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Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind

By Yuval Noah Harari

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Even if by some superhuman effort I succeed in freeing my personal desires from the grip of the imagined order, I am just one person. In order to change the imagined order I must convince millions of strangers to cooperate with me. 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.

An objective phenomenon exists independently of human consciousness and human beliefs. Radioactivity, for example, is not a myth. Radioactive emissions occurred long before people discovered them, and they are dangerous even when people do not believe in them.

The subjective is something that exists depending on the consciousness and beliefs of a single individual. It disappears or changes if that particular individual changes his or her beliefs.

The inter-subjective is something that exists within the communication network linking the subjective consciousness of many individuals. If a single individual changes his or her beliefs, or even dies, it is of little importance. However, if most individuals in the network die or change their beliefs, the inter-subjective phenomenon will mutate or disappear. Inter-subjective phenomena are neither malevolent frauds nor insignificant charades. They exist in a different way from physical phenomena such as radioactivity, but their impact on the world may still be enormous. Many of history’s most important drivers are inter-subjective: law, money, gods, nations.

Similarly, the dollar, human rights and the United States of America exist in the shared imagination of billions, and no single individual can threaten their existence. If I alone were to stop believing in the dollar, in human rights or in the United States, it wouldn’t much matter. These imagined orders are inter-subjective, so in order to change them we must simultaneously change the consciousness of billions of people, which is not easy. A change of such magnitude can be accomplished only with the help of a complex organisation, such as a political party, an ideological movement, or a religious cult. However, in order to establish such complex organisations, it’s necessary to convince many strangers to cooperate with one another. And this will happen only if these strangers believe in some shared myths. It follows that in order to change an existing imagined order, we must first believe in an alternative imagined order.

There is no way out of the imagined order. When we break down our prison walls and run towards freedom, we are in fact running into the more spacious exercise yard of a bigger prison.

We begin with the story of the greatest conqueror in history, a conqueror possessed of extreme tolerance and adaptability, thereby turning people into ardent disciples. This conqueror is money.

How did money succeed where gods and kings failed?

Money was created many times in many places. Its development required no technological breakthroughs – it was a purely mental revolution. It involved the creation of a new inter-subjective reality that exists solely in people’s shared imagination.

Money is not coins and banknotes. Money is anything that people are willing to use in order to represent systematically the value of other things for the purpose of exchanging goods and services. Money enables people to compare quickly and easily the value of different commodities (such as apples, shoes and divorces), to easily exchange one thing for another, and to store wealth conveniently.

More than 90 per cent of all money – more than $50 trillion appearing in our accounts – exists only on computer servers.

Everyone always wants money because everyone else also always wants money, which means you can exchange money for whatever you want or need.

Cowry shells and dollars have value only in our common imagination. Their worth is not inherent in the chemical structure of the shells and paper, or their colour, or their shape. In other words, money isn’t a material reality – it is a psychological construct.

Why are you willing to flip hamburgers, sell health insurance or babysit three obnoxious brats when all you get for your exertions is a few pieces of coloured paper? People are willing to do such things when they trust the figments of their collective imagination. Trust is the raw material from which all types of money are minted.

Money is accordingly a system of mutual trust, and not just any system of mutual trust: money is the most universal and most efficient system of mutual trust ever devised.

Initially, when the first versions of money were created, people didn’t have this sort of trust, so it was necessary to define as ‘money’ things that had real intrinsic value.History’s first known money – Sumerian barley money – is a good example.

The real breakthrough in monetary history occurred when people gained trust in money that lacked inherent value, but was easier to store and transport. Such money appeared in ancient Mesopotamia in the middle of the third millennium BC. This was the silver shekel. *

The silver shekel was not a coin, but rather 8.33 grams of silver. *

Set weights of precious metals eventually gave birth to coins. The first coins in history were struck around 640 BC by King Alyattes of Lydia, in western Anatolia. Almost all coins in use today are descendants of the Lydian coins.

Total strangers could easily agree on the worth of a Roman denarius coin, because they trusted the power and integrity of the Roman emperor, whose name and picture adorned it.

By the late modern era the entire world was a single monetary zone, relying first on gold and silver, and later on a few trusted currencies such as the British pound and the American dollar.

