Forget Political Commentators, Just read History

I ’ve just finished reading Sapiens by Yuval Harari, and I don’t think I’ll run out of inspiration stemming from the book any time soon. There are many great ideas, and like the books I read, I’ll probably continue referencing it for a while.

At least one thing prominent in my mind right now is that reading history (Sapiens is historical) is a great way to gain differing perspectives on an issue. In my philosophy classes, although there were many tough concepts, I found ideas to be easier to remember and analyze than those in some other classes. One reason is that I enjoy philosophical narratives more, and so can remember them better. Another is that philosophical questions, because professors tend to focus on only a few, are better vetted and more refined than ideas tend to be from other classes. But above all, concepts in philosophy were easy to understand because professors often tend to talk about ideas in terms of their historical developments.

For example, take an idea by the logical positivists, that a statement is meaningful if and only if it is empirically verifiable (scientifically testable) or tautological (necessarily true by logic). My professor taught this idea by explaining what the positivists wanted to use it as a tool against. Namely, they detested what they thought was pompous language in philosophy, like the quote, ‘the nothing nothings.’ A criterion like the one they made would allow them to call these pompous quotes meaningless, while giving respect to scientific claims like ‘Obama was a president.’ Thus I learned some of their inspirations, and my professor went on to talk about how the idea developed in the history of philosophy, and how it was ultimately surrendered.

This kind of history, in addition to its being a great way to teach, is a great way for us to be open-minded. Often, when we think of taking in different perspectives, we think of left- and right-wing commentators on CNN, or opinionated internet forums like a controversial Facebook timeline. In my view, while you can get a kind of diverse range of opinions this way, there is a necessary myopia in it all. Humans have short historical memories, mostly because we often don’t take the time to read at all, and so we often argue with very limited historical contexts. For example, gun advocates often talk about what the second amendment entails, but neglect to recall how its interpretation by the supreme court has changed over the years; did you know it was just 2008 that the supreme court interpreted it in its current state, to outlaw handgun bans? In addition, when we argue, we normally do so with political motives, running on emotion and dishonesty.

The solution, for someone who wants a diverse understanding of a topic and others’ opinions on it, is to read historical accounts. A good historian will hopefully be more honest, as her profession asks of her, and of course consider historical contexts.

In Sapiens, one great implementation of this was Harari’s discussion of gender norms. For example, some argue that men today naturally hold control of societies because of how humans evolved. According to this theory, since pregnancy lasts for months at a time, women are helpless during this time and need men to protect them and later help raise their children. Therefore, helpless women were forced to accept whatever conditions the necessary men set. Throughout evolution, more submissive women were favored, and more dominant men were favored. But Harari raises a point that should be laughably obvious: Why don’t women, rather than rely on men, just help other women raise their children? At least, I laughed when I read his point, because it made so much sense and I hadn’t considered it before. As he notes, there are other intelligent species like bonobos and elephants in which dependent females and competitive males led to matriarchal societies, where cooperative females are favored to rule the group. This kind of historical perspective invites an open mind, because it doesn’t just show how our lives could be different; it shows how they were different, or in this case, how other animals’ social structures are different.

And in general, a good historical perspective will reject a deterministic account—an account that says things in the world are such because they have to be, and that nothing else could have plausibly occurred. This kind of view would say it was necessary that Europe was first to colonize far-off continents, that capitalism should rule, and so on. On the contrary, an investigation like Harari’s gives the perspective that many things in our societies and global powers could have been different, and it is interesting to consider why they aren’t different. Perhaps that can give us some cues for the future.