Tigerpapers

Pondering the palimpsest and panoply of the planet.

On Plato, Donald Trump, and the Ship of State

(Originally published at Wrath-Bearing Tree)

Plato’s most famous work and the foundational text of political philosophy is the Republic. Written in the form of a dialogue between Socrates and other real-life Athenians, the book opens with a discussion about the nature of justice and then proceeds into Plato’s ideas about what an ideal state and its leader would look like. I will argue how these ideas are still relevant nowadays, especially regarding the disturbing state of American politics in which the American people are considering electing for the first time an openly authoritarian leader who is blatantly unqualified for the job.

Plato, an aristocrat, held a deep antipathy for democracy; he had lived through the defeat of Athens at the hand of Sparta as well as the condemnation of his mentor, Socrates. He blamed democracy for these twin catastrophes. His own ideal state would actually bear strong resemblance to Sparta–a totalitarian state in which a small elite trained for success in battle, the majority were disenfranchised slaves who did all the labor, and all cultural activities were forbidden. Bertrand Russell in his History of Western Philosophy summarized Plato’s Republic as follows:

“When we ask: what will Plato’s Republic achieve? The answer is rather humdrum. It will achieve success in wars against roughly equal populations, and it will secure a livelihood for a certain small number of people. It will almost certainly produce no art or science, because of its rigidity; in this respect, as in others, it will be like Sparta. In spite of all the fine talk, skill in war and enough to eat is all that will be achieved. Plato had lived through famine and defeat in Athens; perhaps, subconsciously, he thought the avoidance of these evils the best that statesmanship could accomplish.”

Russell goes on in his criticism, answering the question of how and why Plato could have achieved such greatness despite having, frankly, mostly terrible ideas:

“Plato possessed the art to dress up illiberal suggestions in such a way that they deceived future ages, which admired the Republic without ever becoming aware of what was involved in its proposals. It has always been correct to praise Plato, but not to understand him. This is the common fate of great men. My object is the opposite. I wish to understand him, but to treat him with as little reverence as if he were a contemporary English or American advocate of totalitarianism.”

Plato’s Non-Ideal Republic in Practice

Indeed, the millennia of admiration for Plato’s Republic came to a sudden end when Russell’s History and Karl Popper’s The Open Society and Its Enemies were published in the same year–1945. No coincidence that both were written during the Second World War at the height of the destruction wrought by demented dictators and dangerous ideas. Popper’s was perhaps the first, and still most important work, that separates Plato from the humanistic and democratic ideas of Socrates, and shows rather that Plato’s ideal state was a totalitarian one. The overriding theme of the book, which follows the thread of totalitarianism from Plato and Aristotle to Hegel and Marx, is how all these philosophers relied on historicism, a false theory in which history unfolds according the universal laws, to enable dangerous ideas to follow. He accused all of these thinkers of being partially culpable in leading Europe towards the crisis of leadership and war contemporaneous with the book’s publishing. Popper argues instead for a strong defense of the open society, which protects liberal values and institutes reforms without violence. One relevant issue Popper also discusses is the Paradox of Intolerance, which says that for an Open Society to flourish, we must not be tolerant of intolerance (which include the type of hate speech, bigotry, and violent rhetoric that is becoming normalized in Donald Trump’s Republican Party).

The most famous parable from the Republic is that of The Cave, whose premise about Plato’s theory of ideas most undergraduates would be familiar. Much more useful, in my opinion, however, is the parable of the Ship of State. Imagine the state as a ship, whose captain is a skilled stargazing navigator. The citizens are sailors, who may have many various skills but are not qualified to pilot the ship, especially through rough weather. The sailors mock the captain and try to replace him, but ultimately he is the only one with the ability to lead them. In Plato’s view, the captain in a state should be a philosopher-king, wise and trained at birth for his position as total ruler. One sees that democracy and Plato do not mix well–for him, the people were a mob who could not rule themselves.

Let’s bring these analogies into present day America.

As far as I can tell, America is the longest running large democracy in history, though a number of smaller polities, such as Iceland or the old Iroquois Confederation, to name two, are certainly older. For a huge and diverse nation of over 300 million people that has the world’s largest economy and strongest military, the fact that it has survived 240 years and a bloody civil war without ever deviating from a democratic and peaceful transition of power is quite amazing. Unprecedented actually. It was taken for granted when the Founding Fathers drew up the Constitution that Athenian-style democracy could only ever end in manipulation of the mob, or demos, by a demagogue or tyrant. They drew up a system of checks and balances between branches of government in which no person could amass enough power to take over the government, and through which change would necessarily be slow and conservative. This has often frustrated the ability to pass needed reforms, but has also the greater benefit of preserving the system peacefully.