The appearance of a single transnational and transcultural monetary zone laid the foundation for the unification of Afro-Asia, and eventually of the entire globe, into a single economic and political sphere.

Christians and Muslims who could not agree on religious beliefs could nevertheless agree on a monetary belief, because whereas religion asks us to believe in something, money asks us to believe that other people believe in something.

For thousands of years, philosophers, thinkers and prophets have besmirched money and called it the root of all evil. Be that as it may, money is also the apogee of human tolerance. 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. Thanks to money, even people who don’t know each other and don’t trust each other can nevertheless cooperate effectively.

When everything is convertible, and when trust depends on anonymous coins and cowry shells, it corrodes local traditions, intimate relations and human values, replacing them with the cold laws of supply and demand.

Money has an even darker side. For although money builds universal trust between strangers, this trust is invested not in humans, communities or sacred values, but in money itself.

We do not trust the stranger, or the next-door neighbour – we trust the coin they hold. If they run out of coins, we run out of trust.

The world is in danger of becoming one big and rather heartless marketplace.

An empire is a political order with two important characteristics. First, to qualify for that designation you have to rule over a significant number of distinct peoples, each possessing a different cultural identity and a separate territory.Second, empires are characterised by flexible borders and a potentially unlimited appetite. They can swallow and digest more and more nations and territories without altering their basic structure or identity. *

A century ago almost any place on earth could have become part of the British Empire.

An empire need not emerge from military conquest.

Empires were one of the main reasons for the drastic reduction in human diversity. The imperial steamroller gradually obliterated the unique characteristics of numerous peoples, forging out of them new and much larger groups.

The truth is that empire has been the world’s most common form of political organisation for the last 2,500 years. Most humans during these two and a half millennia have lived in empires. *

Since around 200 BC, most humans have lived in empires. It seems likely that in the future, too, most humans will live in one. But this time the empire will be truly global. The imperial vision of dominion over the entire world could be imminent.

As of 2014, the world is still politically fragmented, but states are fast losing their independence. Not one of them is really able to execute independent economic policies, to declare and wage wars as it pleases, or even to run its own internal affairs as it sees fit.

Immensely powerful currents of capital, labour and information turn and shape the world, with a growing disregard for the borders and opinions of states. The global empire being forged before our eyes is not governed by any particular state or ethnic group. *

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.

Today most people outside East Asia adhere to one monotheist religion or another, and the global political order is built on monotheistic foundations.

The last 300 years are often depicted as an age of growing secularism, in which religions have * increasingly lost their importance. If we are talking about theist religions, this is largely correct.

The modern age has witnessed the rise of a number of new natural-law religions, such as liberalism, Communism, capitalism, nationalism and Nazism. These creeds do not like to be called religions, and refer to themselves as ideologies. *

Theist religions focus on the worship of gods. Humanist religions worship humanity, or more correctly, Homo sapiens. Humanism is a belief that Homo sapiens has a unique and sacred nature, which is fundamentally different from the nature of all other animals and of all other phenomena.

Today, the most important humanist sect is liberal humanism, which believes that ‘humanity’ is a quality of individual humans, and that the liberty of individuals is therefore sacrosanct.

The chief commandments of liberal humanism are meant to protect the liberty of this inner voice against intrusion or harm. These commandments are collectively known as ‘human rights’.

The liberal belief in the free and sacred nature of each individual is a direct legacy of the traditional Christian belief in free and eternal individual souls.

Another important sect is socialist humanism. Socialists believe that ‘humanity’ is collective rather than individualistic. They hold as sacred not the inner voice of each individual, but the species Homo sapiens as a whole. *

According to socialists, inequality is the worst blasphemy against the sanctity of humanity, because it privileges peripheral qualities of humans over their universal essence.

The idea that all humans are equal is a revamped version of the monotheist conviction that all souls are equal before God.

The only humanist sect that has actually broken loose from traditional monotheism is evolutionary humanism, whose most famous representatives are the Nazis.

At the dawn of the third millennium, the future of evolutionary humanism is unclear. No one speaks about exterminating lower races or inferior people, but many contemplate using our increasing knowledge of human biology to create superhumans.

Commerce, empires and universal religions eventually brought virtually every Sapiens on every continent into the global world we live in today.

