What's Your Story?

EconTalk Extra
by Amy Willis
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Yuval Harari on Sapiens... Cesar Hidalgo on Why Informati...

Yuval Harari joined EconTalk host Russ Roberts this week to discuss his sweeping new book, Sapiens. The conversation was wide and varied, as varied as the "stories" Harari suggests distinguish our species. Are you governed by stories in the way Harari suggests? Is our ability to weave such tales really the key to homo sapiens' success?

Please share your thoughts with us in the Comments. We love to hear from you.
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1. Harari's thesis is that man (of the homo sapiens variety) has been able to become dominant as a result of his ability to "flexibly cooperate" on a large scale, and that this in turn is enabled by his affinity and ability in story-telling. He regards religion, ideology, and more as "stories." How convinced are you by this characterization, and why?

2. In discussing stories, Roberts notes the "cherished fictions" which sustain him. What such "fictions" do you hold dear, and what value do they provide you with?

3. Harari claims that if the populations of China and India were to adopt modern day American standards of living, the global ecosystem would collapse. Why does he think this, and what evidence can you cite either for or against his claim?

4. Harari argues that science and empire are "two sides of the same coin." Have a look at this clip from Monty Python's Life of Brian. How does this clip illustrate Harari's claim. Is Harari making a positive or normative claim? To what extent do you buy his argument? Explain.

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COMMENTS (10 to date)
Earl Rodd writes:

Very interesting: the analytical concept of human cooperation and the discussion of growth made listening worthwhile! A few comments:

  • There is a bit of an "elephant" in the room in the discussion of prehistoric human history. Haran talks about stories we use to unify thinking and fails recognize that his story of prehistoric history is one such story - maybe true and maybe not. His certainty of this story, while being (correctly) skeptical of others was rather noticeable! I learned skepticism of prehistoric human history in my anthropology class at Rice University decades ago as the professor mocked how some described whole cultures based on a find of single teeth! And there is currently much debate about whether Neandertals are human.. well enough of that - prehistoric history is not the point, just that it was funny how he missed this.
  • I thought of an interesting application of his concept of shared stories: the implications of the loss of a shared story for what it means to be an American and what it means to be America. Kind of scary.
  • He noted one reason people like to travel, because it is an "in" thing. But there are other reasons! For me, the desire to travel has always been driven by curiosity and I'm sure there are other reasons.
  • I think Haran perhaps overstates how religions have "all the answers." In reality, one of the breakthroughs in modern life was when Christians broke free of the Greek thinking that man's reason, not the discoverable Creation of God, was the highest knowledge available. Their religion said the world had order (was discoverable) - it did not inhibit their search by claiming all the answers. Such thinking leads to the false either/or of religion or science.
  • I would add a comment to the wonderful discussion on growth. Sometimes, folks on the left, or just people who realize that there is some theoretical limit to growth (when total energy consumption exceeds the sun's energy for example), think of having zero growth, but they think in static terms - a freeze on current consumption, both quantity and type. With humans, this is impossible - we always change. In fact, I think historically when we try to freeze growth, we end up contracting. Instead, from a resource point of view, we can have zero growth, but with both getting rid of things and adding new - getting rid of typewriters and adding computers etc.

joel stroup writes:

Fantastic episode. Full of deep disruptive thought. Got me thinking about the evolution of cooperative behavior and left me with a deeply cynical view on altruism - Perhaps man is inherently evil and Smith was wrong about man's desire to be lovely, or at least the motivation behind it.

Amy Willis writes:

@Earl, your comment about the LOSS of a shared story is fascinating to me...Could you expand that thought a bit more? Maybe an example?

And @joel, "deep disruptive thought" is right! That so describes my own experience with this week's ep.

Mark Crankshaw writes:
1. Harari's thesis is that man (of the homo sapiens variety) has been able to become dominant as a result of his ability to "flexibly cooperate" on a large scale, and that this in turn is enabled by his affinity and ability in story-telling. He regards religion, ideology, and more as "stories." How convinced are you by this characterization, and why?

As this characterization accords with my own view, I need very little convincing.

This "world view" has been dramatically and profoundly re-enforced upon having my own children. In spending time and listening to my children, it is quite evident that children are natural born story tellers. They can take what they see, hear and experience and deftly weave those facts and experiences into a "story" with the greatest of ease. It is transparently obvious that these "stories" are not revealed "truths" from some external source of celestial wisdom, as these stories, especially those initial ones, are often jumbled and are filled with obvious logical fallacies, verbatim plagiarisms, and factual errors.

As children develop cognitively, these stories begin to grow more complex, become inter-connected, and finally all-encompassing. The transparent plagiarisms, logical fallacies, and obvious errors are dropped and the "stories" become more polished and sophisticated. By the time children reach adulthood, the "stories" they have created form the basis of their religious and ideological views.

