On Tara Westover’s “Educated.”

On Tara Westover’s “Educated.”

A man in my poetry class recently told me, “Ugh, cocaine is awful.  You use some, you’ll want some more, but I hate it.  It makes me such a jerk.  I mean, I’m not like this, I’m never like this, but if I’m on coke, I’m like, bitch, you best make yourself useful around here.”

Cocaine has a reputation as a fun party drug, but nobody in jail has anything nice to say about it.  And it’s not that they’re down on drugs in general – that same man told me:

“Meth?  Meth is great – you should never try it.”

And then he explained the social niceties of trying to shoot up in the home of a friend who was recently diagnosed with HIV.  This friend was apparently cavalierly sloppy with needles:

“Like, blood was spurting, and I was scooting back thinking, like, god, I wish I was anywhere but here … “


Glasseelskils_0European eels are endangered.  They swim huge distances to complete their life cycles – hatching at sea, undertaking a voracious (oft cannibalistic) quest up rivers, then returning to their birthplaces to spawn – and have been thwarted by hydroelectric dams blocking their migration, and the tendency of an insatiable terrestrial ape to catch and consume huge numbers of their kind.

Now these eels face another obstacle: they must complete their voyages while blitzed on cocaine.  European governments dump drugs into the sea to “destroy” them, but that’s not how water works.  The drugs are still there.  The eels get high.


576px-Robert_Louis_Stevenson_by_Henry_Walter_Barnett_bwAccording to popular legend, Robert Louis Stevenson was very sick before he wrote his Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.

Stevenson had tried many cures; all had failed.  Then his spouse bought cocaine.  This worked.  Suddenly Stevenson could write again.  In three days, he composed his novel.

When he read the first draft to his spouse, she said it didn’t seem sufficiently allegorical.  So Stevenson flung the pages into the fire and began again.  In three more days, he’d composed the version of the story that we know today.


Dr. Jekyll was a fine man.  On drugs, he became a monster.


IMG_5233When our first child was just shy of two years old, she liked to wear a green long-sleeve with a picture of The Incredible Hulk rampaging.  She’d pull it from her drawer; I’d say, “Oh, you want to wear your Hulk Smash shirt today?”

One day, I asked her, “N., why does Hulk want to smash?”

She looked down at the picture, then back up to me.  First she signed the word hungry.

“Oh, Hulk wants something to eat?”

She shook her head.  No, that didn’t sound quite right.  She looked down again, then made another sign, banging her hands together for the word shoes.

“Hulk is upset because he has no shoes?”

She bobbed her head yes.  No shoes.  That would make her rage, too.


Once, some runners on the local high school cross country team asked me who would win in a fight, Superman or the Hulk.  They’d reached a detente after one claimed that the Hulk was unstoppable when enraged (“… and nothing calms him down except his girlfriend.”), and the other argued that Superman could turn back time until the moment before Hulk had gotten angry, then smash him.

Superman vs. Hulk by JD Hancock on Flickr.

I demurred.  I don’t think Superman is a very interesting hero, and the Hulk is interesting only in campaigns, not battles.  I like the idea of a hero who might go berserk and accidentally thwart his own plans, but a single bout of wrestling isn’t like that.  I think it’s more compelling to consider his constant risk of hurting the people that he loves.


fullsizeoutput_12In Educated, Tara Westover writes beautifully about the horrors of living with the Hulk.  Her early years were controlled by a father in the throes of extreme paranoia and delusions of grandeur:

Fourteen years after the incident with the Weavers, I would sit in a university classroom and listen to a professor of psychology describe something called bipolar disorder.  Until that moment I had never heard of mental illness.  I knew people could go crazy – they’d wear dead cats on their heads or fall in love with a turnip – but the notion that a person could be functional, lucid, persuasive, and something could still be wrong, had never occurred to me.

The professor recited facts in a dull, earthy voice: the average age of onset is twenty-five; there may be no symptoms before then. 

