Memory Overload - Math and Language (Excerpt from "Sapiens" by Yuval Noah Harari

Dec 31, 2018 | West Houston

The book "Sapiens" written by Yuval Noah Harari provides a wealth of knowledge about the stages of development of the Homo Sapiens. One of the most interesting chapters is how Homo Sapiens overcame the problem of how to store large amounts of information, given the limitations of the human brain. The answer, if you haven't guessed it already, is related to Math. 

At mathnasium, we speak the language of math. We are firms believers in its ever growing importance in the future of the world. Please enjoy this excerpt from one of the best books of this century.

“EVOLUTION DID NOT ENDOW HUMANS with the ability to play pick-up basketball. True, it produced legs for running, hands for dribbling, and shoulders for fouling, but all that this enables us to do is shoot hoops by ourselves. To get into a game with the strangers we find in the schoolyard on any given afternoon, we not only have to work in concert with four teammates we may never have met before—we also need to know that the five players on the opposing team are playing by the same rules. 

Other animals that engage strangers in ritualized aggression do so largely by instinct—puppies throughout the world have the rules for rough-and-tumble play hard-wired into their genes. But American teenagers have no genes for pick-up basketball. They can nevertheless play the game with complete strangers because they have all learned an identical set of ideas about basketball. These ideas are entirely imaginary, but if everyone shares them, we can all play the game. The same applies, on a larger scale, to kingdoms, churches, and trade networks, with one important difference. The rules of basketball are relatively simple and concise, much like those necessary for cooperation in a forager band or small village. Each player can easily store them in his brain and still have room for songs, images, and shopping lists. 

But large systems of cooperation that involve not ten but thousands or even millions of humans require the handling and storage of huge amounts of information, much more than any single human brain can contain and process. The large societies found in some other species, such as ants and bees, are stable and resilient because most of the information needed to sustain them is encoded in the genome. A female honeybee larva can, for example, grow up to be either a queen or a worker, depending on what food it is fed. Its DNA programmes the necessary behaviours for whatever role it will fulfil in life. Hives can be very complex social structures, containing many different kinds of workers, such as harvesters, nurses and cleaners. But so far researchers have failed to locate lawyer bees. Bees don’t need lawyers, because there is no danger that they might forget or violate the hive constitution. The queen does not cheat the cleaner bees of their food, and they never go on strike demanding higher wages. But humans do such things all the time. Because the Sapiens social order is imagined, humans cannot preserve the critical information for running it simply by making copies of their DNA and passing these on to their progeny. 

A conscious effort has to be made to sustain laws, customs, procedures and manners, otherwise the social order would quickly collapse. For example, King Hammurabi decreed that people are divided into superiors, commoners and slaves. Unlike the beehive class system, this is not a natural division – there is no trace of it in the human genome. If the Babylonians could not keep this ‘truth’ in mind, their society would have ceased to function. Similarly, when Hammurabi passed his DNA to his offspring, it did not encode his ruling that a superior man who killed a commoner woman must pay thirty silver shekels. Hammurabi deliberately had to instruct his sons in the laws of his empire, and his sons and grandsons had to do the same. Empires generate huge amounts of information. Beyond laws, empires have to keep accounts of transactions and taxes, inventories of military supplies and merchant vessels, and calendars of festivals and victories. 

For millions of years people stored information in a single place – their brains. Unfortunately, the human brain is not a good storage device for empire-sized databases, for three main reasons. First, its capacity is limited. True, some people have astonishing memories, and in ancient times there were memory professionals who could store in their heads the topographies of whole provinces and the law codes of entire states. Nevertheless, there is a limit that even master mnemonists cannot transcend. A lawyer might know by heart the entire law code of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, but not the details of every legal proceeding that took place in Massachusetts from the Salem witch trials onward. Secondly, humans die, and their brains die with them. Any information stored in a brain will be erased in less than a century. It is, of course, possible to pass memories from one brain to another, but after a few transmissions, the information tends to get garbled or lost. Thirdly and most importantly, the human brain has been adapted to store and process only particular types of information. In order to survive, ancient hunter-gatherers had to remember the shapes, qualities and behaviour patterns of thousands of plant and animal species. They had to remember that a wrinkled yellow mushroom growing in autumn under an elm tree is most probably poisonous, whereas a similar-looking mushroom growing in winter under an oak tree is a good stomach-ache remedy. 

