Fighting Spirit Defines Humans

What does reality consist of? A caste of Lords overlooking devoted Samurai can afford to affect a Zen attitude (and that’s why Zen blossomed in Middle-Age Japan). However “The  Revenant“, the movie, depicts North America when many of the moods which have characterized that continent, ever since, were institutionalized. The violence is unrelenting… And, with the ‘right’ perspective, that violence, even if not justified, is well deserved. Even more important, the violence is realistic. Against violence like that, prayer is impractical, as it is always time for something more practical, such as reloading.

Hence an American meta-morality: guns are good, because, whoever survived, and had descendants, that person had got to have been right, having survived, and, thus, having fought the good fight! Life is the right of survivorship, all the might that can be right. This is a (seemingly little) detail of the American meta-morality which could have important consequences… And did have important consequences in World War Two: then the Americans behaved and fought pretty much as the characters in “The Revenant”. Relentlessly. Ferociously. That was shown clearly in the Battles of the Coral Sea, Midway, Guadalcanal, and the Iron Bottom Sound. All of these battles were fought with poor odds on the American side, and all of them were won because of innovative, creative American heroism. “Revenant” style. The fascist Japanese admirals could not believe the ferocity of the revenants they were facing. And precisely because, they could believe them, they did not anticipate their actions.

Give A man A Stick, And He Can Fight A Lion, Exacting At Least A Lesson

Give A man A Stick, And He Can Fight A Lion, Exacting At Least A Lesson

“The Revenant” is driven by love: the old Native American chief wants to recover his (adult) daughter, who has been kidnapped (and raped) by white men. This brings massive mayhem. Love can be a villain. So can be a white man who is thief, a racist, a murderer and a consummate liar. One may wonder why so many negative characteristics could pile up on just one. But precisely: when one has risked one’s reputation with one, why not another? When one has discovered that the Dark Side is efficient, where, and why to stop?

Thus the Dark Side acts like a psychological attractor. That is true also with entire countries. In the Second World War, Norway chose heroism, Sweden, the sister country, which long occupied Norway, chose Hitler, that is abjection.

On 16 December 1939 Prime Minister Churchill issued a memo to his cabinet:

It must be understood that an adequate supply of Swedish iron ore is vital to Germany…the effectual stoppage of the Norwegian ore supplies to Germany ranks as a major offensive operation of the war. No other measure is open to us for many months to come which gives so good a chance of abridging the waste and destruction of the conflict, or of perhaps preventing the vast slaughters which will attend the grapple of the main armies… The ore from Narvik must be stopped by laying successively a series of small minefields in Norwegian territorial waters at the two or three suitable points on the coast, which will force the ships carrying ore to Germany to quit territorial waters and come on to the high seas, where, if German, they will be taken as prize, or, if neutral, subjected to our contraband control.”

Great Britain and France informed Norway and Sweden that the exportation of ten million metric tons of high grade iron ore to the Nazis had to stop. Now. Britain told Norway it intended to mine the 1,600 kilometers long Norwegian inner sea corridor between the continent and 50,000 islands. That’s where the German ships full of ore sailed, well protected by the island from the Royal Navy.

Once in Germany, the high-grade Swedish iron was mixed with greater amounts of low-grade German iron ore, to make huge quantities of usable steel for the Nazi war effort.

In January 1940, strident protest by Norway and Sweden delayed the Allied effort (in spite of Churchill’s determination). However, Norway did not resist convincingly a British assault against a Nazi ship holding 299 British sailors as prisoners… in the depths of a Norwegian fjord. By then Hitler had long decided to invade Norway. Probably because he had been advised that France had a mysterious nuclear program in full swing there.

By January 1938, Irène and Frederic Joliot-Curie had told the French war minister of the possibility of making a nuclear bomb. They had jointly been attributed the Chemistry Nobel Prize 1935 (for creating new elements). Irene had discovered Uranium Self-sustaining chain reaction by 1937 (as the Nobel site recognizes!) although the Chemistry Nobel was attributed by the Swedes to Otto Hahn in 1944 for that discovery exactly, although it had taken many letters from Irene to Otto to teach precisely that discovery to Otto, who had claimed for months Irene could only be wrong! (Don’t expect to read the truth on Wikipedia, but I read the original literature, and I am not keen to get in a Wikipedia war about truths Anglophone Wiki fanatics can’t accept.)

