History

A Short History of Nearly Everything – Bill Bryson

A Short History of Nearly Everything – by Bill Bryson
Date read: 6/15/19. Recommendation: 10/10.

A Short History of Nearly Everything is one of the most important books on my shelf. After graduating from university, it’s the first book that reminded me how much I loved reading. It was the catalyst for me to begin building back up my reading habits and I’ve read it multiple times since. At its heart, it’s a book about science and some of life’s biggest questions. Bryson tackles everything from the cosmos and physics to ice ages and evolution. He’s a brilliant writer and storyteller, which helps make complex topics like particle physics more accessible and relatable for novices, like me. The pages are filled with jaw-dropping facts and stories of those enshrined in (or forgotten by) the annals of science. The amount of knowledge in this book is incredible. But the most important thing you’ll come away with is a renewed sense of perspective. It’s a great reminder of just how insignificant we are and how precious life is.

See my notes below or Amazon for details and reviews.

My Notes:

Newton, Principia, and Unlikely Inspiration:
In 1683, Edmond Halley, Robert Hooke, and Christopher Wren made a scientific wager on celestial objects. It was known that planets orbited in a particular kind of oval, but no one understood why. Wren offered a prize worth forty-shillings. Halley became obsessed with the problem and went to Isaac Newton, hoping he could help. Newton had already calculated the ellipse but couldn’t recall where he put the formula. Halley urged him to put it into a paper. The result was Newton’s crowning scientific achievement–Principia–which explained orbits mathematically, outlined three laws of motion, and, for the first time, identified gravity. Halley paid for the book’s publication out of his own pocket when The Royal Society backed out due to financial struggles. Impact of Newton’s laws is hard to overstate…explained ocean tides, motion of planets, the trajectory of cannonballs, why we aren’t lost to space as the planet spins beneath us. 

Lord Kelvin, Polymath, Master of the Long Game:

  • Admitted to Glasgow University at the age of 10.

  • Graduated from Cambridge, won top prizes for rowing and mathematics, launched a musical society.

  • At the age of 22, became professor of natural philosophy at Glasgow for the next 53 years. 

  • Wrote 661 papers, gained 69 patents, contributed to every branch of the physical sciences.

  • Suggested the method that led to the invention of refrigeration, created scale of absolute temperature, invented boosting devices to send telegrams across oceans. 

Radioactivity and Early Adopters:
Many assumed radioactivity had to be beneficial since it was so energetic. It wasn’t banned in consumer products until 1938. Up until that point manufacturers put radioactive thorium in toothpaste and laxatives. Until the 1920s the Glen Springs Hotel in Finger Lakes (NY) featured the therapeutic effects of its “Radioactive mineral springs.”

Einstein:
Early life revealed little of what was to come. Didn’t learn to speak until he was three. Failed college entrance exams on first try. 

Took advantage of being underemployed: 1902 took job at Swiss patent office and stayed for 7 years. Challenging enough to engage his mind, but not enough to distract him from physics. Here he produced the special theory of relativity in 1905.

Drawdown periods: For originality, tune out. Einstein’s “On the Electrodynamics of Moving Bodies” had no footnotes or citations. It was like he reached the conclusions by pure thought, without listening to outside opinion. 

Little recognition early on: As an outsider, he was largely ignored in the physics community, despite solving several of the deepest mysteries of the universe. Proceeded to apply and get rejected as a university lecturer and high school teacher.

Theory of relativity: Space and time are not absolute. They’re relative to both the observer and the thing being observed. Faster one moves, the more pronounced effects become. The faster we accelerate, the more distorted we are, relative to an outside observer. 

Spent the second half of his life searching for a unified theory of physics, but failed. Physics has two bodies of laws, one for the very small, one for the universe at large.

Discovery by Bridging Ideas
Georges Lemaître, a Belgian priest-scholar with a Ph.D. from MIT, was the first to suggest that the universe began as a single geometrical point, a “primeval atom” which burst into existence and had been moving apart ever since. Referred to this as his “fireworks theory.” It was the first hint at the Big Bang. Combined his knowledge of Hubble’s discovery of the universe expanding and increasing speed in every direction, and Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity. 

Plate Tectonics:
“Look at the globe and what you are seeing is really a snapshot of the continents as they have been for just one-tenth of 1 percent of the Earth’s history.” BB

“The history of any one part of the Earth, like the life of a soldier, consists of long periods of boredom and short periods of terror.” Derek V. Ager

Disasters + Extinctions:
Last super volcano eruption took place 74,000 years ago in Toba, northern Sumatra. It was followed by six years of volcanic winter. Carried humans to brink of extinction, no more than a few thousand individuals. Modern humans arose from a very small population (explains our lack of genetic diversity). Some evidence shows for the next 20,000 years, human population never grew beyond a few thousand at a given time. Huge amount of time to recover from our perspective of time. But not from Earth’s. 

 99.99% of all species that have ever lived are no longer with us. Average lifespan of a species is about four millions years.

 Permian Extinction: 245 million years ago, wiped out the dinosaurs and 95% of animals known from fossil records disappear. Closest we’ve come to total obliteration. 

Life is Precious: 
“From the bottom of the deepest ocean trench to the top of the highest mountain, the zone that covers nearly the whole of known life, is only something over a dozen miles–not much when set against the roominess of the cosmos at large.” BB

Excellent Location: “We are, to an almost uncanny degree, the right distance from the right sort of star, one that is big enough to radiate lots of energy, but no so big to burn itself out swiftly…We are also fortunate to orbit where we do. Too much nearer and everything on Earth would have boiled away. Much farther away and everything would have frozen.” BB

Earth would have been uninhabitable if it had been just 1 percent farther or 5 percent closer to the sun. Think about Venus (sun’s warmth reaches it two minutes before us).

“We are so used to the notion of our own inevitability as life’s dominant species that it is hard to grasp that we are only here because of time extraterrestrial bangs and other random flukes.” BB

“The one thing we have in common with all other living things is that for nearly four billion years our ancestors have managed to slip through a series of closing doors every time we needed them to.” BB

“If this book has a lesson, it is that we are awfully lucky to be here–and by ‘we’ I mean every living thing. To attain any kind of life in this universe of ours appears to be quite an achievement. As humans we are doubly lucky, of course: We enjoy not only the privilege of existence but also a singular ability to appreciate it and even, in a multitude of ways, to make it better. It is a talent we have only barely begun to grasp.” BB

The Power of Being an Outsider:
Watson and Crick (no formal training in biochemistry) beat out many top insiders as they worked to discover the structure of DNA. 

Alexander von Humboldt:
Observed that there are three stages in scientific discovery: first, people deny that it is true; then they deny that it is important; finally they credit the wrong person.

Origins:
Five million years ago, Panama rose from the sea, bridging North and South America, which disrupted warmer currents between the Pacific and Atlantic, and changed precipitation patterns across 50% of the world. Africa began to dry out and apes climbed down from trees in jungles to find a new way of life in the savannah.

One million years ago, upright beings left Africa and spread across the globe. Averaging 25 miles a year. 

Modern human is still 98.4% genetically indistinguishable from the modern chimpanzee. More difference between zebra and horse. 

The Silk Roads – Peter Frankopan

The Silk Roads – by Peter Frankopan
Date read: 3/5/19. Recommendation: 7/10.

A comprehensive world history from the perspective of the East. The entire book is an important reminder that before the modern era, the Middle East and Asia were the scientific hubs of the world. Places like Iraq, Uzbekistan, and Afghanistan were the centers of logic, theology, mathematics, medicine, and philosophy. The Silk Road allowed ideas and goods to spread, connecting distant people and cultures, from the Pacific to the Mediterranean. For most of history, Western Europe was an isolated, intellectual backwater. Frankopan details all of this and how the world’s political and economic center of gravity eventually came to shift West in recent centuries. It’s a great resource if you want to challenge your Western-centric view of history (it could also double as religious studies course).

See my notes below or Amazon for details and reviews.

