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Sapiens and Naledi

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I finally read Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind by Yuval Noah Harari. It is a provocative book, one that challenges many of our long-held beliefs. Religion, for example, is one topic that will upset many – one of the ‘myths’ or ‘fictions’ humans have, says Harari, like money or empire. But it is the discussion of how we have domesticated plants and animals and its implications for today – ‘We did not domesticate food. It domesticated us.’ – that is revealing, if sometimes leaning towards the sensationalist – ‘modern industrial agriculture might well be the greatest crime in history’.

The book sets out to explain the three most important revolutions in human history, the Cognitive Revolution (around 70 000 BCE), the Neolithic Revolution (around 10 000 BCE) and the Scientific Revolution (around 1500 CE). It is much better at the first and second than at the third. In fact, as with one of my favourite books, Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs and Steel, Harari unsuccessfully attempts to make the post-1500 and particularly the post-1800 period fit into the simple framework of the two earlier epochs. (For example: he attributes the Industrial Revolution to only two things – imperialism and science. If this was true, then China should have had an Industrial Revolution in the 15th century, when they were the most advanced scientifically and were discovering the world with their giant fleets. But they didn’t.) Read the book for the first half, not for the last.

The topic of humans and their evolution is a fascinating, and also fast-changing one. The October 2015 edition of National Geographic tells the tale of Lee Berger’s discoveries of Homo Naledi in a cave near Johannesburg. Homo Naledi fits somewhere between the apelike australopithecines like Lucy, a skeleton discovered in Ehtiopia in 1974, and Homo Habilis, the ‘first’ known human ancestor of us, Homo Sapiens, which was classified in Kenya in the 1970s. This evolution occurred maybe two to three million years ago. Homo Habilis (or the myriad of other forms of proto-humans that existed but are still undiscovered) evolved into Homo Erectus, and then Homo Sapiens. These sapiens left Africa in two waves. Almost all human DNA derive from the second ‘Out-of-Africa migration’ around 75 000 BCE. (The Neanderthals derive from the first out-migration, and new evidence suggests may have left a tiny DNA footprint in some modern Europeans.) The Cognitive Revolution, when we begin to see evidence of art and burials and other cultural traits, begin around 70 000. Homo sapiens – modern humans in all respects similar to us today – reached South Asia around 50 000 years ago, Australia around 46 000 years ago, 43 000 years ago, North America around 15 000 years ago, the Pacific islands around 1300 BCE and New Zealand only around 1280, about the same time as University College in Oxford was founded.

The cave Berger and his large team of archaeologists uncovered was a remarkable find, a possible link between our apelike ancestors and modern humans. It has also shifted attention back to South Africa and our rich archaeological history. This is one area of science where we clearly have a comparative advantage, and more can be done to promote this field of research.

But why care about the evolution of humans, you may ask. In Sapiens we find the answer: according to Harari, we are about to be replaced by a superior human. After the Scientific Revolution came the Information Revolution of the twentieth century. And now we are at the cusp of the Biotechnological Revolution. Soon we will be able to engineer humans to become amortal (not immortal, because we would still be able to die in car crashes and terrorist attacks). And these humans might be smarter, quicker, better than us. And once artificial intelligence reaches the singularity, who knows what they will do to humans, to us.

I am less pessimistic that we will soon be replaced by Homo Mechanica. Biotechnology, instead of replicating human brains, might allow us to fully exploit our extraordinary creativity. Much like love, it might help us to become better versions of ourselves, a new and improved Homo Sapiens.


What do Pope Francis and Julius Malema have in common?

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Beautiful but poor: The Transkei is still largely untouched by capitalism Source:

Beautiful but poor: The Transkei is still largely untouched by capitalism. Source: Tyler Brown

Pope Francis and Julius Malema live worlds apart. But both have a deep dislike – one might even say hatred – of an economic system in which trade, industries, and the means of production are largely or entirely privately owned and operated for profit. This system is called Capitalism.

During a march in Limpopo yesterday, Malema again pronounced the EFFs anti-capitalist sentiments. An Economic Freedom Fighters retweet summarised it best: (The) EFF HAS DECLARED WAR ON #CAPITALISM; MALEMA: THIS IS A DECLARATION OF WAR AGAINST EUROPEAN CAPITALISM.