But saying that a global society is inevitable is not the same as saying that the end result had to be the particular kind of global society we now have.

The last 500 years have witnessed a phenomenal and unprecedented growth in human power.

The historical process that led to Alamogordo and to the moon is known as the Scientific Revolution.

The great discovery that launched the Scientific Revolution was the discovery that humans do not know the answers to their most important questions.

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

A prime example is the debates about how best to run the economy.

Our current assumption that we do not know everything, and that even the knowledge we possess is tentative, extends to the shared myths that enable millions of strangers to cooperate effectively. If the evidence shows that many of those myths are doubtful, how can we hold society together? How can our communities, countries and international system function?

One of the things that has made it possible for modern social orders to hold together is the spread of an almost religious belief in technology and in the methods of scientific research, which have replaced to some extent the belief in absolute truths.

Until the Scientific Revolution most human cultures did not believe in progress. They thought the golden age was in the past, and that the world was stagnant, if not deteriorating.

If even Muhammad, Jesus, Buddha and Confucius – who knew everything there is to know – were unable to abolish famine, disease, poverty and war from the world, how could we expect to do so?

When modern culture admitted that there were many important things that it still did not know, and when that admission of ignorance was married to the idea that scientific discoveries could give us new powers, people began suspecting that real progress might be possible after all.

Two forces in particular deserve our attention: imperialism and capitalism. The feedback loop between science, empire and capital has arguably been history’s chief engine for the past 500 years.

Today all humans are, to a much greater extent than they usually want to admit, European in dress, thought and taste.

Even today’s burgeoning Chinese economy, which may soon regain its global primacy, is built on a European model of production and finance.

Europe and Europeans no longer rule the world, but science and capital are growing ever stronger.

Only in the twentieth century did non-European cultures adopt a truly global vision. This was one of * the crucial factors that led to the collapse of European hegemony.

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.

They created the world as we know it, including the ideologies we use in order to judge them.

Behind the meteoric rise of both science and empire lurks one particularly important force: capitalism. Were it not for businessmen seeking to make money, Columbus would not have reached America, James Cook would not have reached Australia, and Neil Armstrong would never have taken that small step on the surface of the moon. *

Money has been essential both for building empires and for promoting science.

It is not easy to grasp the true role of economics in modern history. *

Yet to understand modern economic history, you really need to understand just a single word. The word is growth.

Capitalism’s belief in perpetual economic growth flies in the face of almost everything we know about the universe.

Capital and politics influence each other to such an extent that their relations are hotly debated by economists, politicians and the general public alike. Ardent capitalists tend to argue that capital should be free to influence politics, but politics should not be allowed to influence capital.

This free-market doctrine is today the most common and influential variant of the capitalist creed.

But in its extreme form, belief in the free market is as naive as belief in Santa Claus.

Markets by themselves offer no protection against fraud, theft and violence. It is the job of political systems to ensure trust by legislating sanctions against cheats and to establish and support police forces, courts and jails which will enforce the law.

At the end of the Middle Ages, slavery was almost unknown in Christian Europe. During the early modern period, the rise of European capitalism went hand in hand with the rise of the Atlantic slave trade. Unrestrained market forces, rather than tyrannical kings or racist ideologues, were responsible for this calamity.

The slave trade was not controlled by any state or government. It was a purely economic enterprise, organised and financed by the free market according to the laws of supply and demand.

This is the fly in the ointment of free-market capitalism. It cannot ensure that profits are gained in a fair way, or distributed in a fair manner. On the contrary, the craving to increase profits and production blinds people to anything that might stand in the way. When growth becomes a supreme good, unrestricted by any other ethical considerations, it can easily lead to catastrophe.

Capitalism has killed millions out of cold indifference coupled with greed.

The Industrial Revolution that swept through Europe enriched the bankers and capital-owners, but condemned millions of workers to a life of abject poverty.

The supreme commandment of the rich is ‘Invest!’ The supreme commandment of the rest of us is ‘Buy!’

The history of ethics is a sad tale of wonderful ideals that nobody can live up to. Most Christians did not imitate Christ, Buddhists failed to follow Buddha.

