It’s a fine, sultry Sunday on which I should be relaxing but I’ve done all I can to avoid my chair: stayed up in bed, tidied up my apartment, prepared food and ironed. That’s because my back has been killing me since Friday. That’s on top of the fact that my feet have swelled with increasing frequency over the past year. This is all a result of what Yuval Noah Harari calls in Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind the biggest fraud in history.
Throughout my life, from what I’ve read of human history, the Agricultural Revolution, which started about 12,000 years ago, has been praised as the watershed moment where humans broke decisively from their ancestors and surroundings on a path to a better life with less strife and caprice. Cultivating crops yielded more food for a given area of land compared with that required by our hunter-gatherer forebears; there was no need to be on the move constantly, freeing us to acquire property; and having a house shielded the farmer from the harsh world out there, and it was his to own.
However, humans have not been terribly good at predicting the consequences of their choices for several good reasons. So, the upright great apes we are, we find our bodies out of whack with our sedentary lifestyles. Our farmer’s diet of a few species of grains is not kind on our teeth nor our stomachs when draught struck; daily forages turned into long hours of toiling the fields under a blistering sun and today sitting and slaving over a hot keyboard; our growing numbers in settlements, which were possible because we didn’t have to move around to find food, were hotbeds of diseases, which we were newly vulnerable to after weaning our offspring off breast milk much earlier. In all, settling as agriculturists came with more downsides than advantages. And once we started on this path, we could not stop.
This is not the first time I’ve had to change my thinking about something I was certain of, even if passively. Approximately 97% of Eugene Wigner’s essay on the surprising utility of mathematics in explaining various aspects of nature went over my head and is too impenetrable to have committed to memory. I do, however, remember that my conviction in science was shaken. The synopsis of The Unreasonable Effectiveness of Mathematics in the Natural Sciences is that we don’t understand why mathematics describes nature with such prodigious accuracy. All we know is that it does, and it does so reliably and consistently.
This of course begs the question, in what unforeseeable circumstance will mathematics fail, and if we must come up with a whole new kind to explain that circumstance, how much of the old mathematics do we throw out? While that does not strand you on the same island as the believing, it nevertheless feels as though it brings you into an uncomfortable proximity with it.
So, is mathematics a fraud as well? Of course not—it works. But whereas I previously lamented the fact that astrophysics would not be enriched by the incredible talent and industry of a former colleague of mine who instead studies archaeology because he found physics contradictory, after reading the treatise, I was more understanding of this view. Lawrence Krauss, a theoretical physicist and science populariser, often says he wishes his students would have their conviction in something they truly believed in shaken to its core. That way they won’t be so certain of their beliefs and so fast to form them.
Finally, and more generally, there is one more thing I’ve had to come to terms with after the debacle of the 2016 US presidential election and the political turmoil that has ratcheted up since the Nkandla decision back here at home. It is saddening but illuminating at the same time. The behaviour of some leaders and organisations across various sectors of society makes sense when you reckon with the following three assumptions:
- A person or organisation will do whatever it takes to either maintain or grow their power and wealth;
- They will respond to the incentives and disincentives of the system they find themselves in; and
- They will take the path of least resistance.
This explains why Raytheon would rather pay out settlements than invest in correcting a defect in one of their guns that causes them to go off accidentally. This explains why politician will do the bidding of the corporations that donate to them, their real constituency, not the ordinary residents of the polity they are supposed to represent. This explains the fierce competition for tenure in academics, which leads to less innovation (here my conservative leanings are coming out). And this explains why a representative would rather see the country go to pot than vote their conscience and possibly turned out into the cold. What happened to poetry, passion and patriotism? The answer is that they do not pay the bills or fill one’s stomach. I had nurtured ideals of human behaviour, but found them increasingly under threat.
We are all capable of sliding into excess and decadence if we don’t hold vigilant watch against cynicism and greed.
At first it was tempting to explain this away as the moral shortcomings of a few bad apples. However, these tendencies are not atypical but exceedingly human. We are all capable of sliding into excess and decadence if we don’t hold vigilant watch against cynicism and greed. It is not against nature to rape and ravage, nor is driving hundreds of species into extinction through hunting and industrial expansion. It is a means to a very human end, the pursuit of happiness. What matters is how far we take it.
Among others, the price of learning is having the wool taken off your eyes and the carpet pulled from beneath your feet. It could depress your spirits to the point of giving up learning any further; after all, what is the point if we learn something new tomorrow that upends the knowledge we have gained? The point is that you get better at sorting good information from bad information. This exercise ultimately improves not only the content of knowledge but the container it rests in as well.
‘An education isn’t how much you have committed to memory, or even how much you know. It’s being able to differentiate between what you know and what you don’t.’ — Anatole France
Painter of the burial chamber of Sennedjem: By Deutsch: Maler der Grabkammer des Sennudem English: Painter of the burial chamber of Sennedjem [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Eugene Wigner image: By Nobel foundation [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons