Friday, March 10, 2017

Book Review: Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, by Dr. Yuval Noah Harari

Dr. Harari is an Israeli historian and tenured professor at the Department of History of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. He is best known for his international bestseller Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind. It has been translated into more than 30 languages, the book won the National Library of China's Wenjin Book Award for 2015.

For me, this book was like a followup or Volume 2 of Jared Diamond's Guns, Germs and Steel. Interestingly enough Harari even claims that Diamond's book was an inspiration for his book.

I felt like Diamond's book answered a lot of the big questions of the human story. However, his final explanation about why Europe instead of China seemed somewhat lacking to me. The East-West axis of Eurasia included the Middle East, North Africa and India as well as Europe and China. Diamond does attempt to answer this also based on geography, but his explanation doesn't quite satisfy me. Did not China have as many resources in their geographical location as Europe did? So if it boils down to pure geography and available resources then why Europe and not China? Perhaps Mesopotamia's climate had changed, become drier and no longer had the resources it had in earlier times. But weren't there as many resources in India and China as there was in Europe? My gut feeling was that Diamond's advantageous geography was only the first part of the answer. There then had to be something about the culture that gave Europeans the advantage over other areas with similar resources. And I think that Harari has the answer. It was the culture of Europe that boosted it over not just China, but India and Southwest Asia, although he really doesn't call it culture. But for me, Sapiens now seems to complete the full story that began with Diamond's book.

This book, spanning a larger time frame than Diamond's, covers all the way from archaic human species up to the twenty-first century. One of Harari's main points is that humans are the only species capable of cooperating in large numbers. This is primarily due to our ability to  believe in things that exist purely in our own imagination, such as gods, nations, money and human rights. You might think that something like nations or money are real but you need to read his arguments to understand how they really are not. They are basically human created ideas that we all trust and believe in which creates the ability to consider them the same as if they are real.

I like the way he divides human history into four major time periods:
  1. The Cognitive Revolution began when homo sapiens began new ways of thinking and communicating, between 70-30 thousand years ago. This is when they left Africa and began to spread around the world.
  2. The Agricultural Revolution began 10-12 thousand years ago when homo sapiens first learned to cultivate wild grains and domesticate animals.
  3. The Unification of Humanity began long before the discovery of America by Columbus as there was extended trade among the nations of the Old World for hundreds of years. But since about 1500 Globalization began in earnest. Today we often think of Globalization as rather new. But it is a long term trend measured in hundreds or even thousands of years.
  4. The Scientific Revolution is more recent - perhaps only a few hundred years. Once mankind stopped believing that they knew every thing and discovered ignorance as Harari says, they looked for answers and were curious about what was over the horizon or just why things were the way they were. Although some inventions originated in China or Arabia, it was the Europeans who took it even further. Almost all the recent profound scientific inventions came from the West.
When the other large centers of civilization such as the Ottomans or Chinese were uninterested in expanding, nations of Europe had a mindset (which I call a culture) that drove them to explore and conquer. Harari explains how it was in Europe that people were interested in exploration, conquering, colonization, invention, scientific learning and capitalism that brought them to global dominance. After reading the details, I simplify this in my mind to a single word: culture. The culture of the Ottomans and Chinese did not encourage exploration, colonization, invention, etc. You need to read the book to get a clearer understanding of how this all happened.
Sapiens focuses on key processes that shaped humankind and the world around it, such as the advent of agriculture, the creation of money, the spread of religion and the rise of the nation state. Unlike other books of its kind, Sapiens takes a multi-disciplinary approach that bridges the gaps between history, biology, philosophy and economics in a way never done before. Furthermore, taking both the macro and the micro view, Sapiens conveys not only what happened and why, but also how it felt for individuals. [Yuval Harari's personal website:]

Here are some links to help you learn more:

TED Talks by Dr. Yuval Harari:

Cumberland Family Software:

Thursday, March 9, 2017

Book Review: Guns, Germs, and Steel, by Jared Diamond

This book and the next book by Dr. Harari which I will shortly follow up with in the next blog may not really seem related to genealogy. However, they are related to history and I have a deep interest in understanding not just my own personal ancestry but the larger ancestry of humankind that these two books address. Perhaps this blog and the next can be considered an extension of my earliest blog posts concerning DNA ancestry - which also fit into our larger long-term ancestry.

Jared Diamond, an American scientist and author, is best known for his 1997 book Guns, Germs and Steel which won the Pulitzer Prize for general nonfiction and the Aventis Prize for Best Science Book. This book is now 20 years old and perhaps many already are familiar with it, but I wanted to write about it because of how much I love the book!

This book is a short history of the last 13,000 years of human history and attempts to answer the question why Europe became the dominant power of the last few hundred years, rather than some other power elsewhere in the world. The title of the book sums it up - it was more advanced technology with guns and steel, with the support of diseases that others were not immune to.

Diamond contends that there are no inherent genetic differences between Europeans and say New Guineans or any other race that would make Europeans more intelligent. Instead he theorizes that civilization developed from a chain of developments over thousands of years, beginning with something as simple as geography and available resources. As humans moved from nomadic hunter-gatherers to farming, this occurred only in areas where conditions would allow for this to occur. Both crops, such as wheat and rice, and large domesticated animals such as sheep, goats, pigs, cattle and horses were the beginnings of agriculture - and developed only in geographical locations where these resources were available, Only in such locations was it possible for larger societies to begin to develop.

The ability to control crops and animals led to food surpluses which then led to specialized work and larger societies. These larger groups then led to rulers and bureaucracies which led to nation states and eventually empires. These larger civilizations and empires grew in geographical locations that were favored by the right types of crops and domesticated animals. 

As civilizations grew and spread, animals and crops would also spread but only at the same latitude with the right climatic and geographical conditions. So the first civilizations of Mesopotamia and Egypt had crops and animals that could still handle conditions along an east-west axis - eastwards to India and China, and west into Europe, but were not suitable for moving too far south into Africa. The Americas had the disadvantage of sitting along a north-south axis, rather than a east-west axis like Eurasia and thus the spread of crops and domesticated animals was less likely due to greater climatic variation.

Since Eurasians lived close to farm animals with diseases, over time they became immune via natural selection such as the Black Death and other epidemics. The stark example of 95% of native Americans being wiped out by the colonizing Europeans, was primarily due to the diseases they brought with them which the natives had no resistance to.

So societies that started as agrarian and developed into larger empires with specialized skills allowed for artisans and technological advancements that lesser developed societies did not have - steel being foremost. So with more advanced technology and cunning, a few hundred Spanish conquistadors can conquer millions of natives in Mexico, and Pizarro with less than 200 men could conquer the Inca Empire of millions in South America. Then over the past few hundred years European nations also set up colonies in Africa, Asia, Australia and the islands of the Pacific.

It is easy to see how Europeans had more resources than sub-Saharan Africans or Australians or New Guineans and thus were able to create large states.  But why did the Europeans come to dominate the world? Why not the Chinese? China had a large civilization along the same latitude as Europe with many resources also. What about the Ottoman Empire in the Near East? Why didn't they do it? What about the large subcontinent of India? All of these areas lie along the favorable east-west climate axis. Diamond tries to answer this question based on geography and provides some really provoking thoughts, although I felt like the last argument about Europe vs China was a bit weak. Dr. Harari in his recent book Sapiens I think has the answer, which I will review in my next blog.

In 2005 National Geographic created a 3 episode documentary based on the book, with the same title Guns, Germs and Steel, which at one time I watched on Netflix but I believe is no longer available there. At least for now it looks to be available on Youtube (links below). Highly recommended to see. But read the book also.

Here are some links to help you learn more:

Cumberland Family Software:

Tuesday, March 7, 2017

The Boleyn and Shelton Families

I had briefly mentioned the Boleyn and Shelton families in an earlier blog post (English Nobility - Part 4). But having recently watched the The Tudors, a historical fiction TV series, it got me interested in reading and discussing more details about these two families. Of course, with almost all historical fiction there is a mixture of facts and fiction, so not everything can be relied on as truthful in the show. But I found the series fun to watch, nevertheless. Much of it seems to accurately follow actual history, of course with embellishments.

The marriage of Anne Boleyn to King Henry VIII was pivotal in the political and religious upheaval resulting in the English Reformation, which had repercussions beyond England. I found the last episode of Season 2 which depicted the beheading of Anne quite moving. Anne's aunt, Anne Boleyn Shelton (my direct ancestor) was one of those sent to serve Queen Anne while she was imprisoned in the Tower of London. As I watched that final scene in Season 2, I couldn't but help notice one of the older courtiers standing on the gallows as Anne was beheaded, thinking that she must be my great ancestor, Anne Boleyn Shelton.

Earlier, my ancestor, Anne Shelton, along with her sister, Lady Alice Clere, had been put in charge of King Henry and Catherine of Aragon's daughter, Mary, who later became Queen of England and is often called Bloody Mary due to the large number of Protestants she had executed. On one hand, Catherine and Mary were staunch Catholics, while the Boleyn family was Protestant, creating a rift between the two factions of King Henry's own family. This is clearly displayed in the TV series. It seems that Anne Shelton may have been quite harsh to her charge, Princess Mary. Perhaps it was due to religious differences, but also the fact that Queen Catherine and her daughter Mary, would not agree to the annulment that Henry was seeking from the Pope so that he could marry Anne.

There are a couple of other connections between King Henry and the Boleyn and Shelton families, also briefly mentioned in the TV series. Anne's older sister, Mary had been a long time mistress of King Henry. Henry also had a brief fling with one of John and Anne Shelton's daughters, Margaret (or Mary) - typically called Madge. As suggested in the show it may have been correct that Queen Anne herself may have instigated this fling with her cousin Madge.

Another intriguing connection is that John and Anne Shelton's son, John was married to Margaret Parker (both also my direct ancestors), whose sister, Jane was married to George Boleyn, 2nd Viscount Rochford, a brother to Queen Anne. Jane had complained that Queen Anne and her husband, George, had incestuous relations. This was one of the accusations that caused Anne to be put in the tower and subsequently executed, although historians are not convinced of the truth of any of the charges against her. Thus we see the intricate family relations between the Boleyns, Sheltons and even the Parker families, all holding important noble titles and playing a part in this pivotal moment of history.
After the coronation of her daughter, Elizabeth, as queen, Anne was venerated as a martyr and heroine of the English Reformation, particularly through the works of John Foxe. Over the centuries, she has inspired, or been mentioned, in many artistic and cultural works and thereby retained her hold on the popular imagination. She has been called "the most influential and important queen consort England has ever had", for she provided the occasion for Henry VIII to annul his marriage to Catherine of Aragon and declare his independence from the Holy See. [wikipedia: Anne Boleyn]
My descent from the Boleyn and Shelton families is shown in Chart #51, which is somewhat of an overlap with the earlier Chart #45.

Here are links to some of the key people in my online genealogy database:

Here are some links to help you learn more:

Cumberland Family Software: