Notes from sf author Stephen Palmer

Category: Just Finished Reading

Homo Deus by Yuval Noah Harari

I read Sapiens by this author and thought it a brilliant book. I’m not so sure about this one.


The sequel to Sapiens takes the reader through history into a speculative future, based on ideas of what the 21st century might be like. Sapiens showed the gift Harari has for summarising and describing with marvellous clarity how people have changed according to a number of revolutions – the cognitive revolution of (in Harari’s estimation) 70,000 years ago, the agricultural revolution, and the scientific revolution. This book begins with a similar survey, before going into four chapters showing how human beings invest their world with meaning. Harari observes, as others have, that our modern world is conspicuously lacking the sense of meaning and order which existed in earlier times. But he does show how what he calls humanism took over from religious notions some time around the Enlightenment, to give us a situation where, instead of an external, usually religious source for meaning, it came instead from inside. “Listen to your feelings,” as he puts it. The third section of the book looks at how the recent modern world is changing, through genetics, AI and Big Data. These are the speculative chapters.

First, I’ll say what I think is good about this book. Harari exhibits the same sort of brilliance as, say, Karen Armstrong when it comes to extracting profound meaning from history. In the same way that Sapiens was brilliant, so is much of Homo Deus. Harari also has a laudable agenda of empathy with the animal world. Interestingly, he is a vegan – of which, more later. The speculative chapters are good, with the one on the decoupling of consciousness and intelligence – i.e. our headlong rush to create algorithms that do specialised tasks far, far better than we do – a particularly fine piece of work. There is much here for the SF author to be inspired by.

But this book has in my opinion quite a few flaws.

The first is Harari’s concepts of consciousness, of our understanding of consciousness, and of the nature of individualism, liberalism and humanism in modern society. The most significant lines in the whole book for me are these: “However, nobody has any idea how a congeries of biochemical reactions and electrical currents in the brain creates the subjective experience of pain, anger, love. Perhaps we will have a solid explanation in ten or fifty years. But as of 2016, we have no such explanation, and we had better be clear about that [my emphasis].” Throughout this book, Harari uses his gifts to persuade. The above line is the only place in the book where he bullies the reader into accepting his view.

This happens because the chapter on the human mind and consciousness is the weakest point of the whole work. Although there is one mention of Daniel Dennett and one (uncredited in the text) mention of 150, the Dunbar Number, there is no mention of any of the other pioneers of consciousness studies – no Hofstadter, no Humphrey, nobody else. Harari’s whole stance requires him to claim that the human mind and consciousness are still a mystery. But that is not the case.

The rest of the enterprise fails as a consequence. Harari is notably harsh on the concept of humanism, which he rightly propels into the foreground as the guiding light of post-Enlightenment centuries: listen to yourself, look within, listen to your feelings… In fact, there is a rather odd mocking of such notions in this book, which I suspect speaks of a deeper malaise. For the first time reading this author I noticed a certain misanthropy about him. I suspect Harari is a very sensitive man, who, like me, has been appalled, shocked and disgusted by what he has seen in his lifetime. This is a gay man who lives in Israel, it should be pointed out – he must have been through some exceptionally difficult circumstances. Whether this misanthropy is conscious or unconscious I don’t know, but I sensed it throughout much of the book.

The problem with Harari’s thesis is (a) we know far more about the nature of consciousness than he admits and (b) a mystery is not necessarily a mystery forever. To be fair, the author does say something along these lines in the case of (b), but his inability to see the value and likelihood of a scientific description of the human condition is a peculiar and notable lack.

And in the end, although there is a sarcastic paragraph on Hollywood’s portrayal of love, there is nothing else here about why human beings matter to one another. The sense of misanthropy I felt was revealed also by this strong emphasis on everything unlovely. But, as Harari knows, our many millennia of evolution have made us in a particular way. His jaundiced view has nothing to offer on compassion, love or even on social solidarity. And yet, with ultimate irony, the author is well aware of what the solution might be to some of the disasters human beings are looking at. It’s all about types of co-operation, styles of organisation.

Quite a few reviewers of this book have noted Harari’s veganism and made something of it. I’m a vegetarian and passionate about ethical farming etc, but I didn’t find this book’s pro-animal stance too overt. Harari is scathing about how animals have been treated since the agricultural revolution, and I think his explanations are good and accurate. There are only a few mentions of the issue, all are in context, and none bash the reader over the head.