The French War Ministry removed all nuclear patents from the public sphere, classifying all of them “Secret défense”. And a nuclear bomb program was started. The Curies had determined that HEAVY WATER (D2O) slowed down neutrons to allow them to fission. (In Heavy Water, the usual protons which make the nuclei of water are replaced by pairs made of one neutron and one proton; so Heavy Water is twice the density). Heisenberg, the top Nazi physicist, did not believe that nuclear bombs were possible, thankfully. However, the fumes that the French were up to no good with a new death energy reached Hitler’s nostrils.

The very day that Hitler launched the invasion of Norway, April 9, 1940, not only did the Norwegians sink a Nazi battleship, but the Deuxième Bureau (French military intelligence) removed 185 kg (408 lb) of heavy water from the plant in Vemork in then-neutral Norway.

Nearly three months later, during a Nazi bombing on ships off Bordeaux harbor, the cargo ostensibly containing the Heavy Water exploded and sank. It had been sabotaged by the french, and the Heavy Water had been transported to another ship, which reached England.

Later the entire nuclear bomb program was transferred to Manhattan and further east, becoming the “Manhattan Project”. Towards the end of the war, Churchill, suspicious of the “Communist” leanings of the French nuclear scientists contemplated jailing them all. However, French top physicists liked neither Stalin nor the French government, and, in the end, helped neither. The French military had to find help from lesser scientists, and, on the way, launched the Israeli and Iranian nuclear programs.The French had no less than 5,000 nuclear workers at Dimona in Israel in the early 1960s. The message was clear: you the Jews shall do like us, the French, and attack evil next time it shows up. That conflated with Hannah Arendt’s message that the “Judenrat”, the Jewish Councils, had been active accomplices to Hitler’s Holocaust.

Isaac Berlin the Jewish-German philosopher, lamented that the founders of Israel had “listened to Hitler, not to us”. Well, if the Jews had listened more carefully to Hitler, as the french government did, in the 1930s, they could have taken measures that would have prevented the Holocaust of most European Jews (let alone more than 50 million other people). So Isaac Berlin was wrong on the most important question, survival, and the French were right to nuclear arm Israel.

History is not made just of long tendrils of surprising connections of facts with each other. It is also made of moods which perdure. And those moods can propagate.

The mood of early America is well anchored in the institutions of the USA, and it even propagated back to France. (French “Coureurs des Bois” are represented in “The Revenant” rather profusely, if not handsomely).

The most basic mood characteristic of the human species is fighting beyond what other species consider reasonable. That ethologically given mood, “The Revenant” depicts very well. A fighting species. Something to remember when contemplating the human condition. To be free means to be capable, and willing, to fight.

Patrice Ayme’

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21 Responses to “Fighting Spirit Defines Humans”

  1. EugenR Says:

    We are again confronting an absolute evil, as it was with the Nazis. What a coincidence that the Jews are again in the frontline of confrontation. And again many bystanders are apologetic to the source of evil, when its aim are the Jews. 70 years passed, there are still living survivals of the death camps, and the denial of their very existence is fashionable and accepted, mainly in the countries where jokes about prophet, government, or any free expression are capital crime.

    • Kevin Berger Says:

      The Jews as an eternally victimized, innocent people – the exact mirror of Indra varuna’s own pet obsession, nothing more.

      • Patrice Ayme Says:

        Nor is it, at least in Europe, clear who is, or was, a Jew. So that idiot of Hitler killed probably perfectly good Aryans who happened to be Jews, while some top Nazis looked strikingly as parodies of Jewish, or degenerated types (by the Nazis’ own definition). The Nazi Jew Marshall who invaded Norway to kill enraged Nordic gods being exhibit number one…

  2. Kevin Berger Says:

    God History lesson, really, seeding your usual good points.
    FWIW, I’ll just go on a tangent re the movie (which I haven’t and certainly won’t watch, and know mostly from an Eileen Jones review), and the points about US moods that you derive from it.
    AFAIK, and as you alluded from the “False History to rule the USA), the “frontier” era, the “conquest of the West”, all those were times when the USA were already producing legends in real time, “mythifying” History as it was being lived through.