My Notes:

Intellectual center of the world:
Before the modern era, the Middle East and Asia were the scientific hub of the world (places like Iraq, Uzbekistan, Afghanistan). Center of logic, theology, mathematics, medicine, and philosophy.

At its peak, Baghdad was magnificent. Filled with parks, markets, mosques, bathhouses, schools, hospitals, palaces, kiosks, gardens. 

Silk Roads:
Linked the Pacific to Mediterranean, first major pathways that connected distant people and cultures. Carried goods, but also fostered intellectual and religious exchange. 

Globalization:
This is not a modern phenomenon. It was just as prevalent 2,000+ years ago with the expansion of China under the Han dynasty or Alexander of Macedon’s conquests of Persian territory. Each created its own opportunities, problems and technological advances. 

What we think to be uniquely modern problems are rarely that (with the exception of climate, obesity, and a few others). People have been outraged for the entirety of human history about certain things, particularly progress and change. Certain themes have remained present as far back as we can see – i.e. struggles between religions. 

“Two millennia ago, silks made by hand in China were being worn by the rich and powerful in Carthage and other cities in the Mediterranean, while pottery manufactured in southern France could be found in England and in the Persian Gulf. Spices and condiments grown in India were being used in the kitchens of Xinjiang, as they were in those of Rome. Buildings in northern Afghanistan carried inscriptions in Greek, while horses from Central Asia were being ridden proudly thousands of miles away to the east.” PF

The Mongols:
The Mongols rose to power and gained the largest land empire in history because of ruthless planning, streamlined organization, and a clear set of strategic objectives. Ability and loyalty > tribal background or status.

Mongols were not always seen as oppressors, invested in infrastructure, rebuilt cities, emphasized arts and production. Their reputation as bloodthirsty barbarians is due to histories written after the fact.

“This slanted view of the past provides a notable lesson in how useful it is for leaders who have a view to posterity to patronize historians who write sympathetically of their age of empire–something the Mongols conspicuously failed to do.” PF

The Plague:
Silk roads were the veins through which the plague devastated the world.

Social and economic change brought about in the west was significant. Shortage of labor helped increase its value and wages, enhanced negotiation power of lower classes. Also matched by weakening of propertied class with lower rents and falling interest rates. Wealth became more even distributed and resulted in a greater purchasing power and demand for luxury goods. Rise in wealth also brought about better diets and health. Post-plague populations were generally far healthier than before it struck. 

Religions:
Great overview of the political struggles between faiths for much of human history. Puts the foolishness of religion and silly beginnings in perspective.

Eighth and ninth centuries, Muslims (in the east) were curious, tolerant, open-minded, focused on progress. Europe (the west) was filled with Christian fundamentalists who were the opposite. They were considered intellectual backwaters.

In the middle of the ninth century, the Khazars decided to become Jewish. Khazar ruler brought delegations from each faith to debate and present their case. He asked Christians whether Islam or Judaism was the better faith, they said the first was much worse. He asked the Muslims whether Christianity or Judaism was better and they ripped Christianity. Both had admitted Judaism to be better and so they converted. 

Shift in world's political and economic center of gravity:
Since Europe was at the far end of the Silk Roads, it was an afterthought for most of history. But in the 1490s, Christopher Columbus crossed the Atlantic and Vasco de Gama navigated the southern tip of Africa. Both opened new trade routes and shifted the center of world power. Europe took center stage as the midpoint between the east and the west.

Rise of Western Europe:
France, Germany, Austria, Spain, Portugal and England were irrelevant in the world of the ancient Greeks, and were largely peripheral in the history of Rome. But after Columbus and Vasco de Gama, this changed their course of history entirely.

England would eventually turn what proved to be its weakness (distant, isolated), to its strength and the tides shifted towards Western Europe.

WWI:
Led to a massive redistribution of wealth. WWI bankrupted the old world and enriched the new. To finance food production, weapons, munitions, the Allies commissioned J.P. Morgan & Co., taking on huge debts. During the Great War, Britain went from being largest creditor in the world to being its largest debtor. World economy was left in ruins.

Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World – Jack Weatherford

Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World – by Jack Weatherford
Date read: 2/15/19. Recommendation: 8/10.

An intriguing look into the life of Genghis Khan and the far-reaching impact of the Mongol Empire that continues to be felt in the modern world. Genghis Khan’s life and character were shaped by the rugged terrain of the Mongolian steppe. He faced a bitter fight for survival from the moment he entered the world. He would take the harsh lessons he learned from an early age to unite warring tribes on the steppe and inspire a deep loyalty in his people. In 25 years under Genghis Khan, the Mongol army conquered more lands and people than the Romans conquered in 400 years. But his most significant contribution was that he set the foundation for the modern world with free commerce, open communication, shared knowledge, secular politics, religious coexistence, international law, and diplomatic immunity.

See my notes below or Amazon for details and reviews.

My Notes:

Beginnings
Genghis Khan was born in 1162, unified all tribes on steppe and founded the Mongol nation in 1206. His life and character were shaped by rugged landscape on the Mongolian steppe.

Genghis Khan was self-made. Grew up in a world of violence (murder, kidnapping, enslavement), encountered no more than a few hundred people on the Mongolian steppe in his childhood, received no formal education. He showed remarkable instinct for survival and self-preservation.

Military Genius
Brilliant use of speed and surprise on battlefield. Perfected siege warfare, negating benefits of walled cities. Goal of every invasion was to frighten the enemy into surrendering before the battle began.

Turned massive populations against the places they invaded by terrifying peasants at the foothills and sending swarms of refugees into the cities which could not support them. 

Traveling lightly, quickly: Traveled without a supply train (waited until cold months so horses could graze, better for hunting) or siege engines and equipment. Instead, brought along a faster-moving engineering corps to build whatever they dreamed up or the situation required. Mobility boost from all cavalry (no marching infantry). 

“Victory did not come to the one who played by the rules; it came to the one who made the rules and imposed them on his enemy. Triumph could not be partial. It was complete, total, and undeniable – or it was nothing.” JW

In 25 years under Genghis Khan, the Mongol army conquered more lands and people than the Romans conquered in 400 years. 

Leveraged his own naiveté as a tool - did not grow up in cities of have access to antiquated tactics. Had to create his own, such as diverting a channel of the Yellow River to flood the fortified Tangut capital. 

Would often lure enemy away from battlefield in false retreat, drew enemy further away (in overconfidence) and exhausted them. Once enemies became disorganized and tired, Mongols would turn and shoot them down. (See example of Duke Henry II of Silesia and army of 30,000 knights, page 152). 

Benefits of Multiculturalism
“Genghis Khan’s army combined the traditional fierceness and speed of the steppe warrior with the highest technological sophistication of Chinese civilization.” JW

Each step of the way, combined new ideas and strategies he learned or discovered from different challenges or cultures. Always learning, experimenting, adapting, and revising. Never fought the same war twice. 

Genghis Khan sought talented men as his closest advisors, no matter their origin.

“Whether in their policy of religious tolerance, devising a universal alphabet, maintaining relay stations, playing games, or printing almanacs, money, or astronomy charts, the rulers of the Mongol Empire displayed a persistent universalism. Because they had no system of their own to impose upon their subjects, they were willing to adopt and combine systems from everywhere. Without deep cultural preferences in these areas, the Mongols implemented pragmatics rather than ideological solutions.” JW

Arbitrary Authority
Distrust of arbitrary authority – Championed individual merit, loyalty, achievement and smashed feudal system of aristocratic privilege and birth.

Killed all aristocratic leaders (rich and powerful) in each conquered land to decapitate social system of enemy and eliminate future resistance.

Loyalty
Inspired deep loyalty in his people by taking conquered people into his tribe (sans aristocrats) as equal members in good standing who could share fairly in future prosperity. This helped unite his future empire.

Second-order thinking: When looting, ordered a soldier’s share for each widow and orphan of anyone killed in the raid. Main benefit was to avoid temptation to rush looting without complete victory. Also, inspired soldiers who knew he would take care of their families.

