Book review: Sapiens

I just finished listening to Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind by Yuvah Noah Harari. It an interesting look at the history of our species as viewed through the lens of thee revolutions: cognitive, agricultural, and scientific.

Harari takes a detached — and sometimes cynical — view of history. He does not place humanity at the center of the story. Instead, he talks about humans and human systems as part of a broader evolutionary process. For example, he says “we did not domesticate wheat; it domesticated us.”

There is no inevitability

It is a mistake, he argues, to ascribe intent to evolutionary processes. Humanity is not the end goal. It follows, then, that there is no underlying purpose of human life. We exist because we exist. Whatever meaning we give life is a shared myth, as is all of human culture. Our economic, political, religious, and all other systems exist and have power because we agree they exist and have power.

For me, some of the more interesting parts of the book were the descriptions of how various economic systems influenced — or even necessitated — historical outcomes. European colonization and empire from the 15th century to today is not because of any innate nature of Europeans. Environmental factors and accidents of invention gave Europe’s leaders the ability and motivation to conquer the globe. Were we able to replay history a hundred times, how many times would western Europe become the home of global empire rather than, say, the Middle East?

Are you better off than your ancestors?

I was also intrigued by early discussions of the relative quality of life and later discussions of human happiness. For all of the hardships we imagine our ancestors faced, Harari argues that our hunter-gatherer forebears may have had a greater overall standard of living than their post-agricultural-revolution descendants. Nevertheless, the agricultural revolution prompted changes in our societies that made going back all but impossible.

“Happiness” is a difficult concept to explain, let alone measure. Nonetheless, it seems plausible that we are no more happy than our grandparents’ generation, or their grandparents’ generation, or… If happiness has not increased, what was the point of the millennia of changes? Why do we try to increase our wealth, expand our understanding, and conquer disease? What, truly, is the point of anything?

The questions to ask

“What, truly, is the point of anything?” is a question to ask. But it’s a mistake to think any answer find is universal. What we consider as fundamental human rights are only fundamental because we think they are. Perhaps societies many thousand years ago that had little concept of individual well-being and instead focused on the well being of the collective were right? Ah, but what does it mean to even be right? Rightness depends on the cultural context, which in tend depends on the shared myths in that place and time.

Sapiens ends with a look at the future and how our technology puts us in a position to render ourselves obsolete. We are forced to confront the question of “what do we want?” for our future. But that’s not the most pressing question, Harari says. We should be asking ourselves “what do we want to want?”

Should you read this?

Although I found much of the latter part of the book less interesting, the book overall was well worth the time. It was thought-provoking in ways that I did not expect. I may end up re-reading it with the intent of putting it aside to explore the thoughts as they arise.

Sapiens was first published in English in 2015. Although that was less than a decade ago, some parts of it feel out of touch. Harari describes a move away from nationalism. While that may be true in the broader sense, the last few years have bucked that trend — in the US and elsewhere. Similarly, he says that no state can “declare and wage war as it pleases”, yet Russia has done just that. Although it faces international retribution, and indeed may prove to be worse off as a result, it nonetheless is very much waging a war against Ukraine.

It’s a mistake to assume that history is a smooth line. Only time will tell if recent events are the start of a long trend or a ripple in the trajectory of history of homo sapiens.

Other writing: November 2022

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Pragmatic Bookshelf

  • Designing Data Governance from the Ground Up — I was a tech reviewer for Lauren Maffeo’s book. Lauren provides an excellent framework for implementing data governance for leaders at any level of an organization. It gives real-world guidance that’s easy to understand and apply, whether you’re a data expert or not.

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Book review: Why Fish Don’t Exist

I found Why Fish Don’t Exist: A Story of Loss, Love, and the Hidden Order of Life by accident. Someone had shared a screen capture of a Tumblr post which talked about how trees aren’t a thing, taxonomically speaking. How weird. And then I saw that fish are also not a thing. Mindblowing. Somewhere in my searches to prove to my girlfriend that I was not making this up (although she can be forgiven, because that is very much the sort of thing I’d make up), I found Lulu Miller’s 2020 book.

I checked it out from the library as an audiobook so that Miranda and I could listen to it together. We were prepared to learn all about how fish are a lie. But we did not learn that.

