Sapiens by Yuval Noah Harari explores our chaotic and unpredictable past as a species, in an attempt to open up how we think about the present and the future.
Three lessons are presented:
1- Our development from insignificant creatures 2.5 million years ago to where we are now was enabled primarily by language – shared fictions and imagined communities that bind us together.
2- Growth is the chief fiction that binds us together today. Capital must grow to survive; people must consume more to be happy. Both are fictions.
3- Our recent trajectory of progress has not and will not make people happier. We need to look at how to align our expectations of the world with reality. And how to take responsibility.
Want to know more?
This blog post is part of a series I am making called Reading For The Aspirational Self. Don’t think of this as book summaries – I’m not doing that. Instead, I’m drawing out specific lessons that I find particularly interesting. And which I think could act, together, to help people who share my aspirations. If you, too, want to be present, family-centric, intrinsically motivated and polymathic, I can help.
- The most distilled version of what I’m offering is a free mailing list designed for learning, “Think On Thursday” – each e-mail will include a lesson designed around the content. Click here for some information on that.
- The series is also on YouTube in the form of 7-12 minute videos. Here’s the channel link – the video and transcript are below.
- I’m tweeting excerpts from the videos, as well as some of the story of this project, how we’re doing it, and where it is going, on Twitter. @DaveCBeck
If you want to know more about Sapiens take a look at Harari’s website here.
This week’s video:-
Nothing about how humans have developed from insignificant creatures to where we are now was inevitable. Sapiens uses history to explore that chaotic and unpredictable path, and to open up how you think about the present. And, maybe, how you think about the future.
I could talk for hours on this book, but in this video, I’ll focus on three things.
Firstly, our cultures and our success as a species revolve around shared fictions, inventions that bind us together. Secondly, I’ll talk about the most universal shared fiction today, which is growth, particularly economic growth. Thirdly, we have no real evidence that the progress that we’ve seen has made people happier, it has certainly come with costs.
Two and a half million years ago, our ancestors were insignificant animals, having very little impact on the environment. The species that we now know Homo Sapiens and drove the other human species to extinction. So for those of you in Europe, in the middle East, the chances are that some of your DNA’s now is Neanderthal, I think it’s about 1 to 4% for people who have Melanesian or Australian Aboriginal descent, um, it’s the Denisovans. So that’s the other species they integrated with Sapiens, and it’s a slightly higher percentage, maybe five or six.
Fire, then a cognitive revolution, the birth of language changed that. They make humans more significant in their local landscapes .
The cognitive revolution was centered on language, the development of language, which allowed us to form tribes of greater than 150 people. Before language emerged in a more coherent form that allowed us to create fictions, to create imagined communities, humans were limited to tribes of about 150 people.
That’s the number of peoples that we can cope mentally with knowing intimately that we can cope with knowing as individuals. And it’s only with the birth of fiction with the birth of imagined communities that you can expand the human community beyond that. So fire was important. But in sapiens, we learned that language is probably the determining factor that allowed humans to expand beyond that
10 or 12,000 years ago. So relatively recently, agriculture again, amplified the scale at which humans operate. Agriculture involved being static, which was a new thing for humanity, it involved working together and managing things across a longer period of time. And it required mass cooperation. That cooperation was secured primarily by education from birth. So, not just an imagined community now, but a community that everybody was explicitly taught about from birth until whenever adulthood was considered to be in that group of, of people. Whether that happens through a priest or a teacher, what we’re seeing is children imbibing of a set of codes and community ethics that allow, a greater number of people to work together than is possible without that.
The other interesting point in Sapiens about the way that human societies expanded beyond, um, tribes, integrated groups, and then into, into very large groups, indeed with the Egyptians is hierarchy. Hierarchy is universal in human society. There were always upper levels, getting privileges and power, which are denied to the lower levels. And those suffer from discrimination and oppression in every society that Harari studied in the book.
what’s the most important fictions that underpins our current society and it’s ever increasing expansion is growth, growth itself. As a concept, it’s a fiction. It’s something that was invented primarily in the 17th century and which has become central to the way that we operate as societies almost across the world.
The ideas of human rights of limited liability companies. They are fictions. They’re things which are created by humans, which are non-essential and, and which change over time. They’re imagined entities. Even our scientific method is something of a fiction. The way that we think about the world as mechanistic, was it a 17th century invention, which is now being challenged?
