Tuesday, 14 July 2015

Dangerous Fiction

In the book Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, the author, Yuval Noah Harari,  notes that about 70,000 years ago something happened in the brain of a particular species of ape that caused that creature’s brain to evolve into the human brain
www.ynharari.com sapiens-the-book 

This something was an evolutionary change that created a brain which was capable of thinking about, and talking about, abstractions or, as Harari puts it, fictions.  At the time there were 6 or so similar species of apes around, and the Neanderthals, and any of these species might have evolved into a creature with these higher cognitive functions. The first of these species to achieve this change  became our ancestor and the other, almost qualified species, were squeezed out.

Fans of the movie ‘2001 a Space Odyssey will recall that the film opens with a small group of apelike creatures who come in contact with an alien artefact. This kick-starts them on the road to technology and the present day. That alien monolith was able, somehow, to influence their brain evolution and set mankind on the journey that caused it to abandon the ‘Hunter/Gatherer’ life and develop agriculture and the other technologies that make the modern world. In the book Sapiens it is argued that it is the evolved human brain’s ability to create fictions – stories or imagined structures - that eventually begat human organisations that led to our present day civilisation. This was the Cognitive Revolution.

Following the Cognitive revolution narratives about the future had be created and then accepted by large groups of humans before they could be realised as actual changes in the world.  Money and agriculture, for example, require group participation before they becomes viable.  

The Agricultural Revolution eventually led to a great growth in the human population but not before millions of humans were committed to lives of total drudgery. (Not to mention the millions who would be enslaved.) And we evolved as ‘hunter gatherers’ and our bodies and instincts are still those of ‘hunter gatherers’ but somehow we were convinced of the desirability of the move to agriculture. Had we stayed in the old job the population of humans would have been far fewer but we may have been more physically and mentally suited to our condition.

Among the other fictions mankind fell for are religion and those dreadful 'isms' - Communism, Capitalism and National Socialism. These were abstractions that also only meant something in the real world after widespread acceptance by a significant section of the population.

One commentator on Harari’s website mentions the meta-fiction of shortage and suggests this might have been instrumental in the move towards agriculture. In fact with a steady climate a community of  ‘hunter gatherers’ would not have been overly conscious of shortage. Their population would have limited itself automatically to whatever the food supply could sustain. Did some new narrative promise a time of plenty which made those foragers dissatisfied with their lot?

And so the later chapters of the story, our history, after so many of these ideologies have been realised and abandoned, has brought us to  the present day. They have given us a planet dominated and be-spoiled by humans. All the other creatures, except for dogs, cats and fleas are under pressure and many animals suffer lives of constant distress so that humans may satisfy a fictitious need for abundance. The meta-fiction of scarcity still carries conviction. Houses are expensive, so the fiction has it, because they are in short supply. Not, as some believe, because credit is in over abundant supply.

The future, in which it’s plausible to predict machines made in man’s image, intelligent and autonomous, seems just around the corner. This is the one warning fiction that keeps appearing. Just as soon as man could imagine man-made life our fictions told of a threat. The story of the Golem, Frakenstein's monster and HAL the machine intelligence in 2001 are but a few that appear in our myths repeatedly. 

Harari makes the rather nice comparison between the Australian aboriginal myth of The Dreaming and the fictions that have created the modern world. The Dreaming tells of a universe where the particular reality we live in is just one of the dreams of the gods who created the world. He suggests that our dreams/fictions have promised us the powers of the gods and the narrative we are living through is one where finally, through our science, we will realise that dream and become gods. And capable of making other sentient creatures as well as remaking ourselves.  In plain sight in our fictions is the warning that these creatures that we will create to serve us will eventually replace us.

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