Wednesday, September 7, 2016

More vacation reading

Waiting at SFO for my flight to Orlando, I nearly missed the last boarding call, so engrossed was I in E.L. Doctorow's first novel, Welcome to Hard Times (1960). It is a western– violent and uncharacteristically misanthropic compared with the humanism that typifies so much of Doctorow's oeuvre. The villain is satanic, but overall it is a ferocious Old Testament God who seems to rule the day. Highly recommended.

I also re-read A Perfect Spy, said by some (including the author) to be LeCarre's best. It is a great psychological thriller, a kind of double-biography, but as with Welcome to Hard Times, a very cold wind blows through the whole thing.

A colleague gave me a copy of Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, by Yuval Noah Harari. I tried to get through it on the return flight from Florida, and he had me for the first third or so. The claims about early human (pre-)history seem cautious and balanced. He is particularly good on the agricultural revolution and its quite likely adverse effect on most aspects of human well-being in the transition from a gatherer society to settled peasantry. Harari writes that "the agricultural revolution was history's biggest fraud," although nobody could see it coming at the time. And one's overall assessment hinges not only on how you view the modern societies that followed on the agricultural revolution, but also on whether you want to be an average or total utilitarian. Under settled agriculture, mean utility u was surely lower: more work, poorer health and nutrition, drudgery as opposed to physical and intellectual stimulation. But N increased many-fold, so total utility U = Nu might have been higher... assuming it was positive on average!

From there, downhill. A kind of pop sociology begins to dominate, and real history fades into the background. Functionalism is the order of the day: Harari is no Marxist, but for him as much as Marx and Engels, religion is the opium of the masses and serves to keep the peasants toiling down in the muck while the elites build castles and employ artists and composers. How exactly did the elites pull off this monumental con? I'm not saying they didn't, but a historian is obliged to provide the sequence of events, not a just-so story.

Indeed, for Harari, all human institutions are a form of "imagined reality"– mythology, really– and at some ontological level all are equally vaporous. That rock you just dropped on your toe was real, and it obeyed objective laws of physics. That money you just laid down for a bottle of Advil to treat your toe-ache, however, was imagined, the same kind of thing as the mischievous god who directed the rock toward your toe instead of the neighboring tuft of grass. Well, err, no, Professor Harari! The money is no less objective than the law of gravity. You know from longstanding personal experience, and in fact we can confirm using careful observation and data analysis, that you can expect to receive the bottle of pills when you hand over a valid debit card. The fact that you are reasonably expecting a standard and predictable behavioral response from another Sapiens is quite similar to expecting the rock to fall downward rather than upward. As Harari correctly notes, trust often plays a role here, and trust may depend in part on "belief"... but it is not merely trust. In fact there are plenty of transactions where trust is quite minimal, but we expect exchange to take place because of mutual self-interest, fear of retribution or punishment for non-compliance, etc.

Perhaps the book's speculative final chapters on the future of our species would have been worth the effort, but I threw in the towel before I got there, and turned instead to cracking the medium sudoku in the Hemispheres magazine. I have to agree with Galen Strawson's review in the Guardian: "Much of Sapiens is extremely interesting, and it is often well expressed. As one reads on, however, the attractive features of the book are overwhelmed by carelessness, exaggeration and sensationalism."

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