It wasn’t just based on blind faith. It was also consistently empirically proved the scientific method. It allows us to operate on the world, and that has a certain power and it allows us certain empirical proof. But what we’re seeing now with the rise of things like machine learning is that science, in the deductive way that we’ve practiced over the past few centuries, is a fiction. Machine learning shows us that there are things that science can’t explain at the moment, and perhaps ever.
With that scientific method came a conception of progress of getting better over time or of growth. And growth was seen as a good thing. The more growth that we had, the better, the more progress we made the better, initially religiously inspired, particularly in Europe. So the idea of progress towards Gods kingdom is where we started with growth. And now growth is an end in itself. Growth is something that we need as a society in order to survive.
One area that the fiction of growth has been kind of built upon is capital and capitalism. So money as the idea of a fungible good, that can be converted and trusted is something that enables trade. But when you have trade and this idea of growth, that’s where capital emerges. the accumulation of money and the investment of that money in order to make more money, to make more tradable goods. And it’s now an ethic that permeates pretty much the whole of society.
And it seems as if not a good in itself, most people would say that it’s not morally good to grow the economy, but it’s seen as a proxy for things that are good. Justice, freedom, and even happiness, we pretend that they all depend on economic growth. The analogy that Harari makes is sharks. So sharks have to keep swimming or they suffocate. And that’s the position that he feels that we’re in a society right now. If we don’t grow, we suffocate, things go wrong and our society breaks.
There’s a personal ethic that goes alongside this. We see this in consumerism. So the idea that you can buy your way to happiness, your desires will always be satisfied if you continue buying more and more and more, and that fits very neatly with the idea of continual growth. Because it involves individuals buying more and more and more. So the economy continues to grow.
And that’s a seemingly never ending cycle that promises happiness for individuals too. The idea that when you buy things, your desires of being satisfied and you’re happier than you were before.
There’s an interesting side point. The very idea of the individual in sapiens, we see as a myth. So the idea of an individual to be set against the state or set against the market is something that Harari dismisses as a myth because without the state and the market, providing what we call freedom without the state and the market providing that, there wouldn’t be an individual because individuals can’t survive. You need a community around you.
There is very little evidence, but progress in the way that it’s been practiced over recent years is something that leads to happiness. Liberal politics, which dominates the West is based on the idea that voters, those individuals know what’s best for them. But they don’t. We have a range of evidence showing that the average person is completely ignorant of their true self.
They don’t have an internal monologue that reflects their actual actions or, or that reflect, a reasonable idea of how to be happy. So if individuals don’t know what’s best for them, How can liberal democracy lead in the direction that it should for their happiness?
Happiness doesn’t correlate well with the expectations of growth, beyond the point at which basic needs are met. And those are actually remarkably basic needs being met that do correlate with happiness. Beyond that point, it’s things like life having a purpose, always correlates with happiness, things like the alignment between what you expect of the world, and how your world actually is that alignment is far more important to happiness than growth is, than most of the things which are prioritized in liberal democracies are. It’s the alignment that matters and the purpose behind it.
So Harari draws on Buddhism, which notes that our feelings are no more than fleeting vibrations. They’re things which pass. Theyre momentary states, he uses one of the Buddhist meditations about waves lapping on the shore, and the idea that we should try and control our feelings is likened to trying to push away bad waves and pulling good ways when you have no control over the waves in the first place.
Our alignment between the expectations and conditions can’t be right without a sense of peace. And that’s something that is lacking under growth ethic, capitalism. It’s something that’s lacking when you’re feeling like your happiness can be bought because your happiness cant be bought.
He makes the point that the average Hunter-gatherer was probably more content with that lot, had better alignment between their expectations and their reality, had a purpose to their life providing for their community. They were probably more contempt with their lot than the average office clerk or the average worker today and let alone the average agricultural laborer 10,000 to 12,000 years ago.
That question mark, that he ends with is whether, our progress can lead to happiness, if it maintains its current trajectory .
He also makes the wider point that humans as a race seem to be more irresponsible than ever. He calls them self-made gods with only the laws of physics to stop them. We can influence our world at a greater scale than ever before and the direction that we’re influencing it in isn’t good.
We were accountable to nobody. We don’t know what we really want, and we have the power to remake the world around us.
That’s something that for Harari is incredibly dangerous. And what he’s doing is not just yearning for a past of hunter-gathering. He doesn’t yearn for a past of hunter-gathering, as far as I read the book. He yearns for a future in which we are more aligned between our expectations on the conditions around us.