Posts Tagged ‘history’

Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind

Sunday, June 2nd, 2019 | Books

Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind is a non-fiction book by Yuval Noah Harari.

It is the most interesting book I have read in a long time. I was ignorant of a lot of early human history. For example, I thought that homo erectus was an earlier stage of human evolution, rather than a different species of humans that sapiens killed off (or possibly interbred with).

Much of it I kind of had an idea about but it was fascinating to see it all laid out. Humans used to be in the middle of the food chain. But, 100,00 years ago, we began to hunt large game. Around 30,000-70,000 is what Harari calls the cognitive revolution. Language developed in humans alone, despite other species (parrots, whales, elephants) being able to make a large variety of sounds, too.

15,000 years ago we domesticated dogs, which is the only real evidence you need in the dogs vs cats debate. Dogs are our friends.

Whether sapiens went, we caused destruction. Australia and North America had a large variety of large mammals, for example. We killed and ate them all. This wasn’t modern man: this was the first peoples of these continents. In comparison, horses, which are often seen as an integral part of Native American life, were only introduced to America by European settlers.

The next milestone was the agricultural revolution. This wasn’t the first time we saw permanent settlements: fishing villages existed before this. But the change to agriculture meant an end of the hunter-gatherer way of life. It wasn’t a happy one: gathering is easy and produces a rich diet. Agriculture produces a poor monotonous diet and increases our workload from 30 hours per week to 40+. But it also supports more people and so the trap quickly closed shut.

Harari argues that much of culture is arbitrary: why did one religion win out, or one group of people come to dominate another? Luck, mostly. The only thing that seems to recur independently is patriarchy. We don’t know why this, but many of the reasons you may think of are deconstructed and thrown out in the book.

The author also argues that almost everything is a religion. Religions, of course, but also Humanism, and Communism, and Capitalism.

The third milestone was the scientific revolution. Although technology occasionally improved in the ancient and classical worlds, it was mostly by luck. The Romans did not have amazing technology: they were just better organised. It was only in the 16th century that the idea of experimentation and improving things just to see what was possible sprung up in Western Europe. For the first time, we started drawing maps with blank spaces in. Until then, it was assumed we already knew everything.

Until this point, Western Europe was entirely unimportant. The Middle East had been the centre of civilization for thousands of years and the economic powerhouses of the world were China and India. But embracing science and technology gave the West a huge leg up. In just a few hundred years, Western Europe came to dominate the world, and to become much richer than Asia.

Harari then turns his attention to capitalism, describing the way that states and markets have replaced families and communities. Arguably, capitalism has caused more depths than any other ideology: National Socialism and Communism killed people on purpose. But capitalism, with the slave trade, Bengal famine, etc, has killed far, far more people due to cold indifference.

All in all, this is a fascinating read. Drop what you are doing and go read it now.

The City Talking: Tech in Leeds

Saturday, August 6th, 2016 | Tech, Video

Interesting documentary about technology in Leeds. I was already familiar with the history of our tech scene, but it is always nice for a refresher. Many people may be surprised with just how involved we were with the early internet.

The Man Who Won The War

Sunday, December 27th, 2015 | Public Speaking

This is my Toastmasters speech for Project #5 of the Storytellig manual ‘Bringing History To Life’. I told the story of Alan Turing.

All the Countries We’ve Ever Invaded: And the Few We Never Got Round To

Tuesday, July 15th, 2014 | Books

“Out of 193 countries that are currently UN member states, we’ve invaded or fought conflicts in the territory of 171.” Or so the book’s description reads.

The author, Stuart Laycock, begins by talking about how he was trying to list all of the countries that Britain had invaded. The more he thought about it, the longer his list got, and the longer his list got, the more it would seem to make an interesting topic for a book.

It did. He goes through each country in alphabetical order discussing Britain’s involvement in it. Some of which is extensive, others were just fought a battle there. Importantly, he spends more time talking about these lesser known incidents than he does discussing the history that most of us already know about (World Wars for example).

It is written in a very informal style. This keeps the mood light and prevents it from becoming a monotonous list of events. It perhaps could have done with some editing though. The phrase “you might think we’ve never invaded X country, but you would be wrong” or some variant of that expression seems to appear on every other page. To be honest, given I am reading a book about how we have invaded almost every country, I wasn’t thinking that.

There is some history that I had no idea about, and much that I did kind of know about but had never really heard about in detail, and this filled in a lot of knowledge.

All the countries we've ever invalided

39 photos from when we were younger

Sunday, May 11th, 2014 | Friends, Photos

No, this is not a BuzzFeed article. I had to go through a lot of my photos recently while updating my website and I thought it might be nice to post some of the old ones.

The whole thing might take a while to load. It is broken down into ten separate images, but is still five megabytes in size. In fact, if you are reading this on the homepage you will need to click the “read more” link below to see the full thing.

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Temple Works

Tuesday, December 10th, 2013 | Life

When we were looking for venues for the Sunday Assembly I visited Temple Works. It is located just down at the bottom of town and was once the biggest room in the world. It really is massive. When I was shown it it was like a moment out of Star Trek when you see a huge space station for the first time – it just went on and on! A mega-cool venue that I hope we can work with some day.

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For more details, see their website.

Confessions of a Tarot Reader

Monday, June 10th, 2013 | Foundation

Last month, Dr Joely Black presented a history of tarot. Joely was an animated and interesting speaker who is well worth going to see. If you missed it, you can watch it online via Worfolk Lectures.

We also tried out the new Leeds Skeptics t-shirts, as James models in the photos.

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Origins of Islam

Thursday, May 16th, 2013 | Humanism

At the April meeting of the Humanist Society of West Yorkshire, Guy Otten presented a talk on the origins of Islam. The thesis of the talk was that the origins were mythological, and were created in a similar way to the Christian religion, being affected by politics and evolving over time.

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Myth of Islam

Saturday, March 30th, 2013 | Religion & Politics

One of my friends recently started a new blog on the origins of Islam. It challenges the claim that is sometimes made by Islam itself that its origins are factual – as the blog goes on to explain, this simply isn’t the case. Read all about it.

Surfin’ Bird

Saturday, March 9th, 2013 | Thoughts

hawaii

Often, our society fails to give scientists the credit they deserve.

Take homo erectus for example. A lot of scientists have had a lot of laughs out of the fact that they managed to convince the world that homo erectus was the name of an evolutionary step (which it is of course) and not just a really silly name they thought they would try their luck with.

But nowhere is it more clear than the people who study using the many telescopes located in Hawaii.

At some point in human history, a scientist when to a grant panel, and the grant panel asked them where the best place to put a telescope would be. Said scientist must have then looked at them slowly and sensing they trusted their judgement, decided to try their luck once again.

“Hawaii!” the scientist would have said, trying to sound more confident than they really were.

“Hawaii?” the chair of the grant panel would have enquired. “Why would Hawaii be the best place to put a telescope?”

“Well…” replies the scientist, trying to think on their feet as fast as they possibly could. “It’s the altitude you see!” “The altitude? Hawaii is an island, surely it is at sea level?” “Yes… but those mountains are very tall! Very tall indeed!”

“Seems like there would be a lot of places at high altitude. Are you sure you’re not just making this up so you can go live on a tropical island and go surfing every day?” “No, no” replies the scientist, “Hawaii has the tallest mountains and the clearest skies – it has to be Hawaii.”

“Well then”, says the grant panel chair, slamming down his approved stamp, “I guess that is that.” Thus began a golden age for science…