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20150410 Sapience

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MAIN IDEA:

The main idea of this book is to review history of humanity with stress on key points of human development that made humans the most successful animal known. These points are:

  • Cognitive revolution that created abstract thinking allowing supreme levels of cooperation and communication;
  • Agricultural Revolution that created environment for empire building and increase in numbers of humans way beyond natural capacity of environment;
  • Discovery of ignorance and Scientific revolution that radically improved quality of human lives.

Final conclusion is that humans practically become gods limited in their abilities only by natural laws and while it is not possible to predict where we are going, it could be said that evolutionary history of humanity ended and we are at the beginning of consciously directed development.

DETAILS:

Part One: The Cognitive Revolution

  1. An Animal of No Significance

This is a brief review of our limited knowledge about existence of different humanoids. Homo Sapience was far from the only one among many apes with big brains, some of them with the bigger one than Sapience. The point is made that with high cost of big brain all these apes could been developed only due to higher survival efficiency caused by this brain and expressed in cooking and other uses of fire. It drastically decreased time and effort needed for feeding. Somehow Sapience were able to benefit from this more than any other species and within relatively short time of less than 70,000 years they settled everywhere around the world exterminating and interbreeding with other brainy apes.

  1. The Tree of Knowledge

Here it becomes interesting because it introduces an idea of Cognitive revolution that allowed Sapience to create abstract entities capable to coordinate and direct actions of individuals in organized manner. Author provides an interesting table to presents it features and consequences:

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  1. A Day in the Life of Adam and Eve

This is a brief review of what is known about prehistoric societies otherwise known as bands of hunter-gatherers. The main point here is that it was way of live for which we are the most adjusted by evolution of our bodies from our digestive tract and attraction to high calorie food to our social brain effectively supporting complex relationships in groups of up to 150 individuals. It was sustainable, but really tough existence that is only partially could be understood due to absence of artifacts. Part of it is that even if we can find some artifacts they are often support contradictory narratives even in such simple issue as whether war or peace prevailed in live of prehistoric people. There are archeological places with skeletons indicating death from natural causes, but there also places with evidence of massacres. From cognitive revolution point of view an important fact is evidence of art dated to 15,000-20,000 years and demonstrating that at least some abstract ideas start forming in human minds about this period of time.

  1. The Flood

The final chapter of this part discusses expansion of humanity throughout the world. While still maintaining structure of small bands and still relying on hunting and gathering humans become so good at it that they were able to move everywhere in the world in process extinguishing multiple species of big mammals who were good targets for coordinated hunting by the group of humans with decent planning and communication capabilities.

 Part Two: The Agricultural Revolution

  1. History’s Biggest Fraud

This chapter is about transition to agriculture. Interestingly enough it presented agriculture as a big fraud that nature inflicted upon humanity. The promise of agriculture was easier living due to ability to grow more food, but biological nature of humanity caused humans to multiply as soon as more food become available pushing them into Malthusian cycle and in process decreasing quality of life by making people work harder, accept deteriorating diet of grains or rice, and fight each other in territorial wars. All these developments related to agriculture taken together put high premium on tribe’s ability to expand beyond 150 individuals and direct coordinated actions of thousands people in war or big long-term projects. The tribes that managed to meet this challenge by inventing abstractions of god(s), great leaders, and such become winners taking more land, incorporating other tribes in their society, and acquiring slaves to till their fields.

  1. Building Pyramids

This chapter is review of abstractions that people come up with within framework of agricultural society. These abstractions run from Hammurabi code (1776 BC) to US Constitution (1776 AD), from religions of old with multiple and highly specialized gods to contemporary monotheistic religions like Christianity or Islam, and atheistic religions such as communism or National Socialism. Author provides common characteristics for imaginary order created based on such abstractions:

  • The imagined order is imbedded in material world
  • The imagined order shapes our desires
  • The imagined order is inter-subjective meaning it is subjective, but shared by multiple individuals, typically by majority of the people in society.
  1. Memory Overload

This chapter is about next cognitive step when people invented tools to overcome memory limitations of individual human. This step was invention of writing that allowed fixing information in stone and much later in computer memory, creating foundation for managing millions of individuals as one body via nervous system of bureaucracy. Correspondingly continuing development of knowledge created multiple scientific languages for different areas such as calculus, mathematics, chemistry, and many more.

  1. There is No Justice in History

This chapter is about organization of society at the level of unequal groups of people defined by various often randomly selected individual features such as skin color. Author provides framework of development of vicious cycle of rigid social system:

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Discussion is related initially to racism and then goes to sexism, providing an interesting table of attitude changes:

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Author also poses an interesting question: “How come that human society that extensively relies on cooperation the less cooperating sexual group (males) are routinely dominate ove more cooperating group (females). He has no answer at this point.

