In search of a new paradigm: Around the world, the human experiment is rife with the ugliest kinds of tribal and national warfare.
Here at home, our national discourse spills with trivial tribal stampedes, often built around the age-old desire to "kill the pig." Our journalists display an aversion to serious topics, and almost no analytical skills at all.
Our elite logicians? They've disappeared into the mists of their own guild's specialized projects.
Despite these embarrassing manifestations, we humans, at least in the western world, tend to cling to a traditional self-understanding. Despite the spectacular dumbness around us, we secretly cling to this view:
"Man [sic] is the rational animal."That portrait, as commonly understood, has proven quite hard to shake. In the present day, we frequently see that our upper-end journalists have gone to the finest schools. This tends to reinforce the belief that we're living in the most rational of all possible worlds.
Sadly enough, we aren't! Our upper-end journalists spend their time killing the (latest) pig, often based on things they said, did or thought when they were 19 years old.
Our journalists care about wardrobe and hair and about the signals a candidate sends from the way she eats fried chicken. They deeply care about who may have had sex with whom, though only once, as recently as 2006.
They know that they must never tell us about the looting involved in our nation's health care. They flee from basic data about basic issues, much as vampires flee from the cross.
Few practices could be dumber, but this is the stuff of our "national discourse." And when's the last time you saw one of our many professors of logic step forward with clarification or words of advice based upon his or her vast store of erudition?
Dearest darlings, it just isn't done! Our professors of logic left the world many long years ago. The greatest among them are trying to figure how 2 plus 2 can equal 2.
We humans! We can conceive of ourselves as "the rational animal" only because our rational impulses and analytical skills are so thoroughly missing in action. And then, along comes Professor Harari with a bit of a new attitude.
Rather, Harari has offered a new paradigm—with a portrait of the human race as it now exists, in which the triumph of our one remaining human species was built upon "gossip and "fiction." Also, upon a strong dollop of intolerance, of the kind observed all over the world, and all through the tribal wars which now rule our national "press corps."
Why did our species, Homo sapiens, survive where other humans groups disappeared? We'll reduce the portrait drawn in Harari's first chapter to these basic points:
HARARI (page 5-18): Homo sapiens has kept hidden an even more disturbing secret. Not only do we possess an abundance of uncivilized 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.In Harari's less than glorious portrait, our species drove other human groups into the sea. He says it may have been "the first and most significant ethnic-cleansing campaign in history," an "incriminating" example of "genocide."
The members of some of these species were massive and others were dwarves. Some were fearsome hunters and others meek plant-gatherers. Some lived only on a single island, while many roamed over continents. But all of them belonged to the genus Homo. They were all human beings.
It’s a common fallacy to envision these species as arranged in a straight line of descent, with Ergaster begetting Erectus, Erectus begetting the Neanderthals, and the Neanderthals evolving into us. This linear model gives the mistaken impression that at any particular moment only one type of human inhabited the earth, and that all earlier species were merely older models of ourselves. The truth is that from about 2 million years ago until around 10,000 years ago, the world was home, at one and the same time, to several human species. And why not? Today there are many species of foxes, bears and pigs. The earth of a hundred millennia ago was walked by at least six different species of man. It’s our current exclusivity, not that multi-species past, that is peculiar—and perhaps incriminating. As we will shortly see, we Sapiens have good reasons to repress the memory of our siblings.
But if 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 neighbors.
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 color, 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.
In Harari's portrait, we modern members of Homo sapiens "have good reasons to repress the memory of our siblings." He refers to the half dozen or so human species which became extinct once our own species wandered north out of Africa about 70,000 years ago.
According to Harari, our species isn't long on tolerance. Of course, anyone who watches "cable news" has become aware of that fact as the Maddows and the Hannitys involve themselves in the endless killing of the other tribe's pigs, to the exclusion of everything else.
(Don't miss Maddow's podcast on Spiro T. Agnew! Also, don't expect to hear a word about the way you, and everyone else, are being looted in the arena of health care! On gong-show, corporate cable news, it simply isn't done!)
According to Harari, the eventual triumph of our species wasn't based on superlative "rational" powers. It was based on the acquisition of two new abilities—the ability to "gossip" about people not present, and the ability to invent compelling "fictions" which will be adopted, ardently, by ever wider groups.
Did Homo sapiens conquer the world through employment of gossip and fiction? We can't answer that question. Meanwhile, Harari's explanations are slender, as is inevitable in a book which seeks to cover the whole history of human existence.
That said, our public discourse, such as it is, runs on gossip and the adoption of sweeping group fictions. Or do you still think that Al Gore said he invented the Internet, as every "great ape" in the national press corps told us for years on end?
Children are dead all over Iraq. Do you believe that Gore said that?
It's natural for us in our own liberal tribe to think that Harari's unpleasant portrait could only apply to the great apes Over There. It could only apply to the knuckle-dragging, low-brow inhabitants of the Fox News Channel's realm.
In fact, our own tribe has been running on tribal group fictions for a rather long time now. Or do you still believe that the fact that Trayvon Martin was carrying Skittles had anything to do, at all, with the way he died that night?
Did you feel edified when you saw our tribal thought leaders pushing that irrelevant fact? Over and over, again and again, it's how our own tribe works now.
The spectacular dumbness of our own liberal tribe has been one of our principle subjects for several years now. We regard it as the biggest story in national media over the past dozen (or so) years.
In his best-selling book, Harari paints a picture of our species' origins which stresses the role of gossip and sweeping group fiction. And gossip and fiction are the twin meats on which our nation's sad enterprise feeds.
Is Professor Harari right about the way our species came to power? We have no earthly idea. Neither does anyone else, even including Bill Gates.
That said, we offer Professor Harari's book as a new paradigm—as a possible framework of understanding as we look out at the world.
Aristotle is said to have said that we are "the rational animal." It's very, very hard to square that assessment with the typical work of our nation's top pundits—but that picture has long had a hold on the way we humans see ourselves, if only "from afar."
Aristotle is said to have said that we're "the rational animal." Harari almost seems to say that we are the animal built upon gossip and fiction. Stated another way, we're the animal which kills the pig based upon tribal script.
Have you ever read the New York Times? If so, do you fail to see that Harari offers a compelling new way of seeing ourselves and our conduct?
Let's not waste our time explaining the notion of "paradigms." Sometimes, what looked like a duck may suddenly come to look more like a rabbit. With that in mind, we'll suggest that you try stepping back from Aristotle's fowl to picture Harari's hare.
Which are we—the duck or the rabbit, the lady or the tiger? In truth, it's very, very hard for us to see who and what we are.
"Rational animals" don't stage stampedes about the conduct of public officials when they were 19 years old. But that's the sort of thing our own allegedly "rational" tribe was doing all last week. (More on that tomorrow.)
Are we humans the rational animal? Given our species' endless conduct, the fact that the question can even be raised tells us how plainly we aren't.
Our journalists run on gossip and fiction. As they do, members of the various tribes tend to join the latest chase. And as this endless nonsense unfolds, where are the brilliant academics who should, in theory, be stepping forward to challenge this low-IQ conduct?
Next week, we'll start to answer that question. As we do, the later Wittgenstein will signal from the near distance. But then, it's all anthropology now, as we told you last year.
As we continue down that road, we'll add to the biography of the weakness of our human minds. Our human minds are strikingly weak—unless we decide that we want to continue seeing ourselves from afar.
Next week: Horwich's complaint
A note on the lexicon: "Seeing ourselves from afar?"
For background on that useful expression, you can just click here. It involves a trip to the Kalahari with Marlin Perkins along.