Past American Presidents

Never in American history, discounting the obvious case of the Civil War, has the original political system drawn up in the Constitution come under threat of being radically altered. Likewise, there has never been a single person in American history who has had the power, or even sought the power, to completely control government in anything even resembling a dictatorship. Out of all the 44 presidents (Grover Cleveland served non-consecutive terms and is counted twice), historians typically agree on Andrew Johnson as the worst. It was certainly Abraham Lincoln’s biggest mistake to name him his Vice President for short-sighted and unnecessary electoral reasons before his reelection, and Johnson’s horrible term had awful ramifications for the next century regarding the reconstruction of the South. Even so, it is hard to find any American president who was unqualified to hold the office, in the traditional sense of having the ability and experience to operate an executive organization with delegated tasks and many moving parts. This has nothing to do with ideology, or even effectiveness, but of basic qualifications for the job before taking office. Several highly successful generals had either mostly good, mixed, or awful administrations (Eisenhower, Jackson, and Grant, for example), but their qualifications were never questioned despite their success or lack thereof. Herbert Hoover is generally considered an awful president mostly due to the Great Depression beginning on his watch, but he was highly successful in his private career and as the head of the U.S. Food Administration during WWI and Secretary of Commerce under two presidents before being elected, and was thus very qualified. Even George W. Bush, whom historians will most likely rank closer to Andrew Johnson than Franklin Roosevelt, governed the second largest state before becoming president. Most presidents have been highly educated and experienced men (obviously all men to date) with military backgrounds and terms as senators, congressmen, or governors. Men who understood something about the world and also how government works at various levels. The most successful presidents have also had temperaments suited for the rigorous stressfulness of this unique position as well as the ability to listen to advisors and learn from mistakes. To have a combination of many of these rare skills is what is wanted in a president, as well as a certain degree of other abstract qualities like intellectual curiosity, integrity, and empathy.

The Ideal Leader in a Democracy

Basically, I would argue that we want the same thing today as Plato wanted, even if we have different ways of going about it. Even if they will not be philosopher-kings, our leaders should be the best among us, and chosen by an informed electorate. They should be highly skilled at steering the large and unwieldy ship of state even in the rough waters of domestic and international politics. Plato, a member of the hereditary aristocracy and an anti-democrat, thought that these leaders should be bred from birth for the role, with the rest of the people having no say in the matter. There is another meaning of aristocracy, which is merely “rule by the best”, not involving genetics or inheritance but pure merit through earned experience, training, and natural character, and selected for by the majority of citizens. In our democracy, even with the two major political parties nominating candidates for the office of president, there has long been a de facto sorting out of the best qualified candidates. Once again, this has nothing to do with ideology but of basic minimum ability to function in a very complex role. Despite differences in ideas by the parties and the electorate, there has always been a tacit understanding that the winner will uphold the duties of his office and continue to serve in the government for the people.

The Disqualification of Donald Trump

Thus, we have never before in American history been in the position we are currently in–namely, to have a major party candidate for president who is clearly and without any doubt unqualified and unsuited for the office that he seeks. The Republican Party, once a bastion of principled conservatism, respect for law, and personal responsibility, has become so radical and reactionary over the last three decades or so that it has nominated a person who would certainly be the most disastrous, irresponsible, and unqualified president in history, and the closest we have yet come to a dictator, however petty. Trump’s open disregard for the rule of law, free press, and clear lack of basic knowledge of the world and the government he would operate is a disqualification for president. His other temperamental flaws, his proudly open bigotry (the likes of which has not been seen in a major candidate since there was legal slavery), his shocking, world historical level of narcissism and mendacity (unprecedented even for a would-be politician), and other shallow but toxic policy ideas are almost beside the point–any one of these attributes should easily have disqualified Trump from coming anywhere near being an realistic candidate for president, but the ultimate fact that he has none of the necessary tools to meet the minimum standards for piloting the ship of state is the single most important fact. He is not trained or experienced in anything like running the executive branch of the richest and strongest military power on Earth. He has shown no ability to succeed in anything other than making his own name universally known, however he goes about that. He is not a stargazer who can pilot America through bad storms, nor is he someone who should have instant control over soldiers’ lives and nuclear weapons.

The Republican Party, for the first time in American history, has failed in the basic task of nominating a human who is at a basic level of qualification for the office of president. There is no need to get any more into the details of how and why this happened--this article gives a brief summary of how the Republican Party began moving rightward three decades ago and cynically cultivating deep distrust of government itself for its own electoral gain, and this is the result. The most important thing is that Trump be defeated at all costs, and that a strong warning is cried out that never again will We the American people tolerate such a denigration of our hallowed tradition for maintaining a functioning democracy, whatever differences of policy and ideology. I disagree with Plato’s sentiment that democracy is a bad thing. It is not a perfect system; it is merely less bad than every other possible system. Its strength, and also its only flaw, is that it ultimately depends on an electorate that votes in the best interests of the peaceful and prosperous survival of the state, and not on a single tyrant who manipulates the mob with promises to solve all problems on his own. Let’s hope that we can continue for at least another 240 years without such a threat and an affront to our great country.

E.O. Wilson on Biology as Politics, Culture, and Human Nature

where-do-we-come-from-what-are-weOne of the most illustrious living scientists, E.O. Wilson, is still active and writing great books well into his ninth decade. In this article I will review two of his most recent works, The Social Conquest of Earth (2012) and The Meaning of Human Existence (2014).

Wilson, a biologist considered to be the world’s foremost expert on ants and sociobiology, is a gifted writer who explains difficult concepts for non-expert readers. My interests have always lain mostly within the humanities–history, literature, and philosophy above all–but reading these two books has opened my eyes in a couple ways. Firstly, that biology strongly determines many of the things often considered as separate and non-overlapping fields of study–history, politics, and the arts, for example. Secondly, that the fields of science and the humanities really would be best served by combining their forces and engaging in joint dialogue and research. I will attempt to explain these in greater detail.

