Before opening the book Sapiens, it felt odd to read a book that condensed 70000-year history of our species into 400 pages. I thought the author must have cut out many inconvenient details that did not perfectly fit into his theory to explain historic events and trends. Last time when I read a book in this genre, it was Jared Diamond's Guns, Germs, and Steel. To my surprise and delight, Sapiens actually reads quite compelling. Yuval Harari has come up with a common thread that runs throughout the entire human history and he has done a beautiful job in convincing us of his interpretation of history.
There are certain similarities between Guns, Germs, and Steel and Sapiens. Both books cover long historic periods. Both draw upon insights from several disciplines such as anthropology, biology, and geography. In the meantime, these are two different books. Diamond's book was motivated by the question about inequality that exists in different societies across the world. He attributes the gap of wealth between European counties and countries in the southern hemisphere such as New Guinea to geography. Sapiens was motivated by a different question. For as long as the collective human consciousness recalls, we have been searching for an answer to the question, "what makes us distinctive from all other life forms on earth?" Biologists used to attribute our uniqueness to the ability to make tools. This myth has actually been debunked in recent years as many animals have been found to be very adept at making and using tool to accommodate their needs. Religions such as Christianity and Islam distinguish us from all others by insisting that only human beings have eternal souls. Modern scientific studies until this day fail to validate this notion. Harari thinks that we as an insignificant species for a long period of time were able to climb up the food chains due to our abilities to compose stories, tell stories, and make others believe these stories as if they are the reality. He has a name for the commonly held-to-be-true stories: inter-subjectivity.
On page 117, Harari defines "inter-subjective" as "something that exists within the communication network linking the subjective consciousness of many individuals." He further explains, "If a single individual changes his or her beliefs, or even dies, it is of little importance. However, if most individuals in the network die or change their beliefs, the inter-subjective phenomena will mutate or disappear... Many of history's most important drivers are inter-subjective: law, money, gods, nations." This list also includes: corporation, human rights, democracy, or anything that only exists in a large group of people's consciousness. The tendency and ability to share beliefs with one another make it possible for thousands or even millions of people to cooperate. This inter-subjectivity can become so powerful that even overwhelms the objective reality, and it can be so effective to unite individuals to form tribes, communities, cities, empires, and nations. As Harari writes, "The first millennium BC witnessed the appearance of three potentially universal orders, whose devotees could for the first time imagine the entire world and the entire human race as a single unit governed by a single set of laws. Everyone was "us', at least potentially. There was no longer 'them'. The first universal order to appear was economic: the monetary order. The second universal order was political: the imperial order. The third universal order was religious: the order of universal religions such as Buddhism, Christianity, and Islam." Thanks to the combination of the three inter-subjective entities, Sapiens on every continent were brought together into a highly interconnected world. In other words, globalization can never be achieved without these unifying inter-subjective forces.
The wheel of history is constantly steered by these inter-subjective forces. Along the way, cognitive revolution and agricultural revolution occurred to humanity. For a very long time, humans lived under an illusion that they could know all that was to be known in one source. For instance, many held that the Bible contained all the knowledge about the universe. This complacency stopped around five hundred years ago, arguably the beginning of scientific revolution. The great discovery of our own ignorance propels us to constantly sail beyond the familiar horizon. Harari identifies three critical ways in which modern science differs from previous forms of knowledge: "the willingness to admit ignorance," "the centrality of observation and mathematics," and "the acquisition of new powers." For the first time in history, scientific knowledge can be directly translated into pure power. You don't need to look far in recent history to find ample examples of this conversion. On the day when the first atomic bomb was detonated, the nuclear physicist who helped develop this deadly weapon Oppenheimer has been quoted to say, "Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds." Now, humans have acquired the capacity for total self destruction. No wonder the great Einstein once made a remark, "“I know not with what weapons World War III will be fought, but World War IV will be fought with sticks and stones.” The entire climate has been fundamentally intervened by human activities. We are starting to feel the consequences of our actions.
