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Books

The Cognitive Revolution

In Sapiens A Brief History of Humankind, Yuval Noah Harari explores the development of humankind.

Harari starts by outlining that humans first evolved in Africa about 2.5 million years ago and we were completely unremarkable until around 70,000 years ago, when human culture began to form.

Most people are aware than Neanderthals co-existed with Homo Sapiens (meaning “wise man”) for a time, but Homo Sapiens and Homo Neadnerthalensis were just two of multiple “human” species that roamed the earth at the same time. The book explores two opposing theories; Interbreeding and Replacement (ethnic cleansing) which outline how homo sapiens evolved and the other human species died out. Replacement dictates that over time we out-competed our human cousins for food and regularly killed off many members of these species.

The Interbreeding theory suggests that we interbred with the other human species until only modern homo sapiens were left. It’s important to note that the average European shares 1-4% of their DNA with Neanderthals, adding further evidence to the theory of interbreeding.

Harari goes on to say that the reality is likely to have come about from a combination of replacement and interbreeding.

So why did Homo Sapiens survive and prosper, while the other human species died out?

Harari explains that human history has gone through 3 large revolutions that other species didn’t:

  • The Cognitive Revolution
  • The Agricultural Revolution
  • The Scientific Revolution

The Cognitive Revolution occurred 70,000 – 30,000 years ago and was prompted by the discovery of fire.

Fire enabled us to cook food, which reduced the amount of energy our bodies need to digest it. This paved the way for a smaller intestinal tract and also meant we had more energy to spare, leading the development of a larger brain, which used 25% of the body’s energy.

Larger brains led to increased intelligence, which resulted in improved, more complex communication, allowing us to organise, collaborate and form relationships that other human species at the time couldn’t match. We were able to hunt more effectively, quickly (in evolutionary terms) taking us from the middle of the food chain (400,00 years ago) right to the top.

Humans began telling stories and share ideas and myths. As far as we understand, we are the only species that can comprehend ideas and events that we’ve never personally experienced. These stories and myths (religions, ideologies) facilitated cooperation and led to the creation of ideas such as fairness and justice, which were essential for cooperation between larger groups.

Unlike other animals, we didn’t have to didn’t have to wait for another few million years of evolution to take place for our behaviour to change. The way we behaved and cooperated could be changed by adapting the stories and ideas that we shared. Our brains and bodies have remained relatively unchanged since we passed through the cognitive revolution.

So, while we like to think that we are smarter now, than our ancestors, there is no evidence that we’re more intelligent than humans 30,000 years ago. As a collective, we possess more knowledge and understanding of the world, but at the individual level, ancient hunters and foragers were for more skillful and varied in their knowledge of the world than modern humans. As society has developed, we’ve relied less on survival skills and more on economical skills. Due to this, we are actually more likely to pass on undesirable or unremarkable genes nowadays. Undesirable traits have a negative impact on a person’s ability to survive. 30,000 years ago, people possessing these disadvantageous traits often wouldn’t survive long enough to pass them on. Nowadays however, finding food is as easy as walking into a supermarket and modern cities put a huge buffer between us and wild animals; most people never come face to face with an apex predator outside of a zoo.

Once we passed the cognitive revolution, homo sapiens quickly spread throughout the world, travelling across the sea to Australia. 16,000 years ago, humans first made their way across the Siberian peninsular to America and right down to the South America – to our knowledge, the quickest expansion of a species to ever occur.

Even given these remarkable achievements, physically and mentally, we are essentially the same animals that we were 30,0000 years ago. This lack of biological change is partially to blame for many of the stresses we feel in our modern lives. Many of our daily habits and experiences are unnatural to us:

  • Gorging on high calorie foods makes sense in the wild, but not when there is an abundance of food.
  • Humans naturally fall into a bi-phasic sleep cycle where our sleep is broken into 3 parts (2 cycles at night and 1 in the afternoon) not a single 7-8 hour block.
  • A single city contains more people than the average human might meet in 100 lifetimes.
  • The concept of privacy is very new, but so is loneliness; we were always surrounded by a group of trusted friends and family.