In six decades, none of his generals deserted him. He also never harmed or punished a single one of them. Unrivaled fidelity among all great kings throughout history. 

Organized warriors across different tribes and kin into units of ten (arban) who were to fight and live together as loyally as blood. Helped unite tribes and people across the empire.

Sought to remove all animosity/dissension within the ranks of his followers: Forbade the enslavement of any Mongol, declared all children legitimate, forbade selling of women into marriage, outlawed adultery, punished theft of animals, forbade hunting of animals during breeding times (March-October), decreed complete and total religious freedom. 

Legacy
First to connect China and Europe with diplomatic and commercial contacts–opened the world to new commerce in goods, ideas, knowledge. Unrivaled carriers of culture. 

Literacy and the number of books increased drastically during the Mongol dynasty.

First in history to decree compete religious freedom for everyone in the empire. Recognized the disruptive potential of competing religions.

After initial destruction and shock of conquest in each country the Mongols set foot in, unprecedented rise in cultural communication, expanded trade, improved civilization. Mongol influence, in many ways, led Europe to the Renaissance.

“Without the vision of a goal, a man cannot manage his own life, much less the lives of others.” GK

Fostered exchange of medical knowledge by establishing hospitals and training centers, bringing together the best doctors of the time from India and the Middle East with Chinese healers.

Set foundation for modern world with free commerce, open communication, shared knowledge, secular politics, religious coexistence, international law, and diplomatic immunity. 

Khubilai Khan
Lacked military skills of Genghis, but also recognized he couldn’t conquer China by mere force. Combined brilliant ideas with great implementation with allowed him to manage his territory and its expansion south. 

Commissioned Chinese-style imperial capital which grew into modern capital of Beijing. 

Previous dynasties had tried to unite Chinese states, but Khubilai was the first one to pull it off. Accomplished this by empowering Peasants by giving them responsibility in local community (acting as local governments), public schools, education, literacy. “The greatest legacy of the Mongol Empire bequeathed to the Chinese is the Chinese nation itself.” Hidehiro Okada

Downfall of the Mongol Empire
The plague cut off each part of the Mongol Empire (Persia, Russia, China) from the other and interlocking system collapsed. Depended on quick, constant movement of people and information. During the plague, various parts of empire were either decimated or isolated themselves for survival. 

1492, more than a century after the last khan ruled over China, Christopher Columbus set off to revive lost contact with Mongol court. Reached United States thinking it must be southern neighbors of Mongols in India (hints naming, “Indians”).

The Laws of Human Nature – Robert Greene

The Laws of Human Nature – by Robert Greene
Date read: 1/1/19. Recommendation: 10/10.

As close to perfection as a book can get. This is the culmination of Greene’s lifetime of work focused on power, influence, and mastery, brought together in a single text focused on the truths of human nature. It’s an instructive guide to human nature and people’s behavior, based on evidence rather than a particular viewpoint or moral judgment. As Greene emphasizes throughout the book, understanding human nature in a deep way is advantageous for countless reasons. It helps you become a strategic observer, better judge of character, outthink malicious people, motivate and influence those around you, alter negative patterns, develop greater empathy, and recognize your true potential. True to form, Greene pulls stories from both sides throughout history–masters and those who have failed spectacularly–to breathe life into each law. I cannot recommend this book highly enough. It’s an incredible resource and an investment that will pay dividends for your entire life. The sooner you read it, the better.

See my notes below or Amazon for details and reviews.

My Notes:

The book is an instructive guide to human nature and people’s behavior, based on evidence rather than a particular viewpoint or moral judgment. “It is a brutally realistic appraisal of our species, dissecting who are we so we can operate with more awareness.”

Chapter 1: Master Your Emotional Self, The Law of Irrationality

Rational people, through introspection and effort, are able to subtract emotions from their thinking and counteract their consequences. Generates more mental space to be creative and focus on what’s within your control. Irrational people lack this awareness. Rush into action without considering consequences.

Bubbles are the result of an intense emotional pull on people. Stimulate our desire for instant gratification (easy money, fast results).

People of high rationality (Pericles, Marcus Aurelius Leonardo da Vinci, Margaret de Valois, Charles Darwin, Abraham Lincoln, Margaret Mead, Warren Buffett), all share certain qualities–“a realistic appraisal of themselves and their weaknesses; a devotion to truth and reality; a tolerant attitude toward people; and the ability to reach goals they have set.”

Resistance training: resist reacting immediately. The longer you wait, the more mental space you have for reflection and the stronger your mind.

Accept people as facts: Stop judging people and wishing they would be something they’re not. View people as neutral–they are what they are–and you’ll stop projecting your own emotions onto them. Improves your own balance, calmness.

Deliberation + Conviction: “The horse and the rider must work together. This means we consider our actions beforehand; we bring as much thinking as possible to a situation before we make a decision. But once we decide what to do we loosen the reins and enter action with boldness and a spirit of adventure. Instead of being slaves to this energy, we channel it. that is the essence of rationality.”

Chapter 2: Transform Self-love into Empathy, The Law of Narcissism

We were all built for social interaction. Involving ourselves less with others atrophies our social muscle and has a negative effect on the brain.

Give people the same level of indulgence that you give yourself. Tone down your incessant interior monologue and pay deeper attention to those around you. Be eager to hear someone else’s point of view and give them your full attention. Mirror back the things they said.

Understand the value systems of other people and how it differs from your own. Allows you to enter their spirit and perspective when you might otherwise turn defensive.

Chapter 3: See Through People’s Masks: The Law of Role-playing

The harshness of life makes people turn inward. Recognize this level of self-absorption and how little you actually observe.

Detecting hostility or negativity early on increases your strategic options and room to maneuver–lay a trap, win them over, create distance.

Depth: “Cloak yourself in some mystery, displaying some subtly contradictory qualities. People don’t need to know everything about you. Learn to withhold information.” Coupled with some selective absence (not always being visible), this makes people want to see more of you.

Chapter 4: Determine the Strength of People’s Character, The Law of Compulsive Behavior

“It is not spirits or gods that control us but rather our character.”

Character is deeply ingrained in us (our layers), compels us to act in certain ways, often beyond our awareness/control. Layers include: genetics, early childhood, later experiences/habits.

“Train yourself to ignore the front that people display, the myth that surrounds them, and instead plumb their depths for signs of their character.” Patterns from their past, quality of decisions, how they solve problems, how they delegate, how they work with others.

“If you want to test a man’s character, give him power.” Lincoln

We each face insecurities. But this can be turned to a positive if channeled correctly. It’s about examining the deepest layers of your character, realizing your true potential, and redirecting this energy.

Chapter 6: Elevate Your Perspective, The Law of Shortsightedness

When you face an obstacle, slow things down, take a step back. You lack perspective in the present, but as time passes you gather more information and the truth reveals itself.

“Alarmed by something in the present, we grab for a solution without thinking deeply about the context, the roots of the problem, the possible unintended consequences that might ensure. Because we mostly react instead of think, our actions are based on insufficient information.”

Avoid lazy, non-consequential thinking (action A leads to result B), the world is more complex than that. “You want depth of thinking, to go several degrees in imagining the permutations, as far as your mind can go.”

“And in life as in warfare, strategists will always prevail over tacticians.”

Having a clear sense of your long-term goals allows you to withstand emotional overreactions of those around you.

“The years teach much which the days never know.” Ralph Waldo Emerson

Chapter 7: Soften People’s Resistance by Confirming Their Self-opinion, The Law of Defensiveness

Influence does not come from charming people with your own ideas. Instead, put the focus on others. This validation will lower their defenses and open their minds.

Play the long game by asking for advice. People love the attention and the opportunity to talk about their wisdom and experience. Then you can initiate series of small favors. They will continue to work on your behalf because stopping would call their initial evaluation of you (and their own intelligence/judgment) into question.

