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BOOK REVIEW: Sapiens

October 18, 2019

Thanks to Jennifer Taylor, a 2019 Harrison Middleton University Fellow in Ideas recipient, for today's post.

Harari, Yuval N. Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind. [Toronto]: Signal, 2014.

I have often heard that if we choose not to learn from the mistakes of history, we will inevitably end up repeating them. Though it is undeniably very practical advice to be aware of the perils and pitfalls to which we as human beings are susceptible, in spite of my best intentions to be a well-informed member of the species, history has never been a subject that has thrilled me. I took the requisite courses in high school, of course - but names and dates blurred together and important concepts failed to stick with me. More than a decade later, I obtained Sapiens at the recommendation of a family member.

It took less than two pages to realize that this history book is unique. Beginning approximately 2 million years ago with the plethora of human species that failed to survive past 12,000 BCE and spanning into predictions for the future, Harari’s Sapiens focuses on broad concepts and questions that have influenced the behaviours and movements of Homo sapiens as a species, rather than the individuals who may have made culturally significant impacts on a smaller scale. Harari presents the vast and complex history of our species chronologically, organized largely by the Revolutions that set human beings apart from their non-world-dominating counterparts, extinct and otherwise: Cognitive, Agricultural and Scientific.

The Cognitive Revolution represents the transition of sapiens from one of many human species struggling for survival into the dominant species on the planet - but the explanation for that transition is not as simple as large brains and opposable thumbs. Human species possessed those traits for millions of years and remained in the middle of the food chain. Gaining control of fire and developing language are also not unique to Homo sapiens. So how did they, in a relatively short span of time, become the only surviving species of humans? And how did they then develop from bands of 50 citizens cooperating together into cities of millions?

The Agricultural Revolution, which Harari refers to as “history’s biggest fraud”, describes the progression of modern humans from a population of hunter-gatherers into communities of farmers. How and why did this change take place? And was the domestication of grain the benefit to the species we believe it to be? How do we define evolutionary success and whether or not we, as humans, have been successful?

Beginning about 500 or so years ago, the goals of education transitioned from preservation and validation of existing rules to discovery and acquisition of new ones in a process called the Scientific Revolution. By accepting that modern culture was ignorant, it opened the door to scientific discoveries and real progress. This change led to the discovery of medications, the invention of new weapons, and the stimulation of economic resources that led to men on the moon and the invention of the atomic bomb. But do technological advancements necessarily mean that quality of life - rather than lifespan - has improved? Is Capitalism the key to progress, or a cult that holds the hardest-working members of its population back? What will continued technological advancements mean for the future of Homo sapiens, who are, biologically, little different than we were 200,000 years ago?

Enormous questions such as these have no simple answers, but Harari tackles them with a level of knowledge and insight that allows him to lay out the myriad facets of each topic with eloquence and clarity. Sapiens is written in language accessible to laypeople with a degree of humour, but uses it to set forth complex concepts and theories about the history of human beings. And as promised, that history is repeating itself. According to Harari, Homo sapiens are no stranger to causing mass extinction on a global scale. Nor is the current post-truth climate the first time our species has been willing to justify behaviour based on common myths. Even being ensnared in the “luxury trap”, an endless cycle of working harder in pursuit of luxuries we aren’t able to enjoy, is part of the history of humankind. Though understanding our history may not allow us to accurately predict the future, it does allow us to “widen our horizons, to understand that our present situation is neither natural or inevitable, and that we consequently have many more possibilities before us than we imagine.”

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Bergson and Our Quarterly Discussion

July 19, 2019

Thanks to Alissa Simon, HMU Tutor, for today’s post.

In Creative Evolution, Henri Bergson uses natural science as the basis for his arguments towards a new understanding of reality. This July, a group of us discussed two sections from Creative Evolution in order to better understand Bergson’s philosophical ideas. In this work, Bergson explains that two popular views of reality cannot fully account for the way that the world presents itself. He uses examples such as the formation of an eye to underscore the ways in which mechanism and finalism fall short. Bergson opposes the idea that the eye was constructed piece by piece like a machine (the mechanist theory). He also disagrees with the idea that the human eye evolved with an end goal in mind (like 20/20 vision, for example), which is the view of finalists. To illustrate these arguments, he writes:

