Very short book review – ‘Sapiens’, by Yuval Noah Harari

Sapiens: A Brief History of HumankindSapiens: A Brief History of Humankind by Yuval Noah Harari

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A broad sweep through the prehistory and history of humankind with a fascinating thesis about ‘what makes us different’ – even from the other human species like the Neanderthals (I shan’t spoil it for you). Never a dull moment among our ancestors’ twists and turns.

Why did I not give 5 stars? Only because some of the final chapters’ speculation about the future seemed, to me, a little dated and let the rest of the ‘story’ down. But perhaps that’s just me.

View all my reviews

A little Christmas tale: All Bar You

mistletoe

I hadn’t meant to go.

But the rest of Engineering talked me into it. “Come on, it’ll be a scream.”

So I put on my jolliest clothes, and I went.

Engineering weren’t there.

I glanced round the room – didn’t recognise a soul. It looked like only the higher-ups: short, pasty middle-aged men; and their P.A.s, all younger, smarter made-up than me.

Work’s Christmas do.

Executive ballroom, Montague Hotel; near the city walls. Lavish deep red-and-gold garlands, huge tree; myriad tiny lights. At least the venue had class.

I headed for the mulled wine. Thus armed, I mingled – find an interesting conversation.

A group discussing local fee-paying schools: Tadcaster Grammar, St. Peters; Bootham. Another arguing the finer points of some tax-avoiding scam. House prices.  I rolled my eyes.

I noticed mistletoe.

Fat chance, guys.

He stood out, directly beneath it. Golden-blond hair, ponytail: tall, slim, straight; severe.

And he turned and looked right at me.

I made my way towards him. Set down my warm wineglass and gazed up at him.

Crystal splinters of eyes: golden lashes.

Frisson.

I didn’t know what to do with my hands as he embraced me. Sparks shot across my palms. I closed my eyes.

Deep: dark.

Lost…

I gaze up at him again.

“Do I…know you from somewhere?”

“I know all in this room: all bar you.”

He’s kissed everyone? The blokes too?

He shakes his head.

“Oh…sorry. I didn’t mean…”

“I am Fear: the sum total of all these people’s fears. Fear of ageing, cuckolding; ridicule. Status anxiety. Fear of poverty, death: of time itself. So intense, here in this room, that I am able to materialise in human form.”

I’m lost for words.

“What if I told you this was your last day?”

Strange thing to ask at an office party. But different, at least.

I concoct some witty answer-

But those eyes: he’s serious!

That’s not fair!

“I’m only twenty-five! My friends! My work! My parents! I’d leave my brother an only child!”

“Are you not afraid for yourself?”

“No! I’d be dead, wouldn’t I?”

“Then I don’t know you.”

“No. You don’t-”

But he’s gone.

A short tale for Guy Fawkes’ Night

“Mu-u-um…”

Oh-oh. That’s five-year-old-speak for, ‘I’ve got one of those questions.

“Yes darling?”

I tuck her in.

“What’s Torcher?”

I balk. What the heck have they been teaching her at that school?

“It’s what they did to Guy Fawkes. We learned about him today. He couldn’t write his name afterwards: after the torcher.”

Why can’t she ask the standard stuff like ‘where do babies come from?’, ‘Why is the sky blue?’ or even ‘why are there rich people?’

I gather my wits.

“Well, er, it’s… for example when they shine bright lights in your eyes when you want to go to sleep, or… erm… hurt you if they want you to tell them something… something they want to know.”

“Like, who helped you with the gunpowder?”

“Yes.”

“Guy Fawkes didn’t tell them.”

Dear God please don’t let her ask me what ‘hung drawn and quartered’ means…

“He must have been very brave.” Hmm: that probably wasn’t the right thing to say.

“Is that why we have fireworks? Because we want to remember how brave he was?”

Er… “No… no, that’s not it.”

Something whizzes overhead. The drawn curtains flash white, a split second before a deep boom echoes, outside and in.

Wait

“Did your teacher tell you how Guy Fawkes was found? In the cellar?”

“Yes! One of the Lords was… a friend, of the gang who wanted to blow up the Houses of Parliament. And he wrote him a letter saying, don’t go. Pretend to be ill. He didn’t say why. But the man thought… anyway he told someone. Like a policeman. And that’s how they found Guy Fawkes.”

“So they found him out without having to ask anyone anything.”

“Yes…” She frowns, puzzled, then brightens: “Without having to do any torcher!”

“Yes.”

I’d never thought of it before that question.

So now, whatever other people may be celebrating tonight – the saving of hundreds of lives; the confounding of Treason; the preservation of the Mother of all Parliaments to live to fight another day – when I bite into that lump of pitch-black parkin and gaze at the fireworks that light the sky, I lift my glass of blood-red punch to the tale that shows by example:

Torture doesn’t work.