“He who goes away pleased with himself and his own wit is also greatly pleased with you.” Jean de La Bruyère

Confirm people’s self opinion to lower defenses and instill a feeling of inner security. What matters most is how people perceive their own character. We all have these ideas of who we are and the values that represent us, but we also struggle with self doubt. Providing people this validation lowers their guard and opens their own mind.

Look at people’s interpretations of situations, ideas, philosophies, films, books for signs of who they are.

Autonomy: “No attempt at influence can ever work if people feel in any way that they are being coerced or manipulated. They must choose to do whatever it is you want them to do, or they must at least experience it as their choice.”

Pick your battles: let the small changes go to bring down people’s guard for more important/larger items.

If you need a favor, do not remind others of the good things you have done for them in the past. Remind them of the good things they have done for you. Helps confirm their self-opinion.

Never follow praise with a request for help. Flattery is a setup and requires passage of time.

The Flexible Mind: Ideal state of mind retains flexibility of youth with reasoning powers of adult. Soften rigid mental patterns that you hold.

Recognize that you are not as good as the idealized image you hold of yourself. This awareness allows you to stop seek validation of others. Instead establishing your own independence and concern for the welfare of others (rather than getting lost behind the illusion you have of yourself).

Chapter 8: Change Your Circumstances by Changing Your Attitude, The Law of Self-sabotage

“Freedom comes from adopting a generous spirit–toward others and toward ourselves. By accepting people, by understanding and if possible even loving them for their human nature, we can liberate our minds from obsessive and petty emotions.”

Power of attitude to alter your circumstances: “You are not a pawn in a game controlled by others; you are an active player who can move the pieces at will and even rewrite the rules.”

“You do not need to be so humble and self-effacing in this world. Such humility is not a virtue but is rather a value that people promote to help keep you down. Whatever you are doing now, you are in fact capable of much more, and by thinking that, you will create a very different dynamic.”

The more tolerant you are towards others, the smoother your interactions and the more they are drawn towards you.

Measure people by their authenticity and the depth of their soul.

Chapter 9: Confront Your Dark Side, The Law of Repression

Learn to harness your own shadow by developing deeper awareness and channeling it. It’s a source of authenticity and energy.

Authenticity = self-awareness. The ability to laugh at yourself and admit shortcomings, maintain playfulness and spontaneity. No need to make a great show of your originality. The authentic individuals is someone who has managed to integrate child and adult, dark and light, unconscious and conscious.

Great art expresses depths of human nature (traumas from early years, emotions we try to forget). Powerful reaction triggered by repressed feelings.

Being too nice becomes a habit which can turn into timidity, lack of confidence, and indecision.

Subtract the shadow (assertive, ambitious side) of powerful, creative people and they would be just like everyone else.

“You pay a greater price for being so nice and deferential than for consciously showing your shadow.”

  1. Learn to respect your own opinions more than others, especially in your area of expertise. Trust your internal compass and your own ideas.

  2. Assert yourself more and compromise less. Do this at opportune times.

  3. Care less about what people think of you.

  4. You will have to offend or hurt people who block your path, have poor values, or who attack your character. Fuel your shadow in these moments.

Chapter 10: Beware the Fragile Ego, The Law of Envy

To combat envy…

  1. Practice gratitude by downward comparison.

  2. Move closer to what you envy and you’ll begin to see flaws (nothing is as perfect as it seems).

  3. Build confidence in yourself–your ability to learn and improve.

“People who are lazy and undisciplined are much more prone to feeling envy.”

Euthymia: Focus on yourself, your own sense of purpose, and your plans. Satisfaction comes realizing your potential, not earning praise or attention.

Pursue more moments where you experience dissolution of your ego and happiness is derived from beyond you and your achievements (observing beautiful landscapes or contemplating immensity of universe).

Chapter 11: Know Your Limits, The Law of Grandiosity

Recognize the role of luck. With success, raise your vigilance, keep your feet planted.

“The power you will build up in this slow and organic way will be more real and lasting. Remember: the gods are merciless with those who fly too high on the wings of grandiosity, and they will make you pay the price.”

Fantastical grandiosity: flake from one project to the next, believing they can try their magical touch at anything or become anything they want. Big talkers with vague vision.

Practical grandiosity: sense of proportion, recognize your limits, role of luck. Ability to focus deeply on a single project. Look for challenges just above your skill level. Cultivates intense connection/state of flow in your work.

Chapter 12: Reconnect to the Masculine or Feminine Within You, The Law of Gender Rigidity

Depth: Your character has natural depth and dimension. Bring out the masculine (adventurous, exploratory) or feminine (empathetic, sensitive) undertones to be more authentic and draw people in.

To become more creative, blend the analytical with the intuitive.

You lose depth and become rigid when you overidentify with certain gender roles (i.e. hyper masculinity). Power is in the golden mean between masculine and feminine. If you achieve this, mind will recover its natural fluidity.

Defy expectations…expand the roles you play so you’re not easy to categorize. This fascinates and draws people in so you can alter perceptions at will.

As children we had more fluid sense of self…wider range of emotions, open to more experiences, but as we defined our social self, we closed ourselves off this freer-flowing spirit.

The muse lies within. Move closer to the part of you that you’ve closed off (blending mind/soul to achieve depth). Here’s where creativity and a fascination in your work is found.

Chapter 13: Advance with a Sense of Purpose, The Law of Aimlessness

Operating with a high sense of purpose = a force multiplier. Greater connection to cause, higher morale, translates into greater force.

Humans crave a sense of direction…seeking a sense of purpose has a gravitational pull that no one can avoid. Keep watch over whether people have false (external sources, belief systems, conformity) or noble (sense of mission that you feel personally, intimately connected to) purposes.

Strategies for developing a high sense of purpose:

  1. Discover your calling - reflect on inclinations in your earliest years, examine moments when activities felt natural or easy, figure out the particular form of intelligence that your brain is wired for (mathematics, logic, physical activity, words, images, music). This will not appear to you overnight, it demands hard work and introspection.

  2. Use resistance - “Frustration is a sign that you are making progress as your mind becomes aware of higher levels of skill that you have yet to attain.”

  3. Lose yourself in the work - “peak experiences” where you are immersed in your work with a profound sense of calmness and joy. Create more, consume less. Design an environment where you have higher likelihood of achieving this experience.

Chapter 14: Resist the Downward Pull of the Group, The Law of Conformity

“When people operate in groups, they do not engage in nuanced thinking and deep analysis. Only individuals with a degree of calmness and detachment can do so.”

To combat this, develop ability to detach yourself from group and create mental space for independent, rational thinking.

Create a shared sense of purpose: Make people feel like a integral part of a group and you satisfy a deep, rarely met human need.

Infect people with productive emotions: Phil Jackson focused on communicating calmness so team wouldn’t overreact (rather than normal pep talks that overexcited/angered players).

Chapter 15: Make Them Want to Follow You, The Law of Fickleness

“Authority is the delicate art of creating the appearance of power, legitimacy, and fairness while getting people to identify with you as a leader who is in their service.”

Twin pillars of authority: far-reaching vision and empathy. Without these, group will sense lack of direction and constant tactical reactions to events.

Elevate your perspective and presence of mind above the moment and you’ll tap into visionary powers of human mind. Once you have a vision, work backwards with a flexible plan to reach your goal.

Bring out your natural complexity and stir conflicting emotions: make yourself hard to categorize, forces people to think of you more and results in larger presence. Blend prudence and boldness, spiritual and pragmatism (Martin Luther King Jr.), folksy and regal (Queen Elizabeth I), masculine ad feminine.

Balance presence and absence: you cannot project authority with an ordinary presence. If you appear too available or visible, you’ll seem banal. Social media might make you relatable, but also makes you seem like everyone else.

“Silence is a form of absence and withdrawal that draws attention; it spells self-control and power.”

Create more, consume less: “The world needs constant improvement and renewal. You are here not merely to gratify your impulses and consume what others have made but to make and contribute as well….Add to the needed diversity of culture by creating something that reflects your uniqueness.”

Leonardo da Vinci’s motto in life was ostinato rigore, “relentless rigor.”

