Humans evolved in western Africa and, over the course of tens of thousands of years, expanded across Earth. In this book, the author looks at how physical aspects of the planet shaped these events. I’ll give you a hint. If this were a murder mystery, I’d call this a spoiler, but it’s not, so I think it’s all right. A large part of humanity’s activities were shaped by… plate tectonics. As everyone probably knows, the shapes and relative positions of Earth’s continents slowly shift as the plates they rest on float on a subterranean sea of molten rock. This movement creates rift valleys and mountains and seas. Together with the shape of Earth’s orbit and its tilt to the plane of the ecliptic, which has a major influence on the climate, we have pretty much all aspects of the playing board for life’s evolutionary game. It determines what any species can be or do. Humanity is no exception. So, the fact that we thrive where there is potable water and fertile soil, tend to avoid deserts, and have difficulty crossing high mountains or wide oceans, all comes down to plate tectonics. Not so surprising, I suppose, but what’s kind of neat about this book is that goes on to offer a bit of explanation for things like how oil and minerals got to where people could get to them, and why the trade winds blow, and who hasn’t wondered about such things?
It is commonly held that religions, especially monotheistic religions, have been and still are responsible for a great deal of violence and oppression. Crusades, jihads, inquisitions, and things of that nature are pointed to as examples. In this book, Karen Armstrong argues that it’s more complex than that. To demonstrate how, she presents a long and rather dry history of violence, which sometimes obscures the point I think she is trying to make. As best I can tell, her position is that it’s not religion per se that’s behind such things. Religion is just one aspect of culture, so pointing to religion alone as the culprit for any brutal or inhumane act is far too simplistic. Prior to the Eighteenth Century, there was no clear separation between what we now think of as religion and other aspects of a culture such as politics and customs. For much of human history, there wasn’t even a clear line between the natural and the supernatural in peoples’ minds. Kings ruled with divine authority, and angels and demons were as real as snakes and bunny rabbits. The United States was the first nation to intentionally and officially separate politics from religion, and even then, it did not excise religious influences from affairs of state. Humans being what they are, that would be impossible. But once we do, at least intellectually, define religion in such a way as to distinguish it from everything else, it’s still unfair to claim that religious motivations predominately lead to unsavory behavior. Although religious beliefs may motivate one person to hijack an airplane and fly it into a building, they may encourage another to acts of charity. Also, religion isn’t the only motivator for acts of inhumanity. Nationalism, ethnic identity, or political ideology can be equally responsible. The terror one person brings about for God, another may do for his people, his country, or for what he believes is the betterment of mankind.
Although I think the author is far too quick to dismiss religious motivations for certain historical acts of violence, her observation that religion can be a motivator for good as well as bad, and that beliefs other than religious ones can also motivate behavior (again, both good and bad) is unarguable. But all of this seems obvious. The real question, the interesting question is: what common traits do religion, nationalism, and ideology share that make them such strong motivators for extreme behavior? It’s a question this book does not pose.
Suppose you rented a time machine and it broke down, stranding you in the past, possibly in the distant past. If you’re fortunate enough to find yourself marooned at some point after biologically modern humans first make their appearance (around 200,000 years ago), you may survive. After all, they did, which means there is at least somewhere you can find a suitable climate and things that you can, if hungry enough, safely eat. But since you’re accustomed to conveniences such as palatable food, clothing, and toilet paper, this survival guide ostensibly informs the reader how to build a semblance of modern civilization from the things around them in whatever time period they find themselves in, and hopefully do it much faster than it took originally (which was an embarrassingly long time).
To my mind, that’s the takeaway from this book. We think we’re smart (collectively, at least), and, with no sense of irony, we put the word sapiens in our species name (twice). But when we look back, that assessment seems far from obvious. Sure, our ancestors used cool things like fire and stone tools, even before they were actual humans, but it took people who were biologically indistinguishable from us almost 200,000 years to invent, well, pretty much anything else. For the vast majority of our species’ existence, we didn’t know how to grow food or make cloth or write, let alone know how to effectively treat or prevent illnesses. We’ve only gotten reasonably good at that in the last century or so. If humans are so smart, why didn’t we figure this stuff out earlier?
The book doesn’t really address that question, other than to imply that we may not be quite as smart as we like to imagine. But, with the information it does provide, the stranded time traveler can get civilization up and running in far less time. It would be interesting to run a simulation to see if that might be true. I rather doubt it, and that’s partly because of another important question beyond the scope of this otherwise entertaining and informative book. How would the stranded time traveler avoid being eaten, enslaved, burned at the stake, or otherwise inconvenienced by the first people he or she ran into? Prior to modern civilization, these were common ways of greeting strangers. But, if time travelers did survive, and if they could somehow get people to understand, believe, and follow them (probably in that order), and if they could then avoid the wrath of the chiefs, priests, kings, or emperors whose authority they might be undermining, then maybe they could avoid a few centuries of even millennia of cultural and technological stagnation. Maybe.
