HARARI'S DISSENT: How accurate are Harari's claims?

WEDNESDAY, FEBRUARY 13, 2019

For our purpose, that's not the point:
In Chapter 1 of his best-selling book, Professor Harari offers an instructive point about the way we in our self-impressed species may have long been inclined to "see ourselves from afar."

The species in question is Homo sapiens. The title of Harari's rolling best-seller is Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind. At the New York Times, it's still number one on the relevant list. For background, see yesterday's post.

Are we humans "the rational animal," as Aristotle is constantly said to have said? Does that famous assessment, as commonly understood, really capture our essence?

Staing the obvious, anyone who has ever read the New York Times will tend to wonder about that famous assessment. And sure enough! Right there in his opening chapter, Harari delivers a glancing blow at the way we've long viewed ourselves:
HARARI (page 18): Over the past 10,000 years, Homo sapiens has grown so accustomed to being the only human species that it’s hard for us to conceive of any other possibility. Our lack of brothers and sisters makes it easier to imagine that we are the epitome of creation, and that a chasm separates us from the rest of the animal kingdom. When Charles Darwin indicated that Homo sapiens was just another kind of animal, people were outraged. Even today many refuse to believe it...
Within our floundering, war-like species, do we really tend to see ourselves as "the epitome of creation?" It has ever been thus!

At least over here in the western world, we've described ourselves as "made in God's image"—and of course as the rational animal. We've tended to think that we alone possess a soul, even that we alone possess consciousness or, by apparent implication, the "rational" faculty itself.

(Meanwhile, when we hear that our upper-end journalists often "went to the finest schools," this only tends to increase our sense that they must be possessed of sound moral judgment and may even know what they're talking about! That's the way our human brains are possibly wired to work!)

Meanwhile, what did Harari mean with his slightly snippy remark about our being "the only human species?" He was referring to information in the following, earlier passage—information about prehistory's other human species, the ones he says we drove into the sea, presumably in much the way God would have wanted it done:
HARARI (page 5): Homo sapiens, too, belongs to a [biological] family. This banal fact used to be one of history’s most closely guarded secrets. Homo sapiens long preferred to view itself as set apart from animals, an orphan bereft of family, lacking siblings or cousins, and most importantly, without parents. But that’s just not the case. Like it or not, we are members of a large and particularly noisy family called the great apes. Our closest living relatives include chimpanzees, gorillas and orangutans. The chimpanzees are the closest. Just 6 million years ago, a single female ape had two daughters. One became the ancestor of all chimpanzees, the other is our own grandmother.

Homo sapiens has kept hidden an even more disturbing secret. Not only do we possess an abundance of uncivilised cousins, once upon a time we had quite a few brothers and sisters as well. We are used to thinking about ourselves as the only humans, because for the last 10,000 years, our species has indeed been the only human species around. Yet the real meaning of the word human is ‘an animal belonging to the genus Homo’, and there used to be many other species of this genus besides Homo sapiens.
It wasn't just the Neanderthals, whose brains (and muscles) were bigger than ours. Along the way, Harari calls the roll of the other human species which were driven into extinction after our own species emerged from Africa about 70,000 years ago.

It wasn't just the Neanderthals (Homo neanderthalensis). It was also Homo erectus (Upright Man), Homo soloensis (Man from the Solo valley), Homo floresiensis and Homo denisova.

While we're at it, let's not forget Homo rudolfensis (Man from Lake Rudolf) and Homo ergaster (Working Man). "They were all human beings," Harari notes. And they were all in existence, in various parts of the world, when our own species, Homo sapiens, emerged from its point of origin in East Africa, not all that long ago.

None of these species exists today. And uh-oh! When Harari explains why our species ended up as the only human species around, he attributes our dominance, not to our rational powers, but to our unique ability to engage in "gossip" and to develop and promulgate group "fictions."

It wasn't our rational powers, he says. He says research supports his claims.

