.
No uniform working day.  Modern industry care little about the sun or the season. It sanctifies precision and uniformity.

Do you think this has been a good/helpful change for most of humanity?
How has being on the clock affected you, for good or for ill?

2. He points out (355) that we are surrounded by things showing us the time, all the time.
How does that affect your psyche? Is this similar to always having your phone in hand, always ‘being connected’?  Do you experience more joy or relaxation when you don’t know the time, or does that make you anxious?

3.Collapse of the Family and Community
Before - the nuclear, extended or community family took care of all our needs
Now - the state does.  Health, construction, education, law and order, etc.

That has had good and bad outcomes - where would you say the balance lies?  Are we better off with more from the state and market, and less dependence on family? 

4. The mantra was, “Become individuals”, “be more independent.” 
Do you think we have become either of those things?

5. 365 He argues that it’s almost impossible to identify a defining attribute of our time, except for constant change - like defining the colour of a chameleon.
What would YOU say is a defining attribute of our time?

6. 366
“Real peace is not the mere absence of war.  Real peace is the implausibility of war.” 
The law of the jungle - plausible scenario of war within one year.  Today, for most polities, there is no plausible scenario leading to full-scale conflict within one year. 

How does that make you feel?  Relieved? Surprised? Doubtful/skeptical?

7. 372
“Never before has peace been so prevalent that people could not even imagine war.”

The following were some of the reasons he cites as to why we live in a time where people can hardly imagine a war.  Do you believe these reasons are enough to prevent another world war?
1.     The price of war has gone up dramatically
2.     Wealth today cannot be plundered and taken - it’s human capital and technical know-how
3.     Peace is more lucrative than ever - foreign trade and investments have become all-important
4.     Global political culture has shifted - the elites see war as bad and avoidable.
5.     The ‘tightening web of international connections erodes the independence of most countries,’ lessening the chance of one of them starting a conflict.

Week 6: March 24: Chapetsr 14 and 15

Those of you still on schedule will have read Chapter 14, The Discovery of Ignorance, and Chapter 15, The Marriage of Science and Empire by now. If you haven't yet, no problem, you can read it when you're ready. Or not...

Chapter 14: The Discovery of Ignorance

1.     Pgs 249-250 - Harari writes, “Science needs more than just research to make progress. It depends on the mutual reinforcement of science, politics and economics.”
How has scientific development been influenced by politics and economics? How do you see that happening today?  Should this be happening?  Why or why not?

2.     pg 251 - “The Scientific Revolution has not been a revolution of knowledge. It has been above all a revolution of ignorance.”
What did he mean by this? How does modern science’s view of ignorance compare to how the ancient traditions viewed ignorance?

3. Pg. 254 - “One of the things that has made it possible for modern social orders to hold together is the spread of an almost religious belief in technology and in the methods of scientific research, which have replaced to some extent the belief in absolute truths.”
Is human society exchanging religious belief in deities for religious belief in science and technology?  What does that mean? Is this good or bad?

4. pg. 256  - “Newton showed that the book of nature is written in the language of Mathematics.” 
What is your reaction to this?

5. Pg. 262 - “Today many Americans believe that the solution to terrorism is technological rather than political.”  E.g. Nanotechnology for bionic spy-flies; brain research for FMRI scanners to read people’s thoughts, etc.
a)    Do you agree that the solution to terrorism is technological; why/ why not?
b)    Should tax dollars be put toward these endeavours?  (If not, why not?  If so, what would you take the money from, in order to put it here?)
c)    If these were already developed, what would be your rules about how they should be used?  E.g., Ok to use, but only in foreign countries (e.g., spy flies)? Would you vote for or against brain scanners/thought readers being used at Pearson Airport, if it made it safer to fly?
d)    What are you thoughts on this, in the current climate of Russia-gate in the US, and the reports of TVs being used to spy on people?

7. “People still suffer from numerous degradations, humiliations and poverty-related illnesses, but in most countries nobody is starving to death. In fact, in many societies more people are in danger of dying from obesity than from starvation.”
Your thoughts? 