The irony was that if Dad was bipolar – or had any of a dozen disorders that might explain his behavior – the same paranoia that was a symptom of the illness would prevent its ever being diagnosed and treated.  No one would ever know. 

Because her father was at war with the federal government, Westover never went to school.  Her birth went undocumented – she didn’t have a certificate that would’ve allowed her to enroll until years later, and even then wound up with a hodgepodge of documents that listed slightly differing names and birthdates. 

And her father needed money, because he was frantically stockpiling food and ammunition.  He needed solar panels (back when they were much more expensive than today) because the power grid was going to cut out after Y2K.

As one of God’s soldiers, he needed to build an ark.  Or tank.  Arsenal.  Whatever.

This constant hustle for money led Westover’s father to subject his children to incredible dangers.  There might be a safe way to do a job, but if the risky way could save two minutes, the man put his kids’ lives on the line.  Westover was forced to ride up to a trailer inside a bin filled with two thousand pounds of scrap iron.  When her leg got caught and she couldn’t jump out, her father still dumped the bucket.  Westover tumbled nearly twenty feet to the ground.  And this was lucky.  If she’d fallen a few inches to the other side, she would’ve been crushed by all that iron. 

Her brothers were injured even more grievously at her father’s hands.

For instance, a brother’s clothes caught fire while he was working with his father.  In Westover’s recollection, the father then lifted his burnt son into the cab of a truck and made him drive home alone.  Only the ten-year-old Westover was there to help him, so she put her brother’s burnt leg inside a garbage can full of ice water.

She thought:

If Dad had been with Luke on the mountain, he would have brought him to the house, would have treated the burn.  Dad was away on a job somewhere, that’s why Luke had had to get himself down the mountain.  Why his leg had been treated by a ten-year-old.  Why it had ended up in a garbage can.

Except that she then realizes that her father must have been with her brother.  He must have been there in order to put out the fire; otherwise the whole mountainside would’ve burned. 

In a footnote, Westover adds: 

Since the writing of this story, I have spoken to Luke about the incident.  His account differs from both mine and Richard’s.  In Luke’s memory, Dad took Luke to the house, administered a homeopathic for shock, then put him in a tub of cold water, where he left him to go fight the fire.  This goes against my memory, and against Richard’s.  Still, perhaps our memories are in error.  Perhaps I found Luke in a tub, alone, rather than on the grass.  What everyone agrees upon, strangely, is that somehow Luke ended up on the front lawn, his leg in a garbage can.

Westover’s father was abusive, and he routinely convinced his children that their memories were in error, instead substituting his own (oft-illogical) versions of events, but he isn’t the Hulk in this story.  Yup, things get worse.  One of Westover’s brothers might suddenly snap and become Hyde.

Westover loved her older brother Shawn, but during an over-hasty job with their father, Shawn fell twelve feet, striking a concrete wall headfirst, and sustained a severe brain injury.  Instead of taking the kid to the hospital, their father propped him against a pickup truck and left him to sit in the hot sun.

His pupils were unevenly dilated.  His brain was bleeding.

Fifteen minutes later, Shawn wandered back to the worksite and started acting wild.  He screamed, flung his father, ran around leaping and howling.  The others tackled him – at which point his head again struck the concrete, hard – and called 911 for a helicopter to airlift him to the hospital.

It took some time for me to realize that although Shawn looked the same, he wasn’t.  He seemed lucid, but if you listened carefully his stories didn’t make sense.  They weren’t really stories at all, just one tangent after another. 

Worse, he was violent.  But unpredictably so.  At one moment, he and Westover might be laughing together.  At another moment, he’d twist her arm behind her back so brutally that she worried her wrist would break, call her a slut, and cram her face into a toilet bowl.  He hacked at the throat of his son’s pet dog with a five-inch knife blade while the animal howled, dying.  He called his sister and placidly explained his plans to visit her university and murder her.