Before the week is done, we'll review Harari's treatment of gossip and fiction, noting that these are the obvious engines on which our upper-end "press corps" runs. For today, we'll merely float an obvious question:

Does Professor Harari know what he's talking about? Barack Obama and even Bill Gates may have loved, and blurbed, his best-selling book. But when Harari seems to offer surprising assessments, is there any particular reason to assume he knows what he's talking about? Are his assessments correct?

Are Harari's assessments correct? That doesn't especially matter to us, for reasons we'll run through in a bit more detail tomorrow.

As the year goes along, we'll be offering Harari's assessment as an alternate paradigm through which to imagine our own human race. We'll be presenting his portrait as an alternative to the more pleasing traditional view, if which we've long seen ourselves as "the epitome of creation," even as an essentially "rational" being.

That may not be our self-impressed species' essence at all, Harari's book seems to suggest.

That said, how accurate are Harari's views, especially those our species' cheerleaders may not be inclined to like?

Tomorrow, we'll show you what the leading authority on this question has said. We'll also visit that famous duck-rabbit, further discussing our method.

Tomorrow: Two paradigms

15 comments:

  1. i really learned a lot, this will help a lot of people too,thanks for sharing this very informative blog :)

    Cherry Hill Private Detectives

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  2. Homo sapiens vs lib-zombies - who will prevail? Hmm.

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    Replies
    1. How's it going, Mao, with promoting the "group fiction" that many homo sapiens alive today are not fully human but are "lib-zombies"? Gaining any purchase with that "gossip," hm?

      Delete
    2. It's going fine, dembot. No complaints.

      And how do you like servicing your zombie death-cult, so far?

      Delete
    3. Mao,
      Get back to work. We aren't paying you to jerk-off.

      Signed,
      The Establishment Elites

      Delete
  3. Are we humans "the rational animal," as Aristotle is constantly said to have said? Does that famous assessment, as commonly understood, really capture our essence?

    For values of “constantly” equal to never. And since Aristotle never said it, it’s not “commonly understood” that he did.

    Within our floundering, war-like species, do we really tend to see ourselves as "the epitome of creation?" It has ever been thus!

    For values of “ever” equal to “not since 1859.” Who’s “we”? Nobody who understands evolution believes that it strives to create an “epitome.”

    At least over here in the western world, we've described ourselves as "made in God's image"—and of course as the rational animal. We've tended to think that we alone possess a soul, even that we alone possess consciousness or, by apparent implication, the "rational" faculty itself

    Again, who’s “we”? Is that the editorial first person plural? Or is TDH having an argument with his inner Neanderthal?

    (Meanwhile, when we hear that our upper-end journalists often "went to the finest schools," this only tends to increase our sense that they must be possessed of sound moral judgment and may even know what they're talking about! That's the way our human brains are possibly wired to work!)

    Nobody, and I mean nobody who ever went to one of the “finest schools” or met someone from one of the “finest schools” was ever under the impression that these graduates were “possessed of sound moral judgment.”

    None of these species exists today. And uh-oh! When Harari explains why our species ended up as the only human species around, he attributes our dominance, not to our rational powers, but to our unique ability to engage in "gossip" and to develop and promulgate group "fictions.”

    Harari is climate change denier, a relisher of descriptions of animal abuse, and worst of all a professor history who opines on biology, something he knows little about. Why are we listening to him? Because he’s on the NYT best seller list?

    It wasn't our rational powers, he says. He says research supports his claims.

    So says a professor of history.

    For today, we'll merely float an obvious question:
    Does Professor Harari know what he's talking about?


    Spoiler alert: No.

    is there any particular reason to assume he knows what he's talking about?

    Spoiler alert: No.

    Are his assessments correct?

    Spoiler alert: there’s no way to know.

    Are Harari's assessments correct?

    Spoiler alert: there’s no way to know.

    That doesn't especially matter to us

    Now, there’s a spoiler alert.

    As the year goes along, we'll be offering Harari's assessment as an alternate paradigm through which to imagine our own human race.

    Why?

    That said, how accurate are Harari's views, especially those our species' cheerleaders may not be inclined to like?

    Spoiler alert: there’s no way to know.