8. Pg. 267-271 - For science - death is a ‘technical problem’; people die technical failures - heart attack, cancer, infections. The leading project of the Scientific Revolution is to give humankind eternal life. A few serious scholars suggest that by 2050, some humans will become a-mortal.”
Do you think this immortality is a wise and moral use of resources today (why/why not)?
Can you imagine the world in 2050, from a science/technology perspective?  What does it look like?  Would you want to live in that world, as you imagine it?

9. Pg. 272 - 274  “Most scientific studies are funded because somebody believes they can help attain some political, economic or religious goal. To channel limited resources we must answer questions such a ‘what is more important?’ and ‘what is good?’  And these are not scientific questions….Science is unable to set its own priorities.
Where do morals, ethics, philosophy etc. come into play in the decisions re: what to fund and what not? If you were the King/Queen and could make the decisions/ set the priorities, how would you handle this?  What ideologies could help make those choices? Could you create one? 

Chapter 15: The Marriage of Science and Empire

1.      Harari argues that the “Scientific Revolution and Imperialism are inseparable.” What does he mean?  Some examples?

2.     Pg. 284 - “European imperialism was entirely unlike all other imperial projects in history.  Previous seekers of empire tended to assume that they already understood the world. Conquest merely utilized and spread their view of the world…In contrast, European imperialists set out to distant shores in the hope of obtaining new knowledge along with new territories.”

3. p 285 - The story - or legend - about an encounter between astronauts-in-training and a Native American has a pretty powerful ending. 
What were your thoughts/reactions to that?

4. Pg. 286 -  The Empty Maps.
Imagine living in a time when there was no certain map of the earth.  Columbus was so sure that the scriptures and his current understanding of the world were right that even when he literally landed on information to the contrary, he still refused to believe it.
Do you think it’s possible we have similar blind spots today, as individuals and/or as a nation? A world? What might they be? What stops us from seeing them?

5. P 290 -291 - The Chinese also sent out explorers (Zheng He) - in fact, with far more ships, and far larger crews. The difference?  He did not try to conquer or colonize the countries he visited.  “What made Europeans exceptions was not their outstanding technological edge - it was their unparalleled and insatiable ambition to explore and conquer. The Europeans were the oddity - “…to sail to distant and completely unknown lands full of alien cultures, take one step onto their beaches, and immediately declare, “I claim all these territories for my king!”
Why do you think the Chinese explorers had such a different mindset from the Europeans?  How might the world look today, if everyone had gone out with a similar viewpoint/mindset to the Chinese (for good, or for ill)?

6. Pg. 300 - 301
Knowledge really was power for the European conquerers - in what sense(s)? 

7. Pg. 301 
What was the “White Man’s Burden”?
8. Pg.  302 - 304 - “The place of racism in imperial ideology has now been replaced by ‘culturalism’…We no longer say, ‘It’s in their blood.’  We say, ‘It’s in their culture.’”
How do you see that playing out in the world today?  What’s the danger?

Monday, March 6, 2017

Week 5: March 10 Questions (Chapters 11, 12 and 13 (?):

This week we are following through on Jeanne's great idea from our last gathering: YOU bring the questions! After going around the room, it was felt to be a good time for each of us to take on the responsibility for coming up with questions or passages that were of interest to each of ourselves. You can use a hi-liter, make notes, or (heaven forbid!) fold over the top corner of a page - anyway way you choose, but please come prepared to share your own discussion points.

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Week 4: Feb 24 Questions (Chapt 8, 9, 10)