It has never been easier to translate scientific knowledge into power. The same however cannot be said about the relationship between power and happiness. With more power accumulated by us did not come more happiness. Sapiens ended with quite a grim picture for humanity's future. In some sense, our species has been elevated to the status of God with all the power we have acquired through perpetual scientific revolution. Harari posed this question to all his readers: "is there anything more dangerous than dissatisfied and irresponsible gods who don't know what they want?"
There has been a replication crisis in medical and psychological studies in recent years. This NYT piece documents a prime example in social psychology. At the center of the "drama" are Amy Cuddy whose TED presentation on power pose has attracted tens of millions of views on YouTube and several statistically savvy researchers including Andrew Gelman.
For many empirical scientists, using statistical analyses of a random sample to make inference for the entire population is the most reliable way to reveal some hidden patterns, except when a "pattern" already exists in the researcher's mind before even conducting the study. What the researcher needs to do is to find an ideal "path" to use the data to prove the preexisting pattern. This has been known as "p-hacking." (also read here, here, here,) Conducting research has never been easier. Scientists are "blessed" with so much data. With the blessing also comes a daunting task: correctly detecting signals from an expanding sea of noises. We empirical scientists thus have the obligation to constantly educate ourselves about the most recent advances in statistical methods. In the meantime, we need to constantly remind ourselves of putting aside our biases and wishful thinking while conducting research. Actions need to be taken at not only individual level but also collective level. Too much hype has been given to the so-called statistically significant findings. The glory of "statistical significance" has permeated the entire culture of science. Scientists are first and foremost humans who are driven by desires for success, fame, status, and respect. No one would pay much attention to a study that produces largely insignificant results. Maybe, incentives can be provided to researchers who after painstaking research design, meticulous data collection, and rigorous statistical tests end up with statistically insignificant results. I remember having an in-class discussion in graduate school. The professor told us that sometimes insignificant results can be meaningful too. Journal editors may want to give equal consideration to those rigorous studies that fail to produce significant results. While everyone is busy conducting original studies, incentives need to be provided to encourage replications. Only when we put checks and balances in place can we make this system more transparent and healthier.
Scientists have started brainstorming about a path forward in the wake of the replication crisis. Some suggest, if P-hacking is such a rampant issue, why not make it harder to achieve significance? This Nature Human Behavior article proposes raising the bar by lowering the P-value threshold from 0.05 to 0.005.
The obesity rate has been rising rapidly in America over the past two decades. Many factors have been identified as contributors to this ongoing public health crisis. The food industry plays a powerful role shaping public perceptions of food and eating behaviors, as this Vox article explains.
As a geographer, I am always concerned with the influence of our surrounding environment on what we perceive and how we behave. In this paper, my coauthors and I have considered the impacts of built and natural environments on physical inactivity and correspondingly obesity rate. We have made a couple of findings. First, higher street connectivity and walk scores are related to lower physical inactivity and obesity rates. In a more pedestrian-friendly environment with more streets and connections, people tend to be more physically active and less likely to be obese. Second, higher ratio of fast-food restaurants in a community is positively related to physical inactivity and obesity. Surprise, surprise, fast-food makes people become more obese, well, because in the fast-paced modernity, fast-food is literally fast and therefore convenient for people to grab and eat on the go.
Last but not least, the number of extreme weather events is also found to lead to physical inactivity and obesity. When extreme weather events occur, the environment outside the window all of a sudden becomes hostile. People are constrained inside, much less likely to get engaged in any exercises. So, these extreme weather events pose threats to not only public safety but also public health.
I've finally finished reading Yuval Noah Harari's book: Homo Deus. His visionary account of what may happen to the humanity in the future is built upon his deep understanding of our past. In his last widely acclaimed book Sapiens, Harari lays out three important revolutions in the last 70,000 years that have fundamentally shaped who we are today. These revolutions are: the Cognitive Revolution, the Agricultural Revolution, and the Scientific Revolution. Now that the view organism is algorithm takes root in many minds, where is Artificial Intelligence (AI) taking us next? No one has a crystal ball in their hands to see the future. Harari's reading of history and current affairs informs him of a quite dark future.