In a lucid moment, he helped Westover install a massive deadbolt in her bedroom door, despite knowing that he was the only person she needed protection from.


Tara_Westover_1+2-smallerAnd yet, Westover escaped.  Although she’d never set foot inside a classroom, she was accepted to Brigham Young University, where the consensus view of reality was much closer to her own.

Of course, she made a few stumbles.  Because she didn’t understand what course numbers signified, she enrolled as a freshman in an upper-level art history class.  Worse, she raised her hand to ask after the meaning of a word she didn’t recognize: Holocaust.

During one of my own classes, we were discussing poems from Charles Reznikoff’s Testimony when I mentioned that Reznikoff had also written about the Holocaust.

“Holocaust, what’s that?” a man asked. 

Unlike Westover, this man had grown up in an urban area.  But he’d stopped attending school when he was pretty young, and there’s a lot of cultural knowledge that we tend to take for granted.

I’d like to think that I handled the situation better than Westover’s professor.  Westover was shamed.  In our poetry class, we instead talked about how the word “holocaust” could be seen as offensive when used to describe the years during which members of the Nazi party murdered at least 6 million people, typically because their victims believed in Judaism.  The word “holocaust” originally meant a burnt offering for God, so Jewish leaders instead referred to this period of history with the Hebrew word for “catastrophe.”  Although even that phrasing seems off, because “catastrophe” generally evokes natural disaster, whereas the Holocaust was mass murder and torture on a scale comparable only to American slavery.  A purely human evil.


Westover became a historian.  After experiencing firsthand the nightmare of having her own account of reality constantly replaced by someone else’s version, she understood how powerful storytelling can be.  Educated is a beautiful book.  And, to my mind, a much more sensible depiction of unequal opportunity in the United States than J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy.

Westover recognizes how lucky she was to escape, and how narrowly she avoided the fate of her sister-in-law.  And Westover gives a powerful endorsement of government aid:

I began to experience the most powerful advantage of money: the ability to think of things besides money.  My professors came into focus, suddenly and sharply; it was as if before the grant I’d been looking at them through a blurred lens.  My textbooks began to make sense, and I found myself doing more than the required reading.

On gene duplication and oppression, a reprise.

On gene duplication and oppression, a reprise.

Evolution depends upon the unnecessary.

Evolution is a process in which those organisms best suited to their environments – either because they persist longer than others or produce more progeny – become more abundant.  For a lineage to become better suited to an environment over time, the organisms have to change in a heritable way.

DNA polymerases aren’t perfect.  Whenever enzymes copy our genetic material, they make mistakes.  To be honest, these mistakes are rarely beneficial.  Sometimes they cause other enzymes to stop working.  Sometimes they turn a cell into cancer.  But that same imperfection – which changes genetic information from one generation to the next – gives rise to evolution.

The evolution of a particular species of bacteria has been carefully documented in biologist Richard Lenski’s laboratory.  These were allowed to compete inside a precisely-controlled environment over hundreds of thousands of generations, and some of the bacteria were frozen after every few hundred generations to keep track of all the genetic changes.

Zachary Blount and Richard Lenski horsing around with some of the Petri dishes from Blount’s work on the evolution of citrate utilization in one . Image from Wikimedia.

In this experiment, a single subpopulation gained the ability to metabolize a new nutrient, which gave it a huge competitive advantage and allowed it to conquer its tiny world.  But how?  After all, most of a bacteria’s genes are already important for something, and, when mutations occur, the most common outcome is for functions to be lost.  If you give a radio and a screwdriver to a toddler, you probably shouldn’t expect crisper reception come evening.  Chances are that your radio won’t work at all.

Gene duplication, as depicted by the National Human Genome Research Institute on Wikimedia Commons.