“We distinguished the excellent man from the common man by saying that the former is one who makes great demands on himself, and the latter the one who makes no demands on himself…” José Ortega y Gasset

Chapter 16: See the Hostility Behind the Friendly Facade, The Law of Aggression

Put your opponents in a position where they feel rushed and impatient, makes them more emotional and less able to strategize.

Sophisticated aggressors cloak their maneuvers and play on emotions. People don’t like confrontation or long struggles so they’re intimidated and worn down by this. Primary motivation of aggressors is gaining control over environment and people. By seeing through their insecurities and anxieties and they will no longer be able to intimidate you.

Aggression is wired into us, but you have to learn how to channel it productively. What sets humans apart is aggressive energy, intelligence, and cunning. This powerful energy made us bold, adventurous and relentless (mentally and physically) in childhood.

Aggression stems from underlying insecurity, deep wound, reverberating feelings of helplessness or anxiety. Aggressors have less tolerance for these types of feelings which become their triggers.

“The more clearly you see what you want, the likelier you are to realize it.”

“Almost nothing in the world can resist persistent human energy. Things will yield if we strike enough blows with enough force.” (Painstaking perseverance: Edison, Marcie Curie, Einstein)

Preserve your bold spirit: losing this means losing a deep part of yourself. Recover the fearlessness that you had as a child. Speak up and talk back to people if they are insensitive or suggest poor ideas. Start small then you can can demand more from people and apply this growing boldness to your work.

Carefully channeling anger into your art (film, music, book, product) strikes a deep chord with people because it provides them an outlet. In our day to day we’re too careful and correct about communicating our own anger.

“In your expressive work, never shy away from anger but capture and channel it, letting it breathe into the work a sense of life and movement. In giving expression to such anger, you will always find an audience.”

The Lessons of History – Will & Ariel Durant

The Lessons of History – by Will & Ariel Durant
Date read: 10/22/17. Recommendation: 7/10.

A high-level look at the major lessons and themes throughout human history. The Durant's discuss race, religion, economics, capitalism, socialism, war, progress, and heritage, to name a few. They offer some interesting insights that are particularly relevant in today's politically-charged climate. They tackle the concentration of wealth, value of free enterprise, and increasing complexity of the economy. The Lessons of History also wisely reminds us to maintain a healthy level of skepticism as, "history is so indifferently rich that a case for almost any conclusion from it can be made by a selection of instances."

See my notes below or Amazon for details and reviews.

 

My Notes:

Human history is a brief spot in space, and its first lesson is modesty.

Geography is the matrix of history, its nourishing mother and disciplining home.

Nature smiles at the union of freedom and equality in our utopias. For freedom and equality are sworn and everlasting enemies, and when one prevails the other dies.

Even when repressed, inequality grows; only the man who is below the average in economic ability desires equality; those who are conscious of superior ability desire freedom; and in the end superior ability has its way. Utopias of equality are biologically doomed, and the best that the amiable philosopher can hope for is an approximate equality of legal justice and educational opportunity.

Probably every vice was once a virtue (necessary for survival)...Man's sins may be the relics of his rise rather than the stigmata of his fall.

Meanwhile history assures us that civilizations decay quite leisurely (Greece, Imperial Rome took hundreds of years).

Does history support a belief in God? If by God we mean not the creative vitality of nature but a supreme being intelligent and benevolent, the answer must be a reluctant negative.

One lesson of history is that religion has many lives, and a habit of resurrection.

As long as there is poverty there will be gods.

The experience of the past leaves little doubt that every economic system must sooner or later rely upon some form of profit motive to stir individuals and groups to productivity.

The concentration of wealth is natural and inevitable, and is periodically alleviated by violent or peaceable partial redistribution.

The struggle of socialism against capitalism is part of the historic rhythm in the concentration and dispersion of wealth.

[The capitalist] can give the public a greater abundance of foods, homes, comfort, and leisure than has ever come from industries managed by politicians, manned by governmental employees, and supposedly immune to the laws of supply and demand.

In free enterprise the spur of competition and the zeal and zest of ownership arouse the productiveness and inventiveness of men.

The socialist agitation subsided during the Restoration, but it rose again when the Industrial Revolution revealed the greed and brutality of early capitalism–child labor, woman labor, long hours, low wages, and disease-breeding factories and farms.

The feat of capitalism has compelled socialism to widen freedom, and the fear of socialism has compelled capitalism to increase equality.

Monarchy seems to be the most natural kind of government...democracies, by contrast, have been hectic interludes.

All in all, monarchy has had a middling record...When it is hereditary it is likely to be more prolific of stupidity, irresponsibility, and extravagance than of nobility or statesmanship.

[In Greek states] The middle class, as well as the rich began to distrust democracy as empowered envy, and the poor distrusted it as a sham equality of votes nullified by a gaping inequality of wealth....27 B.C. Democracy ended, monarchy was restored; the Platonic wheel had come full turn.

Every advance in the complexity of the economy puts an added premium upon superior ability, and intensifies the concentration of wealth, responsibility, and political power.

If race or class war divides us into hostile camps, changing political argument into blind hate, one side or the other may overturn the hustings with the rule of the sword. If our economy of freedom fails to distribute wealth as ably as it has created it, the road to dictatorship will be open to any man who can persuasively promise security to all.

War is one of the constants of history, and has not diminished with civilization or democracy. In the last 3,241 years of recorded history only 268 have seen no war.

Peace is an unstable equilibrium, which can be preserved only by acknowledged supremacy or equal power.

Civilization = social order promoting cultural creation.

History repeats itself, but only in outline and in the large.

Since we have admitted no substantial change in man's nature during historic times, all technological advances will have to be written off as merely new means of achieving old ends–the acquisition of goods, the pursuit of sex by the other, the overcoming of competition, the fighting of wars.

We frolic in our emancipation from theology...[but] have we really outgrown intolerance, or merely transferred it from religious to national, ideological or racial hostilities?

History is so indifferently rich that a case for almost any conclusion from it can be made by a selection of instances.

We have said that a great civilization does not entirely die. Some precious achievements have survived all the vicissitudes of rising and falling states....They are the connective tissue of human history.

Consider education not as the painful accumulation of facts and dates and reigns, nor merely the necessary preparation of the individual to earn his keep in the world, but as the transmission of our mental, moral, technical, and aesthetic heritage as fully as possible to as many as possible.

If progress is real despite our whining, it is not because we are born any healthier, better, or wiser than infants were in the past, but because we are born to a richer heritage, born on a higher level of that pedestal which the accumulation of knowledge and art raises as the ground and support of our being.

History is, above all else, the creation and recording of that heritage; progress is its increasing abundance, preservation, transmission, and use.

Homo Deus – Yuval Noah Harari

Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow – by Yuval Noah Harari
Date read: 6/11/17. Recommendation: 8/10.

Follow-up to Harari's critically acclaimed Sapiens. Whereas Sapiens is focuses on humanity's history, Homo Deus examines on humanity's future. Compelling book in its own right and worth reading. Guaranteed to expand your perspective and worldview. He discusses how Homo sapiens came to dominate the world, imagine and assign meaning to life, and what our current trajectory looks like.

See my notes below or Amazon for details and reviews.

 

My Notes:

The New Human Agenda
For thousand of years, human agenda centered around same three problems: famine, plague, and war.

For the first time in history, more people die today from eating too much than from eating too little; more people die from old age than from infectious diseases; and more people commit suicide than are killed by soldiers, terrorists and criminals combined.

There are no longer natural famines in the world; there are only political famines.

In 2014 more than 2.1 billion people were overweight, compared to 850 million who suffered from malnutrition. Half of humankind is expected to be overweight by 2030. In 2010 famine and malnutrition killed about 1 million people, whereas obesity killed 3 million.

Black Death began in the 1330s...between 75 million and 200 million people died – more than a quarter of the population in Eurasia.