And a month earlier, Pope Francis made an arguably more eloquent (and damning) critique of capitalism:

Time, my brothers and sisters, seems to be running out; we are not yet tearing one another apart, but we are tearing apart our common home. Today, the scientific community realizes what the poor have long told us: harm, perhaps irreversible harm, is being done to the ecosystem. The earth, entire peoples and individual persons are being brutally punished. And behind all this pain, death and destruction there is the stench of what Basil of Caesarea – one of the first theologians of the Church – called “the dung of the devil”. An unfettered pursuit of money rules. This is the “dung of the devil”. The service of the common good is left behind. Once capital becomes an idol and guides people’s decisions, once greed for money presides over the entire socioeconomic system, it ruins society, it condemns and enslaves men and women, it destroys human fraternity, it sets people against one another and, as we clearly see, it even puts at risk our common home, sister and mother earth.

Ouch. If the Pope and Malema are against it, who on earth wants to be for it?

Well, actually, history is. #awkward

Let’s look at what’s happened to world poverty since 1936, when the Pope was born. Or since 1981, when Julius Malema was born. The remarkable thing is that in 1936, more than half of the world’s people were living in extreme poverty (56%). In 1981, the year that World Bank data starts, 43% of the world’s people were still living in poverty. In 2011, that figure had fallen to 14%. In short, global poverty has fallen enormously in the space of Pope Francis’s lifetime. And the reason? The ‘dung of the devil’: capitalism.

Here’s another statistic to baffle the mind: As The Economist reports, in the decade between 2003 and 2013 (which includes a global financial crisis), the income of the median-person in the world has doubled. Yes, doubled! Why? Because India and China have opened their economies, encouraged innovation, reduced state-involvement and allowed economic growth to improve the living standards of their people.

And all of this has happened despite immense global population growth; in 1936, there were roughly 2.7 billion people, and in 1981 there were 4.5 billion.

We are not only more affluent, but we also live longer. And healthier: we have eradicated illnesses, like smallpox, and we have access to modern medicine that can fight diseases from the common cold to tuberculosis that in the past would have likely killed us.

Blame capitalism for reducing poverty in China: The Shanghai skyline in three decades

Blame capitalism for reducing poverty in China: The Shanghai skyline in three decades

Even the poorest of the poor have access to services that the richest of the rich could never have imagined in 1936. With the press of one button, a cellphone now has access to the world’s information on Wikipedia. It is estimated that 90% of the world’s population has watched at least one episode of Idols, an unthinkable share only two decades ago. And most governments now provide free or affordable schooling and sometimes even university education – a luxury product in 1936 (just ask anyone older than 80).

Of course, capitalism is not perfect. The market cannot and does not solve everything; no economist in their right mind would claim this. Adam Smith, the father of economics, was clear about how the state should create the rules and institutions for the ‘invisible hand’ to do its thing. And those people that, for whatever reason, are excluded should be taken care of by state institutions like pension funds, disability insurance and free schooling.

We can also just ask the poor. If capitalism is so bad, why is it that poor people in non-capitalist countries want to migrate to capitalist countries? Why is it that poor, rural people in South Africa migrate to the cities (where ‘European capitalism’ arguably has a bigger footprint)? Is it because, and this might sound radical to some, they believe they can attain a better life for them and their children in these capitalist places? I think so.

I appreciate the leadership qualities of the Pope and Malema; they are charismatic and have large numbers of followers that look to them for guidance. That is even more reason they need to understand that people are not poor because of capitalism, they are poor because of not having enough capitalism. (Replace the word capitalism with innovation, as Deirdre McCloskey suggests, and suddenly the ideological blinkers fall off.) Here is Venezuelan economist Ricardo Hausmann:

In poverty-stricken Bolivia, Francis criticized “the mentality of profit at any price, with no concern for social exclusion or the destruction of nature,” along with “a crude and naive trust in the goodness of those wielding economic power and in the sacralized workings of the prevailing economic system.”

But this explanation of capitalism’s failure is wide of the mark. The world’s most profitable companies are not exploiting Bolivia. They are simply not there, because they find the place unprofitable. The developing world’s fundamental problem is that capitalism has not reorganized production and employment in the poorest countries and regions, leaving the bulk of the labor force outside its scope of operation.

As Rafael Di Tella and Robert MacCulloch have shown, the world’s poorest countries are not characterized by naive trust in capitalism, but by utter distrust, which leads to heavy government intervention and regulation of business. Under such conditions, capitalism does not thrive and economies remain poor.

The ANC, in a discussion document released last week, knows this. It says

capitalism remains the dominant socio-economic system on a global scale. In the era of globalisation, there has been much technological progress which has opened up vistas for human progress and created the basis for the alleviation of poverty on a grand scale.

Spot on. Excellent. But then:

However, the rampant unregulated practices of the past 30 years, including appropriation of most of national income by a few, have undermined its legitimacy.