As it happens, a very rare event happened before this bacterial subpopulation “learned” to use the new energy source.  When the experiment was re-started with various frozen samples, most lineages never acquired this ability.  But in one set, there had been a “gene duplication event.”  During cell division, the enzyme that copies DNA had stuttered and accidentally included two copies of a gene that bacteria only need one copy of.  And these bacteria, recipients of that unnecessary second copy, would almost always gain the new metabolic function and swamp out the others.

Once there were two copies of the gene, the second copy was free to change.  A mutation in that copy wouldn’t cause the bacteria to grow weak or die, because they still had a fully-functional copy of the enzyme.  And eventually, through the rare happenstance of random error, bacteria would accumulate enough mutations in that second copy that it gained a new function.

In the beginning, this new function was pretty weak.  But once there was a faint glimmer, natural selection could refine it.  Without an unnecessary second copy of that gene, though, the bacteria never would’ve gained the new metabolic pathway.

You can look at human culture in a similar way.  Which isn’t to say that one culture is intrinsically better than another, and certainly doesn’t imply that we’re progressing toward some teleological goal.  Evolution is just a matter of statistics, after all.  The things that are, now, were probably descended from things that were good at being and producing.

An image from a 1902 engineering textbook from Wikimedia Commons.

For instance, cars make human life easier.  And so the traits that allow a culture to have cars, like a basic understanding of mathematics and a willingness to follow rules on roadways, seem to spread pretty easily.  Car cultures have swamped out non-car cultures all over the planet.  Walking is pretty great, and so are bikes, but any culture that has access to mechanical engineering textbooks seems to have a pretty huge advantage over those that don’t.

But if you’d dropped a mechanical engineering textbook into the lap of a Paleolithic hunter-gatherer, it’d seem pretty useless.

It took a lot of waste to reach a state when the textbook could matter.  Over many generations, there was excess and dead weight.  Many centuries of an oppressor class stealing from the mouths of the poor, really.

Somebody who is struggling every day to procure food doesn’t have the luxury to fiddle with mathematics.  That’s why so many of the early European scientists were members of the aristocracy.  They didn’t need to work to eat because they had serfs to steal food from, levying taxes for the use of land that was “theirs” because their ancestors had done a bang-up job of murdering other people’s ancestors.

In the generations after humans developed agriculture, the average quality of life plummeted.  If you were told to pick any year and your soul would be suddenly re-incarnated (pre-incarnated?) into a randomly-chosen Homo sapiens alive at that time, you’d probably be happier 20,000 years ago than at most times during the last few millennia.  20,000 years ago, nobody lived terribly well – there was scant medicine and a constant risk of famine – but the suffering and servitude experienced by the majority of humans later on was worse.

After farming, people worked harder, for more hours a day, to produce a less varied, less healthful diet than the hunter-gatherers had eaten.  They had even less access to medicine, and still endured the constant risk of famine.  Oh, and envy.  Because farmers, who had to live in place, could be conquered.

640px-Maler_der_Grabkammer_des_Sennudem_001Those conquered farmers could be taxed, charged rent, etc., with the proceeds used to feed an idle class.  Most of the idlers produced nothing of value.  They ate others’ food and lived in un-earned luxury (although their “luxury” would seem pretty shabby to us).  But a few of them – a very few – produced the cultural innovations (like mathematics, medicine, poetry, astronomy) that gave us the modern world.

It feels more than a little disconcerting that a gruesome history of violence and oppression allows me to type this essay on a laptop computer.

In the past, though, oppression was the only way for our world to have “excess” people, those who could be free to devote their time and energy toward changing things.  Now, however, food production (and many other things) has been heavily automated.  We could have a much larger excess population, which could increase the rate of cultural evolution.  A luxurious lifestyle could be had by all using the essential (food- and shelter-producing) efforts of a smaller number of people than ever before.

With a guaranteed basic income – which could be funded by taxing wealth at a very low rate, maybe a percent or two – nearly all people could effectively become aristocracy.  People could follow their passions and curiosities.  Most, as ever, wouldn’t change the world. That’s how evolution works.  Chaotic tinkering with things that are pretty good rarely improves things.  But with billions of tinkerers, the odds that something works out are better.