Where Harari is undoubtedly right is in warning about the future. Blithely we are all giving the Big Data corporations all the food they need to get fat and to control our lives. For Harari it is all about algorithms – the virtual mechanisms we are making (or in many cases allowing to expand all by themselves) for what is supposed to be our convenience. We are making our own demise, I think – and this author agrees.

This is a book that, like Sapiens, all should read. It gives a lot despite being fundamentally flawed. But where Sapiens was a work of history and relatively neutral, Homo Deus is a much more partisan account. In tone it is often dismissive of human goodness. I find that rather a shame.

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Thinking Big: Gamble, Gowlett & Dunbar

This is one of the best surveys of the evolution of the human mind that I’ve ever read, and I’ve read a few…

Presented by Robin Dunbar (very well known in the field, and originator of the Dunbar Number), Clive Gamble and John Gowlett, Thinking Big: How The Evolution Of Social Life Shaped The Human Mind is the written culmination of a major, well-funded anthropology project called Lucy, whose intention was to investigate the social brain theory of human evolution. In a nutshell, this theory as presented in the book uses archaeological evidence, evidence from the great apes and from remaining hunter-gatherer societies to show how the need to grasp increasingly complex social interactions – represented by the Dunbar Number of the species in question – led to the evolution of the brain, of the human mind, and, although the authors almost never refer to it, of consciousness.

The Dunbar Number is the number of individuals that an individual can keep in mind in genuine social interactions, and for human beings it is around 150. This number comes up in all sorts of circumstances, showing how we, though technologically advanced, are true to our ancient roots. 150 comes up in social media, in military organisation, in English village life, and in a myriad other places. Apes have smaller numbers, chimps smaller still, reflecting the fact that their social networks are smaller.

Beginning with a survey of the anthropological field, the authors then move through our ancestors of 2.6 million years ago, through later hominids, and then through homo heidelbergensis, homo neanderthalensis and homo sapiens to show how all the evidence links together in support of the social brain theory. Human ancestors living in increasingly complex societies faced immense selection pressures from themselves, as only those able to keep in mind complex relationships were able to thrive. Interestingly, the evolutionary pressure from environmental factors (eg climate change) is comparatively played down.

There is also an explanation for one of the more puzzling events in our past, the “cultural revolution” of 40,000 years ago, when music, sculpture and art all appear in the archaeological record. This mystifying and very sudden explosion of culture is more easily explained by the preceding slow and steady emotional and psychological development of homo sapiens, which the authors point out leaves no trace, but which is clear from their evidence. Here they cite laughter, music and chanting, and family life, with only the latter leaving faint “real” marks in our environment.

This really is an exceptional book, confirming Thames & Hudson’s place in providing outstanding work in the field of archaeology, anthropology and human evolution. The authors should be proud of their achievement.


Are We Smart Enough To Know How Smart Animals Are?

… by Frans De Waal.

In this, his most recent book of many on the subject of animal intelligence and primate intelligence in particular, the noted researcher and author Frans De Waal pens a passionate defence of animal cognition and sends many well-deserved rockets at those who try to find defining lines between human beings and the rest of the animal kingdom.

I liked this book a lot, but I do have reservations about it. The author is a psychology professor and a director of the Yerkes Primate Research Centre, with a long back catalogue of works discussing animal intelligence… or, rather, cognition.

The difference between intelligence and cognition is one of the main foundations of this excellent book. De Waal uses a lot of evidence from his own wide-ranging research, the work of other researchers and some anecdotal evidence in making the case for animals as cognitive creatures. He makes a number of essential points in the earlier parts of the book, in particular pointing out the extraordinary pro-human bias (both deliberate and accidental) followed by too many past and present researchers. His plea is for animal cognition to be understood in an evolutionary perspective. Thus, for instance, it is pointless testing elephant self-awareness with mirrors too small for them to use – just one of a host of points he makes to show how human researchers have a strong bias towards themselves.

