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:
THE INADEQUACY OF GRAMMARGood God! Glumly, the analysts slumped in their chairs. "Ow ow ow ow ow ow ow," one of them sadly exclaimed.
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.
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?Why didn't the FBI take the server? So this dodderer said.
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?
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