Curious Insight

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Curious Insight


3rd November 2017

This post is about Yuval Noah Harari's book Sapiens. All of my favorite books have changed the way I view the world in some non-trivial way. There's nothing quite like the experience of reading a book and then, afterward, realizing that you can't go back to who you were before you read it because you just see things differently. Sapiens falls into that category for me. At first glance, one would expect that this is a book about the inexorable rise of humankind - where we came from, how we evolved to what we are today, and what we were like along the way. It is that, at least in a sense, but it's also so much more. Sapiens goes beyond a simple stating of the facts as we know them and uncovers some deeper (and often inconvenient) truths about humankind. Harari's analysis of WHY history unfolded the way it did is more fascinating that the history itself, and paints a much more holistic picture of what it means to be human.

One of the most interesting themes throughout the book is the role that imagination has played in our species' ascendancy on the world stage. I think most people probably believe that humans have always been at the top of the food chain, but for most of our history we were essentially foragers (or as Harari put it, "an animal of no significance"). It wasn't until the "cognitive revolution" around 70,000 years ago that humans moved to the top of the food chain. The reason seems to be that our new cognitive skills allowed us to coordinate with other humans on a level that the world had not seen before. What specifically enabled this were two things - new language skills, and the ability to invent fiction. Our newfound ability to imagine things that aren't real allowed humans to organize around shared beliefs in myths that we, ourselves, created.

If you think about it, transitioning from a world in which all life operates via basic biological principles to one in which a species can imagine alternate realities is a big deal. This change arguably led to everything that has come since, to all of the accumulated knowledge that our civilization has amassed in the many generations that followed. Before this transition, an organism's operating system was programmed in its DNA. Some organisms could acquire limited amounts of knowledge from their environment, such as the best places to hunt or tricks to avoid being eaten, but everything else was hard-wired. With the ability to imagine, humans could rewrite their own operating system. We could create an idea - a conception of a thing that didn't exist, and make it reality.

What I find particularly fascinating is Harari's argument that basically every organizing principle in modern human society falls under the category of a shared belief in fiction. Religions, laws, nations, companies, human rights - these are all, in a sense, figments of our collective imaginations. Biology doesn't take a stance on how humans should treat each other. There is no physical necessity for the borders we draw around nations, no tangible thread holding together the assets of a corporation. All of this seems completely obvious upon introspection, but I discovered that until reading this book I had never really thought about it. I've found that the way I view things like political debate has changed as a result.

Sapiens delves into numerous topics that one might be surprised to find in a "history" book. For instance, there's a chapter that questions whether or not we're any happier or more fulfilled as a species for all the progress we've made. In another chapter, Harari looks at the trends of the past and begins to speculate about where we're headed next. He discusses the role that technologies like artificial intelligence and genetic engineering might play in this future, and whether or not we'll even still call ourselves Homo sapiens.

Philosophy aside, Sapiens does a great job of covering the major themes in our species' history. The agricultural revolution, the invention of written language and money, imperialism, the scientific revolution, the rise of capitalism and industry. The book covers a lot of ground. Harari's analysis is often counter-intuitive (and probably controversial), but always thoroughly researched and very well-reasoned. For example, he called the agricultural revolution "history's biggest fraud" because for most humans, the transition led to a much harsher and less rewarding life. He documents the "imagined order" of large societies that placed people into hierarchies, and concludes that the particular structures of these hierarchies are mostly accidents of history. He argues that scientific research flourished only in alliance with ideologies such as capitalism or imperialism, because these ideologies funded the cost of research. These conclusions are not immediately obvious but he makes a compelling case.

There was so much packed into this book that I'm really just scratching the surface. It's not a quick read but the writing style is very engaging so it doesn't feel laborious like you might expect for a book with this subject matter. I would highly recommend it to anyone interested in expanding their knowledge about humankind's social and cultural evolution.

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