Part 4—The skills which let our species triumph: In a column in today's New York Times, Emily Yoffe refers to what Donald J. Trump has done at the southern border.
She refers to the "national revulsion" occasioned by those truly remarkable acts, which seem almost medieval:
"There is nothing like audio of terrified children, accounts of their deplorable detention conditions and the realization some families may never be reunited to cause national revulsion at this iteration of the Trump administration’s touted zero-tolerance stance."
So says Yoffe, in a column discussing the general inutility of the concept of "zero tolerance."
Reports this week have further described the administration's astounding behavior. But has this occasioned "national revulsion?"
Not on the channels we watch.
On the channels we watch, this astonishing conduct has received short shrift all week. Actual news about this astonishing conduct has been pushed aside, again and again, in favor of endless speculation about "breaking news"—"breaking news" involving The Chase.
Last night, Rachel Maddow raised the topic at 9:55 PM, having burned the previous hour in the pursuit of the night's "breaking news." These nightly pursuits, on all such programs, are generally composed of pointless, uninformed speculation and highly selective analysis.
How uninformed are these gossip sessions? Last night, CNN instantly reported, at 9 PM, that Michael Cohen doesn't have audiotape of the alleged meeting at which he says he heard the latest Big Thing occur. Ninety minutes later, pundits were speculating, on Lawrence's show, about the exciting possibility that Cohen maybe does hold such a tape.
That's the way these instant, largely uninformed discussions tend to work. Indeed, we just saw Barbara McQuade raise the same exciting possibility. It was 10:30 AM, more than thirteen hours later.
This is the way these sessions tend to go. As we noted yesterday, one week's excitement is quickly cast aside, and forgotten, in pursuit of the next "breaking news."
Our tribal leaders love The Chase; in their deference to that topic, they've largely abandoned the children who were taken from their parents at the southern border. As we watch this rather obvious lack of revulsion unfold, we think of what Yuval Noah Harari says in his acclaimed best-seller, Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind.
Yesterday, as we left Harari's story, a major mystery loomed. How did our ancestors, Homo sapiens all, manage to drive all other human populations to extinction, starting roughly 70,000 years ago?
We were human, but they were too. The Neanderthals had bigger muscles—and they even had bigger brains!
Still, we drove them all to extinction. How did we manage to do that? And how does this history relate to the corporate-sponsored manifest bullshit now seen on TV every night?
Somewhat counterintuitively, Harari attributes our species' success to its ability 1) to engage in "gossip" and 2) to adopt group "fictions." Harari says the whole thing began with a chance mutation:
HARARI (page 21): [B]eginning about 70,000 years ago, Homo sapiens started doing very special things. Around that date Sapiens bands left Africa for a second time. This time they drove the Neanderthals and all other human species not only from the Middle East, but from the face of the earth...The people who drove the Neanderthals to extinction "were as intelligent and sensitive as we are?" That may be our favorite line! Meanwhile, could we explain "the paradoxes of quantum physics" to these earliest artists? Presumably no, since we still can't explain them today.
Most researchers believe that these unprecedented accomplishments were the product of a revolution in Sapiens’ cognitive abilities. They maintain that the people who drove the Neanderthals to extinction, settled Australia, and carved the Stadel lion-man were as intelligent, creative and sensitive as we are. If we were to come across the artists of the Stadel Cave, we could learn their language and they ours. We’d be able to explain to them everything we know—from the adventures of Alice in Wonderland to the paradoxes of quantum physics—and they could teach us how their people view the world.
The appearance of new ways of thinking and communicating, between 70,000 and 30,000 years ago, constitutes the Cognitive Revolution. What caused it? We’re not sure. The most commonly believed theory argues that accidental genetic mutations changed the inner wiring of the brains of Sapiens, enabling them to think in unprecedented ways and to communicate using an altogether new type of language. We might call it the Tree of Knowledge mutation. Why did it occur in Sapiens DNA rather than in that of Neanderthals? It was a matter of pure chance, as far as we can tell.
We'll give Harari a pass on that second point. But if he's right in his basic claim, the ascendance of Homo sapiens, among all other human species, was "a matter of pure chance."
Our ancestors were able to drive all other humans into the sea because "accidental genetic mutations changed the inner wiring" of their brains. According to Harari, these accidental mutations produced the sleek analytical giants found on cable today.
That last assessment becomes less ironic if you understand what those chance mutations allowed our ancestors to do. For starters, they allowed our ancestors to engage in gossip! Indeed, "our language evolved as a way of gossiping," Harari says in a part of his analysis which is rather poorly explained.
