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.