Chapter 8 concludes Part Two (The Agricultural Revolution). Chapter 9 and 10 introduce Part Three (The Unification of Humankind). The whole book, though, seems based on the idea that the world has been made smaller by homo sapiens in that thousands and thousands of people unknown to each other for thousands and thousands of years gradually morphed into a single culture common to the whole planet. The questions that follow are intended to highlight specific points made in each section of each chapter. The truths that flow from them might be summarized in questions such as, What’s next: where are we as homo sapiens going? Is there any turning back? Why are so many people afraid of (or enthusiastic about) world trade, world government, and world unity? How do we resolve disputes that threaten world peace?  
CHAPTER 8: There is No Justice in History
1.     What do Hammurabi, Aristotle, the Brahmins, the Shudras, and the authors of the American Declaration of Independence have in common? What fictions support their views? How are these views sustained in contemporary society?
The Vicious Circle
2.     How have concepts of purity and pollution enforced social and political divisions between people?
Purity in America
3.     Why did the lot of the slaves not improve after the American Civil War? What was the impact of the Jim Crow laws (de jure in the South; de facto in the North)?
He and She
4.     What does it mean to say that biology enables, while culture forbids?
5.     Is it natural for an insect to fly or a chimpanzee to use sex to cement political alliances?
Sex and Gender
6.     What is the difference between sex and gender?
What’s so Good About Men
7.     Is there some universal biological reason why almost everyone valued manhood over womanhood?
Muscle Power
8.     Could boxing matches have produced better pharaohs and better popes? (cf Trudeau)
The Scum of Society
9.     How did the militarily challenged Caesar Augustus establish a stable empire?
10.  Could a woman have done so as easily?
Patriarchal Genes
11.  Why ae human woman less likely to play dominant roles in their societies than elephant females in theirs?
CHAPTER 9: The Arrow Of History
12.  What is cognitive dissonance? How is it evident in Christianity, American politics, and Muslim culture? Is it like doublespeak in 1984?
The Spy Satellite
13.  Does the inexorable trend toward unity really bring the New York stockbroker and the Afghan together? If so, what’s next?
The Global Vision
14.  Why can Osama Bib Laden be said to have transcended the binary evolutionary division (us vs them) of homo sapiens?
CHAPTER 10: The Scent of Money
15.  Why did Muslim merchants accept gold coins having the sign of the cross?
How Much Is It?
16.  What is the problem with the barter system? Why did it not work for the Soviet Union?
Shells and Cigarettes
17.  How was it possible to convert forbidden sex into salvation?
How Does Money work?
18.  Why have people trusted money for as long as 5,000 years? When have they not trusted it?
The Gospel of Gold
19.  How does money unify the world? What can challenge that unity?
The Price of Money
20.  Why is money not enough?

Friday, February 10, 2017

Week 3: Feb 10 Questions (Chapt 5, 6, 7)

 Chapter 5: History's Biggest Fraud


1.  What was the agricultural revolution according to Harari?  What were the effects?

2.  P. 81 “We did not domesticate wheat.  It domesticated us.” 
Explain whether you agree or disagree.

3. What is the luxury trap?

 Chapter 6: Building Pyramids


4.  P. 101  “These forfeited food surpluses fueled politics, wars, art and philosophy. They built palaces, forts, monuments and temples. . . . History is something that very few people have been doing while everyone else was ploughing fields and carrying water buckets.”
Is history simply something “done” by very few people?  Discuss.

5.  P. 102  “The problem at the root of such calamities (conflicts, collapse of social order, etc.) is that human evolved for millions of years in small bands of a few dozen individuals.  The handful of millennia separating the Agricultural Revolution from the appearance of cities, kingdoms and empires was not enough time to allow an instinct for mass cooperation to evolve.”

People often used words such as “instinct,” “human nature,” and “culture” when they try to explain something that they are NOT too clear about.  What is your understanding of “instinct” in the quote?  Do you agree with the author in his use of “instinct” in explaining the lack of cooperation among Sapiens?

6.  Chapters 5 and 6:  The author seems to argue that the Agricultural Revolution, including planning for the future, brought Sapiens stress and troubles instead of a better life.
Do you think so? Explain.

7.  P. 103  Empires became linked to standing armies around 2250 BCE.  How did the Agricultural Revolution influence the development of empires and standing army?

8.  Pp. 105 – 109  How are both the Code of Hammurabi and the Declaration of Independence of the United States of 1776 myths of history serving as cooperation manuals among large numbers of people?

9.  Pp. 108 -110  Harari quotes the famous line from the American Declaration of Independence and then translates the line into biological terms.  Do you agree with the author’s reasons for the change?  Why or why not?

 Chapter 7: Memory Overload


10.  Ch. 7  What is an imagined order?  Why is it necessary in a Sapiens society?  Give examples from the book or your own experience.

11.  Pp. 130 – 132  About the language of numbers and its various “descendants,” Harari writes:  “Writing was born as the maidservant of human consciousness, but is increasingly becoming its master.”   Do you agree or disagree?  Explain.

