Saturday, January 16, 2021

Transcendence: How Humans Evolved through Fire, Language, Beauty and Time II

 The "Beauty" section describes how humans, unlike other species, came to value and use objects that had no immediate practical use. This occurred in cultural contexts, and what counted as beautiful could vary from one tribe to another. The origin of beauty is probably associated with mate selection, where symmetrical faces are indicative of genetic health. Sabine Hossenfelder, the author of Lost in Math, could benefit from reading this part, which shows how even physicists may be influenced by cultural biases. Vince is stretching the term considerably to include many of the cultural influences that affect how people behave. She weaves beauty in with the development of trade and travel over thousands of years. When the Yamnaya migrated out of western Asia 5,500 years ago on horses and carts, they set the stage for what were to become trade routes. The kinds of things that were traded, such as silk and jewelry, were not essential and indicate that the prestige that we associate with aesthetic objects is fundamental to being human. She notes that even Columbus, much later, was primarily seeking a new route to the Indies in order to procure spices – hardly a critical commodity. Trade routes established contact between distant societies and facilitated the dissemination of knowledge worldwide. Specifically, Vince emphasizes the importance of the cities that appeared on trade routes and became central to the advancement of knowledge.

Hunter-gatherer groups are generally thought to have been more egalitarian than we are today. This was because men and women contributed equally to the food supply. Women were not as tied down by child-rearing as they are now, because other women shared the task. Although hunter-gatherers were violent like us, with small groups and set lifestyles there was no particular reason for men to take dominant roles. This all changed with the introduction of farming about 10,000 years ago, as discussed in The 10,000 Year Explosion. Men became the primary procurers of food, and agricultural communities created laws, private property and administration, which had previously been unnecessary. In this vein, though the book was published in 2019, Vince gets in some jabs at Donald Trump, possibly the apotheosis of stupid male aggression.

In Vince's view, the progress of civilization resulted primarily from cross-cultural fertilization, especially when people from a variety of locations became concentrated in cities. Her thesis is that the main importance of language is in its passing of knowledge from one person to another, which permits information to proliferate, as if it were a cultural version of genes. She likes to point out that innovation is actually quite rare, and that most of the development of civilization is based on copying. I think that this is true, and though she doesn't use this example, I am often amused by the arrogance of American exceptionalists. When I was growing up, Americans made fun of "rice burners" from Toyota. Now Toyota is almost twice as large as GM and Ford combined. In other words, most of the skills in one part of the world can easily be replicated elsewhere under the right conditions. Though it may not occur, there is no inherent reason why China couldn't surpass the U.S. economically in the next few years.

Vince's views on different ethnicities are fairly conventional. She embraces the popular idea that, since all humans are closely related, they're not all that different. This is generally true, but, though she recognizes that divergences occur, I don't think that she would concede, for example, that Ashkenazi Jews possess certain intellectual skills that other ethnic groups do not. In her discussion of genes and culture, she leans toward the more politically correct side that emphasizes culture more than genes as the deciding factor in which group prevails in specific circumstances.

The final section, "Time," reviews our understanding of time, and how it developed. I didn't find it particularly relevant, though I liked hearing about the influence that astronomy has had on the history of ideas. Vince morphs this into a discussion of reason, and she brings up some topics that interest me, such as human cognitive limitations and AI. She does not delve into the questions that come up in the event of the development of superintelligence. Though she does mention the research that I've discussed by Daniel Kahneman, she is somewhat more sanguine than I am about the future prospects for humanity. She correctly notes that religion usually interferes with reason and was responsible for the Dark Age. She mentions some of the avenues by which humans may significantly increase their longevity. In the end, she seems to cop out a little by comparing humans to superorganisms, such as slime molds. This might appeal to some of her more scientific readers, but to me it begs the main question: what is the future of mankind? While the ideas of equality and cooperation are central to the book, like most writers, she doesn't provide much of a roadmap. I thought that this was one of the better books that I've read on these subjects, but it was not completely satisfying, because it made no predictions. That may not be undesirable, though, given our inability to predict the future accurately. Vince, apparently, has not read E.O. Wilson, who provides the vocabulary that I prefer in this field. There is no specific mention of group selection, though that concept seems to support her conclusion.

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