Of course, this isn’t really a survival guide, or even a book on how to build a civilization from scratch. It’s an overview of human progress that highlights some of the key ideas, discoveries, and inventions that made modern civilization possible. It does a fine job with that.
The Enlightened Capitalists: Cautionary Tales of Business Pioneers Who Tried to Do Well by Doing Good by James O’Toole
Is it possible for a business to make money without exploiting workers, polluting the environment, dodging taxes (and other social responsibilities), or swindling customers? Well, sure. Probably, anyway. At least for a while, under certain conditions. But it’s not as easy as one might think. And those that try often fail. In this book, a business professor at the University of Southern California profiles some ‘enlightened’ business leaders who have tried, and he explains why so few large corporations have been able to adhere to the enlightened principles of their well-meaning founders.
I’ll try to summarize a few key points that I took away from this below.
*SPOILER ALERT* It all comes down to money.
Every now and then, someone with high ideals will start a business that respects all its stakeholders: owners, workers, customers, the local community, the environment, humanity in general…. It acknowledges its impact on them and its responsibilities to them. That’s an ‘enlightened’ way of looking at business.
But there is another way, a Wall Street way. Many people in the business profession seem to believe that the primary business of any business is to make money. In their eyes, a business has a fiduciary responsibility to maximize profits for its owners/investors. And that’s pretty much its only responsibility. Everything else, such as making better products, providing good service, creating jobs, responsibly discarding industrial waste…, aren’t necessary. A business still might do such things, as long as they don’t lower profits, but it isn’t obligated to. If it can get away with making cheaper products, charging its customers more, cutting its workforce, working them harder, paying its remaining employees less, discarding its trash in the local duck pond, and then selling the dead ducks as a secondary product line, then that’s what it should do. That’s good business. Profit comes before all else.
So, when in the course of events and the passage of time, control of a business passes from its original enlightened founders and into the hands of investors, priorities change. The business that had once been someone’s life’s work, possibly with a goal of making at least one small corner of the world a better place, comes under the control of people who view it as little more than another profit generator. With little or no personal stake in the business, it’s employees, or the surrounding community, the investors demand higher profits. New managers are brought it, managers who share the ‘normal’ business school outlook. With a keen eye and the ethical principles of loan sharks, they review the practices of the newly acquired business and discard those that don’t add to the next quarter’s profits. If the business still can’t generate the level of profits needed, they have no qualms about dismembering it and selling the parts.
The author doesn’t really provide any solutions to this state of affairs. Sadly, it seems to be an unavoidable consequence of free market capitalism. He is writing, as the subtitle states, a collection of cautionary tales to warn current and future entrepreneurs of what to expect if they seek to go public by selling stock to investors. He’s warning them that they have to decide if the ‘soul’ of their company matters more than the money they can get from selling it.
The Goodness Paradox: The Strange Relationship Between Virtue and Violence in Human Evolution by Richard W. Wrangham
That’s the in-a-nutshell version of the author’s point, as I see it. I’m not sure I totally accept his argument or his definitions, and I’m quite sure that the subject of human competition and cooperation is far more complex than this, but it’s a good start at an explanation.
From the title, I expected this book to be much like those by Steven Pinker, showing how human life has steadily improved from generation to generation, about how we’ve reduced things like hunger, disease, poverty, crime, and war by implementing the ideas of the Enlightenment. There is some of that in these pages, but Easterbrook isn’t really looking at the broad scope of history here. He is more focused on today, or at least on the last century. His main point is that things today (in general) are far better than politicians, social media, and most news reports might suggest.
Humans, he states, are predisposed by their evolution to suspect threats and be wary of the unknown. Even though most shadows are harmless, treating all as if they are bears hiding in the bushes has survival value because, every once in a while, there really is a bear. Politicians and the media exploit our inherent fears (sometimes intentionally) for their own benefit. His take on how current politicians have done so abound.
This isn’t an objective or scholarly work. There is little statistical data, no graphs, no detailed analysis, and the author freely shares his personal opinions and value judgments (such that Western ideals are moral and that a well regulated market economy is the economic ideal). Despite these differences, he comes to much the same conclusions as Pinker does in The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined and in Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress. Things aren’t only not bad; they are better than they ever have been. That doesn’t mean we don’t have serious problems. Disease, crime, poverty, and hunger have been reduced, but they haven’t been eliminated. Challenges such as climate change and wealth disparity certainly need to addressed, but history shows that humans are quite good at overcoming challenges. There is every reason to expect that we’ll meet those of today as least as well as we have met those of the past.
Glass House: The 1% Economy and the Shattering of the All-American Town by Brian Alexander
Glass House provides a case study of how the theory has worked for Lancaster, Ohio. It’s a compelling account of the Anchor-Hocking glass company, once a major U.S. producer of glassware and the lifeblood of this small city. The company has generated a lot of wealth for investors over the last half century, but there has been a cost. This is the story of those who paid it.