That is incorrect. Poverty has fallen significantly in South Africa over the last 30 years (the ANC should know better, they ruled for 21 of those 30 years). What has undermined the legitimacy of the ruling government is its inability to get capitalism (or innovation) working in places like the former bantustans (see picture), where conditions are not much better than they were 30 years ago. Where capitalism has worked – in the main metros – it has created jobs and wealth and a better life for all (although for some more than for others). Where capitalism has not been allowed – where chiefs still prevent private ownership, for example – poverty has remained high and living standards low.

If the Economic Freedom Fighters and others continue their campaign in South Africa to discredit capitalism as the solution to poverty, we will never alleviate it, especially not in those regions where the problem is acute. If Pope Francis continues to discredit capitalism in his speeches to the poor and destitute of the world, they will continue to remain poor and destitute. (The conspiracy theorists would say that that is what the church wants. That would be silly, because the church benefits from a rich flock. Ask John Oliver.)

Let us learn from that one true source of wisdom: history. India and China have managed to reduce poverty dramatically by embracing capitalism, not rejecting it. South Korea have managed to reduce poverty dramatically by embracing capitalism, while North Korea, by rejecting capitalism, could not. Pope Francis and Julius Malema should embrace capitalism if they really cared about the plight of the poor.

Make trade, not war: A solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict

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KissAs a general rule, don’t build a wall. Walls leave scars, not only on the landscape but, more importantly, in the mind of those on both sides of it. They are seeds of exclusivity, of ignorance, of arrogance. They provoke anger, destroy trust, and impede any attempts at conciliation between disputing factions. Building walls is never a sustainable solution.

Nowhere is this more clear than in the current conflict between Israel and Palestine. A wall of separation – called the anti-terrorist barrier if you ask the Israelis and the anti-apartheid wall if you ask the Palestinians – has kept the two groups apart, and has prevented any possibility of peaceful co-existence. In fact, it has spawned greater antagonism on both sides: the current conflict has claimed the lives of countless people, mostly Palestinians, owing to the superior defensive and offensive capabilities of the Israelis. (For an excellent, quick and somewhat violent overview of the history of the region, watch this.) What is clear is that the wall has not solved anything. It was built with the purpose to lessen the ‘frictions between people’; in truth, it has only prolonged (and perhaps deepened) the conflict.

Surprisingly, South Africa never had an anti-apartheid wall of its own. While government policy dictated that certain areas were designated for certain race groups, permanent walls separating districts or cities were never constructed to keep people out, or in. I suspect an important reason for this was economic: white South Africans were too dependent on black South Africans to afford complete isolation. In fact, the realisation that both groups depended on another for a better life was one of the key reasons the apartheid policies eventually failed, and which made a peaceful transition possible. Had South Africa had walled-off regions of white and black exclusivity with little interaction between them, a full-scale civil war would have been far more likely.

Another example comes from twentieth-century Europe. After World War I, Western Europe failed to integrate economically. The heavy debt imposed on Germany devastated their economy, and the Great Depression of the 1930s increased trade barriers between countries, reducing cross-border European trade further, hurting the already struggling German economy and giving rise to the radical nationalism of Hitler. The only consequence was another war. After World War II and its incredible suffering which must have created an immense urge for retribution on both sides, European leaders acknowledged that further isolation will only sow the seeds of future unrest. Instead, the foundations of the European Union was formed, relaxing and later removing trade barriers between France and Germany, the two largest countries of Western Europe and on opposite sides of the war. Today, only 60 years later, because of the dense economic integration in Europe, the idea of war in Western Europe is utterly implausible.

Better leadership is often mentioned as the only way to solve the current Israeli-Palestinian conflict. And it is true that in the case of South Africa, Nelson Mandela and FW de Klerk played an immense role in ending the period of apartheid and creating the conditions for a smooth transition to democracy. But I doubt whether talks between Khaled Mashaal of Hamas and Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel would yield any positives without an understanding that the survival, and indeed the prosperity, of the other depends on their sustained cooperation and integration. The distrust, enmity and racism on both sides cannot be eradicated without their interaction, and there is no better way to halt interaction than by building a wall.

Axe has a new advert – #KissForPeace – which tells us, much like the hippies of the 1970s, to ‘make love, not war’. But love and peace won’t happen if there is no incentive for it. If South African (and twentieth-century European) history has taught us anything it is that centuries of racial prejudice (and the threat of conflict) can only be solved with deeper economic integration and repeated human interaction. Only once people realise how much they stand to lose if they hate, will they begin to accept peace. And once they realise that the ‘other’ is not all that different, in fact, that life is better with greater diversity, they may also begin to love.

