Yuval Noah Harari - “Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind”
I’m hearing this is a rather controversial book. In my view it organizes the understanding of the dual reality we live in, where there’s some objective truth of “rivers, trees, and lions”, but there’s also the imagined reality of “gods, corporations, and nations”. Here’s some notes I took while reading.
The author poses that different species of homo lived at the same time. Homo sapiens won through XXX
Role of language
- Communication about objective truth
a. There is a lion near the river.
- Abstract language: legends, myths, religions.
Writing was first invented as a partial script for maintaining records which are impossible to store in memory and/or have to outlive particular people. The challenge in keeping records is more than just encoding numbers and words into text. Data retrieval and classification make it a challenging task. Sumer was the first civilization to find a good way to classify, store, and retrieve written information. More importantly, it invested in educating people to understand those rules.
Myths as societal glue
Dunbar’s number poses that there’s an informal group threshold of 150 individuals with whom one can maintain stable social relationships.
Myths allow collective cooperation in large numbers of people who are strangers to each other. Thousands of chimpanzees in one place would be pandemonium, homo sapiens has the mythical glue that allowing harmonious coexistence and cooperation.
An example given is “Peugeot”. What is it? Does it exist? It’s not the product, not the employees, not the property. It’s a “legend”, an element of the imagined abstract reality, that nevertheless allows for successful cooperation within the objective reality.
An objective phenomenon (radioactivity) exists even if people don’t believe in them. The subjective depends on belief of an individual. Like imaginary friends of children.
The inter-subjective links subjective consciousnesses of many individuals, it exists within the communication network. A single individual changing their mind or dying doesn’t change the inter-subjective phenomenon. But when majority of nodes in the network changes their minds or die, the inter-subjective phenomenon mutates or even disappears. In order to displace a common myth you have to replace it with a different common myth. This is about god, money, nations.
The Prehistoric Local Maximum
- Biology sets the basic parameters for the behavior and capacities of homo sapiens. The whole of history takes place within the bounds of this biological arena.
- This arena is extraordinarily large allowing sapiens to play an astounding variety of games. Thanks to their ability to invent fiction sapiens create more and more complex games which each generation develops and elaborates even further.
- Consequently, in order to understand how sapiens behave we must describe the historical evolution of their actions.
What games did our stone age ancestors play? People who carved lions in caves had the same physical, emotional, and intellectual capabilities as we have today.
Different bands could have vastly different structure and it’s impossible now to tell if people of those times were generally animist, how they viewed monogamy, property, and leadership. But we know that the original affluent society consisted of bands of a few dozens roaming hunter-gatherers with fewer working hours per day, fewer illnesses, better relationships, and healthier minds and bodies than today’s peasants. People were on average smarter and more knowledgeable about their surrounding world (objective reality). It was a harsher way of life in many ways though: simple injuries could be fatal, child mortality was very high, periods of hunger were typical, there were little to no belongings. It was a local maximum.
Mass extinctions caused by humans
Humans already caused two mass extinctions with their revolutionary leaps:
- the Cognitive Revolution 70,000 years back; and
- the Agricultural Revolution 10,000 years back.
The third leap we’re witnessing right now is the Scientific Revolution of 17th century forwards. It also affects the environment in negative ways. Note that the Agricultural Revolution didn’t make life necessarily better for the average person. Rather, it enabled humanity to keep more people alive under worse conditions.
Evolution is based on difference, not equality. Different chances of survival.
Hammurabi’s codex feels backwards today: it splits people into superior, commoners, and slaves, and applies different worth of each, also by gender.
The US Declaration of Independence on the other hand argues that all people are created equal. This is a Christian view. After all, there objectively exist differences of genetics and upbringing. If the Declaration was rephrased in biological terms, it would sound somewhat like this:
- self-evident truths that
- all men evolved differently
- born with certain mutable characteristics among which there’s life and pursuit of pleasure.
“Equality in essence” is said to create stability and prosperity in society. It’s an imagined order, not objectively true but it lets us cooperate effectively, maybe the only way to do so.
Homo sapiens has no truly natural rights, but don’t tell that to our servants lest they murder us at night. This is unlike gravity. Imagined order is a myth that needs to be safeguarded by violence (civil war, police), coercion (justice system), ideological movements like religious cults (said to be 100x more effective than soldiers).
After objective needs are met, you can invest in getting more rich or powerful, and in luxury. What maintains the military order? What maintains priesthood? Why should people at the top of the social pyramid wish to enforce an imagined order if they themselves don’t believe in it?