It’s easily within reach.  Instead we’ve stuck with the same system of celebrating historical violence that was used to oppress people before.  Maybe it was necessary, all that cruelty, to get from our past to here.  But it certainly isn’t needed now.

Featured image: DNA duplication diagram by Madeline Price Ball on Wikipedia.

On apocalypse-preppers, technology, and oppression.

On apocalypse-preppers, technology, and oppression.

33572350._UY700_SS700_In Gabriel Tallent’s My Absolute Darling, the protagonist is preparing for apocalypse.  At a parent-teacher conference, her dad rants that our world is falling apart – we’re polluting the oceans, growing monocultures of a select few (vulnerable) food crops across all arable land, disrupting the climate, overpopulating the planet – and that it’s ridiculous for his daughter to take spelling quizzes in the face of such calamity.  At home, he has her cleaning guns instead of studying for school.

It’s an iconic image – the grizzled, isolate, male prepper.

On dating sites specifically catering to preppers and survivalists, men far outnumber women.  On the banner image for the C.U.M.A. Survival School (which teaches combat techniques, animal trapping, how to build fires, and the like), there are three women out of seventeen visible people.

survival school.JPG

Journalist Nicky Woolf interviewed attendees at a 2015 Preppers and Survivalists Expo in Florida.  One of the men Woolf spoke with was sitting beside a handwritten recruitment sign, looking for someone with medical training to join his team.  Woolf asks the man whether his wife came to the Expo.

He suddenly looks tired.  “No.”  I ask if this is a point of contention between the two of them.  “I bought equipment for my son,” he says.  “I bought three of everything, one for me, one for my wife, one for my son.  My son is too possessed, and my wife is totally mind-controlled by the programs on the TV, the fluoride she’s drinking – because fluoride…”  Bingo!  He begins another rant.

I interrupt him to get more details about his wife.  “She won’t look at anything,” he says sadly.  “She won’t look at any of the literature, she won’t look at any of the DVDs.”

For some reason, I find this unbearably sad.

“How does that make you feel?” I ask.

“What can I do about it?” he says.  “I love her.  Been with her 27 years.  But when the shit hits the fan, I’m going.”


While I was researching a story about a hands-on retreat teaching the history of technology – under the auspices of recreating our world after a disaster – I realized there was a strong feminist argument for preserving this knowledge.

710v76v5doLLewis Dartnell distills some of this information in The Knowledge: How to Rebuild Our World from Scratch.  Dartnell focuses on contemporary technologies, especially methods to jump-start food production and long-distance communication from the detritus of our current civilization.  The book is focused on the future – Dartnell convincingly argues that technological development after our civilization’s collapse would progress very differently than it did in the past, both because contemporary artifacts would remain to be learned from … and because we’ve already depleted the easily-accessible fuel sources that powered our own industrial revolution.

If we were starting again, we would have to make green technologies.

The history of technology still matters, though.  Contemporary gender inequality sprung from that history.

763220016_3ed7cdeb06_bAmong most primate species, gender inequality is correlated with sexual dimorphism – when males are a lot bigger, they behave badly.  In bonobos and chimpanzees, males and females are relatively close in size … and they have relatively equal status.  In gorillas or orangutans, males are much larger than females … and females can have pretty rotten lives.

And humans?  We actually have pretty low sexual dimorphism.  The average male is bigger than the average female, but only by about 15%.  Based on the behaviors of other primates, we ought to be fairly egalitarian.  Through most of our evolutionary history, we probably were … as were many of the hunter-gatherer societies that persisted until recent eras.

But you wouldn’t know it by looking at contemporary U.S. news.  And we’re doing better now than we have been for the past several centuries.

What went wrong?

