Books, Exegesis, Reviews

Sapiens – A Brief History of Humankind :: Review

Introduction

Yuval Harari’s bestselling work, Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, is an essential part of any syntheist library.  It goes through the history of human development with a particular focus on the role of fiction.  Harari lucidly explains how fictions are humanity’s most powerful tools and how they permeate every part of our life.  Understanding the core relevance of fictions for humanity is essential to syntheist thinking; it allows a person to move beyond theism or atheism and engage thoughtfully with the fictions in their life.  Terranism recognizes the principles laid out in Harari’s work as the foundation for the doctrine of magic.  

Quotes

“…fiction has enabled us not merely to imagine things, but to do so collectively.  We can weave common myths such as the biblical creation story, the Dreamtime myths of Aboriginal Australians, and the nationalist myths of modern states.  Such myths give Sapiens the unprecedented ability to cooperate flexibly in large numbers” (pg. 25).

“As time went by, the imagined reality became every more powerful, so that today the very survival of rivers, trees and lions depends on the grace of imagined entities such as gods, nations, and corporations” (pg. 32).

“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” (pg. 110).

“For the imagined order is not a subjective order existing in my own imagination – it is rather an inter-subjective order, existing in the shared imagination of thousands and millions of people” (pg. 117).  

“There is little sense, then, in arguing that the natural function of women is to give birth, or that homosexuality is unnatural.  Most of the laws, norms, rights and obligations that define manhood and womanhood reflect human imagination more than biological reality” (pg. 148).

“Cognitive dissonance is often considered a failure of the human psyche.  In fact, it is a vital asset.  Had people been unable to hold contradictory beliefs and values, it would probably have been impossible to establish and maintain any human culture” (pg. 165).

“Money is more open minded than language, state laws, cultural codes, religious beliefs, and social habits.  Money is the only trust system created by humans that can bridge almost any cultural gap, and that does not discriminate on the basis of religion, gender, race, age or sexual orientation” (pg. 186).

“For although money builds universal trust between strangers, this trust is invested not in humans, communities or sacred values, but in money itself and in the impersonal systems that back it” (pg. 187).

“Today religion is often considered a source of discrimination, disagreement and disunion.  Yet, in fact, religion has been the third great unifier of humankind, alongside money and empires” (pg. 210).

“We study history not to know the future but to widen our horizons, to understand that our present situation is neither natural nor inevitable, and that we consequently have many more possibilities before us than we imagine” (pg. 241).

“Modern-day science is a unique tradition of knowledge, inasmuch as it openly admits collective ignorance regarding the most important questions” (pg. 252).  

“To channel limited resources we must answer questions such as ‘What is more important?’ and ‘What is good?’ And these are not scientific questions.  Science can explain what exists in the world, how things work, and what might be in the future.  By definition, it has no pretensions to knowing what should be in the future.  Only religions and ideologies seek to answer such questions” (pg. 273).

“The European empires did so many different things on such a large scale that you can find plenty of examples to support whatever you want to say about them” (pg. 302).

“The fact is, it’s not a deception, but rather a tribute to the amazing abilities of the human imagination.  What enables banks – and the entire economy – to survive and flourish is our trust in the future.  This trust is the sole backing for most of the money in the world” (pg. 307).

“In the new capitalist creed, the first and most sacred commandment is: ‘The profits of production must be reinvested in increasing production’”(pg. 312). 

“Some religions, such as Christianity and Nazism, have killed millions out of burning hatred.  Capitalism has killed millions out of cold indifference coupled with greed” (pg. 331).

“Ecological degradation is not the same as resource scarcity” (pg. 350).

“In fact, ecological turmoil might endanger the survival of Homo sapiens itself” (pg. 351).

“Yet all of these upheavals are dwarfed by the most momentous social revolution that ever befell humankind: the collapse of the family and the local community and their replacement by the state and the market” (pg. 355).

“Millions of years of evolution have designed us to live and think as community members.  Within a mere two centuries, we have become alienated individuals” (pg. 360).

“During this period humankind has for the first time faced the possibility of complete self-annihilation and has experienced a fair number of actual wars and genocides.  Yet these decades were also the most peaceful era in human history – and by a wide margin” (pg. 366).  

“The decline of violence is due largely to the rise of the state” (pg. 367).

“When things improve, expectations balloon, and consequently even dramatic improvements in objective conditions can leave us dissatisfied” (pg. 383).

“Rather, happiness consists in seeing one’s life in its entirety as meaningful and worthwhile….As Nietzsche put it, if you have a why to live, you can bear almost any how” (pg. 391).

Sapiens – A Brief History of Humankind

Summary

Sapiens is a lucid history of humanity focusing on the role of fiction.  It is not a comprehensive history by any stretch, but it sometimes feels like it with erudite observations and cutting truths.  The book begins with humanity’s primitive stages and then sweeps the reader through to the present day.  While broadly chronological, the book has a topical quality, each chapter dealing with a particular class of fiction at a time.  The organization usually follows the most important fictions that dominated an era of human existence, along with the technological and evolutionary elements that defined it.  If there is one primary takeaway from the book it is: everything you believe is a fiction, and that’s ok.

Personal Thoughts

I will not try to conduct a criticism section since the book has such a personal significance to me and I wouldn’t be able to critique it well anyway.  Sapiens sparked a new period in my life.  I read it a few years ago now and it still remains one of the most influential books I have ever read.  As I read it I wrote this passage in my journal, “GOD IS REAL BUT IT DOES NOT EXIST,” which was my first syntheist belief long before I encountered the word.  I believe that I became a syntheist at that moment.  

The epiphany Sapiens gave me was far deeper than the simple notion that gods are man-made.  I realized that the spiritual experience I grew up with, my Christianity, was not a blemish on my life.  Those moments of spiritual ecstasy and peace I had when I felt close to Christ were valid and true.  I didn’t need to look back on them embarrassed about my childishness and superstitious beliefs.  They were good parts of my life, worthy of remembering fondly.  But most importantly, I could accept them as a part of myself.  There was no need to shove them under the rug or rationalize them away.  They were a vitally human experience, and I can be proud to have them.  Sapiens gave me that, and I’m grateful.

Another important gift Sapiens gave me was empathy for my religious family and friends.  By recognizing the role religion played in my life and in history, I was able to recognize that, while I may have no more use for the Christian god, other people did.  There was no shame in it, I didn’t need to evangelize atheism to them (what a detestable notion).  I could respect their truths as important tools they use to navigate their lives.  Some people would benefit from using more updated tools, and it seems clear to me that my beliefs are those kinds of tools.  But if their tools are working well for the tasks they need them for, why interfere?  Just as my spiritual practice was valid before I left the church, so was theirs.  This empathy impresses me as the core of syntheistic beliefs.  

Naturally, I would recommend the book to everyone.  It is a difficult book, sharply true and potentially destabilizing, but entirely worth the risk.  There is a clarity to it that shines through whatever opinions Harari might bring to the table.  The core premise, that fiction is vitally important to humanity, rings so true that it is difficult not to be swept up in its momentum.  I felt like things finally made sense when I read it, like I discovered the core principles I had been searching for.  It contextualized me, humbled me, and helped make the world clear.  

Sapiens is a core text in the Terranic canon.

Further Reading

Sapiens – Brief History of Humankind, Yuval Harari

This Ted Talk basically summarizes the book

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