[w]Interlude—A well-chosen pair of books: We got lucky in the books we chose to take on our summer vacation. Or so it seems to us.
Last Wednesday, we reread the depressing classic, 36 Children, as our hurtling train headed north. But once we reached our sprawling family estate, we turned to a wonderfully well-matched pair of books:
We turned to Professor Harari's Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind. It was matched with Professor Rovelli's The Order of Time, and serendipity ruled!
As we've watched our floundering species sift the world's events this week, we've been struck by the way Harari's book equips us to see what's occurring. We especially think of the early passage where Harari claims that the rise of the language of our species was mainly useful because it allowed us to gossip, and to create group fictions.
According to Professor Harari, these abilities let our early ancestors work in substantially larger groups. Let's start with the role of gossip.
In some ways, this passage rings painfully true. Is Harari permitted to say this?
HARARI (page 24): The new linguistic skills the modern Sapiens acquired about seventy millennia ago enabled them to gossip for hours on end. Reliable information about who could be trusted meant that smaller bands could expand into larger bands, and Sapiens could develop tighter and more sophisticated types of cooperation.Do "numerous studies" support this theory? We have no idea.
The gossip theory might sound like a joke, but numerous studies support it. Even today the vast majority of human communication—whether in the form of emails, phone calls or newspaper columns—is gossip. It comes so naturally to us that it seems as if our language evolved for this very purpose. Do you think that history professors chat about the reasons for World War One when they meet for lunch, or that nuclear physicists spend their coffee breaks at scientific conferences talking about quarks? Sometimes. But more often, they gossip about the professor who caught her husband cheating, or the quarrel between the head of the department and the dean, or the rumours that a colleague used his research funds to buy a Lexus. Gossip usually focuses on wrongdoings. Rumour-mongers are the original fourth estate, journalists who inform society about and thus protect it from cheats and freeloaders.
Meanwhile, is Harari permitted to say that? Is he allowed to say that the vast majority of communication in newspaper columns is actually gossip?
Is he allowed to lump journalists in with rumor-mongers, even in puckish fashion?
Whatever! As he continues, Harari says that the our evolving language next allowed us to construct sweeping group "fictions"—religious and/or national myths that permitted us to cooperate in vastly larger groups. According to Professor Harari, these abilities—the ability to gossip and the ability to create sweeping group fictions—were highly adaptive traits early on.
Last evening, then this morning, we watched the shamans of our two tribes create their equal-but-opposite claims about yesterday's hearing in the House. As this drive toward dueling Group Stories continues, we continue to plunge toward Mister Trump's Dispositive War—which, we're now reliably told, future anthropologists will also call "The War of The Trump Against All."
(We're reliably told that the war will start during Ivanka's one truncated term.)
Gossip and sweeping tribal "fictions" were once adaptive skills? So says Professor Harari. Today, these practices continue to dominate the maladaptive way our tribal leaders unite us rubes. Indeed, this is the point we've been making, at this site, for the past twenty years!
On MSNBC, Mika and a string of like-mindeds insist that Peter Strzok slew the dragon during yesterday's hearing. On Fox, Laura Ingraham and the others swear that Strzok badly embarrassed himself.
Our tribe wasn't told what the other tribe saw. Instead, we were handed our instant group "fiction," building the bond which has always served the move toward disastrous war.
Harari's text—it's blurbed by Bill Gates and by Obama!—builds a framework around what we saw. The comic relief is supplied by Rovelli's text, and by pundit reaction to same, with reviewers standing in line to swear that they understood every easy-to-understand word.
With these claims, our liberal tribe constructs its post-deity gods. Having moved away from religious unity tales, we swoon about cosmic claims concerning neutrinos, as found in today's New York Times.
No one has the slightest idea what these science reporters are talking about, but as reviewers help us pretend, tribal bonds are formed. This brings us back to the basic "At What Page?" question:
At what page should a sensible reader quit on Rovelli's new book? At what page should the voice of reason tell the reader to put Rovelli's book down and move slowly away from her desk?
At what page is all hope gone? Upon review, we break it down like this:
Milestones in The Order of Time:Tomorrow, we promise to show you why page 12 might answer the "At What Page?" question. For today, let's expand on one key word from yesterday's post. That one key word is "small."