The cognitive revolution ended around 10,000 years ago as humans began to built permanent settlements and so began the agricultural revolution. Impressively, this revolution happened independently in many areas of the world. The Agricultural Revolution is responsible for the huge growth of the human population and the creation of towns and cities. I’ll explore the Agricultural Revolution in another post.

If you’re interested in learning more, I’d implore you to pick up Harari’s book Sapiens A Brief History of Humankind – it’s a great read and incredibly informative.

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Books Other

The Checklist Manifesto: Summary

Regardless of the intelligence, skill of experience of the person in question, we inevitable make mistakes . No matter how much we might believe that we’ll remember something and regardless of how many times we’ve completed the task at hand we are still prone to forgetfulness and to human error.

In his book, The Checklist Manifesto, Atul Gawande explains that the use of checklists in our professional lives can greatly reduce mistakes made by human error.

Checklists force us to go through step-by-step and not only prevent us from forgetting tasks, but can prompt other ideas and steps. It’s important to note the a checklist isn’t just a list of tasks, it’s a process and eventually develops into company culture or “that’s just how we do things here.” A well designed checklist can elevate the performance of entire teams and spread across many departments.

It’s important to note however, that to be effective, they must meet a few criteria. They must be concise, clear and collaborative.

  • Concise – A long checklist with no more than 9 pointed per section will eventually be discarded and steps skipped.
  • Clear – Only the important points need to be included, you don’t need to outline every step in the process.
  • Collaborative – At any point, anyone in the team has the authority to halt a project or process if the checklist hasn’t been adhered to properly.

They have been used by airline maintenance crews, pilots and surgeons to great success. Checklists can provide a safety net for our inherent cognitive biases and mental flaws (memory, attention, thoroughness).

The premise of the book is simple enough and the many examples Gawande shares help to really drive home the benefits and effects of using checklist. The Checklist Manifesto is a great read and filled with actionable information – a rare find.

 

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Critical Thinking Logic & Reasoning Smart Thinking

Logical Fallacies: Faulty Deduction

The the last in this series of logical fallacies focuses on the mistakes we all make when making decisions and weighing information.

Anecdotes

Ignoring evidenced gained by a scientific approach in favour of firsthand stories or anecdotes.

Example: “My grandfather smoked 40 cigarettes per day, and he lived until he was 100, so why should I stop smoking?”

Composition

Assuming that the beliefs or characteristics of an individual apply to the entire group

Example: “The recent terrorist attacks were carried out by Islamic groups. Therefore all Muslims must be terrorists.”

Division

Conversely, assuming that the beliefs of a group apply to an individual member

Example: “Many Conservatives don’t believe in evolution, he’s a conservative, so he must also be a creationist.”

Design Fallacy

Assuming that because something is explained or visualised in a positive way, it must be truer.

Example: “Heaven.”

Gambler’s Fallacy

The assumption that the history of outcomes will affect future outcomes.

Example: “The roulette wheel has landed on Black 5 times in a row, I’m going to bet on Red because it’s bound to be read now.”

Hasty Generalisation

Drawing a conclusion from a narrow sample group.

Example: “I was almost hit today by two middle-aged women, women are terrible drivers.”

Jumping to Conclusions

Coming to a conclusion without considering all the evidence and possibilities.

Example: “He said he was working late, but I know he wasn’t in the office. He must be cheating on me”

Middle Ground

Assuming that because two opposing arguments are valid, that the truth will be found in some middle ground.

Example: “I think the car is worth £1,000, but you think it’s worth £5,000, so let’s meet in the middle at £3,000.”

Perfectionist Fallacy

Only valuing perfection and rejecting any solution which is less than perfect.

Example: “What’s the point in introducing stricter gun control, criminals will still be able to get hold of guns anyway?”

Relativist Fallacy

Rejecting a claim or idea because of a belief that the truth is relative.

Example: “That might be true for you, but it isn’t for me.”