Other points hit home just as hard. De Waal is of the opinion that there is no sudden dividing line between human cognition and animal cognition – it’s all a matter of degree. I don’t entirely agree with him there, but the point is perfectly valid. Why should cognition, and ultimately consciousness suddenly appear in evolution when nothing else has? This “keep your hands off the mind” attitude is in fact a result of the assumption that human beings are special in some way, and De Waal is in no doubt that such attitudes are the result of a couple of thousand years of cultural indoctrination.

De Waal is particularly good in this book on how human researchers are constantly baffled by how animals don’t “get” their trials and experiments, putting down the results to animal stupidity. But this is most cases is because the experiments have been designed from a human point of view, not that of the animal in question. De Waal gives many excellent examples here.

I do have a few reservations about this otherwise superb book. De Waal is notably reluctant to discuss the issue of consciousness, except as a small part of one chapter. It could be that the book was not the right place for such a discussion, but I think it is a major lack. Also, De Waal is hazy in some of his evidence and conclusions. In the chapter on time, he discusses various possible instances of animals perceiving a flow of time, the vast majority of which could just as easily be explained as abstract links made without a sense of time. But the one piece of evidence which does show it – that chimps start off earlier in the morning to reach special fig trees if they have camped overnight further away – is hardly remarked upon. Our sense of time is the conscious perception of the order of real-world events, and so a troupe of chimps grasping that there is more space and therefore time to take account of the further away they are from the fig trees is a clear indicator. I don’t think De Waal understood this.

I was also struck by the almost total lack of discussion in the book of death and death rituals in animal behaviour. Given that in human evolution the perception of death and subsequent cultural death rituals came before the cultural explosion of 40,000 years ago, this is a striking omission. I suspect De Waal is personally skewed away from any concept of human specialness, towards a kind of cognitive continuum. This, I think, means he did not want to present too much evidence against his case.

Overall though, this is a fascinating, welcome and very thought-provoking book. I think its author has positioned himself as a champion of animal cognition, and this also is welcome and laudable, but I think he is reluctant to admit that human cognition is most likely of a different order to animal cognition. However, in saying that, I have committed the same error as thousands of others in lumping together “animals” as if they were one great bland entity. They are not. So let’s say this. Human beings are different in some way to those animals – chimps, bonobo, elephants, corvids, dolphins and whales – who are closest to us on the cognitive scale. Whether that difference is qualitative or quantitative is a moot point – and one which urgently needs investigation.

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The Highly Sensitive Person by Elaine Aron

This book is related to Susan Cain’s Quiet, which I first read about five years ago, and which I recently added to my Inspirational Books category. The Highly Sensitive Person was written a decade and a half before Quiet, but it is a sibling book; and it is mentioned a lot in Quiet…

Elaine Aron is the research psychologist who reframed the rather negative interpretation of sensitivity as “reactivity” or similar, so that a more compassionate attitude could be taken to people with the trait. The highly sensitive person has no choice about their stance. Sensitivity is a matter of brain biology and chemistry. My own experience suggests there could be a genetic element, i.e. it could run in families, if only as a recessive characteristic. But whatever the sources, being highly sensitive is both a blessing and a curse.

The book opens with a call to change the sense that something is wrong with the highly sensitive person into something being right (or at least, okay). The trait is analysed in itself, then in infants and children, before the author tries to reframe it in the context of making your way in the world. Highly sensitive people have character traits – for instance a need for peace and quiet, for reflection, for solitude at the end of a long day – which most other people either don’t want or don’t understand: Aron estimates that around 15% of people are highly sensitive. She goes on to explore shyness, the highly sensitive person at work and in relationships, and in life generally.

Later chapters focus on counselling and even medication, and here the book does get a little “American psychobabble” for my taste, although that could just be my reserved Britishness coming through. But the author’s heart is in the right place, and she’s spot on with most of her observations.

This is another great book for people who find the world overwhelming a lot of the time, who need space and peace and quiet nature and periods of solitude. It is written with much compassion and understanding.


The Discovery Of Death In Childhood And After by Sylvia Anthony

I read this as research for a short novel, but I would likely have read it anyway had I stumbled across it. A fascinating (albeit slightly old-fashioned) look at how the concept of death is acquired by young children, which then sophisticates as they get older. There are plenty of accounts of real children and their thoughts and sayings, plus a good deal of psychological and cultural work. The former is a bit limited, being mostly centred around Freud and Piaget, but it is interesting nonetheless, while the cultural sections are very interesting. All in all, this was well worth tracking down.


Victoria R.I. by Elizabeth Longford

An enjoyable biography of an interesting character in remarkable times. It was a little more detailed than I realised when I picked it up, but that’s no fault of the book. Certainly the author knows her subject extremely well. I don’t imagine this could be topped in terms of coverage.


The Doctrine Of DNA by Richard Lewontin

In The Doctrine Of DNA – Biology As Ideology, famed geneticist and evolutionary scientist Professor Richard Lewontin demolishes the widespread notion that human nature – including a whole panoply of social factors such as hierarchical societies – is determined by our genes. It’s a superb polemical attack on the crazed ideology of biological determinism, with more than a few swipes at how Western societies put the individual at the centre of things instead of having a more reasonable balance between individual and community.

The book is concise. Based on a series of lectures given in 1990, it develops the themes of skepticism, the uses of genetics, the scientific relationships between cause and effect, the social uses of science, and the relationship between the perception of science as pure and neutral and how it is actually used. Some pretty extraordinary examples are given of this latter relationship, showing how capitalist users of technology exploit both the environment and the people they leech off.

The author’s ire then falls on the human genome programme, pointing out the inherent flaws in a plan that involves creating a “normal human genome” description when we’re all genetically different. He concludes by pointing out how science education via textbooks simply repeats biological deterministic ideology as though it were proven fact.

A fantastic read, a devastating critique of the nonsense spouted by many, and a required read for anyone in the field of science. I almost never give 5* reviews: this is getting the full five.


Shell Shock by Wendy Holden

In Wendy Holden’s superb Shell Shock, the history of mental conditions in the armed services is examined, starting (after a brief introduction to 19th century and earlier references) with World War 1, then going forwards.

Although I read this book for research, I think I likely would have read it anyway, as it deals with psychological issues that can affect anybody – and because it opens up the near absurd world of masculinity, war, repression and sheer blind stupidity.

The three chapters dealing with World War 1 are particularly revealing because they show the barbaric attitudes of officers and the armed services generally at the beginning of the 20th century, which, combined with widespread ignorance, led in many cases to a worsening of already terrible mental crises. The chapters dealing with World War 2 are also excellent. Personally I was less interested with latter chapters, but they were uniformly excellent and fair-minded, highlighting the continuing avoidance of humanity and responsibility in the armed forces.

Although this book has a specific remit, it in fact deals with the childish, inhumane and delusional attitudes of men as much as anything military. The folly of men is clear on every page. With the exception of such fine characters as W.R. Rivers and Tom Pear, it is virtually a manual on how not to be a human being.

Highly recommended as an introduction to this area, and as an insight into extreme times. This book will be a vital support to my soon-to-be-written novel Tommy Catkins.


The Construction Of Life And Death by Dorothy Rowe

OK. So this is the biggie. Life and death.

One of Dorothy Rowe’s early books (1982), The Construction Of Life And Death takes a look at how we factor the meaning of death into our lives, delivered with the author’s clear-sighted compassion but also through her talks with various of her patients.

Unlike a lot of other authors in this field, Rowe allows lengthy conversations to make her points, conversations which sometimes go on for pages. She talks to patients (many of them suffering from depression, which is her area of specialism), to religious people, to members of religious hierarchies, and even to another counsellor – one of her colleagues, who gives a particularly enlightening interview. Anxiety is a particular symptom of many of her patients, and there are positive outcomes and negative ones; and Rowe is disarmingly honest at the end of the book about her own early foibles.

For people like me, fascinated with how and why spiritual ideas and then organised religion have dominated human affairs for the last 40,000 years – at least – this is a must-read. Rowe has a clarity of thought and a humanity rarely seen amongst authors of books like these, which are most often found in the self-help section of bookshops.

If you’ve grappled with these issues, check this book out, then any of her other works. Highly recommended.


Crows by Candace Savage

In this short work, various elements of science, observation, folklore and legend are woven together into a very enjoyable tapestry. The science is light, the observation is fascinating, and the folklore suggests kernels of truth about these fascinating and highly intelligent birds. Photographs, drawings and works of art illustrate the work. All in all, an enjoyable book.