I finished two books at the beach yesterday, both on the the theme of human nature, and one was inspirational and disconcerting and the other satirical and reassuring;
1) the disconcerting and inspirational award goes to Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind by Yuval Noah Harari; this is a Guns, Germs, and Steel-style Big History book that cuts a broad swath while telling the story of "an animal of no significance" that emerges from several other hominid species to conquer the earth-- it's one revolution after the next: cognitive, agricultural, religious, scientific, industrial, economic, nuclear, philosophical, and digital-- and we become the most wild and unnatural of all the animals, at first hunting and gathering in small tight-knit groups, but with a desire to create art (the Lion Man is 32,000 years old) and a desire for conquest (we probably took out the Neanderthals and we certainly killed all the megafauna) and this led to something larger and larger, but in no way inevitable or "natural" . . . in fact, according to Harari, there was just as much lost as gained when we settled down and became farmers (peasants ate worse, toiled harder, died of starvation and disease more often, and the great inequalities of wealth and class began) but this paved the way for one revolution after another, eventually leading to out effete, technological capitalist miracle-- fueled by cheap credit and trust in the future-- but, of course, capitalism is efficient but not ethical, so capitalism produced institutions like slavery and led to a devastation of the "natural" world . . . there are 300 million tons of humanity on the planet, and 700 million tons of domesticated factory farmed animals to feed us, but the total tonnage of the surviving large wild animals-- "from porcupines and penguins to elephants and whales-- is less than 100 million tons" and so while Harari portrays humanity as progressive, intelligent, conquering beings, he also acknowledges what Whitesnake told us long ago, that we don't know where we're going (though we sure know where we've been) and we're walking, alone down a street of dreams, drifting this way and that, into unknown, unforetold territory, revolution after revolution, looking for answers, and here we go again . . . so get ready to hold on for the rest of your days . . .
2) the second book is a refreshing change from Yuval Harari's big thoughts and philosophical speculations, and it is free on the Kindle and I highly recommend it; Three Men in a Boat (To Say Nothing of the Dog) by Jerome K. Jerome is an account of a men's boating holiday down the Thames River, and it is semi-autobiographical, hysterically funny, and was published in 1889 . . . and I shit you not, if you read this book, you'll realize that if you took a time machine back to 1889, you would have no problem hanging out with these folks-- the tone and the jokes and the diction are perfectly modern, and Jerome K. Jerome's observations could have fallen from a Seinfeldian observational comic, here are a few examples:
a) the mildest tempered people, when on land, become violent and blood-thirsty when in a boat;
b) few things, I have noticed, come quite up to the pictures of this world;
c) little was in sight to remind us of the nineteenth century;
d) in a boat, I have always noticed that it is the fixed idea of each member of the crew that he is doing everything . . . Harris's notion was, that is was he alone who had been working;
e) each person has what he doesn't want, and other people have what he does want . . . married men have wives, and don't seem to want him; and young single fellows cry out that they can't get them.