The wall of separation between Israel and Palestine has only exacerbated the tension. As difficult as it may seem currently (and perhaps this conflict has moved the struggle beyond the point of no return?), tearing down the wall and allowing the movement of goods, services and people across the border is the only enduring solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Make love peace trade, not war.

The renaissance of African economic history

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The ancient texts housed in Timbuktu. Photo: Candace Feit

Much like the continent’s rapidly growing economies, the study of Africa’s economic past is gaining momentum. But this was not always the case. After much interest during the 1960s and 1970s, African economic history had largely disappeared from the scholarly radar by the 1980s, aside from a few monumental contributions by people like Tony Hopkins and Gareth Austin. This was not entirely coincidental: the fortunes of many African countries were wavering on the back of large debts and several supply-side shocks. Just like the Cold War and colonisation created political factions that resulted in devastating civil wars on the continent, an intellectual war between liberals and Marxists was brewing, suffocating the lasts gasps of a dying scholarly field. When The Economist labeled Africa ‘The Hopeless Continent’ in 2000, it wouldn’t have been unfair to ascribe a similar adjective to the study of African economic history.

Yet the high rates of economic growth achieved by many African countries in the 2000s have been mirrored by a revival in the quest to understand Africa’s economic past. Rekindled by a new enthusiasm for the long-term impact of historical events, leading scholars began to explore the root causes of Africa’s stagnation. These contributions, like Acemoglu, Johnson and Robinson’s The Colonial Origins of Comparative Development (the 38th most cited paper in Economics) and Nathan Nunn’s work on slavery, led a new generation of economic historians, using large datasets and the economist’s standard tool set, to explore colonial records and, increasingly, long-neglected African archives. Several economic historians are busy constructing new series from these records, including African population numbers, prices, real wages and GDP statistics.

Morten Jerven, for example, recently wrote ‘Poor Numbers: How We Are Misled by African Development Statistics and What to Do about It’. He shows how historical African statistics, because of incompetence, weak resources and political interference, rarely reflected reality, which have had serious implications for development policies. Ewout Frankema and Marlous van Waijenburg calculate real wages in nine British colonies to show that the populations of several African countries, notably in West Africa, attained real wages at the end of the nineteenth century higher than those of Asia. Ewout and Marlous’ efforts were recently rewarded with the prestigious Arthur H. Cole Prize for the best article in The Journal of Economic History (June 2012- June 2013).

As African countries continue to grow, the interest in its economic past will grow too. This is why the African Economic History Network (funded generously by Sweden’s Riksbank) has decided to put together a beginner’s textbook that will invite future generations of economists and historians into the field: the textbook – The History of African Development – is available for free on their website. The book provides a simple introduction to the economic changes that has happened in African history, with special chapters on the slave trade, the Scramble for Africa, and urbanisation, for example. It is currently being trialled at the Mountains of the Moon University in west Uganda.

I’ve written the chapter on the history of education in Africa. It begins with the very basics of economics: how education allows us to specialise. Instead of using thousands of workers to build the pyramids of Ancient Egypt, we can build similar structures with fewer but more skilled workers. Education makes each individual more productive. I then plot how formal education in Africa can be traced back to the influence of Islam and the later Christian missionaries. I also highlight how important education is for the future success of the continent. The chapter is available here.

It’s not inevitable that all African countries will continue to prosper. But as we unearth more of the continent’s rich economic histories, the belief that Africa is destined to be poor looks increasingly implausible. The more we look to the future, the more we will want to understand our past.


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December’s festive mood usually allows for some wider reading, and this year I was lucky: Unapologetic: Why, despite everything, Christianity can still make surprising emotional sense is without doubt my favourite book of the year. Written by Francis Spufford, a word guru who teaches writing in London, Unapologetic is many things: a crusade, a pilgrimage, a meditation, and its one of the best books on religion I’ve read.

Spufford makes the case for why he believes in a god, why that God is the Christian God and, to a lesser extent, why he is a member of a Protestant church. The book is not a scientific response to the popular work of Richard Dawkins and others that claim there is no God (“because how could anyone know that – or indeed its opposite”); it’s what Spufford calls an emotional one:

Starting to believe in God is a lot like falling in love, and there is certainly a biochemical basis for that. Cocktails of happy hormones make you gooey and trusting; floods of neurotransmitters make your thoughts skip elatedly along. Does this prove that the person you love is imaginary? It does not. The most the physical accounts demonstrate, where God is concerned, is that He isn’t necessary as an explanation. Which I feel does not really amount to news. I kind of knew that anyway, my philosophical starting-point for all this being that we don’t need God to explain any material aspect of the universe, including our mental states; while conversely, no material fact about the universe is ever going to decide for us whether He exists. God’s non-necessity in explanations is a given, for me. For me, it means that I’m only ever going to get to faith by some process quite separate from proof and disproof; that I’m only going to arrive at it because, in some way that it is not in the power of evidence to rebut, it feels right.