The Social Conquest of Earth is the story of how the most successful and dominant organisms in Earth’s history are the ones that developed eusociality–namely, the social insects of termites, bees, wasps, and especially ants on one hand, and human beings on the other. Eusociality is the term for the systematic cooperation between a large number of organisms in a given species for the benefit of the group over the benefit of individuals. Out of hundreds of millions of years of evolutionary history and the rise and fall of as many different species, this trait of social cooperation has only arisen 20 times as far as experts can tell (mostly species of the aforementioned insects, along with two varieties of shrimp, and two species of naked mole rats that are the only other eusocial mammals besides humans). Wilson spends the rest of the book explaining why it was so rare, why human beings in particular are so unique, and how this relates to the rest of the world’s history.

“The origin of eusociality has been rare in the history of life because group selection must be exceptionally powerful to relax the grip of individual selection. Only then can it modify the conservative effect of individual selection and introduce highly cooperative behavior into the physiology and behavior of the group members.” This is the key point of why social cooperation is so rare, leading to what Wilson calls the iron rule of genetic social evolution: “It is that selfish individuals beat altruistic individuals, while groups of altruists beat groups of selfish individuals.” This is true for all the relevant species, but especially for humans as we will see.

E.O. Wilson (1929- )

E.O. Wilson (1929- )

So how did such a trait evolve in the first place? Wilson lists three reasons: “One solid principle drawn from this analysis of the hymenopterans [the ants], and other insects as well, is that all of the species that have attained eusociality, as I have stressed, live in fortified nest sites. A second principle, less well established but probably nonetheless universal, is that the protection is against enemies, namely predators, parasites, and competitors. A final principle is that, all other things being equal, even a little society does better than a solitary individual belonging to closely related species both in longevity and in extracting resources from the area around a fixed nest of any kind.”

A significant part of the book deals with detailed descriptions of ant (and termite and bee) colonies and how they developed socially, which is Wilson’s particular specialty (at one point he mentions nonchalantly how he discovered and named 442 new species of ant). More interesting is how he compares and contrasts these social insects with humans, and describes the evolutionary process by which humans became a uniquely transcendent species. (For another interesting take on what happens when the planet’s two most successful species go head to head, see the classic short story “Leiningen Versus the Ants”, which I remember reading in high school English class).

Wilson describes the development of Homo sapiens as a maze, ultimately random, with each subsequent mutation bringing us closer to our modern form and capabilities. The first necessary adaptation was existence on the land so that fire could be harnessed (this is why highly intelligent dolphins and whales will never develop civilizations). The second necessary adaptation was large body size which allowed for bigger brains and advanced reasoning and culture (this excludes all eusocial insects). The third necessary adaption was the use of grasping hands with soft spatulate fingers that could hold and manipulate objects (this eliminates all large land animals besides the apes). The next necessary step was a dietary shift to a large amount of meat, a much more efficient source of protein that led to both larger brains and more social communities (this also excluded all other apes who are either vegetarian or, like chimpanzees, get only a small fraction of their calories from meat [additional note: I have often written of my vegetarianism and how good it is for people, animals, and the environment; I do not see any disconnect, however, between our ancestors’ adoption of meat into their diet for extra caloric and social development in a very limited world, and our current need to cut down grossly or eliminate meat consumption from our diets for the good of ourselves and life on our planet]). “About a million years ago the controlled use of fire followed, a unique homonid achievement.” This was likely because early human ancestors found cooked meat from animals burned in forest fires, and began to bring the fire with them. “Cooking became a universal human trait. With the sharing of cooked meals came a universal means of social bonding…along with fireside campsites came division of labor.” This maze seems very logical and easy to trace in hindsight, and from here it is relatively easy to trace the rest of human social development.

Wilson comes to some similar conclusions as another biologist Yuval Noah Harari, whose Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind I reviewed here. For instance, he says “The origin of modern humanity was a stroke of luck–good for our species for a while, bad for most of the rest of life forever.” He spends a lot of time describing how human culture developed to favor group cooperation over individual interests, and how this has affected our history, culture, and even psychology. “An unavoidable and perpetual war exists between honor, virtue, and duty, the products of group selection, on one side, and selfishness, cowardice, and hypocrisy, the products of individual selection, on the other side.” In fact, he comments at length on the tribal instincts of our species which lead to the worst part of our nature, yet has been ingrained in our cultural development over thousands of generations of evolution. “The elementary drive to form and take deep pleasure from in-group membership easily translates at a higher level into tribalism. People are prone to ethnocentrism. It is an uncomfortable fact that even when given a guilt-free choice, individuals prefer the company of others of the same race, nation, clan, and religion…Once a group has been split off and sufficiently dehumanized, any brutality can be justified, at any level, and at any size of the victimized group up to and including race and nation.” What a history of human war and social conflict this sociobiological fact entails.

books0415woodardA portion of the book is spent on laying out the case for the theory of group selection versus the theory of kin selection, which had been the most popular one for four decades. The latter, discussed by Charles Darwin, formally theorized in 1964 by W.D. Hamilton, and popularized by Richard Dawkins in his 1976 The Selfish Gene, states that kinship is the dominant criteria for genetic reproduction. Wilson references a new mathematical model and a variety of examples to show why group selection is actually the more likely reality. Altruism, for example, never fit well in the kin selection model, but it is the basis for Wilson’s theory. Dawkins, a renowned polemicist, did not take lightly to the dismissal of his preferred theory, and it led to quite the biological war of words in the press (here is a summary). I am not equipped to weigh in on what is still a controversial issue in evolutionary biology, but Wilson makes his case very convincingly.