    Tomorrow, we'll show you what the leading authority on this question has said. We'll also visit that famous duck-rabbit, further discussing our method.

    Warning! The duck-rabbit illusion also attracted Wittgenstein. Although W famously wrote, “Wovon man nicht sprechen kann, darüber muss man schweigen, he still wouldn’t STFU.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Hear hear!

      From Wikipedia:

      "In the Nicomachean Ethics I.13, Aristotle states that the human being has a rational principle (Greek: λόγον ἔχον), on top of the nutritive life shared with plants, and the instinctual life shared with other animals, i. e., the ability to carry out rationally formulated projects."

      This is very far from the idea of reason, much less formal logic, being discussed by Somerby. It means planning and then executing that plan. This arises from the fact that human consciousness can (1) hold several ideas in mind at the same time, (2) has a notion of past, present and future because of that ability to hold two ideas in mind and compare them, (3) has a memory that can call facts into conscious awareness as needed, to construct a plan based on past experience, (4) can remember the plan long enough to put it into action, (5) can evaluate the outcome or results in comparison to the goal and what was intended to happen. This is all very sophisticated thinking, but not what Somerby has been talking about in his diatribe on Godel and his complaints about critical thinking.

      Stephen Pinker writes books like Harari. He too goes way outside the boundaries of his field of expertise, linguistic, also wandering into biology. He took is full of shit. He too was a bestseller.

      In part, these books do well because they tell people things they want to hear, they give pseudoscientific justification to things people want to believe. A history of mankind is bound to be trash unless it consists of many volumes, because if you are going to talk about this stuff in a rigorous way, you need more space, especially to discuss the open controversies, which are glossed in these popular books.

      An academic who writes this kind of stuff may be envied by colleagues because of the royalties, but is not respected for writing trash. The book doesn't count among scholarly publications. Academics can tell the difference and they don't pay much attention to books like Harari has written.

      Deadrat does us all a service pointing out Harari's background. Someone with an education first looks at the background of the author before deciding whether the book is worth reading. There are scholarly reviews that laymen can look up. Part of the value of going to a good university is that the professors choose and assign as required reading only the books that are reliable and worthwhile. Then they discuss the strengths and weaknesses of the required books during their lectures. Those are the lectures Somerby slept through, the notes he never read, the learning he didn't care about. Now he is at the mercy of charlatans because he didn't learn how to tell the wheat from the cheat.

      Delete
  4. "Wittgenstein's primary aim in philosophy is – to use a word he himself employs in characterizing his later philosophical procedures – a therapeutic one. These papers have in common an understanding of Wittgenstein as aspiring, not to advance metaphysical theories, but rather to help us work ourselves out of confusions we become entangled in when philosophizing.

    — Alice Crary, "Introduction", The New Wittgenstein, Routledge, 2000, p. 1"

    Thus, Wittgenstein is concerned with linguistics and semantic meaning, not reason or even philosophy. I am a big fan of Hilary Putnam (one of the essayists in the cited book). He addressed the issues raised by Wittgenstein and offered a way to address language-related problems that arise in various fields.

    Wittgenstein was not a cognitivist (too early in time), but Putnam was a cognitive scientist familiar with how people think.

    There is more value to reading Putnam or this book of essays on Wittgenstein than there is in reading or discussing Harari. If Somerby is seriously interested in knowing what gave homo sapiens an edge over Neanderthals way back in time, he should stop obsessing over words like gossip or fiction, and focus instead of the thought processes reflected by these practices. Gossip is sharing of information. Fiction is picturing a situation that doesn't actually exist. Somerby is doing what Wittgenstein railed against -- he is fixating on modern usages of gossip and fiction, ignoring technical meanings for the word fiction, and not considering such words in the context of Neanderthal times.

    I would be happy to stay here reading posts and comments if there were any chance Somerby would have a serious discussion about such things, which I consider to be fascinating. I'm not sure he is capable of it and he doesn't seem inclined to talk about anything seriously anymore. A wasted opportunity. I guess we all get old.

    ReplyDelete

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