Until the early twentieth century, about a third of children died before reaching adulthood. (now less than 5%)

In 2012 about 56 million people died throughout the world; 620,000 of them died due to human violence. In contrast, 800,000 committed suicide, and 1.5 million died of diabetes. Sugar is now more dangerous than gunpowder.

Today the main source of wealth is knowledge. And whereas you can conquer oil fields through war, you cannot acquire knowledge that way. Hence as knowledge became the most important economic resource, the profitability of war declined and wars became increasingly restricted to those parts of the world – such as the Middle East and Central Africa – where the economies are still old-fashioned material-based economies.

For the average American or European, Coca-Cola poses a far deadlier threat than al-Qaeda....In essence, terrorism is a show...Terrorists are like a fly that tries to destroy a china shop.

Contrary to common notions, seventy-year olds weren't considered rare freaks of nature in previous centuries. Galileo Galilei died at seventy-seven, Isaac Newton at eighty-four, and Michelangelo lived to the ripe age of eighty-eight without help from antibiotics, vaccinations, or organ transplants.

In truth, so far modern medicine hasn't extended our natural life span by a single year. Its great achievement has been to save us from premature death, and allow us to enjoy the full measure of our years.

The war against death is still likely to be the flagship project of the coming century...Our ideological commitment to human life will never allow us simply to accept human death.

If you think that religious fanatics with burning eyes and flowing beards are ruthless, just wait and see what elderly retail moguls and ageing Hollywood starlets will do when they think the elixir of life is within reach.

People are made happy by one thing and one thing only – pleasant sensations in their bodies.

If science is right and our happiness is determined by our biochemical system, then the only way to ensure lasting contentment is by rigging this system. Forget economic growth, social reforms and political revolutions: in order to raise global happiness levels, we need to manipulate human biochemistry.

This is the best reason to learn history: not in order to predict the future, but to free yourself of the past and imagine alternative destinies.

Part 1: Homo sapiens Conquers the World
In most Semitic languages, 'Eve' means 'snake' or even 'female snake'. The name of our ancestral biblical mother hides an archaic animist myth, according to which snakes are not our enemies but our ancestors.

The Bible, along with its belief in human distinctiveness, was one of the by-products of the Agricultural Revolution.

Whereas hunter-gatherers were seldom aware of the damage they inflicted on the ecosystem, farmers knew perfectly well what they were doing. They knew they were exploiting domesticated animals and subjugating them to human desires and whims. They justified their actions in the name of new theist religions, which mushroomed and spread in the wake of the Agricultural Revolution.

Biblical Judaism, for instance, catered to peasants and shepherds. Most of its commandments dealt with farming and village life, and its major holidays were harvest festivals.

Animist religions had previously depicted the universe as a grand Chinese opera with a limitless cast of colorful actors. Elephants and oak trees, crocodiles and rivers, mountains and frogs, ghosts and fairies, angels and demons – each had a role in the cosmic opera. Theist religions rewrote the script, turning the universe into a bleak Ibsen drama with just two main characters: man and God.

In the new theist drama Sapiens became the central hero around whom the entire universe evolved.

According to Christianity, God gave an eternal soul only to humans...Humans thus became the apex of creation, while all other organisms were pushed to the sidelines.

There is no doubt that Homo sapiens is the most powerful species in the world. Homo sapiens also likes to think that it enjoys a superior moral status, and that human life has much greater value than the lives of pigs, elephants or wolves. This is less obvious. Does might make right? Is human life more previous than porcine life simply because the human collective is more powerful than the pig collective? The United States is far more powerful than Afghanistan; does this imply that American lives have greater intrinsic value than Afghan lives?

We want to believe that human lives really are superior in some fundamental way. We Sapiens loves telling ourselves that we enjoy some magical quality that not only accounts for our immense power, but also gives moral justification for our privileged status.

According to a 2012 Gallup survey, only 15 percent of Americans think that Homo sapiens evolved through natural selection alone, free of all divine intervention...Spending three years in college has absolutely no impact on these views. The same survey found that among BA graduates...14 percent think that humans evolved without any divine supervision. Even among holders of MA and PhD degrees...only 29 percent credit natural selection alone with the creation of our species.

If you really understand the theory of evolution, you understand that there is no soul...the existence of souls cannot be squared with the theory of evolution. Evolution means change, and is incapable of producing everlasting entities.

However, there is a crucial difference between mind and soul...Whereas the existence of eternal souls is pure conjecture, the experience of pain is a direct and very tangible reality.

By humanizing animals we usually underestimate animal cognition and ignore the unique abilities of other creatures.

Humans nowadays completely dominate the planet not because the individual human is far smarter and more nimble-fingered than the individual chimp or wolf, but because Homo sapiens is the only species on earth capable of cooperating flexibly in large numbers.

Sapiens don't behave according to a cold mathematical logic, but rather according to a warm social logic. We are ruled by emotions. These emotions, as we saw earlier, are in fact sophisticated algorithms that reflect the social mechanisms of ancient hunter-gatherer bands.

People constantly reinforce each other's beliefs in a self-perpetuating loop. Each round of mutual confirmation tightens the web of meaning further, until you have little choice but to believe what everyone else believes.

This is how history unfolds. People weave a web of meaning, believe in it with all their heart, but sooner or later the web unravels, and when we look back we cannot understand how anybody could have taken it seriously.

Part 2: Homo Sapiens Gives Meaning to the World
Humans think they make history, but history actually revolves around the web of stories. The basic abilities of individual humans have no changed much since the Stone Age. But the web of stories has grown...pushing history from the Stone Age to the Silicon Age.

For the Sumerians, Enki and Inanna (gods) were as real as Google and Microsoft are real for us.

Prior to the invention of writing, stories were confined by the limited capacity of human brains. You couldn't invent overly complex stories which people couldn't remember.

Writing has thus enabled humans to organize entire societies in an algorithmic fashion...In literate societies people are organized into networks, so that each person is only a small step in a huge algorithm, and it is the algorithm as a whole that make the important decisions. This is the essence of bureaucracy.

Such self-absorption characterizes all humans in childhood. Children of all religions and cultures think they are the center of this world and therefore who little genuine interest in the conditions and feelings of other people. That's why divorce is so traumatic for children. A five-year old cannot understand that something important is happening for reasons unrelated to him...He is convinced that everything happens because of him. Most people grow out of this infantile delusion. Monotheists hold on to it till the day they die.

No matter how mistaken the biblical world view was, it provided a better basis for large-scale human cooperation.

Human cooperative networks usually judge themselves by yardsticks of their own invention, and, not surprisingly, they often give themselves high marks.

Fiction isn't bad. It is vital. Without commonly accepted stories about things like money, states or corporations, no complex human society can function...But the stories are just tools. They should not become our goals or our yardsticks.

Stories serve as the foundations and pillars of human societies. As history unfolded, stories about gods, nations and corporations grew so powerful that they began to dominate objective reality...Unfortunately, blind faith in these stories meant that human efforts frequently focused on increasing the glory of fictional entities such as gods and nations, instead of bettering the lives of real sentient beings.

It is often said that God helps those who help themselves. This is a roundabout way of saying that God doesn't exist, but if our belief in Him inspires us to do something ourselves–it helps.

Religion is any all-encompassing story that confers superhuman legitimacy on human laws, norms and values.

Religion is a deal, whereas spirituality is a journey.
-Religion gives a complete description of the world and offers us a well-defined contract with predetermined goals.
-Spiritual journeys are nothing like that. They usually take people in mysterious ways towards unknown destinations. The quest usually begins with some big question...Whereas most people just accept the ready-made answers provided by the power that be, spiritual seekers are not so easily satisfied. They are determined to follow the big question wherever it leads, and not just to places they know well or wish to visit.

Religion is interested above all in order. It aims to create and maintain the social structure. Science is interested above all in power. Through research, it aims to acquire the power to cure diseases, fight wards and product food. As individuals, scientists and priests may give immense importance to the truth; but as collective institutions, science and religion prefer order and power over truth.

Modernity is a deal...The entire contract can be summarized in a single phrase: humans agree to give up meaning in exchange for power.

