ANTHROPOLOGY NOW: He's got your humans right here!

MONDAY, JULY 23, 2018

Part 1—Surfin' Harari:
"Twenty years ago today / Sergeant Pepper taught the band to play."

So the ancients told us, in 1967. Starting in 2011, Yuval Noah Harari took us back even farther than that.

He did so in a widely-praised best-selling book, Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind. In its current paperback edition, it's endorsed by Bill Gates on the front of the book, by Barack Obama on the back.

We'll let you puzzle that out.

Early on, Harari describes a sacred event. Something like 200,000 years ago, our own species. Homo sapiens, emerged somewhere in East Africa.

Let's put that in perspective! Other humans had wandered the Earth for several million years at that point. (Harari places the rise of humans at 2.5 million years in the past.)

Those earlier humans had made a nice start, but they certainly weren't Homo sapiens! Early on, Harari offers a package of three-dimensional left-handed compliments concerning good looks and big brains:
HARARI (page 13): We don’t know exactly where and when animals that can be classified as Homo sapiens first evolved from some earlier type of humans, but most scientists agree that by 150,000 years ago, East Africa was populated by Sapiens that looked just like us. If one of them turned up in a modern morgue, the local pathologist would notice nothing peculiar. Thanks to the blessings of fire, they had smaller teeth and jaws than their ancestors, whereas they had massive brains, equal in size to ours.
Finally! After more than two million years, a species had appeared with humans who looked just like us!

Harari employs an interesting turn of language in this passage and elsewhere. He refers to these people, who looked just like us, as being both "humans" and "animals."

Again getting clear on the basic points, these were the first animals which could be classified as Homo sapiens. But other animals who were "humans" had been around for two million years.

These new animals looked just like us, Harari says. He also says they had "massive brains," equal in size to our own.

Elsewhere, Harari quantifies this somewhat boastful claim, describing the size of our brains in cubic centimeters. He also seems to say that Neanderthals, who were already prominent in Europe, had brains even larger than ours:
HARARI (page 14): [W]hen Sapiens reached the Middle East and Europe, they encountered the Neanderthals. These humans were more muscular than Sapiens, had larger brains, and were better adapted to cold climes. They used tools and fire, were good hunters, and apparently took care of their sick and infirm...Neanderthals are often depicted in caricatures as the archetypical brutish and stupid ‘cave people’, but recent evidence has changed their image.
According to Harari, such encounters first occurred about 100,000 years ago. Those first encounters went poorly for us. Later, we came back and conquered.

Whatever! Eventually, Homo sapiens eliminated the Neanderthals from the Earth, along with all other human species. If the Neanderthals had larger brains and bigger muscles, how did our forebears accomplish this task?

Harari explains that part of the story, though we won't get there today.

For today, we'll focus on the rise of our species, which Harari indelicately refers to as both human and animal. Along the way, Harari pokes fun at the way we tend to downplay or disappear the less elevated part of that dyad. For today, we'll only explain the use to which we hope to place Harari's book.

At least in the West, we surviving humans have long positioned ourselves as "the rational animal." (In the Judao-Christian tradition, we're the ones who are set apart by the possession of souls.)

In these ways, we elevate ourselves above the rest of brute creation. In the process, we make it hard to explain the current functioning of our species as we spin toward perdition in the form of Mister Trump's Onrushing Dispositive War.

We tend to elevate ourselves above the rest of creation. That said, the emphasis on our massive brains makes it hard to account for comical efforts like this:

Uusally, we call "real" the things that exist now, in the present. Not those which existed once, or that may do so in the future. We say that things in the past or the future "were" real or "will be" real, but we do not say that they "are" real.
Good God! Glumly, the analysts slumped in their chairs. "Ow ow ow ow ow ow ow," one of them sadly exclaimed.

That's Professor Rovelli, on page 105 of The Order of Time, starting Chapter 7 of his latest easy-to-understand book. Harari's talk of our "massive brains" leaves such comic relief unexplained, along with the tendency of reviewers to say they understood every word.