Hunter-gatherers also had to bear in mind the opinions and relations of several dozen band members. If Lucy needed a band member’s help to get John to stop harassing her, it was important for her to remember that John had fallen out last week with Mary, who would thus be a likely and enthusiastic ally. Consequently, evolutionary pressures have adapted the human brain to store immense quantities of botanical, zoological, topographical and social information. But when particularly complex societies began to appear in the wake of the Agricultural Revolution, a completely new type of information became vital – numbers. Foragers were never obliged to handle large amounts of mathematical data. No forager needed to remember, say, the number of fruit on each tree in the forest. So human brains did not adapt to storing and processing numbers. Yet in order to maintain a large kingdom, mathematical data was vital. It was never enough to legislate laws and tell stories about guardian gods. One also had to collect taxes. In order to tax hundreds of thousands of people, it was imperative to collect data about people’s incomes and possessions; data about payments made; data about arrears, debts and fines; data about discounts and exemptions. This added up to millions of data bits, which had to be stored and processed. Without this capacity, the state would never know what resources it had and what further resources it could tap. When confronted with the need to memorise, recall and handle all these numbers, most human brains overdosed or fell asleep. This mental limitation severely constrained the size and complexity of human collectives. When the amount of people and property in a particular society crossed a critical threshold, it became necessary to store and process large amounts of mathematical data. Since the human brain could not do it, the system collapsed. 

For thousands of years after the Agricultural Revolution, human social networks remained relatively small and simple. The first to overcome the problem were the ancient Sumerians, who lived in southern Mesopotamia. There, a scorching sun beating upon rich muddy plains produced plentiful harvests and prosperous towns. As the number of inhabitants grew, so did the amount of information required to coordinate their affairs. Between the years 3500 BC and 3000 BC, some unknown Sumerian geniuses invented a system for storing and processing information outside their brains, one that was custom-built to handle large amounts of mathematical data. The Sumerians thereby released their social order from the limitations of the human brain, opening the way for the appearance of cities, kingdoms and empires. The data-processing system invented by the Sumerians is called ‘writing’. 

Signed, Kushim 

Writing is a method for storing information through material signs. The Sumerian writing system did so by combining two types of signs, which were pressed in clay tablets. One type of signs represented numbers. There were signs for 1, 10, 60, 600, 3,600 and 36,000. (The Sumerians used a combination of base-6 and base-10 numeral systems. Their base-6 system bestowed on us several important legacies, such as the division of the day into twenty-four hours and of the circle into 360 degrees.) The other type of signs represented people, animals, merchandise, territories, dates and so forth. By combining both types of signs the Sumerians were able to preserve far more data than any human brain could remember or any DNA chain could encode. 19. A clay tablet with an administrative text from the city of Uruk, c.3400–3000 BC. ‘Kushim’ may be the generic title of an officeholder, or the name of a particular individual. If Kushim was indeed a person, he may be the first individual in history whose name is known to us! All the names applied earlier in human history – the Neanderthals, the Natufians, Chauvet Cave, Göbekli Tepe – are modern inventions. We have no idea what the builders of Göbekli Tepe actually called the place. 

With the appearance of writing, we are beginning to hear history through the ears of its protagonists. When Kushim’s neighbours called out to him, they might really have shouted ‘Kushim!’ It is telling that the first recorded name in history belongs to an accountant, rather than a prophet, a poet or a great conqueror.

 At this early stage, writing was limited to facts and figures. The great Sumerian novel, if there ever was one, was never committed to clay tablets. Writing was time-consuming and the reading public tiny, so no one saw any reason to use it for anything other than essential record-keeping. If we look for the first words of wisdom reaching us from our ancestors, 5,000 years ago, we’re in for a big disappointment. The earliest messages our ancestors have left us read, for example, ‘29,086 measures barley 37 months Kushim.’ The most probable reading of this sentence is: ‘A total of 29,086 measures of barley were received over the course of 37 months. Signed, Kushim.’ 