PSM_V18_D469_Wheeled_plough_from_the_roman_empireIn our current world, being 15% bigger provides very little benefit.  Gasoline-powered machines do our heavy lifting.  But the importance of human sexual dimorphism was accentuated by early technologies. Our size differences mattered more once we developed agriculture … and seemed crucial after the invention of the plow.

Being 15% bigger does matter if you’re plowing a field.  Suddenly, men were more important for food production than women.  The status of women in these cultures plummeted.  And – lucky us – our culture derived from theirs.

sapiens book.jpgIn Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, vegan historian Yuval Noah Harari depicts the development of agriculture as a kind of “original sin.”  After agriculture, the average person experienced a much lower quality of life.  Agriculture made progress possible, but only because it made oppression possible.  Serfs could be taxed to feed the idle rich.  After agriculture, most people worked harder and ate worse.  Inequality soared.

Certain patches of land were better than others before agriculture.  Even among hunter-gatherers, there are skirmishes.  Tribes fight; people die.  But agriculture made war worthwhile.

And agrarians thought it reasonable to spin myths about the weakness of women.  15% more body mass meant the world to them … and we still celebrate their stories.

Let’s hope we never go through that again.

On the historical interpretations deathmatch: Sid Meier’s ‘Civilization 2’ versus Yuval Noah Harari’s ‘Sapiens.’

On the historical interpretations deathmatch: Sid Meier’s ‘Civilization 2’ versus Yuval Noah Harari’s ‘Sapiens.’

CaptureAfter dinner recently, one of K’s former students asked me for my list of the all-time best video games.  I blathered out an answer.  I think I listed Braid, and Cave Story, and Myth 2, and the NYC GTA , and the game Limbo could’ve been.

A reasonable list.  But by evening, after our guests had left and I was in the kitchen stirring wet flour for our next day’s bread, I had a better answer.

There are at least two ways to answer, I feel.  One: which games deliver the most pleasure while you’re playing?  After all, games are designed to be funMyth 2 and GTA from my initial list fall into that category, along with League of Legends, Golden Eye, Smash Brothers, Diablo 2, Hearthstone.  Those games can eat away entire weekends while keeping you continuously entertained.  They’re designed to trigger steady bursts of dopamine release.  And while they aren’t meaningless —Myth 2 and GTA 4 both unspool interesting stories — that’s the sort of game you’d list if you think the purpose of a video game is to reduce human beings to pleasure-wracked zombies.

The other criterion you might keep in mind while ranking video games: which games best use the unique features of their medium to convey an idea?

Under this criterion, games start racking up points if, yes, they are pleasurable (a game is more likely to convey meaning if people want to play it.  No matter how beautiful the message tucked away in the final levels of Super Meat Boy might be, if it’s too frustrating for most people to reach those levels, the message will go unheard), but also if their very game-ness is needed to express an idea.  As in, was the game’s message something that would’ve been difficult to express in a painting, or a piece of music, or literature, or film?

It’s under that latter criterion that the game Limbo could’ve been excels.  The player’s illusion of control (you are free to do whatever you want, but only a small subset of actions allow you to progress through the game) makes the game’s message about moral complicity and the origin of evil much more powerful than it would be in a novel.

Braid, also, conveys an interesting message about mistakes and forgiveness that couldn’t have anywhere near the same impact without it being a game.  This is an idea that anybody whose game-playing peaked in the decade from about 1995 to 2005 has probably thought a lot about.  In early video games, you couldn’t save your progress.  Your game of Asteroid would last only as long as you were willing to camp in front of the machine.  Same with Mario, or Double Dragon.  And in contemporary games the system often saves your progress automatically, and your “saved game” will restart at a pre-designated state.  Like having a bookmark that squirms away if you try to put it midway through a chapter.  If you stop at any moment before you reach chapter seven, you’ll have to restart at the beginning of chapter six.

CaptureBetween ’95 and ’05, though, many games were designed with the capacity for a small number of self-overwriting save files.

