Human Hardware and Human Software

Us humans have hardware and we have software. Our hardware (biology) evolves–very slowly–across generations. Our software (culture) evolves–very quickly–within generations. The difference in speed means that many aspects of our minds and bodies are vestigial: they we optimized for a very different environment than the one in which we find ourselves today. This helps explain why we eat like crap and why we tend to make poor investing choices. Our biology is optimized to hoard calories, so we love sweets and fast food. It is optimized to avoid danger, so we sell after market crashes, when we should do the opposite.

This is a pretty common argument these days. I’ve made it a lot, and I’ve heard it a lot. Even though I’ve grown slightly bored of the topic, I loved the book Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind by Yuval Noah Harari. Here, the author explains the curious nature of our rapid ascent:

It was only 400,000 years ago that several species of man began to hunt large game on a regular basis, and only in the last 100,000 years – with the rise of Homo sapiens – that man jumped to the top of the food chain. That spectacular leap from the middle to the top had enormous consequences. Other animals at the top of the pyramid, such as lions and sharks, evolved into that position very gradually, over millions of years. This enabled the ecosystem to develop checks and balances that prevent lions and sharks from wreaking too much havoc. As lions became deadlier, so gazelles evolved to run faster, hyenas to cooperate better, and rhinoceroses to be more bad-tempered. In contrast, humankind ascended to the top so quickly that the ecosystem was not given time to adjust. Moreover, humans themselves failed to adjust. Most top predators of the planet are majestic creatures. Millions of years of dominion have filled them with self-confidence. Sapiens by contrast is more like a banana republic dictator. Having so recently been one of the underdogs of the savannah, we are full of fears and anxieties over our position, which makes us doubly cruel and dangerous. Many historical calamities, from deadly wars to ecological catastrophes, have resulted from this over-hasty jump.

If technology is doing more with less, cooking ranks right up there:

The advent of cooking enabled humans to eat more kinds of food, to devote less time to eating, and to make do with smaller teeth and shorter intestines. Some scholars believe there is a direct link between the advent of cooking, the shortening of the human intestinal track, and the growth of the human brain. Since long intestines and large brains are both massive energy consumers, it’s hard to have both. By shortening the intestines and decreasing their energy consumption, cooking inadvertently opened the way to the jumbo brains of Neanderthals and Sapiens. Fire also opened the first significant gulf between man and the other animals… When humans domesticated fire, they gained control of an obedient and potentially limitless force. Unlike eagles, humans could choose when and where to ignite a flame, and they were able to exploit fire for any number of tasks. Most importantly, the power of fire was not limited by the form, structure or strength of the human body. A single woman with a flint or fire stick could burn down an entire forest in a matter of hours. The domestication of fire was a sign of things to come.

Lawyers, politicians, and businesspeople are modern day sorcerers, having conjured up constructs which exist because we believe in them, trust in them, and agree that they do, in fact, exist.

People easily understand that ‘primitives’ cement their social order by believing in ghosts and spirits, and gathering each full moon to dance together around the campfire. What we fail to appreciate is that our modern institutions function on exactly the same basis. Take for example the world of business corporations. Modern business-people and lawyers are, in fact, powerful sorcerers. The principal difference between them and tribal shamans is that modern lawyers tell far stranger tales… The sculptor from the Stadel Cave may sincerely have believed in the existence of the lion-man guardian spirit. Some sorcerers are charlatans, but most sincerely believe in the existence of gods and demons. Most millionaires sincerely believe in the existence of money and limited liability companies. Most human-rights activists sincerely believe in the existence of human rights. No one was lying when, in 2011, the UN demanded that the Libyan government respect the human rights of its citizens, even though the UN, Libya and human rights are all figments of our fertile imaginations… Ever since the Cognitive Revolution, Sapiens have thus been living in a dual reality. On the one hand, the objective reality of rivers, trees and lions; and on the other hand, the imagined reality of gods, nations and corporations. As time went by, the imagined reality became ever more powerful, so that today the very survival of rivers, trees and lions depends on the grace of imagined entities such as the United States and Google.

This is a tiny taste of a great book. Read it and you’ll better understand what makes us human.

If you are a fan of books, check out my book club: I send 3-4 of the best books I’ve read to you in an email each month, culled from the best of the 100 or so I read per year (you’ll also get an investor curriculum right away filled with books, articles, videos, and papers). You can sign up here.