The new ethic promises paradise on condition that the rich remain greedy and spend their time making more money, and that the masses give free rein to their cravings and passions – and buy more and more. This is the first religion in history whose followers actually do what they are asked to do. How, though, do we know that we’ll really get paradise in return? We’ve seen it on television.

Our once green and blue planet is becoming a concrete and plastic shopping centre. *

Over time, states and markets used their growing power to weaken the traditional bonds of family and community. *

The state and the market approached people with an offer that could not be refused. ‘Become individuals,’ they said.

We, the state and the market, will take care of you instead. We will provide food, shelter, education, health, welfare and employment. We will provide pensions, insurance and protection.’

Romantic literature often presents the individual as somebody caught in a struggle against the state and the market. Nothing could be further from the truth. The state and the market are the mother and father of the individual, and the individual can survive only thanks to them.

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. Nothing testifies better to the awesome power of culture.

In the last two centuries, the intimate communities have withered, leaving imagined communities to fill in the emotional vacuum. *

Like money, limited liability companies and human rights, nations and consumer tribes are inter-subjective realities. They exist only in our collective imagination, yet their power is immense. *

In recent decades, national communities have been increasingly eclipsed by tribes of customers who do not know one another intimately but share the same consumption habits and interests. Manchester United fans, vegetarians and environmentalists are examples.

The last 500 years have witnessed a breathtaking series of revolutions. *

Did the wealth humankind accumulated over the last five centuries translate into a new-found contentment?

Was the late Neil Armstrong, whose footprint remains intact on the windless moon, happier than the nameless hunter-gatherer who 30,000 years ago left her handprint on a wall in Chauvet Cave? If not, what was the point of developing agriculture, cities, writing, coinage, empires, science and industry? *

Most current ideologies and political programmes are based on rather flimsy ideas concerning the real source of human happiness.

If economic growth and self-reliance do not make people happier, what’s the benefit of capitalism?

A lot of evidence indicates that we are destroying the foundations of human prosperity in an orgy of reckless consumption. *

Biologists hold that our mental and emotional world is governed by biochemical mechanisms shaped by millions of years of evolution.

If we accept the biological approach to happiness, then history turns out to be of minor importance, since most historical events have had no impact on our biochemistry.

If so, what good was the French Revolution? If people did not become any happier, then what was the point of all that chaos, fear, blood and war? *

Today, when we finally realise that the keys to happiness are in the hands of our biochemical system, we can stop wasting our time on politics and social reforms, putsches and ideologies, and focus instead on the only thing that can make us truly happy: manipulating our biochemistry.

That’s one option. Another is that the findings demonstrate that happiness is not the surplus of pleasant over unpleasant moments. Rather, happiness consists in seeing one’s life in its entirety as meaningful and worthwhile.

A meaningful life can be extremely satisfying even in the midst of hardship, whereas a meaningless life is a terrible ordeal no matter how comfortable it is.

Most history books focus on the ideas of great thinkers, the bravery of warriors, the charity of saints and the creativity of artists.

Yet they say nothing about how all this influenced the happiness and suffering of individuals.

For close to 4 billion years, every single organism on the planet evolved subject to natural selection. Not even one was designed by an intelligent creator.

For billions of years, intelligent design was not even an option, because there was no intelligence which could design things.

The first crack in the old regime appeared about 10,000 years ago, during the Agricultural Revolution.

Today, the 4-billion-year-old regime of natural selection is facing a completely different challenge.

In laboratories throughout the world, scientists are engineering living beings. *

It’s unclear whether bioengineering could really resurrect the Neanderthals, but it would very likely bring down the curtain on Homo sapiens. Tinkering with our genes won’t necessarily kill us. But we might fiddle with Homo sapiens to such an extent that we would no longer be Homo sapiens.

Throughout history, the upper classes always claimed to be smarter, stronger and generally better than the underclass. They were usually deluding themselves.

With the help of new medical capabilities, the pretensions of the upper classes might soon become an objective reality. *

What we should take seriously is the idea that the next stage of history will include not only technological and organisational transformations, but also fundamental transformations in human consciousness and identity. And these could be transformations so fundamental that they will call the very term ‘human’ into question.

Seventy thousand years ago, homo sapiens was still an insignificant animal minding its own business in a corner of Africa. In the following millennia it transformed itself into the master of the entire planet and the terror of the ecosystem.

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.

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