Cynics don’t build empires. You need to believe at least in some part of the order. Never admit that the order is imagined. This is why “immutable laws of nature”, “God” is brought up. It removes foundational agency from the rich and powerful.
- The imagined order is embedded into objective reality.
- The imagined order shapes our desires.
- The imagined order is inter-subjective: existing in shared imagination of millions of strangers.
Most sociopolitical hierarchies have no basis in biology or logic. They are nothing but a perpetuation of chance events supported by myths. Example: the statement “men are stronger than women” is only true on average. It’s easy to find individual women stronger than individual men.
Patriarchal societies are not a result of a chance occurrence. There has to be some biological reason why almost all societies from ancient times to today prefer manhood over womanhood. We don’t know what it is.
There is no direct relationship between physical strength and social power among humans. Women have been excluded mostly from jobs that require little physical effort (priesthood, law, politics). People in their 60s usually exercise power over people in their 20s. A typical plantation owner could be easily overpowered by his slaves. Boxing matches weren’t used to select pharaohs or popes. Even among chimpanzees the alpha male wins his position by building a stable coalition with other males and females, not through mindless violence. If anything, human history shows there’s an inverse relationship between physical prowess and social power.
Another explanation is that men are more aggressive and violent on average. While this is true, waging war and politics has little to do with aggression and first-hand violence.
Finally, the third theory is that patriarchal genes through different evolved survival and reproduction strategies between men and women. Ambitious, competitive, and aggressive men have more chance reproducing. Women have little problem finding males to impregnate them but upbringing is a different matter: women need a man who sticks around and shares the burden. So they over generations developed to be more submissive caretakers. This is also belied by empirical evidence. It’s clear dependence on external help didn’t make women dependent on men: rather on other women. Animals often organize in matriarchal societies (like bonobos and elephants).
We know that during the last century gender roles have overcome a tremendous revolution, alongside rethinking the most basic conceptions of gender and sexuality. So the patriarchal system might have been perpetuated by unfounded myths. What then accounts for the universality and stability of the patriarchical system over the course of history?
The question goes unanswered in the book.
Modern History in a Nutshell
Shared myths and social structures allowed Europe to quickly game momentum since 1500s to overtake the rest of the world economically and scientifically. East Asia and Africa didn’t have those so it couldn’t catch up. Even today China’s progress is built on European value systems and economical theory. One important contributor was seeking new knowledge during colonization, instead of simple imperial “spreading existing knowledge”.
The foundational event was the discovery of America. Not by Columbus but by Vespucci who argued it’s not East Asia. The first map named the new lands America. Neither the narrative of oppression and exploitation, nor that of the “white man’s burden”, completely matches the facts. Europeans imperialists uncovered important historical information on the conquered people. There was a lot of scientific discovery (Cook, Darwin).
Credit propels growth. You need to share the spoils, and pay back loans diligently. This is how the Netherlands rose from a swamp to an empire while Spain wasted their early advantage. There were times where the Dutch VOC and English East India Company were the biggest corporations that had their own armies.
France caused the French Revolution in part by getting into terrible debt through bad interventionism in the Mississippi Bubble.
Opium Wars lead to 10% of the Chinese to become opium addicts, and the establishment of Hong Kong as a British colony to sell drugs.
When growth becomes a supreme good, unrestricted by any other ethical considerations, it can easily lead to catastrophy. Some religions like christianity of Nazism have killed millions out of burning hatred. Capitalism has killed millions out of cold indifference coupled with greed.
The Industrial revolution was an energy conversion revolution.
European imperial collapse after 1945 was surprisingly orderly and peaceful. This is true for the British empire as well as the French, and Soviet empires.
Pax Atomica – almost no full-scale international wars since 1945. Real peace isn’t absence of war, it’s the implausibility of war:
- price of war increased dramatically (atomic arsenal);
- war profits declined (wealth is capital, can’t loot it easily);
- peace is more lucrative than ever (prosperity through trade);
- political culture shifted (war isn’t viewed as positive anymore).
Those factors have a positive feedback loop. It also leads to eroded country independence. We are witnessing the formation of a global empire that also ensures peace within its borders.
The biggest upheaval in history is arguably the collapse of the family and its replacement by state and market.
A modern house is many small rooms - a private space with door for each household member. It represents the modern individualism. In the Medieval times it wasn’t so. People were more tightly interconnected. “Good name” was very important and had to be protected at all costs. Your place in social hierarchy and what others think of you was the most important.
Modern desires ("follow your heart") follow modern myths: consumerism, capitalism, romanticism (reach human potential through as many different experiences and emotions as possible).