Another fascinating aspect of the book that warrants mentioning is its discussion of how human cultural development differs from other animals. Somewhat surprisingly, Wilson says that we did not invent culture. Our common ancestor with chimpanzees did millions of years ago. “Most researchers agree that the concept of culture should be applied to animals and humans alike, in order to stress its continuity from one to the other and notwithstanding the immensely greater complexity of human behavior.” Accordingly, he mentions how dolphins and whales have culture, shown by their imitative social interactions. He reminds us again, though, why such intelligent creatures did not progress as far as humans in social evolution: “Unlike primates, they have no nests or campsites. They have flippers for forelimbs. And in their watery realm, controlled fire is forever denied.” Culture is especially dependent on long-term memory, a trait which humans possess far above all other animals. Our enlarged brains have made us into storytellers and planners, able to imagine past and future scenarios, invent fictions (a point also highlighted in Harari’s book Sapiens), and delay immediate desires in favor of delayed pleasures.

The Social Conquest of Earth explores a number of other engaging topics, but in the name of brevity I will conclude my synopsis here (in this New York Times “The Stone” article, Wilson also gives a nice summary of his ideas). I think one of the most important points of the book is the connection between biological development and what we usually think of as humanistic studies. I, for one, will be rethinking much of what I thought I knew about political and ethical philosophy. If we simply trust facts coming from scientific research, we will not need to construct theoretical hypotheses about how human societies developed and invented laws–those of Plato, Aristotle, Hobbes, and Rousseau, for example. Likewise with thorny questions of morality–if we consider that we are social animals who evolved successfully to work together, but that we still maintain the older individualistic impulses that go against the group, it helps to understand why humans behave the way the do. Perhaps Nietzsche was right, but not in the way he intended. We need not use the terms good and evil to characterize human actions–we can assess them as altruistic or selfish. Wilson comments: “Individual selection is responsible for much of what we call sin, while group selection is responsible for the greater part of virtue. Together they have created the conflict between the poorer and the better angels of our nature.”

9780871401007_custom-daa875ec0938392ef121288e44a4ce0719f16eef-s400-c85The Meaning of Human Existence is a slimmer volume with a more multidisciplinary approach, but no less ambitious than its predecessor as the title implies. In it, Wilson rehashes some of the same information as before, such as another extended case for group selection theory over kin selection (prompted no doubt by the controversy it stirred up two years earlier). For the most part, though, Wilson attempts to give a brief but comprehensive version of human history and development, and how we can advance as a species by uniting scientific and humanistic studies, and overall being better stewards of our immense, godlike power over the planet.

Here are some interesting quotes in my opinion that give some flavor of what the book is about:

“The function of anthropocentricity—fascination about ourselves—is the sharpening of social intelligence, a skill in which human beings are the geniuses among all Earth’s species. It arose dramatically in concert with the evolution of the cerebral cortex during the origin of Homo sapiens from the African australopith prehumans. Gossip, celebrity worship, biographies, novels, war stories, and sports are the stuff of modern culture because a state of intense, even obsessive concentration on others has always enhanced survival of individuals and groups. We are devoted to stories because that is how the mind works—a never-ending wandering through past scenarios and through alternative scenarios of the future.”

“What we call human nature is the whole of our emotions and the preparedness in learning over which those emotions preside. Some writers have tried to deconstruct human nature into nonexistence. But it is real, tangible, and a process that exists in the structures of the brain. Decades of research have discovered that human nature is not the genes that prescribe the emotions and learning preparedness. It is not the cultural universals, which are its ultimate product. Human nature is the ensemble of hereditary regularities in mental development that bias cultural evolution in one direction as opposed to others and thus connect genes to culture in the brain of every person.”

“It is tribalism, not the moral tenets and humanitarian thought of pure religion, that makes good people do bad things.”

Both books are highly recommended reading for anyone interested in life’s big questions, which should be everyone. In The Social Conquest of Earth, Wilson opened with a discussion of Paul Gauguin’s masterpiece, “Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going?”, and what led the painter to create such a work. Gauguin lived an interesting life, giving up everything in a quest for truth and beauty (as portrayed in William Somerset Maugham’s great roman à clef, The Moon and Sixpence). The painting reveals the questions which are still central to religion, philosophy, and science; these questions may perhaps never be solved, but Wilson overall gives as good a try as anyone at some likely answers. He ends on a positive, if quixotic, note that if humanity can harness its power for good, we can conquer our gods and demons: “So, now I will confess my own blind faith. Earth, by the twenty-second century, can be turned, if we so wish, into a permanent paradise for human beings, or at least the strong beginnings of one. We will do a lot more damage to ourselves and the rest of life along the way, but out of an ethic of simple decency to one another, the unrelenting application of reason, and acceptance of what we truly are, our dreams will finally come home to stay.”

The Dangerous Rise and Impending Collapse of Homo Sapiens

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“If all the insects were to disappear from the earth, within 50 years all life on earth would end. If all human beings disappeared from the earth, within 50 years all forms of life would flourish.”

Attributed (probably falsely) to Jonas Salk

The good news is that most of the world has finally accepted that global warming is happening and is going to wreak havoc on our climate over the next 100 (or 100,000) years, and that something needs to be done collectively by world governments and industries to stop the worst of the changes from occurring. The bad news is that much of the climate change is already programmed in and will lead to large-scale disaster, and that the global human response, while increasingly encouraging, is still not nearly enough to make a dent in Mother Nature’s coming retribution. In this review, I will discuss two recent books that in different ways discuss how Homo sapiens have come to dominate the earth and its climate, and what this means for the future of our species and the planet. They are Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind (2014) by Yuval Noah Harari, and Countdown: Our Last, Best Hope for a Future on Earth? (2013) by Alan Weisman.

