3: A Day in the Life of Adam and Eve

From Harari—Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind

In this chapter, the author talks about the hunter-gatherer stage of human civilization, before the agricultural revolution. This was a very long period compared to the other subsequent periods. So the archeological evidence is very little. And so the author is very careful to constantly say any theories have to be taken with a grain of salt. Furthermore, the presence of archeological evidence itself can be easily biased. Because during that period, if humans didn’t just have a lot of stuff, there would be very little physical evidence remaining. So we cannot assume that the lack of evidence points to say, a lack of culture. This is very interesting. The author brings up that the latest research tools in this area means there’s not much certainty we can ascribe to this period of human civilization.

Because this period was very long compared to the subsequent agricultural and modern periods, the author says that evolutionary psychology teaches us that many of our present-day social and psychological characteristics were shaped during this period. This reminds me and re-assures me of the often popular modern pop science explanations of humans has at least some basis in good science. A popular one of course is that we love to indulge in high calorie foods, because as humans in this period, we wouldn’t know when our next meal would come. So evolutionary pressures now favor us gorging on ice cream or whatever your sinful pleasures. To me, this is extremely fascinating and an ongoing point of contemplation. Basically human society has evolved much more quickly than our DNA. We don’t need these traits to survive anymore as modern humans. But they are still in our biology. What does that mean going forward? Will these traits slowly just wither away? Have humans essentially escaped evolutionary biology in that sense? With so many modern marvels in medicine and biology, we have essentially departed from Darwinism being a force in our DNA. So what will be the result of that for humans? And for the rest of the Earth since we have such a huge impact on the Earth? For example, will we one day be able to engineer away our indulgence to ice cream? (We’ll probably make calorieless ice cream first, in the short term.)

The author brings up that people in this period didn’t have many physical items, because they were constantly moving around. They didn’t have large companies, wagons, or even animals to help them. So consequently, their societal, cultural, and religious lives just didn’t require these items. Or rather, these attributes in their lives couldn’t sustain them. To me, this is extremely fascinating. In previous chapters, the author talked about how as humans developed language, they were able to think more abstractly, and move away from just regular, purely physical constructs. He called these shared fictions. So for these hunter-gatherers who had very little physical items, how strong were their shared fictions? Did they have very basic concepts of companionship, love, deity worship, religious liturgy? Because they didn’t have physical symbols of these things (a husband can’t go to the flower store to buy roses for the wife), so they lacked in the love department? Or, maybe in spite of this limitation, they were forced to develop strong concepts, and their brains and language (in particular, spoken word) were actually very sophisticated, in order to sustain all these? As I learn more about ancient cultures and societies, my biases (fueled by popular media and just general modern understanding, no doubt) are starting to clear away. I can’t just assume ancient people are just cavemen with no culture and intelligence. It is fascinating to see how human civilization is not just a straight line. Another point of contemplation is that today, as we march toward the future, yes, our society is becoming increasingly materialistic. We have more things. We own much more. We have more personal property. We have more wealth. But further out in the future, I can imagine a society where each individual has more wealth, (on the average at least), but we actually have less in terms of physical items. Many of the aspects of our lives are becoming shared services, with organizations (government, private enterprise), delivering those things to us when we need them. For many, housing and transportation are probably two of the most costly things we buy in our lifetime. As populations grow and urbanization continues, I foresee a future, where both of these are increasingly becoming a service, and we don’t own any physical things anymore. Same for many of the little things in life. Maybe we just have a handful of digital devices that we constantly throw away and renew in our lives, and many of the physical items just go away. How will that impact human civilization, where our society is just increasingly made up of fictional stories that we mediate through digital screens?

The author makes an argument (again, with plenty of caveats), that humans were fairly affluent during this area. Humans were more physically fit. They had more meaningful lives. There was less boredom in their lives. Basically the theory is that people had to use their brains and physical abilities to survive. They had to hunt. They had to gather. They exercised these capabilities in their brains and bodies. So they were very healthy in these areas because they exercised them. The diversity of activity was high, because there was not yet specialization in society. And living in small social circles, they would do everything they needed on a daily basis to survive, with plenty of hours left in the day to pursue more cultural things. Basically, they led awesome, fruitful lives! The caveats obviously were of course higher infant mortality rates, shorter lifespans, etc. Metrics we would typically use today to measure so-called quality of life. But if you take a more holistic view, of the people who survived, you could argue that they led more fruitful lives. This is in contrast to subsequent periods of human existence, where after the agricultural revolution (and subsequently the industrial revolution in the modern era), people have much more boring lives. They specialize doing one thing, and do it for many hours of the day. And so they are tired, and don’t experience culture and fulfillment of life. Think the prototypical factory worker today. Today and in the future, supposedly work is to be more knowledge based. Systems to sustain human civilization should be “solved”. So our work and brain juice should be focused on higher levels of abstraction and higher Maslow pyramid needs. It’s interesting to consider that many many millennia ago, we may already have had all of this, in that supposed “primitive” era.

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