Blogging The Highlights: Sapiens [Part One]

Ear­li­er this year I read Yuval Noah Harari’s book, Sapi­ens: A Brief His­to­ry of Humankind. It is, with­out a doubt, one of the most amaz­ing, eye-open­ing, mind-expand­ing books I’ve ever read. I’ve want­ed for some time to write a review of it, but have been slight­ly daunt­ed by the thought of try­ing to do it jus­tice. Even using quotes from the book to illus­trate the themes, as I’ve done before, faces me with a prob­lem: I’ve high­light­ed so many pas­sages, even edit­ing them to a man­age­able length would be a job in itself.

But I can pre­var­i­cate no longer, so I’m going to attempt a loose review, based around quotes from the book, bro­ken into mul­ti­ple posts. I’ll theme them loose­ly around hap­pi­ness, con­sumerism, and the agri­cul­tur­al rev­o­lu­tion; and, in this first part, around fic­tions.

Sapi­ens is a book about humankind, but not a hard his­to­ry; it’s about cul­ture, about the sys­tems we’ve evolved to cre­ate this amaz­ing, pow­er­ful, ter­ri­fy­ing glob­al race. Above all, it’s about fic­tions: the sto­ries that we all choose to believe in that define and make pos­si­ble soci­ety and its achieve­ments.

Telling effec­tive sto­ries is not easy. The dif­fi­cul­ty lies not in telling the sto­ry, but in con­vinc­ing every­one else to believe it. Much of his­to­ry revolves around this ques­tion: how does one con­vince mil­lions of peo­ple to believe par­tic­u­lar sto­ries about gods, or nations, or lim­it­ed lia­bil­i­ty com­pa­nies? Yet when it suc­ceeds, it gives Sapi­ens immense pow­er, because it enables mil­lions of strangers to coop­er­ate and work towards com­mon goals. Just try to imag­ine how dif­fi­cult it would have been to cre­ate states, or church­es, or legal sys­tems if we could speak only about things that real­ly exist, such as rivers, trees and lions.

As time has passed, these fic­tions have tak­en on more impor­tance:

Ever since the Cog­ni­tive Rev­o­lu­tion, Sapi­ens have thus been liv­ing in a dual real­i­ty. On the one hand, the objec­tive real­i­ty of rivers, trees and lions; and on the oth­er hand, the imag­ined real­i­ty of gods, nations and cor­po­ra­tions. As time went by, the imag­ined real­i­ty became ever more pow­er­ful, so that today the very sur­vival of rivers, trees and lions depends on the grace of imag­ined enti­ties such as the Unit­ed States and Google.

These fic­tions extend even to our laws and rights; bio­log­i­cal­ly speak­ing, we are not all born equal:

If we do not believe in the Chris­t­ian myths about God, cre­ation and souls, what does it mean that all peo­ple are ‘equal’? Evo­lu­tion is based on dif­fer­ence, not on equal­i­ty.

How­ev­er, we choose to believe in nat­ur­al equal­i­ty because it pro­motes sta­bil­i­ty and social order:

We believe in a par­tic­u­lar order not because it is objec­tive­ly true, but because believ­ing in it enables us to coop­er­ate effec­tive­ly and forge a bet­ter soci­ety.

Belief is what enables fic­tions, and fic­tions enable orders:

An imag­ined order can be main­tained only if large seg­ments of the pop­u­la­tion – and in par­tic­u­lar large seg­ments of the elite and the secu­ri­ty forces – tru­ly believe in it. Chris­tian­i­ty would not have last­ed 2,000 years if the major­i­ty of bish­ops and priests failed to believe in Christ. The mod­ern eco­nom­ic sys­tem would not have last­ed a sin­gle day if the major­i­ty of investors and bankers failed to believe in cap­i­tal­ism.

The fic­tions shared between groups of peo­ple are passed on through leg­ends: myths and sto­ries, laws and rules. Peo­ple in dif­fer­ent soci­eties cre­at­ed dif­fer­ent leg­ends.

Myths and fic­tions accus­tomed peo­ple, near­ly from the moment of birth, to think in cer­tain ways, to behave in accor­dance with cer­tain stan­dards, to want cer­tain things, and to observe cer­tain rules. They there­by cre­at­ed arti­fi­cial instincts that enabled mil­lions of strangers to coop­er­ate effec­tive­ly. This net­work of arti­fi­cial instincts is called ‘cul­ture’.

Aside: I saw Scott Berkun sum this up with a neat for­mu­la: cul­ture = some ideas > oth­er ideas. But back to Harari. He says that what dri­ves cul­ture is the con­tra­dic­tions of soci­ety: for exam­ple, try­ing to rec­on­cile per­son­al free­dom with the desire for every­one to be equal.

The mod­ern world fails to square lib­er­ty with equal­i­ty. But this is no defect. Such con­tra­dic­tions are an insep­a­ra­ble part of every human cul­ture. In fact, they are culture’s engines, respon­si­ble for the cre­ativ­i­ty and dynamism of our species.

To prop­a­gate cul­ture we had to make it pos­si­ble to store mem­o­ries beyond our genes; this could be in sim­ple shared ideas passed down through gen­er­a­tions:

Human teenagers have no genes for foot­ball. They can nev­er­the­less play the game with com­plete strangers because they have all learned an iden­ti­cal set of ideas about foot­ball. These ideas are entire­ly imag­i­nary, but if every­one shares them, we can all play the game.

The prob­lem with imag­i­nary ideas is that you need to active­ly enforce them:

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.

But writ­ten laws and con­sti­tu­tions have had an impact on us:

The most impor­tant impact of script on human his­to­ry is pre­cise­ly this: it has grad­u­al­ly changed the way humans think and view the world. Free asso­ci­a­tion and holis­tic thought have giv­en way to com­part­men­tal­i­sa­tion and bureau­cra­cy.

This is why the study of his­to­ry, and books like Sapi­ens, are so vital:

We study his­to­ry not to know the future but to widen our hori­zons, to under­stand that our present sit­u­a­tion is nei­ther nat­ur­al nor inevitable, and that we con­se­quent­ly have many more pos­si­bil­i­ties before us than we imag­ine.

As I said at the start, I’m going to write a few more posts about Sapiens—but hon­est­ly, just save your­self the trou­ble of read­ing them and buy a copy of the book instead. I high­ly doubt that you’ll regret it.


Also pub­lished on Medi­um.