What's so good about being able to gossip? It let us work together in larger bands, Harari says:
HARARI (page 23): The amount of information that one must obtain and store in order to track the ever-changing relationships of a few dozen individuals is staggering...All apes show a keen interest in such social information, but they have trouble gossiping effectively. Neanderthals and archaic Homo sapiens probably also had a hard time talking behind each other’s backs—a much maligned ability which is in fact essential for cooperation in large numbers. The new linguistic skills that modern Sapiens acquired about seventy millennia ago enabled them to gossip for hours on end. Reliable information about who could be trusted meant that small bands could expand into larger bands, and Sapiens could develop tighter and more sophisticated types of cooperation.Why couldn't our ancestors gossip effectively before these chance mutations occurred? Harari doesn't seem to explain that.
Still, he says that the ability to gossip allowed post-mutation Homo sapiens to work in much larger groups. This gave them the advantage over the Neanderthals, whose bigger brains still didn't permit them to work in such large bands.
"The gossip theory might sound like a joke, but numerous studies support it," Harari claims. "Even today the vast majority of human communication—whether in the form of emails, phone calls or newspaper columns—is gossip."
Say what? Is the vast majority of newspaper columns simply a matter of gossip? That too might sound like a joke. But that's certainly true of the vast amount of pseudo-discussion on our "cable news" speculationfests, which resemble gossip much more closely than information-gathering or analysis.
That said, the second result of those chance mutations will be familiar too. Purely by chance, Homo sapiens developed the ability to invent and share group "fictions," Harari says. We've been writing about this trait for the past twenty years:
HARARI (page 24): [T]he truly unique feature of our language is not its ability to transmit information about men and lions. Rather, it’s the ability to transmit information about things that do not exist at all. As far as we know, only Sapiens can talk about entire kinds of entities that they have never seen, touched or smelled.What's the advantage in being to invent, and believe, group fictions? According to Harari, the ability to weave common myths—common myths such as "the biblical creation story, the Dreamtime myths of Aboriginal Australians, and the nationalist myths of modern states"—allowed Homo sapiens to cooperate in much larger groups.
Legends, myths, gods and religions appeared for the first time with the Cognitive Revolution. Many animals and human species could previously say, "Careful! A lion!" Thanks to the Cognitive Revolution, Homo sapiens acquired the ability to say, "The lion is the guardian spirit of our tribe." This ability to speak about fictions is the most unique feature of Sapiens language.
Instead of trusting only the people you knew, you could now trust much large numbers of people. If you yourself had put your faith in some national or tribal myth / narrative / pleasing story, you'd be willing to work with total strangers who displayed a similar belief. Onward and forward our large bands marched, with bracing results such as these:
HARARI (page 17): [I]f the Neanderthals, Denisovans and other human species didn’t merge with Sapiens, why did they vanish? One possibility is that Homo sapiens drove them to extinction. Imagine a Sapiens band reaching a Balkan valley where Neanderthals had lived for hundreds of thousands of years. The newcomers began to hunt the deer and gather the nuts and berries that were the Neanderthals’ traditional staples. Sapiens were more proficient hunters and gatherers—thanks to better technology and superior social skills—so they multiplied and spread. The less resourceful Neanderthals found it increasingly difficult to feed themselves. Their population dwindled and they slowly died out, except perhaps for one or two members who joined their Sapiens neighbours.Oof. You can set aside the lofty idea that our species, by pure chance, developed some powerful analytical skills which let our ancestors prosper.
Another possibility is that competition for resources flared up into violence and genocide. Tolerance is not a Sapiens trademark. In modern times, a small difference in skin colour, 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? It may well be that when Sapiens encountered Neanderthals, the result was the first and most significant ethnic-cleansing campaign in history.
Harari explains it differently. Given our "superior social skills"—our ability to work in much larger groups—we may have starved The Others out, or engaged in "ethnic cleansing."
"Tolerance is not a Sapiens trademark," Harari mordantly says. Presumably, you already understood that fact if you watch much cable.
We don't know what kinds of "studies" support the gossip theory. Beyond that, we can't judge Harari as a prehistorian—though his book is blurbed by Bill Gates on the front, by Obama on the back.
We do know this: Harari's emphasis on gossip and the adoption of vast group fictions describes the functioning of modern journalistic elites to a T.
Right here at this award-winning site, we've spent the past twenty years describing the upper-end press corps' penchant for low-IQ, brain-dead gossip. Also, its endless desire to memorize and recite standard official group "scripts." Remember when everyone agreed to say that Comey the God was the world's most upright person?
The children have spent the past thirty years marching to war in these ways. And alas! In November 2016, thirty years of this standard group bullshit sent Donald J. Trump to the White House.
According to Harari, our ancestors developed the ability to gossip. They also developed the ability to subscribe to group "fictions"—to vast social myths which can't be supported by facts.
Thanks to these less than impressive skills, they were able to work in very large bands. "Rabbi, this is where we cam in," one of the analysts grumbled.