41tkxvARBtL._SX324_BO1,204,203,200_In the first book, Sapiens, Harari offers some novel takes on how and why modern humans became and remain the kings of the terrestrial castle. Human beings have been around in some form for about 2.5 million years, and even 70,000 years ago anatomically modern humans were insignificant animals. “The most important thing to know about prehistoric humans is that they were unimportant. Their impact on the world was very small, less than that of jellyfish, woodpeckers, or bumblebees…Today, however, humans control this planet. How did we reach from there to here? What was our secret of success, that turned us from insignificant apes minding their own business in a corner of Africa, into the rulers of the world?”

Harari spends the first chapter outlining a brief but lively summary of the biological evolution of the many various human species that we used to share the planet with. The key features, all with pros and cons, are our unusually big brains, our upright gait, and our social skills. He describes the consequences of our sudden leap to the top of the food chain 400,000 years ago: “Other animals at the top of the pyramid, such as lions and sharks, evolved into that position very gradually, over millions of years. This enabled the ecosystem to develop checks and balances that prevent lions and sharks from wreaking too much havoc. As lions became deadlier, so gazelles evolved to run faster, hyenas to cooperate better, and rhinoceroses to be more bad-tempered. In contrast, humankind ascended to the top so quickly that the ecosystem was not given time to adjust. Moreover, humans themselves failed to adjust. Most top predators of the planet are majestic creatures. Millions of years of dominion have filled them with self-confidence. Sapiens by contrast is more like a banana republic dictator. Having so recently been one of the underdogs of the savannah, we are full of fears and anxieties over our position, which makes us doubly cruel and dangerous. Many historical calamities, from deadly wars to ecological catastrophes, have resulted from this over-hasty jump.”

In this over 400-page book, Harari, a professor of biology in Jerusalem, continues to pour a wealth of information and theory on the readers without ever losing their interest. In the third chapter, he speculates that interbreeding between various human species was rare, and that Homo sapiens basically wiped out other species, such as Neanderthals and Denisovans, whenever they came into contact, most likely due to intolerance. “In modern times, a small difference in skin color, dialect, or religion has been enough to prompt one group of Sapiens to set about exterminating another group. Would ancient Sapiens have been more tolerant towards an entirely different human species?” Whatever the cause, the result is that Sapiens are left as the only survivors of the genus Homo, and a rare animal without any close relatives. Interestingly, Harari speculates how history might have happened differently had we had to coexist with other humansspecies. “How, for example, would religious faiths have unfolded? Would the book of Genesis have declared that Neanderthals descend from Adam and Eve, would Jesus have died for the sins of the Denisovans, and would the Qur’an have reserved seats in heaven for all righteous humans, whatever their species? Would Neanderthals have been able to serve in the Roman legions, or in the sprawling bureaucracy of imperial China? Would the American Declaration of Independence hold as a self-evident truth that all members of the genus Homo are created equal? Would Karl Marx have urged workers of all species to unite?”

The reason Homo sapiens conquered the world, Harari claims, is above all its unique language. Around 70,000 years ago our ancestors left Africa for a second time and began to colonize the entire planet, a long march which only finished when the first humans reached New Zealand around 800 years ago. After leaving Africa, these Homo sapiens encountered and probably exterminated Neanderthals (and many other large animals), while at the same time developing a remarkable amount of new technologies over the next 400 centuries: boats, oil lamps, bows and arrows, needles, as well as art and the first evidence of religion, commerce, and social classes. This Cognitive Revolution allowed for humans to think and communicate in new and sophisticated ways due to language use. The causes of this mental explosion are unclear, but Harari claims that it was most likely a genetic mutation that came from pure chance. (Compare the biologist E.O. Wilson here: “The origin of modern humanity was a stroke of luck—good for our species for a while, bad for most of the rest of life forever.”) As for language itself, he says that while many animals, including our closest living relatives, the chimpanzees and bonobos, use types of communication mostly for signaling danger or food, human language developed mostly as a way of gossiping. Besides this, he says that a further development of the Cognitive Revolution is the human ability to think and talk about things that do not exist–entire kinds of entities that they have never seen, touched, or smelled. “This ability to speak about fictions is the most unique feature of Sapiens language.” The consequences of this fact were obviously enormous and dominate the rest of the book.

Harari continues to discuss how language ability allowed our ancestors to form larger social groups. “Even if a particularly fertile valley could feed 500 archaic Sapiens, there was no way that so many strangers could live together…Sociological research has shown that the maximum ‘natural’ size of a group bonded by gossip is about 150 individuals. Most people can neither intimately know, nor gossip effectively about, more than 150 human beings.” However, large numbers of strangers can cooperate successfully by believing in common myths, or fictions, which bind the group in ways that gossip cannot. This large-scale cooperation, derived from human language and imaginative thinking, is what led to the crucial cooperation of large numbers of people that gradually formed cities, empires, and conquered the planet. The consequences of this development lead us to the present-day and into the future. “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.”