Alas, the first texts of history contain no philosophical insights, no poetry, legends, laws, or even royal triumphs. They are humdrum economic documents, recording the payment of taxes, the accumulation of debts and the ownership of property. Partial script cannot express the entire spectrum of a spoken language, but it can express things that fall outside the scope of spoken language. Partial scripts such as the Sumerian and mathematical scripts cannot be used to write poetry, but they can keep tax accounts very effectively. Only one other type of text survived from these ancient days, and it is even less exciting: lists of words, copied over and over again by apprentice scribes as training exercises. Even had a bored student wanted to write out some of his poems instead of copy a bill of sale, he could not have done so. The earliest Sumerian writing was a partial rather than a full script. Full script is a system of material signs that can represent spoken language more or less completely. It can therefore express everything people can say, including poetry. Partial script, on the other hand, is a system of material signs that can represent only particular types of information, belonging to a limited field of activity. Latin script, ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics and Braille are full scripts. You can use them to write tax registers, love poems, history books, food recipes and business law. In contrast, the earliest Sumerian script, like modern mathematical symbols and musical notation, are partial scripts. You can use mathematical script to make calculations, but you cannot use it to write love poems.

It didn’t disturb the Sumerians that their script was ill-suited for writing poetry. They didn’t invent it in order to copy spoken language, but rather to do things that spoken language failed at. There were some cultures, such as those of the pre-Columbian Andes, which used only partial scripts throughout their entire histories, unfazed by their scripts’ limitations and feeling no need for a full version. Andean script was very different from its Sumerian counterpart. In fact, it was so different that many people would argue it wasn’t a script at all. It was not written on clay tablets or pieces of paper. Rather, it was written by tying knots on colourful cords called quipus. 

Each quipu consisted of many cords of different colours, made of wool or cotton. On each cord, several knots were tied in different places. A single quipu could contain hundreds of cords and thousands of knots. By combining different knots on different cords with different colours, it was possible to record large amounts of mathematical data relating to, for example, tax collection and property ownership. For hundreds, perhaps thousands of years, quipus were essential to the business of cities, kingdoms and empires. They reached their full potential under the Inca Empire, which ruled 10–12 million people and covered today’s Peru, Ecuador and Bolivia, as well as chunks of Chile, Argentina and Colombia. Thanks to quipus, the Incas could save and process large amounts of data, without which they would not have been able to maintain the complex administrative machinery that an empire of that size requires. In fact, quipus were so effective and accurate that in the early years following the Spanish conquest of South America, the Spaniards themselves employed quipus in the work of administering their new empire. The problem was that the Spaniards did not themselves know how to record and read quipus, making them dependent on local professionals. The continent’s new rulers realised that this placed them in a tenuous position – the native quipu experts could easily mislead and cheat their overlords. So once Spain’s dominion was more firmly established, quipus were phased out and the new empire’s records were kept entirely in Latin script and numerals. Very few quipus survived the Spanish occupation, and most of those remaining are undecipherable, since, unfortunately, the art of reading quipus has been lost.

The Language of Numbers

As the centuries passed, bureaucratic methods of data processing grew ever more different from the way humans naturally think – and ever more important. A critical step was made sometime before the ninth century AD, when a new partial script was invented, one that could store and process mathematical data with unprecedented efficiency. This partial script was composed of ten signs, representing the numbers from 0 to 9. Confusingly, these signs are known as Arabic numerals even though they were first invented by the Hindus (even more confusingly, modern Arabs use a set of digits that look quite different from Western ones).

But the Arabs get the credit because when they invaded India they encountered the system, understood its usefulness, refined it, and spread it through the Middle East and then to Europe. When several other signs were later added to the Arab numerals (such as the signs for addition, subtraction and multiplication), the basis of modern mathematical notation came into being.

Although this system of writing remains a partial script, it has become the world’s dominant language. Almost all states, companies, organisations and institutions – whether they speak Arabic, Hindi, English or Norwegian – use mathematical script to record and process data. Every piece of information that can be translated into mathematical script is stored, spread and processed with mind-boggling speed and efficiency."

Harari, Yuval Noah. Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind (pp. 119-126, 130). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.