‘I will choose free will’

free-will.jpg

The more Metal among my readers may recognise the phrase in this title, but we now turn from the apparent perversity of people’s decisions to the even more uncanny matter of the mechanics of how they’re made.

In 1983 Benjamin Libet of the University of California San Francisco set up an experiment to determine the speed with which people take decisions. His volunteers were asked to perform a simple movement, at a time they chose, while a pickup measured the ‘readiness potential’ – a signal in the brain’s motor cortex known to precede physical movement.

Readings by the volunteers of the timing of their decision, from the second hand of a clock, showed that the signal in the motor cortex – of which they were not consciously aware – came half a second before their conscious decision. In other words the decision was made subconsciously and only afterwards did the subjects’ brains construct the perception of freewill.

Argument at once began to rage over how accurate the subjects’ timing readings could be, given that their attention should have been focussed on whether or not to make their move. Experiments in other fields of brain study have shown how a single line of ‘time’ is reconstructed by the brain ‘after-the-fact’ so, it was argued, we still have freewill – it just doesn’t look like it in that one experiment.

In 2009 Jeff Miller and Judy Trevena carried out a new version of Libet’s experiment in which volunteers had to listen out for a tone before making a 2-way decision: press the key or leave it. The experimenters found a ‘readiness potential’ building-up in both cases – press or leave – and concluded that the potential just signified attention, and not decision-making. Our state of attention is not something of which we are fully conscious, though it can of course be controlled with practice.

Libet’s own conclusion about his findings was that the readiness potential signalled preparedness to push the button but nevertheless a person could decide, within the final tenth of a second, not to go through with their decision.

But it could be said that this view – which acquired the nickname ‘Free Won’t’ (as opposed to ‘Free Will’) – just pushes the question one step along by leaving the mechanism for the final ‘restraint’ decision unexplained.

Improvements in measurement equipment – including siting the pickups within the brain – have in some cases shown even longer intervals (up to two whole seconds) between ‘trigger’ signals and apparent decisions.

Arguments still rage then: do we have fully-conscious freewill, or do our decisions bubble up, mostly uncontrolled, from depths we cannot reach?

 

 

The price of obedience II

They twist their hands. They sweat, they grit their teeth. They claw their hair, the battle in their minds playing out on their agonised faces…

And those are just the perpetrators.

And the rest of us – those in the field and those whose connection extends no further than being of the same species – have ever since then been struggling to explain why, nevertheless, in so many cases they press on.

Where does empathy go, or what is it that overpowers it, in Milgram’s experiments?

Milgram himself was the first to be shocked by the outcomes, and the first to put forward an explanation. He proposed that our mind – the set-up of our thought processes – passes through something of a phase change, going from an ‘Autonomous’ state, in which we act entirely of our own freewill, to an ‘Agentic’ state, in which admonitions such as ‘I/the institution take full responsibility…’ (a typical experimenter reply when pressed about the consequences of any harm that might be done) are taken literally. It’s as if some part – not all – of the volunteer subjects’ mind is thinking ‘that pain I can hear isn’t my doing: it’s the experimentor’s’.

The obedience-over-empathy effect is strongest if the experimenter is nearby: hearing instructions via a phone link rather than from someone physically present reduced average compliance from over 65% to under 20%. It’s also stronger if the ‘victim’ can’t be seen. We’re a social species after all and we don’t want to let down (on the one hand) or harm (on the other) those who are near us.

But there’s more.

Dressing the experimenter in casual clothes rather than the classic white lab-coat, and switching the experiment’s location from prestigious Yale to a nondescript building on the edge of town, both had the effect of reducing compliance for an otherwise identical experimental set-up.

Similarly, the sexes of ‘teacher’ and ‘learner’ made a difference: men were far less willing to inflict pain upon women. This may be cultural, or it may be older: perhaps our higher-pitched screams, nearer to humankind’s ‘emergency signal frequency’ of a baby’s wail, are simply more effective at their job.

Some spoilsport has even suggested that this explains the Australian result: the women in that study were ‘teaching’ other women, on instructions from a male experimenter. Yes lads, it’s true: we’ll gang up on you if we have to, simply to survive.

What the effect of the clothes and buildings appear to show, though, is that our willingness to inflict pain on others is, in the life of human beings as a species, a fairly modern thing. And that what brought it to the fore was the hierarchical state in which we all live now: we have simply become accustomed to putting our minds into Neutral gear and obeying orders, especially from those who are nearby, no matter the consequences to those who are out of sight.

In the words of laboratory assistant Charity, in the sequel to ‘The Price of Time’ when asked “What would you do?”:

“I’d do what I was paid to do.”