    And, the striking thing to me, is that one can witness this happening as of now, with the two memory-defining movies about the whole Iraq & Afghanistan clusterfuck being two US war movies “based on real events”, but actually very much fictionalized – namely “Lone survivor” and “American Sniper”, both dubious in actuality, the former especially (from a “non-fiction” book that was already a much distorted, propagandised account of a routine mission, failed through bad fieldcraft), and heavily politicised (the “cult” of the late Chris Kyle exhibits some quasi fascistic overtones, and I am not hyperbolic).

    And, then one goes back a little, and gets to the dolorist take on the Viet Nam war, or more importantly the industrial output of WWII movies, and, even further back, to the Sergeant York bit, from the post-WWI exploitation and self-aggrandizement, to to the WWII propaganda war flick.

    So, buyer beware. Mass Media, and the movies industry foremost, have been a central component in “shaping” the self and exterior perception of the USA. If one is to look at the US “moods”, that *willing* self-fictionalization must be acknowledged.

    • Patrice Ayme Says:

      I saw most of American Sniper and all of Lone Survivor (the latter a mix bag, as the lone survivor is saved by an entire Afghan village). They are watchable movies, not like the latest “Mad max”, arguably the worst movie ever made. Interestingly the completely inept director of the latest will head the Cannes Festival… In 2016.

      That, I find much more troubling that the two aforementioned movies. The worst part of “The Revenant” is that the French are presented (mostly) in a very negative light… Although the fact they helped the Indians against the Americans, at least in part, is a part deduction.

      “PART DEDUCTIONS” are important. One can read “American Sniper” (I read it) or “Lone Survivor” (reports) and deduce an anti-fascistic message, while penetrating the inner workings of the fascist imperialistic, America first mind…
      P

      • Kevin Berger Says:

        “The worst part of “The Revenant” is that the French are presented (mostly) in a very negative light… ”

        Un classique des films d’époque depuis quelques années (le “Dernier des Mohicans”, excellent film au demeurant, était déjà assez fort là-dessus), avec “Master & command” (?) et son corsaire français en nemesis (je crois que dans le roman, ce personnage était un pirate… américain! Pas très Hollywood-friendly…), qui motive un discours dépeignant la “guillotine à Picaddilly” (toujours la révolution sous l’angle de la violence et du désordre social…) si les froggies ne sont pas stoppés, ou avec le “Robin des bois” des même, et son héros qui gagne la guerre de 100 ans par procuration, en stoppant un débarquement (?) français (?) à la fin du film.
        Spielberg est également très bon à ce petit jeu, le soldat Ryan et ses Français lâches et primitifs, bloqués dans le 19è siècle, ou son film sur la Grande Guerre, sans jamais un seul uniforme bleu horizon…
        Prochainement, un film de Nolan sur Dunkerque, avec apparemment, une seule et unique présence Française au générique, une actrice (love interest du mâle héros Anglo, donc).
        Etc, etc.

        • Patrice Ayme Says:

          At Dunkirk, the French army blocked the entire Nazi Wehrmacht, enabling the entire British army to flee on ships (minus their equipment). This was crucial, as those professional British soldiers not only could defend England once there, but also because they were all the military instructors whom the United Kingdom had. More than 330,000 soldiers were evacuated behind the ring of fire of the French army.

          Reminds me I have to write a specific Bir Hakeim essay.

          The systematic francophobia in the USA has the interesting consequence that those not so disposed, find themselves without friends. I seriously lost several friends who told astounding lies about France. Instead, I patiently tried to teach them the truth, but they went crazy about it, and called me “anti-American” (Duviel did something like that recently on this site and “Defense Issues”, but then he rectified his position, graciously enough). I spent most of my life in the USA, and lived very little in France, but it amazes me that, nowadays, to be a good Americans, one has to say even more lies about France than Adolf Hitler himself used to… Serious… I have quotes of Hitler I can roll out… And Hitler starts “Mein Kampf” by attacking the French, even before he does the Jews…)

          In other words, American francophobia has reached Nazi-like levels, at least in some quarters…

  3. Kevin Berger Says:

    Btw, the review in question : https://www.jacobinmag.com/2016/01/revenant-review-leonardo-dicaprio-alejandro-gonzalez-inarritu-hugh-glass/

    • Patrice Ayme Says:

      My point was that the germ of (much of) the American mood originated in the depths of the 17 C and 18C, in adventures similar to those related in various movies (and stories like that are really real). “The Last of the Mohicans” is another example…

      Implausibilities in “The Revenant” are besides the point. The real reality was way, way way worse…

