Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind by Yuval Noah Harari

Is this the world we created?
What did we do it for
Is this the world we invaded
Against the law
So it seems in the end
Is this what we’re all living for today
The world that we created

Is This the World we Created? by Queen

Nature’s law decreed that Homo sapiens be one of many homos. In the natural order, we were supposed to be in the middle of the pack. And there were so many of us! Neanderthals, Homo erectus, Homo denisovans, Homo habilis and many others. We made our first tools because we had to get marrow from bones. Our ancestors respectfully waited until wolves or tigers or other dangerous prey were done eating and then took nourishment from what remained. We were nature’s scavengers.

Then something happened. Not physically but mentally. The basic structure of our brains didn’t change but we were able to imagine things that did not exist. More, we were able to live in worlds that existed only in our heads. Thanks to this new-found ability we were able to organize ourselves into groups and conquer the world.

To understand what Hariri means by imaginary worlds, consider the company where you work. If everyone in that company was fired tomorrow and all the buildings were torn down, the company would still exist. But if a judge applying laws (which we invented) were to rule that your company must vanish, it would cease. That means companies you and I work for are imaginary. They exist only because we, collectively, agree they exist.

To drive that point home, Harari explains that most other mammals have language. If you have pets you know they tell each other (and you) when they think there is danger. But they talk about real things. Or, to use another of Harari’s examples, bees have incredibly complex societies. But they don’t have lawyers. Homo sapiens are different. We gossip. We tell stories about each other and about our world. And that fiction allows us to invent our communities.

Virtually everything around us is an imaginary community. You are reading this online. The internet is an invention. A fiction. As is science. There is no “science” in the natural world. Just as there is no ignorance. (Before we could invent science, we had to invent ignorance.) We invented farming. And sailing. Other mammals have to wait millennia to grow gills and eyes at the top of their heads before they can cross an ocean. Humans imagine and build boats.

I’m not saying it’s easy to create an imaginary community. Harari points out, for example, that the first money was made of barley. Sumerian barley money was “simply barley—fixed amounts of barley grains used as a universal measure for exchanging goods and services.” Why did Sumerians use barley? Because people did not trust money. So Sumerian money had to have intrinsic value. If no-one would take it, you could eat it. Over time, as people successfully exchanged money again and again, they came to trust it implicitly—until today ninety percent of all money doesn’t even exist in a physical form; it’s all on a computer server somewhere. It wasn’t easy to create the imaginary world of money. But the very fact we are able to do it, makes us unique.

It also made us incredibly destructive. Neanderthals, Denisovans, Homo floresiensis no longer exist (except in our DNA). We wiped them out. We were no more kind to other mammals. Harari points out that within a few thousand years of Homo sapiens’ setting foot in Australia all but one of the Australian animals that weighed 100 pounds or more became extinct as did many smaller animals. We exterminated them as ruthlessly as we did our Homo brothers and sisters.

And now with the advent of the scientific revolution that allows us to re-imagine (and hence recreate) ourselves, we may well imagine ourselves out of existence. We may become something else entirely. And before we take that final step into a different species, Harari advises us to consider what we should want to want.

For none of the revolutions—from the cognitive to the agricultural to the industrial to the scientific—made us any happier. All they’ve done is made us into irresponsible, restless, unhappy and hugely destructive gods. And that is not good. Not for us, not for our world.

To quote Queen once more:

We are the champions, my friends
And we’ll keep on fighting ‘til the end
No time for losers
‘Cause we are the champions of the world.

Product Name: Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind

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