Thursday, January 26, 2017

Week 2: Jan 27 Questions (Chapt 2, 3, 4)

Chapter 2: The Tree of Knowledge

1. P. 21 “The “Cognitive Revolution.” Accidental genetic mutations changed the inner wiring of the brains of Sapiens, enabling them to think in unprecedented ways and to communicate using an altogether new type of language. We might call it the Tree of Knowledge mutation.”

What does he mean by the “Tree of Knowledge mutation”? Why do you think he uses that term? Why is this an appropriate/good name (or not!) for this shift in our cognitive abilities? Given the Christian history, does that place a moral judgement or value on that shift?

2. P. 22 - Our language developed as “a means of sharing information about the world. But the most important information that needed to be covered was about humans, not about lions and bison. Our language evolved as a way of gossiping.”

How was gossip pivotal to our development? What would you say is its role today?

3. P. 24/25 - Sapiens seem to be the only animal capable of imagining things they have never seen, including the creation of legends, myths, gods and religions. How has this helped us to “rule the world”? How might this be our downfall?

4. P. 28 -The author writes that there are “no human rights…outside the common imagination of human beings.”

Do humans innately ‘have’ rights, or have we decided as a species, to grant ourselves those rights? (What about other animals?)

5. pg 31 - The author writes, “An imagined reality is not a lie.”

Do you agree or disagree? (What would Trump or Kelly Conway say?) :)

6. P. 32 - “Ever since the Cognitive Revolution, Sapiens has thus been living in a dual reality. On the one hand, the objective reality of rivers, trees and lions; and on the other hand, the imagined reality of gods, nations and corporations. As time went by, the imagined reality became ever more powerful, so that today the very survival of rivers, trees and lions depends on the grace of imagined entities such as gods, nations, and corporations.” DISCUSS.

7. Pg 34 Our new ability to tell stories enabled cooperation of large groups of people (beyond 150), allowing us to transform social structures, interpersonal relations, economic activities within decades.

Our storytelling served a purpose; we ‘evolved’ quickly - not biologically, but societally and culturally. Does it still serve us? Will something else evolve in us? What do you think might be the next evolution for us as a species?

8. P. 35/36 - Trade. Seems pragmatic, but can’t happen without trust between strangers; we appeal to common myths to bring trust between strangers.

We are starting to see this today re: world markets — Brexit/EU, USA/Mexico, — closing down borders, putting up walls, decreased trust, re-negotiations of trade agreements.

How could common stories help our world right now?
How are some of the ‘stories’ being told affecting the world?

Chapter 3: Adam and Eve


1. P. 40 “For nearly the entire history of our species, Sapiens lived as foragers. …(E)volutionary psychology argues that many of our present-day social and psychological characteristics were shaped during the long pre-agricultural era.”

Our current “environment gives us more material resource and longer lives than those enjoyed by any previous generation, but it often makes us feel alienated, depressed and pressured.”

Plague of obesity because we are programmed to gorge on high-calorie sweets and fats — ripe fruit, in short supply for them, doughnuts and french fries for us.
What can we learn from our ancestry/ DNA to help us with today’s challenges?

2. Pg 43: Artefacts tell the story of the society to future generations.

Our ancestors, the foragers, moved all the time so “had to make do with only the most essential possessions…the greater part of their mental, religious and emotional lives was conducted without the help of artefacts.” 
In the digital age, are we moving away from artefacts, once again?

3. P. 46 “…they still spend the vast majority of their time in complete isolation and independence…there were no permanent towns or institutions. The average person lived many months without seeing or hearing a human from outside of her own band, and she encountered throughout her life no more than a few hundred humans.”

Imagine! Would you prefer a life like that, or ours today (seeing millions at one gathering, alone)!

4. p. 49 - “The human collective knows far more today than did the ancient bands. But at the individual level, ancient foragers were the most knowledgable and skillful people in history.”

They were smarter, more skilled, more capable, more knowledgable, than we are, as individuals. More tuned in to nature and to their own bodies. (Fit as marathon runners, observed foliage, great physical dexterity, moved silently etc.)

How do you think our movement from being outside, connected to nature, in tune with our bodies etc. into enclosed, concrete, out-of-the-elements environments has affected modern-day humans?

5. pg.54 - Animism:

“The belief that almost every place, every animal, every plant and every natural phenomenon has awareness and feelings, and can communicate directly with humans.” 

