In Search of Better Stories

Sapiens, A Brief History of Human Kind

     This is a shotgun blast — all of human history explained in a little over 400 pages! Surely, some of the shot will miss the mark. That said, it was a provocative and interesting read.

Big Idea:

  1. We figured out our brains. The most important part of us (Cognitive Revolution).
  2. We figured out how not to go hungry (Agricultural Revolution).
  3. We figured out how to be connected (Unifying Revolution). Thanks to money, religion, and empire.  
  4. We figured out how things work (Scientific Revolution)

     But even though we have “advanced” so far, Hirari despairs because we are less happy and suffer more than our cave-dwelling ancestors did. What’s the point of all this advancement if we are just more miserable? He doesn’t have an answer.

Other bits worth remembering and wrestling with

  • Neanderthals vs. Sapiens There were two types of humans in the past. The Sapiens won. What happened to the Neanderthals? Who knows, but it would make for a good novel or movie.
  • Very Little is Real. Most is Imagined

      Morality is a made-up construct. Ideas around right and wrong are not true or real in any sense. They are made-up things that we have all agreed to play along with for a litany of reasons. So guilt, shame, and anxiety over these mythical, man-made creations is a foolish endeavour, indeed. Religion is the greatest made-up thing of all.

      Sapiens are different from other animals precisely because we have the ability to imagine. Our imaginations allow us to call into being and make “real” things that, in truth, are not. Virtually every aspect of our lives is built upon imagined foundations. — money, politics, ideology, corporations, morality, love — all of it imagined.

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. Imagined orders are not evil conspiracies or useless mirages rather, they are the only way large numbers of humans can cooperate effectively

Page 110

     For Example, there is no such thing as equality or universal human rights in the real world. These concepts are made-up things that most people in the Western world agree to.

  • How do you keep people believing a made-up story?

     How do you cause people to believe in imagined orders such as Christianity, Islam, democracy or capitalism? First, you never admit that the order is imagined. And you indoctrinate the shit out of them from the minute they’re born. It’s this kind of thinking that caused Voltaire to say, ” There is no God, but don’t tell that to my servant, lest he murder me at night.”

  • How do you cause people to believe a different story?

All established order accepted truth, and “the way things are” vanish as soon as people stop believing in them. “A single priest often does the work of 100 soldiers far more cheaply and effectively” (111). In order to change an existing imagined order, we must first believe an alternate imaginative order (118) Or, in my parlance, “Believe a Better Story.” Click Here to order my book. See Chapter 10 in particular.

  • When Yuval Noah Harari’s argument dies

There is never a time when an unimagined order is believed. Harari’s version of reality: Humans are products of time, and chance stuck in a meaningless existence is in itself every bit an imagined order as Christianity, Communism, or Capitalism. But Harari doesn’t acknowledge this. He is falling into his own trap. “First, you never admit that the order is imagined. And then you indoctrinate the shit out of them.” I am more than ok to admit that unprovable stories shape our existence more than anything else, this is a primary emphasis in my book Escaping the Mortal Cage. When it comes to believing in world/culture-shaping orders, the best question to ask isn’t what’s true but rather what’s better. Harari’s story is too depressing and bleak for my liking, but he cannot assume it’s true without falling on his sword.

  • The Good Old Days were when we were hunter-gatherers.   

Harari believes that the hunter-gatherer ancestors were much more anxiety-free. The agricultural revolution, in which we learned to farm, turned out to be more problematic for us. The hierarchy of power became more pronounced after the agricultural revolution, and slavery became common. The rich benefited, but the vast majority of humanity did not.

The transition, first to agriculture and then to industry, has condemned us to living unnatural lives that cannot give full expression to our inherent inclinations and instincts and, therefore, cannot satisfy our deeper earnings. Nothing in the comfortable lives of the urban middle class can approach the wild excitement and sheer joy experienced by a forager band on a successful mammoth hunt. Every new invention just puts another mile between us and the Garden of Eden. (378)

     Harari is a science guy; he should test the validity of the above statement by grabbing a spear and heading to some obscure location in sub-Saharan Africa. I don’t believe it will take him very long to rethink his comments.

3) The Great stumbling block of irreducible complexity

Every other mammal that went to sea — seals, sea cows, dolphins — had to evolve for aeons to develop specialized organs and a hydrodynamic body. The Sapiens in Indonesia, descendants of apes who lived on the African savannah, became Pacific seafarers without growing flippers and without having to wait for their noses to migrate to the top of their heads as whales did.  (64)

     I’ve never been able to get past the idea of “irreducible complexity.” You go extinct if you have to wait for specialized organs and a hydrodynamic body to materialize over time while you transition to water life. — All equipment necessary for ocean living must already be in place. Sure, I get micro-evolution cool, innovative tweaks here and there, that cause various ocean creatures to be more specialized, but that’s not what’s going Harari is talking about. Humans didn’t grow flippers or sprout noses on the top of their heads because that’s not something that happens, and it’s really hard for me to imagine it happening to other formerly land creatures. I guess I lack the faith and imagination to perceive a story so unbelievable as this, but then again, I’m not a scientist either.

  • If you can’t beat them, join them

     During the 20th century, local groups that had adopted Western values claimed equality with their European conquerors in the name of these very values—values these other cultures did not previously hold. Many anti-colonial struggles were waged under the banner of self-determination, socialism, and human rights, all of which are Western legacies. Better stories exist, even if those who bring them behave badly.

  • Ease up on Empire bashing. It’s not so simple as to say empires are the bad guys and conquered populations are the good guys.

To colour all empires black and disavow all imperial legacies is to reject most of human culture (193).

     Empires brought people together and created rich and diverse ways of being that, in the long run, cannot be construed as wrong. It’s just a shame that the empire-building toolkit usually comes with oppression, war, slavery, and genocide.

  • It all comes down to happiness.

     Harari says we are not happy, and in our unhappiness, we are destroying animals, ecosystems, and each other. Happiness is the measuring stick that determines whether humans are doing good. What leads to happiness? Harai says community, contentment and meaning will do the trick. But the problem, is that these three are hard to come by without an overarching story that makes them necessary. Hararis’ overarching story:

humans are the outcome of blind evolutionary processes that operate without goal or purpose, or actions are not part of some divine cosmic plan. (391)

     Doesn’t help. There is no intrinsic motivation to reduce the suffering in the world with his bleak worldview, is there? None that I can see. — To reduce suffering is a Judea-Christian idea, something Harari refers to as a delusion.

  • The Irony of it All

     The final paragraph:

We are consequently wreaking havoc on our fellow animals and on the surrounding ecosystem, seeking little more than our own comfort and amusement, yet never finding satisfaction. Is there anything more dangerous than dissatisfied and irresponsible gods who don’t know what they want? (416)

     The only thing more dangerous is the belief that we have become all-powerful gods in a meaningless world. The great irony is that Harari’s beliefs about the way things “really” are create precisely the existential crisis he wants us to avoid.


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