“For us, the whole of an organized machine may, strictly speaking, represent the whole of the organizing work (this is, however, only approximately true), yet the parts of the machine do not correspond to parts of the work, because the materiality of this machine does not represent a sum of means employed, but a sum of obstacles avoided: it is a negation rather than a positive reality. So, as we have shown in a former study, vision is a power which should attain by right an infinity of things inaccessible to our eyes. But such a vision would not be continued into action; it might suit a phantom, but not a living being. The vision of a living being is an effective vision, limited to objects on which the being can act: it is a vision that is canalized, and the visual apparatus simply symbolizes the work of canalizing. Therefore the creation of the visual apparatus is no more explained by the assembling of its anatomic elements than the digging of a canal could be explained by the heaping up of the earth which might have formed its banks. A mechanistic theory would maintain that the earth had been brought cart-load by cart-load; finalism would add that it had not been dumped down at random, that the carters had followed a plan. But both theories would be mistaken, for the canal has been made in another way” (93-94).

His next example introduces Bergson’s new theory (one which he would discuss for the rest of his life). He talks about the negative as defining reality, rather than the positive. Instead of positively adding elements in the way that we build a car, for example, Bergson advocates that duration and free will simultaneously influences evolution. Therefore, he offers an example of a hand moving through iron filings as a demonstration of duration and free will. The path of the hand through the filings is a matter of choice against or in its environment. He continues:

“With greater precision, we may compare the process by which nature constructs an eye to the simple act by which we raise the hand. But we supposed at first that the hand met with no resistance. Let us now imagine that, instead of moving in air, the hand has to pass through iron filings which are compressed and offer resistance to it in proportion as it goes forward. At a certain moment the hand will have exhausted its effort, and, at this very moment, the filings will be massed and coördinated in a certain definite form, to wit, that of the hand that is stopped and of a part of the arm. Now, suppose that the hand and arm are invisible. Lookers-on will seek the reason of the arrangement in the filings themselves and in forces within the mass. Some will account for the position of each filing by the action exerted upon it by the neighboring filings: these are the mechanists. Others will prefer to think that a plan of the whole has presided over the detail of these elementary actions: they are the finalists. But the truth is that there has been merely one indivisible act, that of the hand passing through the filings: the inexhaustible detail of the movement of the grains, as well as the order of their final arrangement, expresses negatively, in a way, this undivided movement, being the unitary form of a resistance, and not a synthesis of positive elementary actions. For this reason, if the arrangement of the grains is termed an "effect" and the movement of the hand a "cause," it may indeed be said that the whole of the effect is explained by the whole of the cause, but to parts of the cause parts of the effect will in no wise correspond. In other words, neither mechanism nor finalism will here be in place, and we must resort to an explanation of a different kind. Now, in the hypothesis we propose, the relation of vision to the visual apparatus would be very nearly that of the hand to the iron filings that follow, canalize and limit its motion” (94-95).

Bergson explains the resulting path as a kind of “equilibrium,” a circumstance as a result of the environment, the need, the organ, etc. He claims that beings evolve, but not according to any design. While I believe that Bergson asks us to think of this third idea in tandem with mechanism and finalism, in that they are complementary ideas aimed at better understanding reality, he does seem to say that his theory is the more developed. During our discussion, someone noted that while his theory may be more holistic, it still does not clearly address the initial impetus. Using evolution as the starting point for his theory, Bergson defines the original impetus as the “passing from one generation of germs to the following generation of germs through the developed organisms which bridge the interval between the generations” (88). He does not directly address the idea of prime movers, or from where original impetus stems.

In this short section, Bergson devotes much time to the complexity of the eye, which he claims shows a specificity of purpose. It is this simple purpose which has created the path for the evolution of the eye. In other words, vision becomes a standalone purpose which drives the creation of the eye. The eye develops freely (without end goal) because the environment places demands upon it. That beings have sight seems to be a commonality among most species. Freedom of choice, then, allows the eye to develop to environmental demands in a way that allows hawks to see at a distance and humans to read texts. He also notes that these things are always in motion, always in duration, and that the current development is in no way the final development.

Published in 1911, Creative Evolution is an intriguing entrance into Bergson’s writings. His subsequent writings, such as The Creative Mind, develop many of the ideas introduced in this text and offer excellent discussions. Due to the fact that Bergson is also responding to philosophical questions which have existed for thousands of years, we must look more closely at the translators’ language. Many of his works were not translated until the 1980s and 1990s, which raises the question of translation accuracy in a field which requires such specificity.

Many thanks to those who were able to participate in Harrison Middleton University’s July Quarterly Discussion. As always, I gain great benefit from hearing the ideas of others!

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The Book of Seeds

April 26, 2019

Thanks to Alissa Simon, HMU Tutor, for today’s post.