Why do you think animism was the primary belief of the foragers?
How do theism (belief in a god-being) and animism compare?
If animism made a come-back today, what would be the result?

6. P. 57 - The pic of the hands — It seems we have always wanted to ‘make our mark’, to be remembered, to say, “we were here.” Is this some sort of quest for immortality? Wanting future generations to see something of us? Or is it some sort of communication with ourselves, to be a reflection of our OWN worth?

Chapter 4: The Flood


P 64: “The journey of the first humans to Australia is one of the most important events in history, at least as important at Columbus’ journey to American or the Apollo 11 expedition to the moon…Homo sapiens climbed to the top rung in the food chain on a particular landmass and thereafter became the deadliest species in the annals of planet Earth.”
P. 66: - more than 90% of Australia’s megafauna disappeared
Homo sapiens was still overwhelmingly a terrestrial menace.
“ecological serial killer.” (Australia, New Zealand, Arctic Ocean…all islands…)
P 68: - Had mastered “fire agriculture” - “completely changed the ecology of large parts of Australia within a few short millennia (which, in turn, “influenced the animals that ate the plants and the carnivores that ate the vegetarians”.)

P 69 - To America: Even larger ecological disaster, this time in America
- within 2000 years - most species gone. 34/47 genera of large mammals (along with thousands of smaller mammals, reptiles, birds, insects, parasites.
“…(T)he inevitable conclusion is that the first wave of Sapiens colonization was one of the biggest and swiftest ecological disasters to befall the animal kingdom.”

Author asks, ‘Perhaps if more people were aware of the First Wave (spread of the foragers) and Second Wave (the spread of the farmers) extinctions, the’d be less nonchalant about the Third Wave they are part of. If we knew how many species we’ve already eradicated, we might be more motivated to protect those that still survive.

Do you think that’s true? Would this knowledge make a difference in our collective behaviour?

Our ancestors were operating without the scientific information we have today (e.g., weather patterns, other species) and were also operating from a ‘survival perspective’. Today, we have the ability to do more than survive - yet we are creating a Third Wave of Extinction. What do you think our descendants will say about this period in time?

Given our level of awareness and scientific information (as compared with our ancestors who were just trying to survive and were unaware of the devastation they were wreaking) — what is our moral responsibility to the other species of the world, if any?

Or, is this just nature (survival of the fittest) continuing its natural path?

Saturday, January 21, 2017

Additional Articles

You may be interested in this article about the peopling of our planet and genomics:

Archaeological evidence shows human settlement in Yukon much earlier than previously thought:

Related articles:

The book Europe and the People Without History gives a somewhat different interpretation of global history ~1400 - 1900 CE (Wikipedia).  It is regarded as a classic in the field.

Europe and the People Without History is a book by anthropologist Eric Wolf. First published in 1982, it focuses on the expansion of European societies in the Modern Era. "Europe and the people without history" is history written on a global scale, tracing the connections between communities, regions, peoples and nations that are usually treated as discrete subjects.[1]

A global history[edit]

The book begins in 1400 with a description of the trade routes a world traveller might have encountered, the people and societies they connected, and the civilizational processes trying to incorporate them. From this, Wolf traces the emergence of Europe as a global power, and the reorganization of particular world regions for the production of goods now meant for global consumption. Wolf differs from World Systems theory in that he sees the growth of Europe until the late eighteenth century operating in a tributory framework, and not capitalism. He examines the way that colonial state structures were created to protect tributary populations involved in the silver, fur and slave trades. Whole new "tribes" were created as they were incorporated into circuits of mercantile accumulation. 
The final section of the book deals with the transformation in these global networks as a result of the growth of capitalism with the industrial revolution. Factory production of textiles in England, for example transformed cotton production in the American south and Egypt, and eliminated textile production in India. All these transformations are connected in a single structural change. Each of the world's regions are examined in terms of the goods they produced in the global division of labour, as well as the mobilization and migration of whole populations (such as African slaves) to produce these goods. Wolf uses labor market segmentation to provide a historical account of the creation of ethnic segmentation.[2] Where World Systems theory had little to say about the periphery, Wolf's emphasis is on the people "without history" (i.e. not given a voice in western histories) and on how they were active participants in the creation of new cultural and social forms emerging in the context of commercial empire.[3]

Wei Djao