Modern culture is the most powerful in history, and it is ceaselessly researching, inventing, discovering and growing. At the same time, it is plagued by more existential angst than any previous culture.

The greatest scientific discovery was the discovery of ignorance. Once humans realized how little they knew about the world, they suddenly had a very good reason to seek new knowledge, which opened up the scientific road to progress.

Wilhelm von Humboldt, aim of existence is 'a distillation of the widest possible experience of life into wisdom.'

God is dead – it's just taking a while to get rid of the body. Radical Islam poses no serious threat to the liberal package, because for all their fervor the zealots don't really understand the world of the twenty-first century, and having nothing relevant to say about the novel dangers and opportunities that new technologies are generating all around us.

True, hundreds of millions may nevertheless go on believing in Islam, Christianity or Hinduism. But numbers alone don't count for much in history. History is often shaped by small groups of forward-looking innovators rather than by backward-looking masses.

Ask yourself: what was the most influential discovery, invention or creation of the twentieth century? That's a difficult question, because it is hard to choose from a long list of candidates...Now ask yourself: what was the most influential discovery, invention or creation of traditional religions such as Islam and Christianity in the twentieth century? This too is a very difficult question, because there is so little to choose from.

Think, for example, about the acceptance of gay marriage or female clergy by the more progressive branches of Christianity. Where did this acceptance originate? Not from reading the Bible, St Augustine or Martin Luther. Rather, it came from reading texts like Michel Foucault's The History of Sexuality or Donna Haraway's 'A Cyborg Manifesto.'

Yet Christian true-believers – however progressive – cannot admit to drawing their ethics from Foucault and Haraway. So they go back to the Bible, to St Augustine and to Martin Luther, and make a very thorough search. They read page after page and story after story with the utmost attention, until they finally discover what they need: some maxim, parable or ruling that, if interpreted creatively enough means God blesses gay marriages and women can be ordained to the priesthood. They then pretend the idea originated in the Bible, when in fact it originated with Foucault.

Part 3: Homo Sapiens Loses Control
Free will exists only in the imaginary stories we humans have invented.

Every time the narrating self evaluates our experiences, it discounts their duration and adopts the 'peak-end-rule' – it remembers only the peak moment and the end moment, and assesses the whole experience according to their average. This has far-reaching impact on all our practical decisions.

Given the unbearable torments that many women undergo during childbirth, one might think that after going through it once no sane woman would ever agree to do so again. However, at the end of labor and in the following days the hormonal system secretes cortisol and beta-endorphins, which reduce the pain and create a feeling of relief and sometimes even elation. Moreover, the growing love towards the baby and the acclaim from friends, family members, religious dogmas and nationalist propaganda, conspire to transform childbirth from a trauma into a positive memory.

If you want to make people believe in imaginary entities such as gods and nations, you should make them sacrifice something valuable. The more painful the sacrifice, the more convinced they will be of the existence of the imaginary recipient.

Humans are masters of cognitive dissonance, and we allow ourselves to believe in one thing in the laboratory and an altogether different thing in the courthouse or in parliament.

Organisms are algorithms. Every animal – including Homo sapiens – is an assemblage of organic algorithms shaped by natural selection over millions of years of evolution.

Traditionally, life has been divided into two main parts: a period of learning followed by a period of working. Very soon this traditional model will become utterly obsolete, and the only way for humans to stay in the game will be to keep learning throughout their lives, and to reinvent themselves repeatedly. Many if not most humans may be unable to do so.

Medicine is undergoing a tremendous conceptual revolution. Twentieth-century medicine aimed to heal the sick. Twenty-first-century medicine is increasingly aiming to upgrade the healthy.

Twentieth-century armies needed millions of healthy soldiers, and economies needed millions of healthy workers. Consequently states established public health services to ensure the health and vigor of everyone...In 1914 the Japanese elite had a vested interest in vaccinating the poor and building hospitals and sewage systems in the slums, because if they wanted Japan to be a strong nation with a powerful army and a robust economy, they needed many millions of healthy soldiers and workers.

In themselves human experiences are not superior at all to the experiences of wolves or elephants. One bit of data is as good as another. However, humans can write poems and blogs about their experiences and post them online, thereby enriching the global data-processing system....No wonder we are so busy converting our experiences into data. It isn't a question of trendiness. It is a question of survival. We must prove to ourselves and to the system that we still have value.

After Darwin, biologists began explaining that feelings are complex algorithms honed by evolution to help animals make correct decisions...For millions upon millions of years, feelings were the best algorithms in the world.

Sapiens – Yuval Noah Harari

Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind – by Yuval Noah Harari
Date read: 3/21/17. Recommendation: 10/10.

This takes the cake as my favorite nonfiction book...ever. It's one of the most important books you'll read and tackles some of the biggest questions we face. Harari tracks human evolution and the implications of the cognitive revolution through the agricultural, industrial, and scientific revolutions. There's a reason it's so popular and highly regarded. Just read it.

See my notes below or Amazon for details and reviews. 

 

My notes:

Part One: The Cognitive Revolution
The most important thing to know about prehistoric humans is that they were insignificant animals with no more impact on their environment than gorillas, fireflies or jellyfish.

It's a common fallacy to envision these (human) species as arranged in a straight line of descent...The truth is that from about 2 million years ago until around 10,000 years ago, the world was home, at one and the same, to several human species...It's our current exclusivity, not that multi-species past, that is peculiar – and perhaps incriminating.

This is a key to understanding our history and psychology. Genus Homo's position in the food chain was, until quite recently, solidly in the middle...and only in the last 100,000 years – with the rise of Homo sapiens – that man jumped to the top of the food chain.

That spectacular leap from the middle to the top had enormous consequences. Other animals at the top of the pyramid, such as lions and sharks, evolved into that position very gradually, over millions of years. This enabled the ecosystem to develop checks and balances...

By 150,000 years ago, East Africa was populated by Sapiens that looked just like us.

Over the past 100,000 years, Homo Sapiens has grown so accustomed to being the only human species that it's hard for us to conceive of any other possibility. Our lack of brothers and sisters makes it easier to imagine that we are the epitome of creation...

Yet the truly unique feature of our language is not its ability to transmit information about men and lions. Rather, it's the ability to transmit information about things that do not exist at all...This ability to speak about fictions is the most unique feature of Sapiens language.

Sociological research has shown that the maximum 'natural' size of a group bonded by gossip is about 150 individuals...Even today, a critical threshold in human organizations falls somewhere around this magic number. BUT larger numbers of strangers can cooperate successfully by believing in common myths.

Any large-scale human cooperation is rooted in common myths that exist only in people's collective imaginations (religious myths, national myths, legal myths).

There are no gods in the universe, no nations, no money, no human rights, no laws, and no justice outside the common imagination of human beings.

For nearly the entire history of our species, Sapiens lives as foragers. The past 200 years, during which ever increasing numbers of Sapiens have obtained their daily bread as urban laborers and office workers, and the preceding 10,000 years, during which most Sapiens lived as farmers and herders, are the blink of an eye compared to the tens of thousands of years during which our ancestors hunted and gathered.

Before the Agricultural Revolution, the human population of the entire planet was smaller than that of today's Cairo.

Foragers mastered not only the surrounding world of animals, plants and objects, but also the internal world of their own bodies and senses...varied and constant use of their bodies made them fit as marathon runners.

The foragers' secret of success, which protected them from starvation and malnutrition, was their varied diet. Farmers tend to eat a very limited and unbalanced diet.

Ancient foragers also suffered less from infectious diseases. Most of the infectious diseases that have plagued agricultural and industrial societies (such as smallpox, measles and tuberculosis) originated in domesticated animals and were transferred to humans only after the Agricultural Revolution...Moreover, most people in agricultural and industrial societies lived in dense, unhygenic permanent settlements - ideal hotbeds for disease.

