Work Book Summary - Work Book explained in key points
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Work summary

James Suzman

A Deep History, from the Stone Age to the Age of Robots

4.2 (78 ratings)
14 mins

What is Work about?

Work (2020) is an anthropological history of the human relationship with work. From the first single-celled bacteria in the oceans billions of years ago to the unprecedented wealth inequality we experience today, Work is a sweeping history of what motivates our species. 

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    Key idea 1 of 8

    Life on earth increases entropy by capturing and expending energy, often in confounding ways.

    If you’ve ever felt that your life is chaotic, you’re both right and wrong. From a physics perspective, life is orderly, but it was born from the chaos of entropy in the universe. Everything from the trees outside to your finger tracking on a screen is a hugely unlikely physical alignment of atoms that formed by chance.

    The energy, or work, your body expends by just existing contributes to the universe’s chaos. Quantum physicist Erwin Schrödinger, of Schrödinger’s Cat fame, looked to the second law of thermodynamics to explain this. Entropy was the universe’s normal state, and the particular order that is life was very abnormal. But life couldn’t exist in violation of the second law of thermodynamics, so it must be contributing to the overall entropy of the universe – it captures energy, uses it, and then chaotically releases it. 

    The key message here is: Life on earth increases entropy by capturing and expending energy, often in confounding ways.

    Around 3.5 billion years ago, single-celled bacteria were the first living organisms on earth. They did work by transmuting energy from water and rock into chemical bonds, which were then broken down to release energy. They worked largely in the dark. Around 2.7 billion years ago, some species evolved to photosynthesize, deriving energy from sunlight and producing oxygen. These cyanobacteria provided fuel for oxygen-breathing organisms to do work. 

    The first creatures with tissue and nervous systems evolved in the oceans around 700 million years ago. The most successful of these aquatic organisms transformed work by harvesting energy from other living things. When creatures began to live on land, the nature of work continued to transform, and eventually became what we see today.

    But early life forms weren’t just preoccupied with capturing energy. They also needed to expend it. A good example of this basic need can be seen in the male black-masked weaver bird of southern Africa. He’ll spend weeks painstakingly building a nest in hopes of impressing a female, only to start over a few days later when she doesn’t come along. He’ll do this incessantly: one bird in Zimbabwe was recorded destroying 158 of 160 nests. Scientists now believe males engage in this seemingly arbitrary behavior to expend surplus energy.

    It’s not just black-masked weaver birds who exhibit hard-to-explain behaviors. Have you ever wondered why anyone would run an ultra-marathon? Or why the city was tearing down a perfectly good skyscraper to build a bigger one? An overabundance of energy may be a clue to these behaviors, too.

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    About the Author

    James Suzman is a South African-born anthropologist and writer. He has published widely on the San people as well as the Ju/’hoansi bushmen of the Kalahari. In 2017, he published Affluence Without Abundance, based on 25 years working with the Ju/’hoansi in the field. 

    Who should read Work?

    • All those wondering whether they have a “bullshit job”
    • Deep-divers who love human history and how we got here
    • People who worry about how they spend their time

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