For ourselves, we sometimes have a hard time seeing how our species will escape its current plight. As individuals, we're basically nice. But as a group, we're slight.

Despite the massive size of our brains, decades of clownish behavior have emerged from new types of corporate media. This has given us an American president who responds to basic questions by saying such things as this:
JOURNALIST (7/16/18): My first question for you, sir, is who do you believe?

My second question is, would you now, with the whole world watching, tell President Putin—Would you denounce what happened in 2016, and would you warn him to never do it again?

PRESIDENT: So let me just say that we have two thoughts. You have groups that are wondering why the FBI never took the server—haven't they taken the server? Why was the FBI told to leave the office of the Democratic National Committee?
Why didn't the FBI take the server? So this dodderer said.

The gentleman who flounders so possesses the nuclear codes. His massive brain doesn't seem to be functioning especially well. But then, rather frequently, neither do the massive brains of the American press.

Many such humans now work for corporate news orgs which live to embellish and entertain—and to proselytize. They do so through such new media as talk radio, cable news and the Net.

The craziness of this situation has been emerging for decades. Given the role of those nuclear codes, it can sometimes be hard to see how our big-brained species will find its way out of this mess.

Harari says we have massive brains, though not quite as big as the Neanderthals. Even as he extends this claim, the most powerful person on the planet emits constant strains of self-contradictory nonsense.

Journalists mug and clown in response, and, in bits of comic relief, swear that they understand fields. For Rovelli's discussion of fields, start on page 74.

At the start of the year, we told you that it's all anthropology now. By that, we meant that it no longer makes sense to suppose we'll find our way out of this mess. All that's left is the attempt to explain how our species' instincts, wiring and abilities got us to this point.

Harari's widely-praised book may help us see how this works. All this week, at least at this site, it will be Anthropology Now!

Tomorrow: A chance mutation occurs


  1. "His massive brain doesn't seem to be functioning especially well."

    His brain appears to be functioning fine; it's your brain, Bob, that worries me.

    Have you now turned completely, and thus become incapable of understanding simple concepts: that the DNC, by refusing to allow the FBI to analyze the server, has self-refuted their own idiotic conspiracy theory of "Russian meddling"?

    1. Here's some of Mr Trump's fine brain function:

    2. Leroy Is A Sloppy DrunkJuly 23, 2018 at 10:36 PM

      " ...that the DNC, by refusing to allow the FBI to analyze the server, has self-refuted their own idiotic conspiracy theory of Russian meddling'?"

      You're really, really stupid, and here you are pretending to discuss brain function:


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  2. I gotta go to the toilet.

    I'll be back later to give you my impressions of this post.

    1. I guess you and Mao are taking turns now going first? If you are not the same witless dolt.

    2. I'm Greg fool. I'm going to smack you around.

  3. Somerby takes a reasonable book by Harari and uses it to mock humans as a species because there are ongoing daily problems in our lives.

    For some reason, Somerby keeps repeating the words massive brain, as if that were meant as anything other than a comparative term describing the evolution of our species.

    "At the start of the year, we told you that it's all anthropology now. By that, we meant that it no longer makes sense to suppose we'll find our way out of this mess. All that's left is the attempt to explain how our species' instincts, wiring and abilities got us to this point."

    Somerby knows nothing whatsoever about how the brain works, nothing about psychology and very little about sociology. He didn't study the social sciences at Harvard. He wasted his time on philosophy, much as he wastes his time these days on cosmology.

    Somerby might profitably read Stephen Pinker's "The better angels of our nature," a book that argues that the world is evolving toward peace and prosperity, much less violent than in its past. It is a more optimistic misuse of anthropology and social science than Somerby's bleak speculations.

    For one thing, Somerby here treats Trump as typical of humanity when he is an aberration. If he were the most powerful person on the planet, he wouldn't have been so easily bested by every world leader he has met with, including not just Putin and Kim Jong Un but also Pene of Mexico and Macron of France. His wife would hold hands with him. But Trump is a figure head and a joke, not the best our species has to offer. So why does Somerby elevate Trump to this position?