      • Kevin Berger Says:

        Oui, j’avais bien compris, le lien vers la critique était plus à titre exhaustif qu’autre chose. A noter toutefois que les “implausabilités” de ce film ont leur importance, je crois me souvenir que les coureurs des bois et assimilés étaient en grande partie des… Français, souvent mariés à des autochtones.
        Le “système” (proto?) américain était il me semble centré sur un autre mode d’exploitation, avec la force publique au service de l’exploitation privée (ce qui explique sans doute les pathologies récurrentes d’un certain type de populisme US, type Cliven Bundy).
        Le “business” de l’Amérique est le business, pas l’aventure, ni la course des bois, ni l’homme libre et farouche, ni la guerre (enfin… ni la guerre clandestine type Amerique du Sud ou tutelle européenne, ni l’ouverture de marchés à la canonnière ne rentrent dans ce que j’appellerait guerre, AMHA). Contrairement à la représentation que crée le rouleau compresseur culturel US. Tout ça, de l’enrobage, de l’enfumage, une Nation d’épiciers, avec tout ce que cela comporte de rouerie et d’excellence pragmatique et d’efficacité rapace, qui se vend et se croit comme frugale, pionnière et martiale.

        • Patrice Ayme Says:

          Le model interactif des Francais en Amerique, quoique noble, etait trop noble, de fort loin.

          The result? France, who used to control most of North America, lost it completely. One has to draw an optimal course between efficiency and morality. Voltaire and Louis XV gravely erred.
          British North America was propelled by… TOBACCO (and the attached SLAVERY).

          The funny thing is that Tobacco was introduced in Europe by the ruling queen Catherine de Medicis. After she lost her husband, she found tobacco soothing… thanks to good doctor NICOT (-> nicotine).

          France is too philosophical by half, sometimes…

  4. indravaruna Says:

    German, French central bank chiefs support joint eurozone finance ministry. The heads of the central banks in Germany and France have warned tighter financial cooperation between eurozone nations is required to save the European project. A joint finance ministry could be a blessing, they said.

    http://www.dw.com/en/german-french-central-bank-chiefs-support-joint-eurozone-finance-ministry/a-19032781

    • Patrice Ayme Says:

      It is encouraging to see the Franco-Germans lift their chins, muster their wills, and gather some swagger. Notice that the Franco-German border has stayed fully opened (differently from the ones between Germany and Austria, or Denmark).
      The French presidency had a flurry of exchanges with PM Cameron, when Tusk (ex Polish PM who resigned to become head of the EC Commission) went to negotiate in London. The gist was that Cameron would leave Franco-Germania alone, that was non-negotiable. Notice Merkel let Hollande and the French PM fully “negotiate” (I say “negotiate” because there was NO negotiation).

      Cameron is trying to get out of his referendum trap. All he got is to give the Franco-Germans a greenlight to boost the Eurozone… Rather ironical.

      Most of the problems of Europe come from its lack of imperial reach. World plutocracy (a notion known to Hitler in more ways than one, BTW…) has put Europe under its boot. As its headquarters are in the USA, and its subsidiary in the UK, Anglo-Saxons look at it benignly (except Bernie Sanders… and even, to some extent, Trump…)

      Fortunately Franco-Germania (and its satellites) is a superpower second to the USA only in the land area it owns. Franco-Germania has been held back by Great Britain (and also the lack of German swagger, consecutive to past mistakes…). Now, fortunately England/London is thoroughly confused, half of its brain eaten by plutocracy…

      Franco-Germania and its satellites corresponds pretty much to a larger version of the old empire of the Franks/”Renovated” Romans at the time of Charlemagne.

      • Kevin Berger Says:

        I pull this solely out of my… hat, but I am very strained to see Germany acting as anything else as Germany – deep down in its Nationhood DNA, there’s that Prussian soul, and I fear (think) that Germany is on its third run toward messing up everyone else, wiping its feet on France in the process.
        Call it Germanophobia if you will, and I am not beholden to WWII memories, but that mix of holier-than-thou self-righteousness, blind spots, elbowing its peers to further one’s selfish goals, and general sense of superiority and smugness, all this does not bode well… plus this annoying East/Middle Europe tropism (Germany is seemingly trying to build a nucleus of an “European Army”, through cooperation/integration with Hollandd & Belgium armed forces – France carefully left out of the equation), and this amazing ability to never miss to miss an opportunity (the whole handling of the Greek crisis, then of the refugees).