I view other adults as "children encapsulated in adult bodies" rather than "authorities", "divine beings", or "mystical and wise men". From this view, religion becomes a preposterous supposition, as religions generally assume all three attributes being freely given to various historical and contemporaneous personages.

For the majority of people I have met, it is evident when their religious and ideological world view was formed: early to mid teens, quite unsophisticated, drawn from what ever dominant cultural and social order they most often encountered. Some individuals continue to develop their world view, a few are no doubt "world class" sophists in much the same way as some few are "world class" sprinters. It's only a difference of ability and/or interest.

That economic and social cooperation is facilitated through shared "stories" both evident and plausible. Organized religion itself is an obvious example. In my view, all religions are complete fabrications, however, it is undeniable that are great degree of economic and social cooperation has resulted from the shared acceptance of these fabrications.


3. Harari claims that if the populations of China and India were to adopt modern day American standards of living, the global ecosystem would collapse. Why does he think this, and what evidence can you cite either for or against his claim?

I believe this is his contention based on the assumption that the resources and energy necessary to support 3.5 billion people at the level of consumption of the 300 million Americans are not presently available.

I am not so sure. If this standard of living were accorded to that large population immediately, without any modification to the productive capacity of that population or any modification in that populations desire for a cleaner environment, then I would agree.

However, were the Indian and Chinese populations to gradually move towards greater levels of economic consumption, and in parallel, move towards greater levels of productivity and hence wealth, then I am not at all certain that this would collapse the global ecosystem. Such a gradual transition would lead to more consumption, but also, as wealth increased, to greater demands for cleaner air and water. Since this would also lead to increased global demand of energy, this may also lead to increases in the supply of energy (as development of alternative energy sources would become more profitable). This has been the pattern in the West, why would it not be in the East?

4. Harari argues that science and empire are "two sides of the same coin." Have a look at this clip from Monty Python's Life of Brian. How does this clip illustrate Harari's claim. Is Harari making a positive or normative claim? To what extent do you buy his argument? Explain.

One of my favorite movies...the clip illustrates the irony that the "foreign" occupation of the Romans of Judea had actually improved the standard of living, safety, and administration of Judea in many, many, many ways.

In my view, this is somewhat positive (a statement of fact that can be tested empirically) rather more than normative (a matter of opinion that can not be tested). Somewhat, in that we can actually correlate, globally, scientific advancement with the presence of Empires (Roman, Chinese, Ottoman, British, French, for example).

However, there is still remains some normative aspect with the implication that this correlation is therefore "good". One can still (as John Cleese's character does) resent that advancement, coupled as it is with foreign rule, by saying "Other than that, what have the Romans ever done for us?", because the normative "good" (scientific advancement, etc.) is still being chained to the normative "bad" (exploitative foreign and despotic rule).

As a metaphor, were someone, every time they encountered you, to give you $100, this would be normative "good". If he also proceeds to punch you in the ribs each and every time, a normative "bad", you may very well start to resent that person irrespective of the 100 bucks he might have given you.

steve hardy writes:

Of course if all the people in China and India were to be instantly given the wealth of the average middle class American there would not be enough to go around. This is mistake that environmentalist make with this static analysis. They assume that the economic pie is fixed instead of growing. If all the people in China and India over time are able to attain the same wealth of the average American it means that they have created it. The pie has gotten that much larger.

Michelle Boardman writes:

The term Harari wants is narrative, not story. A narrative may or may not be accurate but it isn't entirely fiction. A narrative is an attempt to weave together a coherent whole from some known facts.

It would be interesting to know what term he uses in Hebrew.

Amy Willis writes:

@Michelle, I like that characterization..>We'll see if @EconTalker knows the Hebrew...

Mike Wilkinson writes:

Fantastic podcast, I love the disruptive thinking. I haven't quite got to child-rearing in my life yet. When I do so, though, I'm sure I'll be fascinated to watch the development of 'narratives' in my children, to see if it lines up with what Harari describes.

In spite of enjoying the general ideas discussed, I didn't always find Harari's thinking reliable. For example, he asserts that aspects to the lives of hunter-gatherers were superior to those of agricultural peasants. I find this hard to believe. Wouldn't a key advantage of being a peasant be that you were less at risk of starvation than if you were a hunter-gatherer? It seems hard to believe that other advantages of being a hunter-gatherer would be sufficient to overcome this.

Along the lines of Leeson's work on the economics of pirates and Greif's on that of medieval traders, I'd love to hear if anyone has worked on this topic. Has anyone studied the economics of primeval human societies?

Looking forward to hearing further podcasts.

Kind regards

Mike Wilkinson

Amy Willis writes:

@Mike- Is this along the lines of what you're thinking?

Amy Willis writes:

Oops- no link.

http://www.econtalk.org/archives/2012/08/ober_on_the_anc.html

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