Spring is upon us. Just as blossoms begin to show their strength, color, and vibrancy, so too the weather changes and begins to warm. All of the seasonal changes often add up to a change in attitude as well. Flowers, I believe, bring out the best of human nature, fostering images of beauty, strength, love, hope, and imagination. But where does the beauty begin? How does the flower take root and gain enough energy to grow their blooms?

Paul Smith begins his recent book The Book of Seeds; A Life-size Guide to Six Hundred Species from Around the World (2018) with the following lines:

“Seeds are amazing. They can travel thousands of miles across oceans and continents, and can live for hundreds of years. A seed no bigger than a pinhead can grow into the tallest living organism on the planet. The smallest seed can barely be seen with the naked eye; the largest is the size of a human head. Over a period of more than 300 million years, seeds have evolved into every size, shape, and color imaginable” (6).

All of that seems amazing when one considers how little we discuss seeds in comparison to how much time is spent on animals, even extinct animals such as dinosaurs. Often we fail to notice the same awe-inspiring capabilities from plants of the same time period – ones to which we still have access! Paul Smith continues:

“Plant life on land evolved a staggering 600 million years ago, with the ancestors of many of these early plants still extant today: the mosses, clubmosses, horsetails, and ferns. These species don’t produce flowers or seeds; instead, they reproduce through spores. It was not until approximately 240 million years later that the first primitive seed-bearing plants appeared, an adaptation that conferred numerous advantages for survival, including the capacity for sexual reproduction in the absence of water, the ability to disperse over long distances, and the adaptability to survive in a dormant state for long periods of time until the right conditions arose. Today, the vast majority of plant species (more than 80 percent) are found in the tropics, but even places as inhospitable as Antarctica and the Sahara Desert support seed-bearing plant species” (7).

Seeds have adapted many tricks to optimize their environments. For example, some seeds remain dormant for long periods of time waiting until the conditions are ripe for life. Smith explains that some seeds, particularly those in warm, wet environments, do not remain dormant. Instead of storing energy, they choose to sprout quickly and gain access to the immediate environmental benefits. Other seeds, like the coconut, float which enables them to travel greater distances to access better growing conditions. Many seeds may remain dormant for years. One of the greatest examples of this was found in the 1960s during an excavation at King Herod’s palace in Israel. A 2,000 year old date palm seed was found among the ruins and when planted, it grew normally.

A variety of seeds ready for spring planting. Photo credit: Alissa Simon

A variety of seeds ready for spring planting. Photo credit: Alissa Simon

More impressive than their amazing adaptations, however, is the important part that seeds play in determining human existence. Without plants that can be planted and cultivated as a food source, humans would have to remain hunter gatherers. Seeds, especially the ones that can be saved and transported, allow humans to move to a new place, or stay in one place. The ability to grow foods impacts social connectivity and health. Smith writes, “The adaptive leap that humans made from collecting grains and seeds to planting and harvesting them seems to have occurred in parallel in several different places” (18). This astounding idea – that multiple communities who did not know of each others’ existence arrived at cultivation simultaneously indicates something important about the nature of humans and of our interaction with the planet. Smith notes that around 9500 BCE Wheat, Barley, Pea, and Lentil “were domesticated in the Fertile Crescent – what is now Iran and Iraq” (18). From there, he continues:

“At around the same time, Rice was first cultivated in China, followed by Soybean. In the Andes, the Potato was domesticated around 8000 BCE, together with beans. In New Guinea, Sugarcane and the Yam appear in the archeological record about 7000 BCE. In Africa, Sorghum was domesticated in about 5000 BCE, and in Central America, Maize was first cultivated around 4000 BCE. Domestication of livestock occurred over a similar period of time. The transformation of wild plants into crops through artificial selection and breeding enabled human communities to establish themselves in villages, towns, and cities, and to flourish” (19).

While the history of seeds is astoundingly impressive (and seeds themselves are as diverse as imaginable), more importantly, however, may be the future of plants. Smith claims that plant diversity is of utmost importance since the majority of life on earth depends upon plants. He notes that we have studied relatively few, however. He claims that plants seem nondescript, but they have important roles in our daily lives. Smith ends his introduction with a quote by Aldo Leopold which underscores the point that humans would better serve themselves and the earth by adding a curious intelligence into their dealings with plants. He quotes, “If the biota, in the course of aeons, has built something we like but do not understand, then who but a fool would discard seemingly useless parts? To keep every cog and wheel is the first precaution of intelligent tinkering” (27).

