What Harari does not understand about his own theories.

(This article is best understood after reading Prof. Yuval Noah Harari’s Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind and Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs and Steel, which is actually better than Harari’s book in many ways)


The cognitive revolution that happened around 70,000 years ago, or maybe more, it’s not quite certain, yet, has made it possible for Homo-Sapiens to reprogram themselves in order to improve their ability to survive and to procreate. All animals undergo programming while growing up, but this programming is much more limited in scope, in all other animals, they have a lot more hardwired into them than we do, and are, therefore, a lot less adaptable. They do depend on their particular physiology and on the effectiveness of its adaptation to their biosphere to survive, whereas we depend on our ability to recognize patterns and to adapt to different biospheres, to any biosphere, virtually; and we can do it much faster than they can, because ideas can change much faster than genes can. Here lie the roots of social programming and of social evolution. We evolved from apes that were adjusted to the jungles of Africa, and, as our brain evolved, so did the range of environments we could adapt ourselves to live in.

Still, before the agricultural revolution, these adaptations were not that significant – we still lived in direct relationship with our instincts, with our emotions. We were slightly different hunter-gatherers in colder climates, and different again in the northern Sahara; we cooked our food. But we were all still animists who lived in small bands.

The brain of the genus Homo evolved over the course of 2 million years in order to make this possible. One question to ask ourselves is how did the ability to create our advanced society evolved during the Pleistocene, when all around, as far as the eye could see, there was nothing but wild jungles and, in them, wild human beings living still in a pretty primordial fashion (though already making tools, clothes, etc). Where was the need that created this potential?

And why, to begin with, did we evolve into this new niche, creating it as we adapted ourselves to it – that of the organized pattern-seekers? The answer could be simply that circumstances were right and that we were the right candidates, the best candidates available at the time. You turn the cogs of evolution for 4 billion years or so, and you will get what we call “sentient beings”. They same chimpanzees are on the verge of it now. Time will tell….

But then, why did we continue to evolve, why did our brains keep growing and growing, and, by the way – is there a stopping point to this progression? Most likely there is, and it’s all physics. There is a popular new theory, ‘the stoner version’, according to which drugs had been the agent of the accelerated evolution of our brains. I fail to see how this would create a selective pressure, which is what causes things to evolve, to branch – to speciate. In the absence of selective pressure, species tend to maintain an equilibrium. Some have been known to remain unchanged for hundreds of millions of years.

I think the source of the selective pressure was ourselves. We were competing, against ourselves, for control of our new niche. We ended up wiping out all other Homo species, and some have even considered, in the recent and in the not so recent past, to extend this treatment also to certain sub-groups of the species Homo-Sapiens-Sapiens. As we were doing this – competing – we were developing this wild potential for cognition, communication and collaboration. Actually, come to think of it…. Homo-Sapiens-Sapiens, even in their mostly primordial state, before the agricultural revolution, were simply better adjusted to their own niche: they truly became the masters of all of the animal kingdom, and they demonstrated it by driving 2 or more scores of species of large animals (mostly mammals) into extinction, around 40,000 years ago, and also all the other species in the genus Homo. And the evolution of Homo-Sapiens-Sapiens became possible thanks to the invention of cooking, which was done by an older Homo species.

So, the pressure was coming from 2 directions. At a certain point we developed a new instrument – our rich and powerful imagination. The cognitive revolution, which was probably accompanied by an accelerated evolution of our speech and linguistic abilities, around 70,000 years ago.

This added a new layer of adaptation skills to out toolkit: we could tell ourselves fascinating stories and believe in them. We could create memes – the ‘genes of ideas’, the most basic elements of stories and of ideas – and use these memes to reshape our social order. Very simply put, a Sapiens-Sapiens leader could tell his (or her) people that a certain god had commanded them to join some other tribes and start planting corn during one season of the year. The concept of logical arguments, as we understand it the 21st century, did not exist back then, and I’m not sure just how widespread it is now. We needed authority, someone wise and/or powerful to impart the truth to us. And we told ourselves stories about this being, and about other beings, to make it possible for us to do what we needed to do, to undergo the changes we needed to make, in order to survive better, and compete against other bands of humans and against nature.

So, on top of the genetic evolutionary process, another evolutionary process is taking place: memetic evolution. It is an evolutionary process of the 2nd order, since it is not independent, it is tied to another evolutionary process by an intricate web of inter-dependencies.

Dawkins discussed it at length in The Selfish Gene. Here’s another good read for y’all. How the memetic process is tied to the genetic process, and how, in turn, the genetic process is tied to the physical forces, animate or inanimate, acting upon it and upon its environment. There is no free will. We’re all evolutionary robots that have been molded by their environment. OK. Understood. Onward, then.

I believe that even animals have primitive versions of memes – their ideas about the world, expressed, internally, without the use of language, including ‘beliefs’, unfounded ideas that need to be in place because something has to plug that gap, to stop the wind from blowing in. In order to act decisively and effectively in our reality, we need to understand it completely, or at least to believe we do – doubt is the enemy of action.

(An explanation is required, here, of a subject that deserves a separate article, or several: psychological repression. Our brain is a biological computer that processes impulses. This is done completely automatically: if you sense danger your brain generates an impulse that causes you to feel fear and to act on that feeling, until the problem is resolved. These impulses, inspiring us towards actions safeguarding and improving our survival, are automatic. We cannot turn them off at will. They will persist until we take an action perceived by them, by our brain, as an adequate response to the situation that has gave rise to them. So we need a ‘fuse’, a mechanism which will make those impulses subside by convincing them that the proper actions required by them have been taken, and all is well again.