Sweeping Generalisation

Applying a general rule too widely.

Example: “These boys are disruptive because they were raised by single mothers.”

Undistributed Middle

Assuming that because two things share characteristics that they are the same thing.

Example: “A scientific theory can be unproven. Evolution is a theory; therefore, evolution is an unproven idea.”

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Critical Thinking Logic & Reasoning Smart Thinking

Logical Fallacies: Cause and Effect

Circular Logic

A conclusion which relies on a premise which is based on the conclusion.

Example: “The Bible is the word of God – I know that because it says it in the Bible and it must be true because the Bible is the word of God.”

Denying the Antecedent

Assuming that a cause is based on the effect when there are multiple possible causes.

Example: “If you get a good degree, you’ll get a good job. If you don’t get a degree, you won’t get a good job.”

Ignoring a Common Cause

Claiming a link between 2 events, when there is a 3rd event which is likely to be the cause.

Example: “During the 60s  there was a sexual revolution, because of that people are dying of AIDS.”

Cum Hoc Ergo Propter Hoc

Claiming that 2 events that occur together must have a cause-effect relationship and assuming that correlation = cause.

Example: “Smart people wear glasses, so wearing glasses must make you smarter.”

Affirming the Consequent

Assuming that there’s only one explanation for an observation you’ve made.

Example: “Marriage usually results in children, so that’s why marriage exists.”

Post Hoc Ergo Propter Hoc

The claim that because one event followed another, it was caused by it. Another cause-effect fallacy.

Example: “Since Obama became president, ISIS has become more powerful. Therefore, Obama has caused the rise of ISIS.”

Two Wrongs Make a Right

If someone is wronged, then another wrong will cancel it out

Example: “They killed 100 of our soldiers, so we need to kill 100 of their soldiers to make it right.”

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Critical Thinking Logic & Reasoning Smart Thinking

Logical Fallacies: Manipulating Content

Converse to attacking a person or group to discredit their argument, manipulating content takes a person’s argument and twists it into something entirely different or to manipulate your argument to make it appear more persuasive.

Confirmation Bias

When you cherry pick evidence which confirms your existing beliefs, but ignore all evidence to the contrary as erroneous or irrelevant.

Example: Paying more attention to the 5 studies which show a link between vaccines and autism than the 1,000+ studies which disprove any link.

Suppressed Evidence

The deliberate neglect of relevant evidence/information which counters your own argument.

Example: “Iraq has weapons of mass destruction and so we should invade.” This ignores the reports that show no evidence of such weapons.

Biased Generalising

Using an unrepresentative sample of people to bolster your argument.

Example: “75% of people would vote for Bernie Sanders” Based on a poll only of students.

Ad Hoc Rescue

Trying to protect a belief or idea by revising the argument each time a flaw is found.

Example: “Apart from the freedom to live in any EU country, the millions of jobs it sustains, increased security, strong business links, lower import costs and greater political influence,  what has the European Union ever done for us?”

False Dilemma

Positioning two options as the only two options and deliberately hiding or suppressing alternatives.

Example: “You have to choose between the Republicans or the Democrats.”

Misleading Vividness

By describing a situation in detail, even if that situation is rare or unlikely in order to convince that it is more of a problem that it truly is.

Example: “After gay marriage was legalised, school libraries now stock same-sex literature. This means that primary school children are exposed to gay fairy tales and books which promote a gay lifestyle”.

Red Herring

Intentional introduction of irrelevant material to distract from the argument and alter the conclusion.

Example: “The Prime Minister doesn’t need to disclose his tax returns. After all, there are corporations who have billions of pounds in unpaid tax.”

Slippery Slope

The assumption that a single small step in one direction will lead to an inevitable chain of increasingly worse events.

Example: “If we introduce stricter gun control, the government will be more controlling and we’ll be living in a dystopian country”.

Unfalsifiability

Suggesting a claim or argument that is impossible to prove false, purely because there is no way to check it’s validity.

Example: “He is a Prophet and speaks the message of God.”

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