        • Patrice Ayme Says:

          Sprechen Sie Deutsch? I do. I speak German, not just French, and I follow much of what is going in Europa, including French, through German TV. Es gibt kein Problem zwischen Frankreich und Deutschland. Germany is similar to France, nowadays, and is clearly keen to take its clues and cues from France.
          France and Germany have to build their union, and think about the rest secondarily. (The only time there was a problem was with Libya, but now Merkel has rectified her attitude. She is now supportive. In Mali German troops are replacing French shock troops)

          • Kevin Berger Says:

            Of course not, I studied Spanish, yet cannot even tell the difference between Catalan and…? any longer, and I never studied German, so… Et puis, avec le Latin, j’avais déjà ma dose de déclinaisons.
            Just basing this “feel” on what Germany did, as a country, over the two above mentioned crisis, and how it did it. And overall, it wasn’t pretty, and didn’t inspire neither much respect, nor much hope about Germoney being a serious European team player, even less so about its French “partner”. This out of my cursory following of current events, so, YMMV, obviously, and your perspective is as valid as mine. You just won’t persuade me that Germany, as a Nation, harbours much respect for France, deep down, and won’t eagerly “betray” it, to please the USA, to further its own selfish goals and tropisms,…

            I might add, and this is yet another idea I pull out of my ass, pardon my French, that there is that whole “Northern Europe” hypocrisy that manifests in different fashions (“moods”), from the Brit double-think style “cant”, where the hypocrisy is acknowledged, if not celebrated, equally to the moral (religious, racial) superiority, to the US “exceptionalism” schizophrenia, coupling the “cant” of Elites to the ‘Murca, fuck yeah! of the proles binding that construct-Nation. The German version seems to me to be an anomaly, even as compared to the lukewarm, placid Scandi one, in that it is eager; I’d compare that to the Swiss own exceptionalism, dull, plowing self-righteousness, except that it is mostly harmless overall, given Switzerland’s importance.

  5. Benign Says:

    I loved the movie for the scenery and cinematography. the whole thing was shot in natural light in the canadian rockies. it was gorgeous.

    re: fighting – read the book “Sapiens” which convinced me that our “winner” human species will destroy itself fairly quickly, in species-survival time

    cheers,
    benign

    • Patrice Ayme Says:

      The movie was also shot in Argentina, Montana, not just Alberta and BC…

      The book “Sapiens” is not benign. It seems full of giant mistakes and grotesque anti-progress bias, a la Rousseau, plus a typical post-modern (“French”) theory of contentment (the sort originated by the Absurd movement which flourished under Nazism, as Sartre De Beauvoir, Camus were in occupied Paris in 1943…).

      I have written against many of these mistakes found in “Existentialism” and racism, let alone fake history, for more than a decade. But Harari seems to have invented new errors, and he is a stupid racist, on top of that.
      http://www.wsj.com/articles/book-review-sapiens-a-brief-history-of-humankind-by-yuval-noah-harari-1423261230

      (I will quote the book review, as it is beyond the paywall…)

      Too bad I write essays instead of a book, I guess I don’t get taken as seriously…

  6. Patrice Ayme Says:

    [Here is a Harari book review… I have struggled against many of the mistakes made by Harari, so it’s a pleasure to quote that review. Harari is just a snake oil man, and that oil’s recipe is well known. So is the fact we are quickly approaching a tech singularity… Something countless authors have commented on, from Jules Vernes to Elon Musk, through Steve Hawking…]
    :::::

    How Humankind Conquered the World

    Long ago, there were more than half a dozen species of human. Only Homo sapiens survived and thrived, transforming the face of the planet along the way.
    By
    Charles C. Mann

    Feb. 6, 2015

    Humans beings developed language, anthropologists tell us, tens of thousands of years ago. Presumably the first spoken utterance was something practical, like “Lions are attacking!” or “Your hair is on fire!” But not long after came, “Who are we get here?” Homo sapiens, that congeries of narcissists, has been contemplating its journey ever since.

    Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind

    By Yuval Noah Harari
    HarperCollins, 443 pages, $29.99
    .
    Religion provided early versions of the human story: Zoroastrian sacred texts, the Book of Genesis, the Popul Vuh. These are immensely satisfying on an emotional level; they sweep past trifling details to reveal all-encompassing themes. Secular histories couldn’t provide equally grand visions until the 19th century, when chroniclers began drawing on scientific knowledge. A landmark was Alexander von Humboldt’s five-volume “Cosmos” (1845-62), which described the human story as enfolded within universal physical processes. Despite its length and inaccessibility, “Cosmos” was wildly popular and inspirational—Whitman supposedly kept a copy on his desk while he wrote “Leaves of Grass.” H.G. Wells’s “Outline of History” (1918) predicted the collapse of European empires, and the 12 volumes of Arnold Toynbee’s “Study of History” (1934-61) followed von Humboldt in size, popularity and unreadability. Most recently, David Christian’s “Maps of Time” (2004), an amazing work that begins with the Big Bang, inspired Bill Gates’s crusade to revamp the U.S. history curriculum.

    Yuval Noah Harari’s “Sapiens,” the most recent crack at what Mr. Christian calls Big History, has already been translated into more than 20 languages and been presented, via online courses, to thousands of mind-blown students. (It was originally written in Hebrew; Mr. Harari, who teaches at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, did the very idiomatic translation.) Children often still learn history as a tedious parade of names and dates. “Sapiens” is the antimatter version of this kind of history, all sparkling conceptual schemas and ironic apothegms, with hardly a Henry or Louis or Philip in view.

    The book’s title is Mr. Harari’s reminder that, long ago, the world held half a dozen species of human, of which only Homo sapiens—thee and me—today survives. The trajectory of our species, Mr. Harari says, can be traced as a succession of three revolutions: the cognitive revolution (when we got smart), the agricultural revolution (when we got nature to do what we wanted), and the scientific revolution (when we got dangerously powerful). Humanity, Mr. Harari predicts, will see one more epochal event. We will vanish within a few centuries, either because we’ve gained such godlike powers as to become unrecognizable or because we’ve destroyed ourselves through environmental mismanagement.

    Homo sapiens came into existence more than 200,000 years ago. The term “cognitive revolution” reflects the belief, held by many anthropologists, that for most of that time the species was just a group of insignificant foraging bands wandering about east Africa. Then, Mr. Harari says, “beginning about 70,000 years ago, Homo sapiens started doing very special things.” In this “Great Leap Forward,” as Jared Diamond has called it, our ancestors suddenly overcame their inertia and moved out of Africa, meanwhile inventing boats, battle axes and beautiful art. What happened? Mr. Harari suggests that a yet-undiscovered “Tree of Knowledge mutation” altered the “inner wiring” of our brains, allowing us “to communicate using an altogether new type of language,” one that allowed humans to cooperate in groups. Mutation in place, humankind exploded across the planet.

    Sounds plausible, unless you know something about the subject. In 2000, Sally McBrearty of the University of Connecticut and Alison Brooks of George Washington University attacked the idea of a sudden cognitive revolution. In a now-classic paper, the authors contended that evidence for increased human capacities had been found in sites tens of thousands of years earlier, but wrongly dismissed. Rather than occurring all at once, as one would expect in a “revolution,” the new behaviors turned up in places “separated by sometimes great geographical and temporal distances.” The McBrearty-Brooks article helped give rise to a scholarly dispute that continues to this day. If language developed millennia before our species left Africa, something else must have unleashed humankind. One theory involves Toba, a super-volcano in Sumatra that erupted about 70,000 years ago, plunging Earth into a years-long winter that may have cleared the way for humankind’s expansion. But the evidence for this is just as shaky as the evidence for a cognitive revolution.

    Nobody can be an expert about everything, and it’s not exactly surprising that Mr. Harari’s sweeping summations are studded with errors—there are always fleas on the lion, as a teacher of mine once told me. The question is whether there is a lion under the fleas. “Sapiens” is learned, thought-provoking and crisply written. It has plenty of confidence and swagger. But some of its fleas are awfully big. Consider its take on the agricultural revolution, about which much more is known. First in the Fertile Crescent, then in a half-dozen other places, people discovered that they could convert natural ecosystems, with their jumble of often useless species, into farms: disciplined biological systems whose fruits can be captured by humankind. Agriculture transformed humanity’s relationship to nature, giving us dominion. Thanks to agriculture, ecologists say, we now suck up half or more of the primary productivity of the planet.