The next main point in the book is the transition from the long-standing tradition of foraging bands of hunter-gatherers to mostly stable villages of farmers. This happened with the Agricultural Revolution of 12,000 years ago, and led to larger and more sophisticated societies. Harari spends a lot of time discussing the diversity of the ancient (and a few modern) forager bands and how dramatically their way of life differed from the agricultural one. Comparing the two groups, he claims interestingly that “The human collective knows far more today than did the ancient bands. But at the individual level, ancient foragers were the most knowledgeable and skillful people in history.” He speculates that average human brain size has actually decreased since the beginning of the Agricultural Revolution, since survival no longer requires the superb memory and mental abilities from everyone as in the foraging groups. Furthermore, foragers had physical endurance and dexterity that few humans achieve today. He presents us with a plethora of evidence which leads to his most interesting claim in the book, in my opinion: that ancient foraging humans had a happier and healthier life than the subsequent agriculturally dependent ones. The diet was wholesome and varied, the working week was relatively short and free time was much greater, and infectious diseases were rare. Meanwhile, most agricultural societies until quite recently have had to endure constant uncertainty over their crops, little variety of food, much more work, and more unhygienic conditions. This is not a new argument–Jared Diamond wrote an essay with the same conclusions in a controversial 1987 essay “The Worst Mistake in the History of the Human Race”–but it is still surprising and counter-intuitive. How could ancient humans have possibly had better or happier lives than most of their post-Agricultural Revolution descendants? The idea is not so surprising if we consider Rousseau’s idea of the Noble Savage, long thought to be erroneous, or examples such as the paradisal Polynesian tribe described by Herman Melville in Typee, or the many noble societies of American Indians like the Iroquois or the Lakota Sioux.

Harari continues with several chapters detailing the relationship between humans and animals, which has become more and more unequal in favor of the humans since the Cognitive Revolution. Basically, wherever modern humans have lived, extinction of large animals and plants has followed soon thereafter. The First Wave Extinction accompanied the spread of foragers, the Second Wave Extinction, more due to slash and burn agriculture and habitat loss than hunting, accompanied the farmers, and we are currently in the midst of the Third Wave Extinction, caused by our own all-consuming industrial activity. Giving perspective on this tragic history, Harari comments: “Long before the Industrial Revolution, Homo sapiens held the record among all organisms for driving the most plant and animal species to their extinctions. We have the dubious distinction of being the deadliest species in the annals of biology.” This is especially important because “if we knew how many species we’ve already eradicated, we might be more motivated to protect those that still survive.” Besides the outright destruction of wild animal species by humans is the subjugation of domestic animals to the point of tragic absurdity: “It’s hard to avoid the impression that for the vast majority of domesticated animals, the Agricultural Revolution was a terrible catastrophe. Their evolutionary ‘success’ is meaningless. A wild rhinoceros on the brink of extinction is probably more satisfied than a calf who spends its short life inside a tiny box, fattened to produce juicy steaks…The numerical success of the calf’s species is little consolation for the suffering the individual endures.” Later, Harari comments on the current state of industrial farming, in which hundreds of billions of animals are raised in horrific conditions for a short time to be slaughtered for human consumption, calling it “a regime of industrial exploitation whose cruelty has no precedent in the annals of planet Earth…and might well be the greatest crime in history.”

Moving closer and closer to the present, Harari presents us with a long series of historical examples about how human societies have changed and gradually unified, leading to the last of the three revolutions that drive the human narrative–the Scientific Revolution. Around 1500, science led to new knowledge which created new technology and fundamentally changed humans’ relationship to their environment and each other. Harari presents a huge number of case studies in politics, industry, exploration, religion, economics, artistic culture, and science that offer his personal interpretations and opinions on all of these areas. The book overall is abundantly full of intriguing information and details about the long rise of Homo sapiens and what it means for our present and future existence.

For me, by far the most fascinating chapters are the early ones discussing how Sapiens arose biologically from among many other primate and human species, leading to the Cognitive and Agricultural Revolutions. This is the heart of the book taking us from the beginning of the world until around 12,000 years ago, and therefore the most theoretical, mysterious, and little-known even to people like me who have studied ancient history. As soon as Harari brings the narrative forward into the territory of recorded history, that is, since the first major Mesopotamian civilizations until the present, the book begins to become slightly more and more weighed down by the entropy of the overwhelming number of things discussed and the author’s increasingly over-arching and tendentious claims on all areas of human history and life. That is not to say that the book stops being interesting or that I even disagree with his ideas, but that the best part comes from Harari’s specialized knowledge of biology and the story of early human development. For a large part of the second half of the book, he is clearly less well-versed in the details of modern history and arts, or less concerned with scientific rigor and more with his own opinions. He plays fast and loose with his examples of economics (the 400-year development of capitalism, for example), wars, or historical events and how they relate to his big-picture history of the species. There are few (if any) authors who could successfully pull off such an ambitious and wide-ranging history of our entire species in proper detail from origin to the present, and if Harari falls short on the more recent history of humans that is nothing to scoff at. The philosopher Galen Strawson reviewed the book critically calling it a swashbuckling account, and Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg, men with whom I otherwise have little in common, have both included it on their own lists of favorite books (probably more for the final chapters speculating on the future of our species, i.e. artificial intelligence and other things that I have not discussed here, for my own reasons). Overall, Sapiens is a highly worthy book for anyone interested in human life, and it presents so much engaging information in a readable way that this should be recommended reading for any student of the sciences and humanities.


In the second book, Countdown: Our Last, Best Hope for a Future on Earth?, Alan Weisman spends no time discussing the history of the human race except insofar as it relates to the increasing population growth of our species. I am a big fan of Weisman’s previous book, The World Without Us, a long think-piece with a series of interesting case studies about what would happen to different ecosystems if humans suddenly disappeared. Countdown is the sequel, in which for over 500 pages Weisman follows the same pattern with a series of case studies of overpopulation in various countries and possible solutions that have been tried over the last century, and the consequences if we continue on this exponential trajectory.

countdownThe format of Countdown is to dive straight into the many local problems arising from an overpopulated world and beat us over the head, chapter after chapter, with the scope of the problem, without ever explicitly connecting the dots between all of the information. We are led to draw our own conclusions, but there is really only one proper inference to make after reading a few chapters of the book: human population growth is out of control and we need to do something about it before we destroy most of the planet’s other inhabitants and resources.