That design had serious psychological ramifications.  If you were about to undertake a difficult task inside a game, you could save your progress and then play as riskily as you wanted.  If the first few moments of an encounter went well, you could save your progress midway through a battle.  And then, if you later made a mistake, you’d simply reload your previous file and try again, over and over until everything went perfectly.

I imagine there were lots of awkward gamer types out there who felt frustrated that real life didn’t offer the same opportunity for trial and error.  That you couldn’t save your progress through high school before boldly marching to the popular kid table and asking one of them to prom.  If you heard “Sure,” then good for you!  If you became a laughingstock, you’d just reload your save file and try something else — maybe a more subtle note slipped through the grating of a locker, maybe asking somebody else entirely.

Games without save files — Rogue-likes, for instance, or real life, or even those final GTA 4 missions that’d force you to play for an hour or more without encountering a save point — can easily make someone risk averse.  But that can be it’s own sort of failure.  Better broken arms, or broken hearts, than a paucity of dreams.  The Yes song was wrong.

All of which is conveyed beautifully by Braid.  The game is like Super Mario, but you can’t die.  You can’t fail.  Not permanently.  The world is dangerous, inside the game, but you’re given the ability to travel backward through time.  All your mistakes will be forgiven.

Until the end.  But I don’t want to wreck the story.

Anyway, while I was stirring the thick muck that would become bread, I realized I’d left out some of the best games according to the second criterion: Was a game better at conveying this idea than any other medium could’ve been?  A killer example that I missed is Sid Meier’s Civilization 2.

600full-sid-meier's-civilization-ii-coverIn Civilization, giving the player control over history is an essential part of the message.  I don’t even agree with the central message conveyed by the game — roughly, that history has a purpose, that civilization is steadily getting better as it makes progress toward that goal — but I appreciate how well it’s conveyed.  Very subtly, too.  I played a lot of Civilization when I was growing up without ever thinking that it was ideologically driven.

In part, that’s because children’s history classes in the U.S. convey the same message.  It’s much harder to notice a strange bias if it’s everywhere.  At the same time, the game aspect of Civilization makes a teleologic interpretation seem so natural.  The concept of victory points, with multiple avenues toward success, is a common feature of war games (in Civilization 2, you could win murderously, by subjugating all the earth under your nation’s rule, or technologically, by building a space ship and leaving the world behind, or through something akin to diplomacy — after a while the game gives you a score based on how cultured your civilization seems to be and how long you were at peace).

And the concept of goals, that there is something discreet you’re trying to achieved, is common to almost all games (people love Minecraft because it’s one of the rare exceptions).

The teleologic view of history that Civilization conveys seems so natural for a game, and that same bias is reinforced in almost all high school history classes, but the idea is certainly contestable.  Consider the interpretation of agriculture between Civilization and Yuval Noah Harari’s Sapiens.

In Cvilization, your society must learn agriculture in order to advance.  In my beloved Civilization 2, one of the earliest research advancements you can make allows you to build granaries.  Which makes sense, given the progression of our own real-world history.  I wrote more about this in my essay about the parallel between gene duplication and oppression, but a quick summary is that some citizens must produce more food than their own families need for a society to “advance.”  That allows an elite class to syphon off the surplus and devote their time to pottery or literature or engineering or whatnot and not worry about survival.

a7857d64e581b1c2b9d0202ab8ee586eHarari’s contention in Sapiens?  He thinks that, for the actual people living in a society, it makes little difference whether a certain production scheme will allow new technologies to be developed someday.  Far more important is whether the citizens are able to lead fulfilling lives.  Did agriculture help with this?  In Harari’s words,

Scholars once proclaimed that the agricultural revolution was a great leap forward for humanity.  They told a tale of progress fuelled by human brain power.  Evolution gradually produced ever more intelligent people.  Eventually, people were so smart that they were able to decipher nature’s secrets, enabling them to tame sheep and cultivate wheat.  As soon as this happened, they cheerfully abandoned the gruelling, dangerous, and often spartan life of hunter-gatherers, settling down to enjoy the pleasant, satiated life of farmers.