    Bad idea, Mr. Harari says. Agriculture increased the amount of available food, yet the result of prosperity was not happiness but “population explosions and pampered elites.” Farmers worked harder than foragers and had a worse diet and poorer health. The surplus went to the privileged few, who used it to oppress. “The Agricultural Revolution,” Mr. Harari says, “was history’s biggest fraud.”

    Really? Always and everywhere? Were the Iroquois, who farmed, so much worse off than the foraging Abitibis and Témiscamingues to their north? Discussing the long dispute among anthropologists about whether the earliest hunter-gatherers lived in “peaceful paradises” or were “exceptionally cruel and violent,” Mr. Harari maintains that the question can’t be answered, because the meager data from archaeology and anthropology aren’t enough to pierce “the curtain of silence” that enshrouds our remotest ancestors. Surely the same logic applies to comparing their well-being to that of the earliest farmers.

    Mr. Harari is quite correct, though, about the import of surpluses. Because farmers can reap much more food from an acre of land than foragers, agriculture made possible societies of thousands or millions, as permanent settlements grew. Unfortunately, nothing in farming tells a species that evolved in small, constantly moving, interrelated bands how to live in big, fixed, impersonal cities and states. Charging in to the rescue, Mr. Harari says, was our capacity for language, which allowed us to invent “common myths” or “fictions.” The three most important were money, religion and empire—all of which united people across continents.

    “Fictions” is an unfortunate word; ideas and institutions, which is what Mr. Harari seems to mean, have a complex ontological status. Still, the author’s portrayal of how these unifiers worked across space and time is fascinating. By the 15th century, they helped turn Homo sapiens into, in effect, a single, planet-wide superorganism, needing only Columbus and his successors to integrate the eastern and western hemispheres.

    Columbus’s contact with the New World, according to “Sapiens,” was a turning point, “the foundational event of the Scientific Revolution.” The unveiling of continents unknown to the ancients “not only taught Europeans to favor present observations over past traditions, but the desire to conquer America also obliged Europeans to search for new knowledge at breakneck speed.” Europe’s explorer-conquerors, Mr. Harari says, were something new. “The Romans, Mongols, and Aztecs voraciously conquered new lands in search of power and wealth—not of knowledge. In contrast, European imperialists set out to distant shores in the hope of obtaining new knowledge along with new territories.”

    Mr. Harari’s claim that Columbus ignited the scientific revolution is surprising. Most contemporary historians believe that the rise of modern science was so gradual that the term “revolution” is problematic. The first nine words of “The Scientific Revolution” (1996), by Steven Shapin, the distinguished Harvard historian of science, are: “There was no such thing as the Scientific Revolution.” Mr. Shapin and other researchers don’t deny the power of modern science. But it did not originate in a rejection of “past traditions,” argues the University of Queensland historian Peter Harrison, author of “The Bible, Protestantism, and the Rise of Natural Science” (1998).

    Instead, the grand vision of using the scientific method to gain mastery over the physical world arose from the long-standing Christian vision—dating back at least to St. Augustine in the fourth century—of nature as the second book through which God made himself known to humanity (the first was the Bible). Galileo justified science as an attempt to know the mind of God through his handiwork. By looking “thro’ Nature, up to Nature’s God,” Alexander Pope wrote in 1734, humanity can understand that the “Chain which links th’ immense design, / Joins heav’n and earth, and mortal and divine.”

    Mr. Harari provides no source for his assertions about Columbus’s influence on science. Equally odd are his claims that Europeans were “exceptional [for] their unparalleled and insatiable ambition to explore and conquer. . . . The Chinese never attempted to conquer Indonesia or Africa. Most Chinese rulers left even nearby Japan to its own devices.” True, but most English kings didn’t attack France, and in fact the Yuan dynasty invaded Indonesia in 1293, and the Ming dynasty established colonies and puppet states there in the 14th and 15th centuries. Between 1405 and 1433, the Chinese admiral Zheng He set off on seven great voyages—at least three as far as Africa—staffed with savants who described the lands and societies they encountered.

    Finally, contra Mr. Harari, the supposed lack of interest by “Romans, Mongols, and Aztecs” in new knowledge would have surprised Pliny the Elder, who wrote his encyclopedic “Naturalis Historiae” in imperial Rome, just as much as it would have surprised the Mongols, who promoted the study of medicine and astronomy and created thousands of schools in conquered lands. Aztec science remains little known because Europeans burned almost all pre-conquest indigenous literature. So much for “obtaining new knowledge”!