Advances in human knowledge and technology are rapidly changing our society. What we value and what we believe are all in transition. That’s nothing new, of course. Our concept of the universe and of our place in it has changed throughout time—from trembling in awe at the power of thunder gods to challenging the heavens in rocket ships. In the near future, however, we may not only change how we see ourselves; we may change what we are.
This, I think, is the point Yuval Noah Harari, a lecturer in history at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, is trying to make in this book (which, by the way, is beautifully produced, with thick, glossy pages and color pictures). By speeding through history, he attempts to show that people have often shifted their beliefs, priorities, and goals, which he attributes to changes in ‘religion,’ a term that I think he uses far too generically. (He did the same in his previous book, Sapiens). For Harari, ‘religion’ refers to not only theistic religions, but to things that I would call ideology, philosophy, paradigm, or theory. Nazism, fascism, communism, capitalism, humanism…pretty much any overarching idea that provides a template for human understanding is a religion. I think his historical analysis suffers by conflating them. There are important differences, not least of which is how susceptible they are to revision in the minds of their subscribers. Some of these can change far more easily and quickly than can others. It is not until page 182 that he provides his definition: “Religion is any all-encompassing story that confers superhuman legitimacy on human laws, norms and values.” Personally, I think he should have used a different word.
He also applies seemingly broad definitions for words such as ‘worship’, ‘spiritual’, ‘dogma’, and ‘divinity’. Whether he uses religious terminology to annoy traditional theists or simply for the shock value, I’m not sure, but it may be a bit of both. What his ultimate (and laudable) goal seems to be is to get readers to question their assumptions.
He eventually describes a new, rising ‘religion’ that he calls Dataism. This one manifests itself as a ‘worship’ of data. We create it, share it, and depend upon it. Under this ‘religion’, the value of data supersedes previous values of privacy and free will. Well, perhaps.
As an analysis of history or as a futurist prediction of things to come, I found this book just so-so. But then I tend to read a fair amount in both subjects, so there wasn’t much new here for me. Harari does close with three questions, though, that I think are worth pondering:
- Are organisms really just algorithms, and is life really just data processing?
- What’s more valuable – intelligence or consciousness?
- What will happen to society, politics and daily life when non-sentient conscious but highly intelligent algorithms know us better than we know ourselves?
My Review of Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind on Goodreads: https://www.goodreads.com/review/show/1252063767
Millennium: From Religion to Revolution: How Civilization Has Changed Over a Thousand Years by Ian Mortimer
The last thousand years of human history is a story of advances and declines, challenges, failures, and successes. There is no consistent plot, no preordained or inevitable conclusion, but there is always change. In this book, Medieval scholar Ian Mortimer summarizes those changes, devoting a chapter to each of the last ten centuries, highlighting the major changes, and identifying the one person who was, in his opinion, the greatest agent of change. I can’t say I necessarily agree with all of his choices, but he’s the historian. I’m just a guy who writes science fiction stories. His opinion is undoubtedly far better informed than my own, however I find his conclusion about where humanity is headed in the future a bit pessimistic. My objections involve likely advances in technology, and a disagreement that standard of living is measurable in terms of income and consumption. Like him, I expect humanity to muddle through, but I don’t agree that human societies will become “more hierarchical and less liberal.” (Pg. 329) I’ll refrain from writing a lengthy exposition because it’s not really relevant for a book review and because I have other things to do today.
Colonies In Space by T.A. Heppenheimer
There is a bittersweet quality to this book. It’s nonfiction, so it has no engaging characters, no suspenseful plot, but it does tell a story. It’s more of a snapshot, really, of a hopeful era in which humanity seemed on the verge of venturing out into space, building colonies, and expanding its reach throughout the galaxy. It seemed inevitable, a near certainty, almost right around the temporal corner. The first step would happen soon. Large colonies would be built in space. Initially, these would produce and maintain solar power stations, which would beam their energy back to Earth via microwave transmission. This would make the space colonies economically self-sustaining, possibly even highly profitable.
Published in 1978 (copyright 1977), the author’s predictions about what would happen over the next forty years are often incorrect. He did not foresee, for example, the stunning advances that have been achieved in solar voltaic cells, artificial intelligence, 3D printing, or the possibility of cultured meat (his colonies would raise chickens and goats). He was extrapolating from the proven technology of the time, and all of these areas were still quite speculative.
He was also extrapolating from current culture and politics, prior to Reaganomics or the collapse of the Soviet Union. I found the following rather poignant:
Barring a catastrophic epidemic of human stupidity, the decades ahead are likely to see the foundations solidly laid for a world without large-scale poverty or hopelessness, a world of opportunity, rising living standards and widely shared middle-class levels of affluence. Such a world will endure into the indefinite future. (pages 250-251 of the 1st edition Warner mass market paperback)
Obviously, the world he envisioned didn’t come about. One can argue whether this is good or bad, but the political motivation and the governmental financial capacity to fund large-scale space development no longer exists. We didn’t build space colonies. Perhaps, some day, we will. If humanity is to survive into the distant future, I believe we must.