I highly suggest thumbing through this massive collection of seeds. The diversity and colorful arrays are astounding. It will leave you with yet another reminder of the world’s vast richness.

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Mary Oliver's Contributions

March 1, 2019

Thanks to Alissa Simon, HMU Tutor, for today’s post.

I never needed a reason to love the world, I simply just always have. With its faults and near-misses, its greed and its hope. I love the way it is patched together like a great quilt of countries and languages, mountains and deserts. Most of all, I love, and am humbled by the fact that somehow I participate in that great, complicated quilt. And so, many years ago, when I stumbled upon Mary Oliver’s poetry, I felt that I had found a kindred spirit. Oliver passed away in January of this year and to speak of her in the past tense grieves me greatly. Fortunately, her words remain so that her light is not altogether lost.

Oliver’s childhood was a brutal one, and yet somehow she turned around and made such beautiful things as the world had never seen. To create beauty from difficult circumstances is the first reason we should admire her. Mary Oliver turned to nature as the first place which gave her comfort. She avoided her family by walking out among rivers, flowers, and trees, but she also came to see struggle as part of the natural world. In fact, hope, in part, arrives as a result of struggle, and Oliver is eternally hopeful.

Her early work finds joy, ecstasy and divinity through nature. Then, in poems like “Rage” and “The River” she begins to address her personal pain and loss of home. She concludes “The River” with: “Home, I said./ In every language there is a word for it./ In the body itself, climbing/ those walls of white thunder, past those green/ temples, there is also/ a word for it. / I said, home.” It is an acceptance that home can be transient, not permanent. Every one of her poems grapple with big questions about love and faith, courage and forgiveness.

Many years later, she would say that she hardly knew herself in those early years. She said she had to go out and find herself, which she did by stumbling over rocky trails and along muddy rivers. That she taught herself the language of nature is the next reason that we should admire her. Countless people have quoted from “Wild Geese” or “Morning Poem” on blogs, mugs, letters, etc. Oliver’s language did not glorify or transcend nature, but put humanity squarely back into it. These poems, among many others, inspired friendship, imagination, and openness. She placed the human world within the most glorious riches of the earth, and then asked for us to witness that glory. The final sentence of “Wild Geese” is: “Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,/ the world offers itself to your imagination,/ calls to you like wild geese, harsh and exciting - / over and over announcing your place/ in the family of things.” She reminds us that we are to participate with nature and to imagine that presence as part of one complicated family.

Oliver’s work has always been profound and moving. Yet, near the end of her life, she began to explore spirituality. In Blue Horses, she discusses all types of faiths as she herself battles cancer. Yet, once again, she finds that beauty is itself the answer. In the poem “Franz Marc’s Blue Horses” she expresses sorrow about Marc’s career cut short by World War I. She writes, “I would rather die than try to explain to the blue horses/ what war is./ … I do not know how to thank you, Franz Marc./ Maybe our world will grow kinder eventually./ Maybe the desire to make something beautiful/ is the piece of God that is inside each of us.” In this poem, the natural world and the human-constructed world collide with dangerous and negative results, and still, Oliver finds beauty and names it. She responds by attending to both Marc’s life and death in a way that offers him thanks. It is this attention to detail which will make us kinder. Again and again, she asks us to use imagination in order to remind us of our connections.

During her lifetime, Mary Oliver won many awards such as the Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award. In addition to her writing career, however, she also taught at Bennington College. She inspired others to seek answers to big, daunting questions. Therefore, her teaching pursuits offer one more reason to admire her. At the end of her short essay titled “Upstream,” Mary writes:

“Teach the children. We don’t matter so much, but the children do. Show them daisies and the pale hepatica. Teach them the taste of sassafras and wintergreen. The lives of the blue sailors, mallow, sunbursts, the moccasin flowers. And the frisky ones – inkberry, lamb’s-quarters, blueberries. And the aromatic ones – rosemary, oregano. Give them peppermint to put in their pockets as they go to school. Give them the fields and the woods and the possibility of the world salvaged from the lords of profit. Stand them in the stream, head them upstream, rejoice as they learn to love this green space they live in, its sticks and leaves and then the silent, beautiful blossoms.

“Attention is the beginning of devotion.”

She paid attention in a way that few humans find time for anymore. Furthermore, she invites all of us to do the same. Mary Oliver’s works never fail to inspire. And yet, certainly, if she were here today and reading this, she would defer not to her work but to the land itself, to the birds and skies that fly above all of our heads.

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