In the past couple of centuries, with scientific and technological advances, humanism, attaching life's meaning to individuals' inner feelings and free will, has replaced traditional religions becoming the dominant ideology. With "free will" being fundamentally challenged in the lab by biology, neuroscience, and psychology, one can't but help wonder if there is such a thing as "free will." Like Harari writes, "Next time a thought pops into your mind, stop and ask yourself: 'Why did I think this particular thought? Did I decide a minute ago to think this thought, and only then think it? Or did it just arise, without any direction or permission from me? If I am indeed the master of my thoughts and decisions, can I decide not to think about anything at all for the next sixty seconds?' Try that, and see what happens. " If there is no real "free will," then what are we? The implication is, "we can manipulate and even control their desires using drugs, genetic engineering or direct brain stimulation."
Harari's another acute observation of history: consciousness and intelligence have always gone hand in hand until recently. Now with machine/deep learning, artificial neural network and other techniques, AI can do tasks better than humans. Think of the case when IBM Watson beat the human chess champion. A decoupling process of these two is unfolding in front of our eyes. In the foreseeable, we may have self-driving cars to take us anywhere we want to go. We may depend on algorithm to detect any potential medical issues in our bodies. We may use algorithms to figure out for us what the best way to learn a specific subject based on our own natural attributes and learning patterns. Now that intelligence can be independent of consciousness the only thing we can cling to for our uniqueness, the major question then would be: what are we here for?
In the past, we have come up with different stories to make us unique. Whether it's religion or humanism, we managed to convince ourselves of the indispensable nature of our existence in the universe. With the humanity moving towards dataism, the new religion of 21st century, our indispensable existence will be fundamentally questioned. Are we just a bunch of data processing medium for a grand scheme? Since no one has the power to see the future, Harari ends his book by posing some questions to every reader of his:
"1. Are organisms really just algorithms, and is life really just data processing?
2. What's more valuable - intelligence or consciousness?
3. What will happen to society, politics and daily life when non-conscious but highly intelligent algorithms know us better than we know ourselves?"
Here are some insightful quotes:
"History isn't a single narrative, but thousands of alternative narratives. Whenever we choose to tell one, we are also choosing to silence others."
"Human networks built in the name of imaginary entities such as gods, nations and corporations normally judge their success from the viewpoint of the imaginary entity."
"Stories serve as the foundations and pillars of human societies. As history unfolds, stories about gods, nations and corporations grew so powerful that they began to dominate objective reality."
"Science and religion are like a husband and wife who after 500 years of marriage counselling still don't know each other. He still dreams about Cinderella and she keeps pining for Prince Charming, while the argue about whose turn it is to take out the rubbish."
"Religion is any all-encompassing story that confers superhuman legitimacy on human laws, norms and values. It legitimizes human social structure by arguing that they reflect superhuman laws."
"The greatest scientific discovery is the discovery of ignorance."
"Religion is interested above all in order. Science is interested above all in power."
"People who believe in the hi-tech Ark should not be put in charge of the global ecology, for the same reason that people who believe in a heavenly afterlife should not be given nuclear weapons."
"Humans were supposed to distill data into information, information into knowledge, and knowledge into wisdom."
Natural disaster is never purely natural. The moment when a natural event such as a hurricane, tornado, or wildfire "meets" with a societal community on its path, the event has the potential to become a disaster from the perspective of human society. Hurricanes essentially serve as nature's venue to reallocate energy geographically from the tropical region to higher latitudes. But because some communities are built on the usual path of hurricanes, they are vulnerable to this type of natural events. Hurricane Maria has left the U.S. territory Puerto Rico in despair. Because of its geographic location, Hurricane Maria certainly will not be the last one to affect this region. To build better resilience, the first thing every community needs to do is raise its awareness of such interactions between nature and society.