 

Part Two: The Agricultural Revolution
For 2.5 million years humans fed themselves by gathering plants and hunting animals that lived and bred without their intervention. All this changed about 10,000 years ago, when Sapiens began to devote all their time and effort to manipulating the lives of a few animal and plant species.

No noteworthy plant or animal has been domesticated in the last 2,000 years. If our minds are those of hunter-gatherers, our cuisine is that of ancient farmers.

There is no evidence that people became more intelligent with time. Foragers knew the secrets of nature long before the Agricultural revolution, since their survival depended on an intimate knowledge of the animals they hunted and the plants they gathered. Rather than heralding a new era of easy living, the Agricultural Revolution left farmers with lives generally more difficult and less satisfying than those of foragers. Hunter-gatherers spent their time in more stimulating and varied ways, and were less in danger of starvation and disease.

The average farmer worked harder than the average forager, and got a worse diet in return. The Agricultural Revolution was history's biggest fraud.

The body of Homo sapiens had not evolved for such tasks (cultivating crops). It was adapted to climbing apple trees and running after gazelles, not to clearing rocks and carry water buckets. Human spines, knees, necks and arches paid the price.

The currency of evolution is neither hunger nor pain, but rather copies of DNA helixes...This is the essence of the Agricultural Revolution: the ability to keep more people alive under worse conditions.

The average person in Jericho of 8500 BC lived a harder life than the average person in Jericho of 9500 BC or 13,00 BC. But nobody realized what was happening.

The pursuit of an easier life resulted in much hardship, and not for the last time. It happens to us today. How many young college graduates have taken demanding jobs in high-powered firms, vowing that they will work hard to earn money that will enable them to retire and pursue their real interests when they are thirty-five? But by the time they reach that age, they have large mortgages, children to school, houses in the suburbs that necessitate at least two cars per family, and a sense that life is not worth living without really good wine and expensive holidays abroad.

One of history's few iron laws is that luxuries tend to become necessities and to spawn new obligations.

Evolution is based on difference, not on equality. Every person carries a somewhat different genetic code, and is exposed from birth to different environmental influences. This leads to the development of different qualities that carry with them different chances of survival. 'Created equal' should therefore be translated into 'evolved differently'.

We believe in a particular order not because it is objectively true, but because believing in it enables us to cooperate effectively and forge a better society. Imagined orders are not evil conspiracies or useless mirages. Rather, they are the only way large numbers of humans can cooperate effectively.

How do you cause people to believe in an imagined order such as Christianity, democracy or capitalism? First, you never admit that the order is imagined.

Culture tends to argue that it forbids only that which is unnatural. But from a biological perspective, nothing is unnatural. Whatever is possible is by definition also natural. A truly unnatural behavior, one that goes against the laws of nature, simply cannot exist.

 

Part Three - The Unification of Humankind
Money is the most universal and most efficient system of mutual trust ever devised.

Christians and Muslims who could not agree on religious beliefs could nevertheless agree on a monetary belief, because whereas religion asks us to believe in something, money asks us to believe that other people believe in something.

Money has an even darker side. For although money builds universal trust between strangers, this trust is invested not in humans, communities or sacred values, but in money itself and the impersonal systems that back it.

Empires were one of the main reasons for the drastic reduction in human diversity. The imperial steamroller gradually obliterated the unique characteristics of numerous peoples.

This does not mean, however, that empires leave nothing of value in their wake...Imperial elites used the profits of conquest to finances not only armies and forts but also philosophy, art, justice and charity.

Present-day Egyptians speak Arabic, think of themselves as Arabs, and identify wholeheartedly with the Arab Empire that conquered Egypt in the seventh century and crushed with an iron fist the repeated revolts that broke out against its rule.

Evolution has made Homo sapiens, like other social mammals, a xenophobic creature. Sapiens instinctively divide humanity into two parts, 'we' and 'they'.

In Chinese political thinking as well as Chinese historical memory, imperial periods were henceforth seen as golden ages of order and justice. In contradiction to the modern Western view that a just world is composed of separate nation states, in China periods of political fragmentation were seen as the dark ages of chaos and injustice.

As the twenty-first century unfolds, nationalism is fast losing ground. More and more people believe that all humankind is the legitimate source of political authority...The global empire being forged before our eyes is not governed by any particular state or ethnic group.

Religion morphed from animism, to polytheism, to monotheism.

In these three centuries, the polytheistic Romans killed no more than few thousand Christians. In contrast, over the course of the next 1,500 years, Christians slaughtered Christians by the millions to defend slightly different interpretations of the religion of love and compassion.

Monotheists have tended to be far more fanatical and missionary than polytheists.

Regarding evil forces: How can a monotheist adhere to such a dualistic belief (which by the way is nowhere to be found in the Old Testament)? Logically it is impossible. Either you believe in a single omnipotent God or you believe in two opposing powers, neither of which is omnipotent. Still, humans have a wonderful capacity to believe in contradictions.

 

Part Four - The Scientific Revolution
Modern science differs from all previous traditions of knowledge in three critical ways: The willingness to admit ignorance, the centrality of observation and mathematics, and the acquisition of new powers.

Premodern traditions of knowledge such as Islam, Christianity, Buddhism and Confucianism asserted that everything that is important to know about the world was already known.

What potential did Europe develop in the early modern period that enabled it to dominate the late modern world? Modern science and capitalism.

That's why capitalism is called 'capitalism'. Capitalism distinguishes 'capital' from mere 'wealth'. Capital consists of money, goods and resources that are invested in production. Wealth on the other hand, is buried in the ground or wasted on unproductive activities.

When growth becomes a supreme good, unrestricted by any other ethical considerations, it can easily lead to catastrophe. Some religions, such as Christianity or Nazism, have killed millions out of burning hatred. Capitalism has killed millions out of cold indifference coupled with greed.

Just as the Atlantic slave trade did not stem from hatred towards Africans, so the modern animal industry is not motivated by animosity. Again, it is fueled by indifference. Most people who produce and consume eggs, milk and meat rarely stop to think about the fate of chickens, cows or pigs whose flesh and emissions they are eating.

Consumerism sees the consumption of ever more products and services as a positive thing. It encourages people to treat themselves, spoil themselves, and even kill themselves slowly by overconsumption. Frugality is a disease to be cured.

Obesity is a double victory of consumerism. Instead of eating little, which will lead to economic contraction, people eat too much and then buy diet products - contributing to economic growth twice over.

As in previous eras, there is today a division of labour between the elite and the masses. In medieval Europe, aristocrats spent their money carelessly on extravagant luxuries, whereas peasants lived frugally, minding every penny. Today, the tables have turned. The rich take great care in managing their assets and investments, while the less well-heeled go into debt buying cars and televisions they don't really need.

In 1880, the British government took the unprecedented step of legislating that all timetables in Britain must follow Greenwich (for train timetable purposes). For the first time in history, a country adopted a national time and obliged its population to live according to an artificial clock rather than local ones or sunrise-to-sunset cycles.

The Syrian, Lebanese, Jordanian and Iraqi nations are the product of haphazard borders drawn in the sand by French and British diplomats who ignored local history, geography and economy.

Manchester United fans, vegetarians and environmentalists...defined above all by what they consume. It is the keystone of their identity.

Perhaps we are out of touch with our inner hunter-gatherer, but it's not all bad. For instance, over the last two centuries modern medicine has decreased child mortality from 33 percent to less than 5 percent. Can anyone doubt that this made a huge contribution to the happiness of not only those children who would otherwise have died, but also of their families and friends?

If happiness is determined by expectations, then two pillars of our society – mass media and the advertising industry – may unwittingly be depleting the globe's reservoirs of contentment.

Happiness and misery play a role in evolution only to the extent that they encourage or discourage survival and reproduction.

Happiness is not the surplus of pleasant over unpleasant moments. Rather, happiness consists in seeing one's life in its entirety as meaningful and worthwhile...As Nietzsche put it, if you have a why to live, you can bear almost any how. A meaningful life can be extremely satisfying even in the midst of hardship, whereas a meaningless life is a terrible ordeal no matter how comfortable it is.