Category: Society

The good and the bad…

“When I tried day after day to do good and to relieve the suffering of my patients, I was myself. And when I let myself go and plunged into shameful activities, I was also myself. My scientific studies forced me to the following truth–man is not truly one person, but actually two.” –Dr. Henry Jekyll, in “The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde,” by Robert Louis Stevenson (various publishers). Thinking about human cruelty these past few weeks, I found myself reading Stevenson’s classic allegory of good and evil, the tale of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Like many, I suspect, I knew something of the story but had never actually read it. Doing so after the last two posts was discomfiting. “Jekyll and Hyde” is an allusion to the very things we’ve been considering. In a sense it’s a parable, because of its implicit warning. Jekyll is a respected, upper class physician with a bent towards tinkering. He’d always lived within cultural norms. But, having long sensed his personal darkness, he wondered how it would feel to indulge it. So he developed a potion to allow himself to do that. The heart of the story is that his dark side proved stronger than his good. Eventually it began to take him over without the potion. The more it indulged itself, the greater became it’s greed and disregard...

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Review of “Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind,” by Yuval Noah Harari

“We have advanced from canoes to galleys to steam ships to space shuttles—but nobody knows where we’re going.” — Yuval Noah Harari (From Animals Into Gods: A Brief History of Humankind, draft edition 2012) —- Harari is Professor of History at the Hebrew University of Israel.  This review is of a prepublication draft of his book, titled “From Animals into Gods,” which I bought on Kindle at the time. He subsequently renamed it on publication in 2015.  A cursory examination suggests the two are functionally identical.  For simplicity, I present it as “Sapiens,” but I read the former.   —-  To begin, I wouldn’t say Sapiens is a profound book, but it is unquestionably useful and insightful, perhaps more so than any I have read. It reflects an ability on the part of Mr. Harari to think holistically and synthetically across many disciplines. In today’s stovepiped academia, this is a rare and commendable trait. Only someone with extraordinary intellectual perspective could have produced this work. It has its faults, enough that I almost put it down. But as I gradually saw disparate disciplines woven into a story, I became hooked. I’d consider Sapiens required reading for anyone wishing to offer meaningful comment on our modern world. The author might have subtitled his work, “A Unified Theory of Civilization.” He treats biology, cognition, culture, religion, history, economics, science, psychology and...

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Reflections on early civilizations and social stratification

I’ve spent six years now traveling throughout Western Europe, also reading histories of western civilization…from earliest prehistory to modernity.  I’ve but scratched the surface, I know…an adequate appreciation would require a lifetime.  But even with my limited exposure, there is one theme I see virtually taken for granted rather than deeply explored:  social stratification, class and the distribution of power and wealth.  The effects have been hugely studied: feudalism, the French Revolution, colonialism and imperialism, capitalism and Marxism and communism, slave revolts, American civil rights,  even in budding movements like Occupy Wall Street within the U.S. today.  And the recent election in the U.S. is no less a reflection of its continuing dominance.  But I want to know the when, the how and the why:  When, how and why did differentiation and stratification by income and social status begin?  What are its drivers?  Why has it been so ubiquitous throughout history, and why have the less empowered classes accepted it so readily?  And what’s more, why throughout history have those in power so insistently treated their “lessers” like dirt…and why do the underprivileged so readily put up with it? This seems indeed a ubiquitous theme throughout all recorded history, and not just in the West…Ancient Egypt, the Middle East, the Orient, India all did the same.  A cursory consideration would suggest it arose in the Neolithic with the onset...

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