Such a book obviously does not skirt around controversy but confronts it head-on. Thus, the first chapter brings us straight to Temple Mount in Jerusalem and the Israel-Palestine conflict.  “Arafat’s biology bomb” was the way locals referenced the demographic split of the divided territory. Palestinians have many more children than Israelis and so put more pressure on an already intractable political situation. Weisman discusses the recent history of walls, intifadas, agriculture, religion, and many other things relevant to the conflict, but the simple thesis comes down to the fact that too many humans are trying to live in a small area without enough resources, which is called carrying capacity, an updated version of the old Malthusian argument. This will become a repetitive theme throughout the book as Weisman visits at least 20 countries and interviews hundreds of scientists, politicians, families, and scholars. The book is basically extended reportage based around the author’s own travels and interviews, and he gives few of his own overt opinions in favor of presenting us an overwhelming number of data that leads to the incontrovertible fact that there are too many humans.

Weisman constantly grapples with the question of how many people Earth can reasonably support versus how many people there will be due to the weight of current demographic trends. We are already well over 7 billion, and most estimates say that we will reach 10 billion by 2050, and could peak as high as 15 billion by the end of the century. Paul and Anne Ehrlich, famous for their 1968 book The Population Bomb, have calculated the ideal human population to be 1.5 billion. The Ehrlichs and their younger colleague named Gretchen Daily are the most recurring characters in the book, and it is clear that their decades of work on the population problem has made an great impact on the author.

The book is fairly bleak, but I cannot imagine it being any other way given the scope of the problem it treats with. Just a few of the many topics covered at a brisk pace are China’s one-child policy, forced sterilizations, different kinds of contraception available in different countries, religious opposition to contraception, agricultural innovation and genetic modification, AIDS, and gorillas. Ultimately, after discussing every kind of recent example of population control on every continent in great detail, Weisman offers no specific solutions, but presents us with a choice: “I don’t want to cull anyone alive today. I wish every human now on the planet a long, healthy life. But either we take control ourselves, and humanely bring our numbers down by recruiting fewer new members of the human race to take our places, or nature is going to hand out a pile of pink slips.”

Countdown is similar to Harari’s Sapiens in its enormous wealth of information across many fields (its impressive bibliography attests to its rigorous research), and its generally negative tone about the rise of humans and our ability to deal with the world we have created. Sometimes the truth hurts, and if it’s necessary for us to realize that we are collectively responsible for the extinction of our closest living relatives and countless other species we cohabited the planet with, and that our ever-growing numbers and unsustainable lifestyles are dooming even our own existence, then these two books should be required reading for every politician, business leader, teacher, and student. We are a problem-solving species and the undisputed rulers of the earth, but the countdown has indeed begun for Homo sapiens and there is no resetting the clock.

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A Soupçon of My Favorite Lexemes

Open DictionaryOpen Culture, a fantastic culture and education website, recently published an article with a list of Bertrand Russell’s favorite words in English. A couple of the words are fairly common, such as wind and golden, but for the most part lists like these tend to be heavy on unusual Latinate or Greek-based terms. One of my first posts on this blog was a similar short list of favorite words, A Learner’s Lexical and Locutionary List. Here is its unsolicited sequel, in which I will nominate a score or more of some additional favorites, mostly unusual and obscure, hand-picked from my various readings over the years, from the million or so English locutions. They were chosen not completely at random but for some felicitous combination of their sound, spelling, sense, and significance. Excepting a handful of the first ones, which are Germanic in origin, they are all typically Latinate or Greek. It seems all writers tend to have their own preferred lexicons (the Open Culture article above links to a similar, even more recherché list by David Foster Wallace), and if so inclined, do not hesitate to comment or add your own suggestions.

Firstly, some general types of words that I love to encounter in any form

Collective animal nouns (someone should coin some of these for human groups):

a shoal of fish, a murder of crows, a pride of lions, a gaggle of geese, a parliament of owls, a tribe of monkeys, a crash of rhinos

Proper adjectives from names:

Shakespearean, Herculean, Tolstoyan, Orwellian, Borgesian, Mephistophelean, Rortyan

Old Germanic causative transitive verbs or adjectives prefixed with be-:

besmirch, bespatter, betwixt, bedraggle, bereft, bemused, besotted, bequeath, bewitch, bedevil, beguile, benighted

Now for the actual list:

cleave (and its participle cloven; maybe the only verb with two opposite meanings)

thwart

thralldom (these last two come from the Viking invasions)

blood (pure Old English)

hidebound

selfsame

purse-proud

flummoxed

multitudinous (obligatory Shakespeare coinage, without which lists of this type would be immaterial)

threnody (synonyms such as dirge, requiem, and elegy could also make this list, as could rhythmically related words such as prosody, monody, and remedy)

fructify

cyclopean

persiflage

turpitude

opsimath

sybarite

sinecure

cynosure

hecatomb

unctuous

demiurge

petrichor (“the scent of rain on dry earth”)

corybantic

perfidious

obsequious

sycophantic

lachrymose

legerdemain

redoubtable

indefatigable

obstreperous

concatenation

grandiloquent

concupiscence

valetudinarian

plenipotentiary

metempsychosis (which, as Borges writes, is not reserved for humankind alone)

Republican Senator’s Ill-Conceived Plan to Block Vegetarian Options in the Military

Factory Farming

Factory Farming

Across the United States and most of the developed world, there is a growing awareness of the problems caused by overconsumption of meat, and an attendant growth in vegetarians and vegans. One of the many campaigns to help spread awareness and moderate our diets is Meatless Monday. This program, endorsed by many public and private organizations, encourages people to forego meat at least one day a week in favor of plant-based alternatives. The Department of Defense, one of the largest and resource-heavy organizations in the world, is considering adopting the practice in military dining facilities.