For instance – we are pattern seekers. This means our brain is wired to constantly try and analyze phenomena in our environment. But what happens when we can’t find an answer? Our brain will keep generating an impulse requiring us to keep trying to figure it out. But that’s impossible. We can identify the patterns pertinent to the issues that govern our survival – which places are good to live in, where and how to get food ans water, how to move across country, how to deal with other tribes, with members of your own tribe, et cetera, et cetera. But how do you explain all these things around you. You need to define what a stream of water is, to yourself, or a tree, or a thunderstorm, or the sky, so that you can decide on your attitude towards those things, how to best deal with them.

This has a practical part – you know how nature behaves – and, also, a necessary impractical part: you need to know the story behind it all; but you can’t, so you make it up, to shut down the impulse, to prevent your brain from overloading. This is the meme. There is no real separation, within it, between reality and fantasy – it’s all reality from the meme-holder’s perspective.

So we need to repress the fact that there are so many things we don’t know about our reality, because uncertainty is the enemy of action, and swift, decisive, action is what evolution likes best. We also need to repress unpleasant realities, like the one that one day we will stop running, stop breathing…. this is why the afterlife was invented so many millennia ago, because our brain simply cannot accept, or process, the notion of its own mortality)

But when human language appears, and we can communicate to each other ideas that are more complicated than “hawk approaching” or “me hungry”, then these memes emerge, become apparent, and then we need to reach a quick agreement about our reality, or else our reality will fall apart. This is how religions came to be: humans needed to agree on the lies they were telling themselves about the things they could not understand (and that were out of reach) about the world around them, in order to be able to function as a group. This began long before sapiens, our newly-evolved high imagination only accelerated the process.

A medieval Jewish poet once said that the best part of a poem was the lies it was telling. The unclear language, the hints, the music, the wordplay, the associations, the beating about the bush…. If you just phrased it in bleak prose it would still convey the necessary information, we assume, but it would not invoke the same emotional response. A meme, quite similarly, tells you a beautiful lie, which also invokes an emotion. The emotion is the purpose of the meme. It’s a piece of brain code. It pushes you towards certain actions.

And we are driven by emotions, even when we are thinking logically, because when we do that we are merely responding to an emotion, or an urge, telling us we’d better use our head right now. Believing your enemies are evil, inhuman, inferior, makes it easier to be brutal to them, and this can come in handy when fighting another tribe for territory and for resources. For instance. Believing that supernatural beings are watching you from above and can take offense (and retaliate) if you do something that displeases them, well….. just insert your desired programming after you’ve inserted that notion into a child’s head.

Believing in the same myths also makes it possible to unite larger groups of people around ideas, instead of around personal acquaintances, it allows you to create and to manage larger social structures. I believe it is organization, more than anything else, that made it possible for homo-sapiens-sapiens to annihilate all other homo species and to become the ‘masters of nature’, at least to an extent.

Harari talks a lot about memes, in his lectures (and in his book). Memes and the inter-subjective reality they create. Let’s examine this for a second. Let’s talk about money.

I am more concerned with Harari’s ideas themselves than I am with the way he presents them – a thing he gets a lot of flack for, and it’s probably justified, a lot of it, but that’s not what I care about. So let’s say we’re somewhere in Anatolia and the year is around 1,900 BC. I’m walking down the road, there’s some silver and gold in my pocket. I know it can be weighed – there is a standardized system of weights and measures, and, primitive and nonuniform as it may be, it still works. I need to eat. I come upon a marketplace. In it there are people from many different lands (not many actual “countries” around, yet), they worship different gods, though, in a polytheistic world, faith tends to be all inclusive rather than all-exclusive.

We’re already at a stage far beyond the agricultural revolution, and we’re living in a society that’s already been greatly modified by circumstances, through beliefs. What do I believe about gold and silver? Tears of the sun, sweat of the moon? Or something else to do with some other deity? Who gives a toss. One guy over here has one story, another one has another. You smile condescendingly when you hear the one you do not believe in, or references thereof – they got the gist of it, maybe, but the lead characters are all miscast. Be that as it may, the things I believe I know, there are also things I know for certain, for on the knowledge of those things hinges my ability to survive. I may not always be able to spell out the difference, but deep down inside I know it.

I know that all other people I’ve ever seen have beliefs similar to mine about gold. We all agree it is important, and that is has been made so by the gods themselves. This is the better part of the meme. The more mundane part is my absolute certainty that when I pull my grains of gold or my hacksilver out of my bag (or pocket) they will have power over other people. They will see them, they will covet them, they will give me food and goods for them, at an exchange rate I am more or less familiar with.

This is not imaginary, the behavior I expect from other people. And I have no doubt that gold will retain its value through any kind of social upheavals, unless civilization and society collapse so thoroughly that we’re all thrown back into the stone age. Maybe the idea that gold has any intrinsic value other than the fact that it is shiny and that we’ve all collectively decided it is actually valuable….. (but have we? Or has it been decided for us by the forces of social evolution?) Maybe that’s the lie. But the behavior it generates is real, and expecting this behavior from other people (whether they call themselves Germans of employees of a company called Peugeot) is a rather realistic expectation. And a means of exchange is a real thing, by the way, and so is the economy; also the programs run by a computer, without which it becomes a very expensive door-stop.

So, Harari’s inter-subjective reality, what is it, really? Is it just the beliefs that explain to us why gold (and silver) is valuable, or are my expectations to receive goods for my metals also a part of it? The beliefs, though they may sometimes be accidentally true, are the imagined part. The behavior they generate is the real, tangible, part.

(continued in Critique of Harari, Part 2: The Selfish Meme)

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