Page 34: Based upon markings in our book, that's the point where we finally stopped reading. We finally stopped at the end of Part 2, with Rovelli's third Rilke citation.
Pages 22-32: These are the pages where we saw the end drawing near. Especially hopeless are the subsections HEAT and BLUR. Rovelli's attempt to discuss entropy starts on page 25 and works to destroy the will.
Page 12: In our view, this is where a reader could first sensibly claim that the "At What Page?" question has been answered. Doggedly, we read 22 more pages before accepting the truth.
As we showed you yesterday, Rovelli makes an interesting claim on page 9 of his easy-to-understand book. One part of his presentation is actually coherent:
ROVELLI (pages 9-10): Let’s begin with a simple fact: time passes faster in the mountains than it does at sea level.Interesting! Good Friend A, who lives by the sea, will "age less" (will age more slowly) than Good Friend B, who lives on a mountaintop.
The difference is small but can be measured with precision timepieces that can be bought today on the internet for a few thousand dollars. With practice, anyone can witness the slowing down of time. With the timepieces of specialized laboratories, this slowing down of time can be detected between levels just a few centimeters apart: a clock placed on the floor runs a little more slowly than one on a table.
It is not just the clocks that slow down: lower down, all processes are slower. Two friends separate, with one of them living in the plains and the other going to live in the mountains. They meet up again years later: the one who has stayed down has lived less, aged less, the mechanism of his cuckoo clock has oscillated fewer times. He has had less time to do things, his plants have grown less, his thoughts have had less time to unfold. Lower down, there is simply less time than at altitude.
So says Professor Rovelli. We'll assume that this particular claim is accurate.
Left on its own, that particular claim comes close to being coherent. Unfortunately, "the difference is small," Rovelli says. By this he means the difference in aging, here in our world, is so tiny that it will be completely impossible to notice, discern or observe.
Just to get clear on what Rovelli seems to be saying, let's imagine a somewhat changed planet Earth:
Our new Earth will still circle the sun in a regular way. This journey around the sun will still be called a "year."
Our new Earth will still spin on its axis (roughly) 365 times in the course of each year. These discrete parts of the year will still be called "days."
Here's the difference:
Our new Earth will have mountains which are amazingly high, along with a massive supply of air. On this reinvented Earth, Good Friend B goes amazingly high when he moves to his mountaintop lair. Let's say he does this when both friends have lived ten years at sea level.
After twenty more trips around the sun, Good Friend B comes back down to sea level. But uh-oh! According to Rovelli, he will have aged much faster than Good Friend A, due to the enormous height at which he has lived.
Good Friend A will have aged much less. Good Friend A will look the way a person currently looks when he's 30 years old. But Good Friend B will have aged much faster. He may look like people currently look when they're 90 years old!
It's easy to picture this state of affairs, which can't happen here on our Earth. This seems to be a logical extension of what Rovelli says in his easy-to-understand passage.
On this different Earth, will Good Friend B look like he's 90 years old when Good Friend A looks 30? That seems to be what Rovelli has said. That said, please notice this point:
Each friend has circled the sun the same twenty times since their last time together. Granted, Good Friend B has aged much more. But in the most obvious straightforward sense, each fellow has lived twenty years since their previous meeting.
Each fellow has lived that twenty years. With that in mind, in what sense would you say that Good Friend A has actually lived "less time?" Has Rovelli really explained that point, made it easy to understand? Or has he simply said that this is how we the people should talk if we want to sound just like Teechur?
A change in the speed of aging at different altitudes? Conceptually, that seems quite straightforward. But alas! All that talk about "less time" and "time moving faster" is not.
That said, reviewers will stand in line, as they always do, to say that The Order of Time is amazingly easy-to-understand. It's one of our liberal tribe's current group fictions! Following Arsenio Hall, it's one of those "things that make you go ooooh."
In truth, our badly floundering species just isn't amazingly sharp. We do in fact like to gossip a lot. We do fall in line behind Official Approved Tribal Stories.
According to Professor Harari, these traits were once highly adaptive. "Numerous studies" support this view.
Were these traits once highly adaptive? As we wait for Mister Trump's War, they don't seem that way now.
Tomorrow: Live and direct from page 12, what Rovelli says Einstein said!