    Where are all these revolutions taking us? “The leading project of the Scientific Revolution is to give humankind eternal life,” Mr. Harari says. I suspect that this attribution of motive would have startled Newton and Einstein; Francis Crick, the co-discoverer of DNA, described himself in his autobiography as wanting to find out what life is—quite a different subject. But it is nonetheless true that the collective achievements of science and medicine have greatly increased the human lifespan. People are eating as never before, being cured of disease as never before, and dying from war less than ever before.

    Intriguingly, Mr. Harari is ambivalent about this species-wide increase in well-being. “Unfortunately,” he says, “the Sapiens regime on earth has so far produced little that we can be proud of.” Personally, I’d say that Beethoven’s symphonies, the Kokedera moss garden in Kyoto, the Great Mosque of Djenné, classical Greek drama and the theory of quantum electrodynamics ain’t beanbag. But Mr. Harari is arguing on another, more ineffable level: Better living, he says, has not made us more content. Citing recent research in psychology, he avers that happiness “depends on the correlation between objective conditions and subjective expectations.”

    Because we moderns expect more, we aren’t satisfied by material conditions and objects that would have overjoyed our grandparents. “Our intolerance of inconvenience and discomfort” is now so ingrained, he thinks, that “we may well suffer from pain more than our ancestors ever did.” Worse still, modernity has brought about the collapse of the family—“the most momentous social revolution that ever befell humankind”—and terminated the consolations of religion. If people in medieval times “believed the promise of everlasting bliss in the afterlife,” Mr. Harari suggests, “they may well have viewed their lives as far more meaningful and worthwhile than modern secular people, who in the long term can expect nothing but complete and meaningless oblivion.”

    What one makes of this argument will depend on personal experience. The 19th century is replete with tales of men and women left prostrate by untimely death. Both Darwin and his great antagonist Bishop Wilberforce were devastated by the loss of children to disease. Meanwhile, here in the 21st century, contemporary technology prevented my child’s death (from a bone infection), as it has millions of other children. If the cost of my daughter’s survival is some bouts of anomie, I’ll cheerfully pay up.

    Regardless of the drawbacks, the human project will march on. Having remade the Earth, Mr. Harari says, we will remake ourselves. Within decades we will see a radical amplification of human abilities, whether by direct mental connection to the Internet, the adoption of cyborg technology, the manipulation of the human genome, or all three. Eventually we will change so much that Homo sapiens will effectively cease to exist. Our descendants may become incomprehensible to us. The only thing stopping this picture, in Mr. Harari’s view, is the possibility of environmental catastrophe, which also may wipe out our species.

    There’s a whiff of dorm-room bull sessions about the author’s stimulating but often unsourced assertions. Or perhaps I should use a more contemporary simile: “Sapiens” reminded me occasionally of a discussions on Reddit, where users sound off about supposed iron laws of history. This book is what these Reddit threads would be like if they were written not by adolescent autodidacts but by learned academics with impish senses of humor. As I write, my daughter is glumly making flashcards full of names and dates for an AP Euro exam. I bet she wishes she had a textbook like “Sapiens.” Me? I’m not so sure. I like the book’s verve and pop but wish it didn’t have all those fleas.

    —Mr. Mann is the author, most recently, of “1493: Uncovering the New World Columbus Created.”

  7. Benign Says:

    It is arguably good that you don’t perceive your own self-contradiction; it is an adaptive trait.

    I was well aware of the BS in the “Sapiens” book, but the main point regarding sapiens effects on other species and the ecosystem are not arguable. It is tiresome to have to point this out.

    cheers,
    benign

    • Patrice Ayme Says:

      I don’t know what you are tired about. I have said, before anybody else I am aware of, that we were engaged in a Sixth Mass Extinction, and the most brutal, by far. (The first mass extinction, just before the “Cambrian explosion” seems not to have happened after all; and both the ones 250 million years and 66 million years ago were arguably preceded by millions of years of unsettled climate and progressive extinctions).

      30 years ago, official science had it that the great extinctions of the last 50,000 years were due to… NATURAL climate change. It was sure natural, but it’s HOMO who killed the beasts… I always begged to disagree, in part because I lived in Africa, where the animals were very aware of humans, and had elaborated strategies to handle them.

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