    I believe today's post is a cry for help. Somerby is identifying with Trump because he is depressed. He equates us all with Trump's worst excesses because he thinks we are all scum, himself included. That is not a normal worldview and not a healthy way to see the world. So, if anyone close to Somerby reads this blog, please take him to see a therapist. A real one, not Jordan Peterson.

    When King George was mad, did anyone claim that England itself was mad? When Nixon was being a crook, did anyone claim the US was crooked too? When Ivan was Terrible, did the Russian people feel responsible for his actions? My massive brain tells me that I am not Trump, no matter how oddly he behaves. Why doesn't Somerby's brain do the same?

  4. Massive brain = a version of "If you're so smart, why aren't you..."

    In this case, fill in whatever Somerby thinks should be happening.

    The Neanderthal's extra brain capacity was used for vision. Ours is used for language and problem solving, social interaction. The brains of species are specialized for survival in their own ecological niches. Many animals can do things we cannot, and vice versa. I Harari really claiming the kind of moral superiority Somerby attributes to him? I doubt it.

  5. "In its current paperback edition, it's endorsed by Bill Gates on the front of the book, by Barack Obama on the back.

    We'll let you puzzle that out."

    What is there to puzzle about here? Please explain why Somerby considers this odd. Does he think Obama should have been on the cover and Gates on the back? Or does he think the two men are too different to like the same book? Or does he think neither has anything to do with the subject and thus neither should be endorsing the book?

    What is his beef?

    1. Spoken by one of those massive brains.

    2. OK - fine. I guess you can keep rolling your boulder up the hill round here.

  6. David, you might enjoy this film:

    1. imp, what do you think Noam's take is on poking the bear-troll with a stick instead of leaving a sleeping dog-troll lie?

    2. Caesar -- I just noticed this. thanks for the tip.

    3. Anon 4:03PM -- Noam has more important things to think about.

  7. Humanity, with it's "massive brain", is a cancer on the face of this beautiful blue orb and Mother Nature wants us dead. But Mother Nature isn't trying hard enough.

    1. Have no fear, the Republicans are here to speed up the process.

  8. "For ourselves, we sometimes have a hard time seeing how our species will escape its current plight."

    "By that, we meant that it no longer makes sense to suppose we'll find our way out of this mess. All that's left is the attempt to explain how our species' instincts, wiring and abilities got us to this point."

    In light of these views, it makes no sense to blame the media or liberals or anyone else for Donald Trump. It is an inescapable fact of our instincts, wiring, or abilities that humans create messes. Such views also call into question the whole notion of the improvability of human beings or human societies. After all, Nietzsche, as Somerby pointed out a couple of days ago, said that morals were invented by the weak to oppress the strong and to usurp the elite strong men from their natural rule over society.

    Mankind produces a Hitler, but it also produces an MLK or a Lincoln.
    And MLK and Lincoln, two of Somerby's heroes, lived in dark times, but rejected despair and the inevitability of the triumph of undesirable forces such as disunion or racism. They believed in the moral force of their arguments.

    But there goes that word "moral", a word that Nietzsche found quaint and unnatural.

  9. Somerby quotes Rovelli:

    "Uusally, we call "real" the things that exist now, in the present. Not those which existed once, or that may do so in the future. We say that things in the past or the future "were" real or "will be" real, but we do not say that they "are" real."

    Then he says ow ow ow. It is annoying when Somerby ridicules something but doesn't say what he finds ridiculous or wrong about it.

    For example, in the above quote, I disagree that the past and future have the same status with respect to realness. Things that happened in the past are more real than things that haven't happened yet (future). Future events may or may not happen and could happen in any number of ways. The past is determined and only happened in one way, the way it did happen. So that is a different kind of realness.

    The present feels real because of our conscious experience of it. It would be neither past nor present without the observer. It cannot be future once there is an observer -- it can only be past or present since we do not consciously experience the future. Imagining the future is still imagination and defined as not real.

    Perhaps Rovelli goes on to discuss this further in his book. We don't know because Somerby didn't tell us what came after that passage and he doesn't tell us why he objects to what was said. That makes his ow ow ow useless and this post kind of a waste of time.


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