Part Three: The Unification of Humankind

  1. The Arrow of History

The view of history had changed from image of arrow flying in some predefined direction to quasi-static condition continuously interrupted by unpredictable events and therefore moving chaotically from one direction to another. In other words it is being in flux with no predestination whatsoever, but with some loosely defined direction nevertheless. This direction could be rather defined as consolidation of humanity that started at very low level of groups and growing into one global entity of humanity. This process is based on foundation of three abstractions: money, empires, and religions.

10 .The Scent of Money

The first abstraction – money supports effective division of labor and exchange of goods and services. This chapter is a very short discussion of money with stress on its function as trusted medium of exchange.

  1. Imperial Visions

The second abstraction – imperial visions provides for unification of humanity in large entities that provide security, create common trade space, and develop common cultural space for huge numbers of people over extended territories. Here is tabulated representation of empires life cycles:

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The final destination of this vision where we are moving now is a global empire that includes all of humanity held together by common culture and common interests.

  1. The Law of Religion

The third abstraction – religion provides for unified philosophical view of the world that support culture of the society and cohesiveness of its members. This chapter reviews a number of religions developed by humanity including secular religions such as Buddhism and Communism. It also provides a useful graph for their understanding:

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It also distinguish as a separate category humanist religions:

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  1. The Secret of Success

This is discussion of how humanity get to the point it is in now – a dominant species in process of merging into one global entity. The point is made that history is second-order chaotic system meaning that any prediction changes outcome, making it unpredictable in principle. For the most part history did not lead to improvement of human lives, this is very recent phenomenon and even so it was not true for many people who perished in calamities of last century despite dramatic increase in productive abilities of humanity and improvements in all areas of technology.

 Part Four: The Scientific Revolution

  1. The Discovery of Ignorance

The science starts with recognition of ignorance. Historically people always new everything about the world meaning that they believed they know everything there is to know and this knowledge is contained either in heads of wise old men or in sacred books. The discovery of ignorance prompted beginning of search of knowledge, creating science:

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  1. The Marriage of Science and Empire

This chapter is about how Europe managed to combine newly found scientific approach to the world expressed in new technology and imperial conquest, while other cultures especially Chinese were not able to do it.

  1. The Capitalist Creed

This is about another component of European success – capitalism that provided economic foundation for application of science and technology to real life problems. Interestingly enough it looks at capitalism and monetized economy from morality point of view when everything is based on trust. Trust in money being a good conduit for value, but most important trust in the future as foundation of modern economy:

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  1. The Wheels of Industry

This chapter is about some features of capitalism such as technology advancement, mass production including treatment of animals as machines. It also linked to consumerism with an interesting point that in the past objectives of aristocratic elites were dedicated to consumption, while regular people worked hard just to survive. The current conditions of developed capitalism led to situation when business elite works hard to invest capital in most effective way to achieve high return, while regular people work a lot less if at all and consume a lot more.

  1. A Permanent Revolution

This chapter is about other side of capitalist development: the great weakening of family and community and their substitute by the state and virtual community:

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  1. And They Lived Happily Ever After

This is about human happiness and meaning of life, the issues that become important after science and capitalism provided enough food and consumables to maintain this life nearly effortlessly.

  1. The End of Homo Sapience

The final chapter is about next phase in history of Sapience when humans achieved ability to consciously redesign their own DNA and rebuild biological world around them to whatever specification they would like. Combined with already dramatically changed material world with its houses, cars, communications, and array of newly created goods and services this final frontier signifies end of Homo Sapience as animal created by evolution and begins new chapter of Sapience that created himself.

Afterword: The Animal that Become a God

The book ends with a charming point that while humans become gods they are still do not know where they are going and what they want to achieve. So the final question is: “Is there anything more dangerous than dissatisfied and irresponsible gods who don’t know what they want?

MY TAKE ON IT:

I find the framework of history of Homo Sapience presented in this book highly viable with decent explanatory power. Especially interesting is notion of discovery of ignorance that I do not remember encountering anywhere else. Another interesting point while not entirely new, but somehow poorly understood, is that capitalism is economic system build on trust and this is a very important reason for its success. I would not completely agree with author about current situation, which he believes characterized by increase in strength of state and market at the expense of family and community. I think that we will see decrease in the power in influence of state and restructuring of family and community that would change from family held together by external forces of laws and traditions to family held together voluntary by mutual affection. The similar process would happen with community when it will change from territorial community of kin to virtual community of individuals with similar interests and attitudes. In short – the real story of humanity is just beginning.


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