Modern tourism is an example of a combination of romantic praise of variety with consumerism, it’s a market of experiences. Paris is not a city, India is not a country. They are experiences. They are “pyramids” of a different time.
Our modern concepts of what’s natural and unnatural are not taken from biology but from Christian theology. The theological meaning of “natural” is “in accordance with the intentions of god who created nature”.
Religion is a system of shared norms and values. Ideologies are also religions. Bona fide religions are found on superhuman order. Since we know it isn’t true, could we replace it? To replace religions as civilization’s glue, society would need massive changes:
- either some scientific theory gets relegated to fundamental truth (examples: Nazis and their biological superiority; Marx/Lenin’s economic views); or
- science is completely ignored and humanity lives according to some other dogmatic absolute truth (example: liberal humanism and its view that that there’s unique worth in every human being and that every human being has rights).
Things are getting better
For most of history there was no idea of “progress”, rather that the “golden age” has passed.
The biggest shift in our collective history was the admittance that we don’t know everything yet and that it is within reach to know more than we already do. “The discovery of ignorance”. Math is now considered much more important than it was for most of history. At some point theology was the queen of sciences.
Financing scientific progress is a crucial factor. Most funding comes as hope to achieve some pragmatic political goal.
graph TD Empire --> Capital Capital --> Science Science --> Empire
Life expectancy is now much higher. There’s been a 6-fold decrease in child mortality in the 20th century. “Project Gilgamesh” will maybe create a group of people who are amortal (e.g. not immortal per se but with no internal decline through time).
We’re witnessing a near disappearance of international wars. We eliminated large-scale famines. There’s been a steep drop in violence.
Things are getting worse
Humanity is disturbing the ecological equilibrium of Earth. We’re destroying the foundation of human prosperity in an orgy of reckless consumption. There’s unprecedented cruelty through the regime of industrial exploitation of farm and test animals: modern industrial agriculture might well be the biggest crime in history.
Everything is amazing right now and nobody is happy
Did the new wealth built in the past few hundreds of years cause newfound contentment? Is the world a better place to live in now?
Ideologies have flimsy hypotheses on happiness. There is very little research on happiness, let alone any conclusive one. How to define happiness?
- long-term contentment;
- immediate pleasure.
How to measure it? We don’t know. One way is through polls where people answer subjective questions and then their answers are correlated with objectively measured reality. What did we learn?
- Up to a point money does bring happiness.
- Illness is decreasing happiness only in the short term but is a source of unhappiness over the long-term only when the condition is constantly deteriorating or involves on-going pain.
- While there’s close correlation between good marriages and high subjective well-being, we don’t know if there’s any causation. Maybe marriage is not the “cause” but instead the “effect”?
- When things improve, expectations balloon. Even dramatic improvements in objective conditions can leave us dissatisfied.
- Advertising and mass media decreases human happiness through inflating expectations.
People in the past must have been miserable!
No, wait. Comparing historical objective reality with modern expectations is a bad way to measure happiness of people in the past.
Happiness is to a large extent bio-chemical responses in the brain. Evolution has molded us to be neither too miserable not too happy. Content hermits don’t multiply. Different people tend to stabilize on different levels of inherent happiness. The external stimuli can do little to influence it.
Therefore, maybe it’s pointless to seek changes in happiness throughout history? External objective reality changes, but the bio-chemistry of the brain fixes happiness at some level regardless of them. Like air conditioning. Buddhism agrees with this truth but reaches different conclusions: ephemeral feelings are worthless. Witnessing the impermanence of everything makes you stop craving particular feelings and accept them for what they are.
“Happiness begins within” is the opposite conclusion from the same premises, popular in the West.
If this is the case then chemical enhancement of people’s bio-chemistry can objectively increase collective happiness by a lot. But Huxley’s “Brave New World” is nevertheless dystopian and not utopian. It’s because an important part of happiness is meaning. It can change something painful into something worthwhile. Thus religious people leading miserable lives can be indeed happier than modern secular middle class.
So maybe happiness is the synchronization between personal delusions of meaning with the prevailing delusions in society? That allows people to convince themselves that life is meaningful and find happiness in that conviction.
Possibly the Buddhist insight is the closest to truth: it’s not that “I’m angry”, but rather “I’m feeling anger”. Inner feelings are just as hard to control and influence as external stimuli.
The next stage of history will include not only technological and organizational transformations but also fundamental transformations in human consciousness and identity. These could be transformations so fundamental that they will call the very them ’human’ into question.