Jodi Ernst, a first-term senator from Iowa and retired lieutenant colonel in the Iowa National Guard, has recently introduced legislation into the United States Senate to actually block the Department of Defense from implementing “meatless Mondays” in military chow halls. She claims that daily meat consumption is necessary to satisfy nutritional needs. This is so facile and disingenuous that only a caveman could defend it. If you actually read the official Dietary Guidelines for Americans, it is suggested to eat less meat and eggs. But for legislators like Ernst, facts and logic cannot get in the way of their gut instinct.

If we dig deeper, it turns out that Iowa is actually the nation’s largest pork- and egg-producing state, and the agribusiness industry contributed at least $200,000 to Ernst’s 2014 Senate campaign. That is a good return investment for an industry whose 2014 sales were $186 billion. Because this isn’t about nutritional needs, obviously–it is about cold, hard cash. Like everything in America. Everyone knows that meat is not necessary for proper nutrition. It has actually been clearly linked to cancer, and the enormous consumption of meat in America has helped create not a healthy and balanced population, but one with an uncontrollable obesity epidemic.

I was in the US Army for four and a half years and spent two years deployed to Afghanistan. In this time of my life I was still a typical American meat-eater. I ate meat nearly everyday while deployed, and I can attest that the quality of the food was low, and it was in no way necessary to offer meat everyday even to highly active soldiers. In retrospect, I wish there had been more variety of food offered in the chow hall like meatless Mondays that would have given me different options and helped me lower my meat intake earlier.

I became vegetarian and then vegan after leaving the army, and I have not eaten any meat or animal products in over four years. I am light and healthy and energetic, and I practice rock-climbing several times a week with better physical performance than I ever felt during many years of army training with a heavily carnivorous diet. Senator Ernst is either ignorant or willfully lying on this issue. Neither is a good look for an elected politician.

Furthermore, Ernst, like all of her Republican colleagues, loves to completely dismiss either that climate change is happening or that it is caused by humans, saying things like “I’m not a scientist.” On every other issue, they are experts, however. On abortion, they are medical experts; on gay marriage, they have a direct line to God; on guns, they are all enthusiastic hunters and potential freedom fighters. It’s all hypocrisy. Everyone who studies the issue knows that not only is climate change the most urgent crisis humans have faced since the last ice age, but that intense industrial meat production is one of the largest single causes of pollution and climate change (I’ve written about climate change here). Factory farms, like the ones that are concentrated in midwestern states like Iowa, are enormously inefficient and harmful to the environment. And that is to say nothing about the ethical question of raising billions of sentient, emotional creatures to live short brutal lives in cramped metal cages, pumped full of steroids and antibiotics before being slaughtered. It has been said, with no irony or exaggeration, that modern factory farms are humanity’s biggest crime.

Senator Ernst was elected on a platform of freedom and her military experience. She deployed to Kuwait as a combat tour. She has also falsely claimed that National Guard duty is the reason she missed over half of the votes in the Iowa State Senate. She thinks these things make her an expert on military matters, and that all military personnel and veterans will support her no matter her policies. As a veteran myself with two years of deployment on a remote outpost in Afghanistan, I can say that most veterans see through self-serving and corrupt politicians quite easily. That is why Bernie Sanders’ top contributors are active duty military members. This is also important because Ernst is one of the people who will be considered for the Republican Vice President nomination because she is a woman and a veteran. Too bad she is also a corrupt fraud like most of her party’s standard-bearers.

The Republican Party, which has long made “freedom” its watchword, does not seem to understand what it actually means. It often tends to conveniently ignore freedom for people that disagree with them. It does not take a political philosopher to realize that freedom does not count if it only means restricting other people’s freedom. The Republican Party, which claims to want “smaller government” while insisting that government should be able to regulate and block the most personal individual choices in people’s lives, has struck again with an absurd logic-bending proposal about people’s most personal individual choices.

Eating is one of the most personal things we do. Just like religion, sexual preference, whether to have a child or not. In all these cases, the supposed party of individual freedom wants to restrict freedom. In the spirit of 1984, the Republicans would operate a Ministry of Freedom that insures everyone eats what they told to eat and prays how they are told to pray. It is hypocrisy, unmasked, not even trying to be masked, in fact. Like many Americans, I’m tired of it and want to change the system. One important way is to follow political campaigns, be active, and vote. Arguably even more important is to vote with your wallet with the products you buy, and get involved and stay involved in local or personal issues that you are passionate about. That is why I do not take it lightly when I see a hypocrite try to spread lies about meat consumption in order to help prop up a hundred billion dollar industry, or spreading lies that it is necessary to eat meat to be healthy when it is clearly the opposite. Veganism is an idea whose time has come as more and more people are learning that it is better for their health and for the planet (and for the animals). Fortunately, people have more freedom to do as they please than people like Senator Ernst realize.

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