It is a very different argument to Dawkins and his disciples. It’s also, probably, not new (what ever is?), but what makes this book a treat is that it’s not written by the classic Christian crusader: a virtues priest, preacher, or philosopher. It’s written by someone with a self-declared “human propensity to fuck things up”. Actually, as Spufford notes, “human beings all exhibit different varieties of fuck-up”, which is at the core of his message that Christianity is for everyone: “Christianity isn’t supposed to be about gathering up the good people (shiny! happy! squeaky clean!) and excluding the bad people (frightening! alien! repulsive!) for the very simple reason that there aren’t any good people.” We are all losers, he says, but we “are engaged in the impossible experiment of trying to see each other the way God sees us”. Thus, Christians are realistic optimists (or “kind pessimists”), hopeful that things will go better, but with the knowledge, too, that we will – inevitably and repeatedly – fuck up and fail in our attempts for perfection. Which is very different from the superficial way the Christian life is often portrayed:

Take the famous slogan on the atheist bus in London. I know, I know, that’s an utterance by the hardcore hobbyists of unbelief, the people who care enough to be in a state of negative excitement about religion, but in this particular case they’re pretty much stating the ordinary wisdom of everyday belief. The atheist bus says, ‘There’s probably no God. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life.’ All right then: which word here is the questionable one, the aggressive one, the one that parts company with actual recognisable human experience so fast it does’t even have time to wave goodbye? It isn’t ‘probably’. New Atheists aren’t claiming anything outrageous when they say that there probably isn’t a God. In fact they aren’t claiming anything substantial at all, because really, how the fuck would they know? It’s as much of a guess for them as it is for me. No, the word that offends against realism here is ‘enjoy’. I’m sorry – enjoy your life? Enjoy your life? I’m not making some kind of neo-puritan objection to enjoyment. Enjoyment is lovely. Enjoyment is great. The more enjoyment the better. But enjoyment is one emotion. It makes no more sense to say that you should feel the single emotion of enjoyment about your life than to say that you should spend it entirely in a state of fear, or of hopping-from-foot-to-foot anticipation. Life just isn’t unanimous like that.


Human emotion is varied, and Spufford shows why Christianity’s appeal may by so strong: it nurtures our emotions rather than simply our thoughts. (In 2004, Alistair McGrath published The Twilight of Atheism, arguing that contrary to the popular opinion, Christianity is on the rise across the globe.) Even if you don’t take religion seriously, you’ll enjoy this book. (I wish I could just quote the first 10 or so pages, which is brilliant and entertaining.) The book is surprisingly funny (like laugh-out-loud funny), but there’s also irritation in his voice, as the frequent but accurate use of ‘fuck’ attests to. (By the way, it’s not often that you would find references to blow jobs and Viagra in a text on religion, or references to God as a sky pixie or the Spaghetti Monster). Unapologetic is light reading, but it is filled with deep insight and profound one-liners. Prediction: Spufford will soon replace Henry Nowen as the quintessential sermon quote – bar the one-liners with ‘fuck’, of course.

What Spufford does best is to show that Christianity is not, firstly, loony (the belief that “our fingers must be in our ears all the time – lalalala, I can’t hear you – just to keep out the plain sound of the real world”) and, secondly, embarrassing. Christianity is not awkward church society meetings or handing out pamphlets when everyone else is partying. It’s not talking in strange languages or singing centuries-old songs or drinking wine and eating bread or pouring water over one’s head. It’s not conservative right or liberal left. It’s not anti-evolution, anti-abortion or antipathy towards anyone. In fact:

…there may well not [be a God]. I don’t know whether there is. And neither do you, and neither does Richard bloody Dawkins, and neither does anyone. It not being, as mentioned before, a knowable item. What I do know is that, when I am lucky, when I have managed to pay attention, when for once I have hushed my noise for a little while, it can feel as if there is one. And so it makes emotional sense to proceed as if He’s there; to dare the conditional. And not timid death-fearing emotional sense, or cowering craven master-seeking sense, or censorious holier-than-thou sense, either. Hopeful sense. Realistic sense. Battered-about-but-still-trying sense. The sense recommended by our awkward sky fairy, who says: don’t be careful. Don’t be surprised by any human cruelty. But don’t be afraid. Far more can be mended than you know.


Written by Johan Fourie

December 31, 2012 at 14:36