Well, we learned it eventually. But only in the last chapter does Miller actually touch on the subject. The rest of the book is a mix of her life and the life of David Starr Jordan. Jordan was a famous researcher in his day, credited with discovering a fifth of the fish species we know today. He was president of Indiana University and later was the founding president of Stanford University. Oh yeah, he was also a eugenicist and may have been involved in murder.

Miller does an excellent job of tying the ups and downs in her life to Jordan’s. He serves as both inspiration and…whatever the opposite of inspiration is. The book is a fascinating and engaging tale. Had I not been waiting to learn about the fish, I would have loved it. Instead, I found it frustrating. I might read it again, knowing what to expect—and what not to expect.

Book Review: Pleading Out

I was only a few pages in when Pleading Out: How Plea Bargaining Creates a Permanent Criminal Class made me angry. It wasn’t because of how Dan Canon wrote. It was because of what he wrote. In Bordenkircher v. Hayes, the Supreme Court held that prosecutors could, in effect, punish a defendant for asserting their right to a trial. Potter Stewart wrote that this was part of “any legitimate system which tolerates and encourages the negotiation of pleas.”

While legal systems in the United States do tolerate and encourage plea deals, a reasonable person can question the legitimacy of the system. That Paul Hayes received a life sentence for forging a $88.30 check calls the legitimacy of the system into question.

Canon spends the rest of the book making the case that the plea bargain system as practiced in the United States is not legitimate. It does not serve the interests of justice, but of power. “The American legal system,” he writes, “was designed by people in power as a tool to keep them in power whatever the cost.”

American exceptionalism

Plea bargains are rare in other countries. In the United States, 97% of convictions come from guilty pleas. Most of those are bargained. Why is that? Prior to the 1830s, plea bargains were rare in America. Attitudes started shifting when labor solidarity developed in the early industrial factories. Plea bargaining hid prosecution from the public eye, preventing scrutiny and revolt.

The expansion of federal crimes after Prohibition led to a need to process cases more efficiently. “What we have inherited is an amoral system of criminal proceedings; it cannot be called criminal justice. Expediency, not fairness, is the principal concern.”

It’s no coincidence that the United States has the highest incarceration rate and also the highest plea bargain rate. As Michelle Alexander explores in greater depth in The New Jim Crow, the legal system creates a permanent criminal underclass that has long-lasting effects.

Liberty and justice for some

The high volume of cases means that lawyers can’t keep up. Prosecutors can’t screen cases to drop the obviously bad ones. Worse, defense attorneys can’t mount vigorous defenses. Canon notes that in 15% of exonerations, the defendant gave a false confession. Thousands of innocent people are sitting in jail today because the police or prosecutors railroaded them into confessing to a crime they didn’t commit.

Because plea bargains are secretive, there’s no accountability. Wealthy defendants can work themselves into a sweet deal. Poor and middle-class defendants have to take what the prosecution offers. If they dare insist on a trial, they face persecution, not prosecution. Ask Paul Hayes. This does not benefit society.

So what do we do?

It doesn’t have to be this way. Canon writes about the decade when Alaska eliminated plea bargaining. The system adjusted. Prosecutors dropped cases they couldn’t—or shouldn’t—prove. Police got more careful with their investigations, knowing they’d actually be accountable. It wasn’t perfect, but it was an improvement.

Our current system doesn’t have to be our system forever. But it won’t change on it’s own. The first step is an informed populace. That’s why I’d recommend Pleading Out to anyone who cares about justice.

Other writing: January 2022

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Book review: The Address Book

How did your street get its name? When did we start numbering buildings? What does it mean to have an address—or to not have one? If any of these questions are interesting to you, you’ll appreciate The Address Book: What Street Addresses Reveal About Identity, Race, Wealth, and Power by Deirdre Mask.

I first heard about this book on the podcast “Every Little Thing“. Mask was a guest on a recent episode and shared the story of a project to name roads in rural West Virginia. This story was relevant to a memory I had long forgotten. Although I grew up on a named road, we didn’t have a numbered address until 911 service came to the area when I was in early elementary school. Prior to that, addresses were just box numbers on rural routes.

But newly-named and newly-numbered roads are not unique to the US. Mask explores how roads were named and renamed in different places over the centuries. Naming, of course, is an expression of power so names and numbers reflect the power at the time. Even today, there are millions of people who don’t have addresses, which increasingly cuts them off from what we understand as modern society.

I’d love a book of trivia about road names. The Address Book is not that. But it’s a fascinating look at the deeper meaning behind the act of naming.

Other writing: October 2021

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