10/24/2017 0 Comments
Before opening the book Sapiens, it felt odd to read a book that condensed 70000-year history of our species into 400 pages. I thought the author must have cut out many inconvenient details that did not perfectly fit into his theory to explain historic events and trends. Last time when I read a book in this genre, it was Jared Diamond's Guns, Germs, and Steel. To my surprise and delight, Sapiens actually reads quite compelling. Yuval Harari has come up with a common thread that runs throughout the entire human history and he has done a beautiful job in convincing us of his interpretation of history.
There are certain similarities between Guns, Germs, and Steel and Sapiens. Both books cover long historic periods. Both draw upon insights from several disciplines such as anthropology, biology, and geography. In the meantime, these are two different books. Diamond's book was motivated by the question about inequality that exists in different societies across the world. He attributes the gap of wealth between European counties and countries in the southern hemisphere such as New Guinea to geography. Sapiens was motivated by a different question. For as long as the collective human consciousness recalls, we have been searching for an answer to the question, "what makes us distinctive from all other life forms on earth?" Biologists used to attribute our uniqueness to the ability to make tools. This myth has actually been debunked in recent years as many animals have been found to be very adept at making and using tool to accommodate their needs. Religions such as Christianity and Islam distinguish us from all others by insisting that only human beings have eternal souls. Modern scientific studies until this day fail to validate this notion. Harari thinks that we as an insignificant species for a long period of time were able to climb up the food chains due to our abilities to compose stories, tell stories, and make others believe these stories as if they are the reality. He has a name for the commonly held-to-be-true stories: inter-subjectivity.
On page 117, Harari defines "inter-subjective" as "something that exists within the communication network linking the subjective consciousness of many individuals." He further explains, "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 phenomena will mutate or disappear... Many of history's most important drivers are inter-subjective: law, money, gods, nations." This list also includes: corporation, human rights, democracy, or anything that only exists in a large group of people's consciousness. The tendency and ability to share beliefs with one another make it possible for thousands or even millions of people to cooperate. This inter-subjectivity can become so powerful that even overwhelms the objective reality, and it can be so effective to unite individuals to form tribes, communities, cities, empires, and nations. As Harari writes, "The first millennium BC witnessed the appearance of three potentially universal orders, whose devotees could for the first time imagine the entire world and the entire human race as a single unit governed by a single set of laws. Everyone was "us', at least potentially. There was no longer 'them'. The first universal order to appear was economic: the monetary order. The second universal order was political: the imperial order. The third universal order was religious: the order of universal religions such as Buddhism, Christianity, and Islam." Thanks to the combination of the three inter-subjective entities, Sapiens on every continent were brought together into a highly interconnected world. In other words, globalization can never be achieved without these unifying inter-subjective forces.
The wheel of history is constantly steered by these inter-subjective forces. Along the way, cognitive revolution and agricultural revolution occurred to humanity. For a very long time, humans lived under an illusion that they could know all that was to be known in one source. For instance, many held that the Bible contained all the knowledge about the universe. This complacency stopped around five hundred years ago, arguably the beginning of scientific revolution. The great discovery of our own ignorance propels us to constantly sail beyond the familiar horizon. Harari identifies three critical ways in which modern science differs from previous forms of knowledge: "the willingness to admit ignorance," "the centrality of observation and mathematics," and "the acquisition of new powers." For the first time in history, scientific knowledge can be directly translated into pure power. You don't need to look far in recent history to find ample examples of this conversion. On the day when the first atomic bomb was detonated, the nuclear physicist who helped develop this deadly weapon Oppenheimer has been quoted to say, "Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds." Now, humans have acquired the capacity for total self destruction. No wonder the great Einstein once made a remark, "“I know not with what weapons World War III will be fought, but World War IV will be fought with sticks and stones.” The entire climate has been fundamentally intervened by human activities. We are starting to feel the consequences of our actions.
It has never been easier to translate scientific knowledge into power. The same however cannot be said about the relationship between power and happiness. With more power accumulated by us did not come more happiness. Sapiens ended with quite a grim picture for humanity's future. In some sense, our species has been elevated to the status of God with all the power we have acquired through perpetual scientific revolution. Harari posed this question to all his readers: "is there anything more dangerous than dissatisfied and irresponsible gods who don't know what they want?"
Leave a Reply.