That tale is a fantasy.  There is no evidence that people became more intelligent with time.  Foragers knew the secrets of nature long before the Agricultural Revolution, since their survival depended on an intimate knowledge of the animals they hunted and the plants they gathered.  Rather than heralding a new era of easy living, the Agricultural Revolution left farmers with lives generally more difficult and less satisfying than those of foragers.  Hunter-gatherers spent their time in more stimulating and varied ways, and were less in danger of starvation and disease.  The Agricultural Revolution certainly enlarged the sum total of food at the disposal of humankind, but the extra food did not translate into a better diet or more leisure.  Rather, it translated into population explosions and pampered elites.  The average farmer worked harder than the average forager, and got a worse diet in return.  The Agricultural Revolution was history’s biggest fraud.

Similarly, the Civilization games require players to research cooperative strategies like mysticism and monarchy in order to progress.  (This isn’t entirely true.  Theoretically, you could decide not to develop these strategies and attempt to use the military units available to a “primitive” culture to conquer the world.  The games include some number of randomly-appearing barbarians who may be attempting to do just that.  But in practice, with most possible worlds you could inhabit in the game, this plan will fail miserably.  The barbarians rarely win.)

Yuval Harari - 'Sapiens - A Brief History of Humankind'
Yuval Harari – ‘Sapiens – A Brief History of Humankind’

I thought Harari did an impressive job translating concepts like “cooperation” for a non-academic audience.  This is one of the major virtues of his book.  He presents a huge amount of information culled from history, anthropology, biology, economics, philosophy… but does so in language that wouldn’t seem out of place in most magazines.  Anyone could (and should!) read his book.  I’d feel comfortable recommending Sapiens to any enterprising high school student.

Without further ado, here’s Harari’s explanation for what pedantic academic types (hey!  That’s me!) actually mean when they talk about “cooperation”:

Impressive, no doubt, but we mustn’t harbour rosy illusions about ‘mass cooperation networks’ operating in pharaonic Egypt or the Roman Empire.  ‘Cooperation’ sounds very altruistic, but is not always voluntary and seldom egalitarian.  Most human cooperation networks have been geared toward oppression and exploitation.  The peasants paid for the burgeoning cooperation networks with their precious food surpluses, despairing when the tax collector wiped out an entire year of hard labour with a single stroke of his imperial pen.  The famed Roman amphitheatres were often built by slaves so that wealthy and idle Romans could watch other slaves engage in vicious gladiatorial combat.  Even prisons and concentration camps are cooperation networks, and can function only because thousands of strangers somehow manage to coordinate their actions.

Altogether, Harari’s Sapiens is an impressive work.  I’m thrilled that he makes such a persistent effort to shift our focus away from the “big picture” of history as a record of cultural and technological developments, and instead think about what people’s lives may have been like at any point, and how the changing world affected the quality of life available to its inhabitants.  Which can seem more grim.  If you think that humanity’s “purpose” is to break free of Earth and populate the galaxy, or to develop artificial intelligence sufficiently advanced that it becomes its own life form and continues evolving without us, then we’ve been doing the right thing.  Agriculture and organized religion and prisons really were necessary developments.

But if you deny the teleologic view of history?  If you think there is no overarching purpose that individual humans should care about more than happiness and fulfillment during their own brief lives?  Well, then you could argue that small bands of hunter gatherers led better lives than the vast hordes of modern-day underemployed ill-fed densely crowded urban humans.

And that’s a message you probably couldn’t take away from Civilization 2.  Even if you keep playing so long that your world becomes a sparsely-populated totalitarian nightmare.  The game still doesn’t invite the player to reflect on the idea, “Maybe my people should’ve stopped.”  Especially because, if you do try to create a pacifist wonderland of loosely-connected small settlements, the AI will create a rapacious Western-style empire and exterminate your people.  Just like we did in real life.