My Take-away from Reading Sapiens
A brief history of humankind
(by Yuval Noah Harari)
A book that invited me to re-think how I think
I wasn’t sure I was going to finish Sapiens. I’m the type of reader who is willing to invest 100 pages into getting hooked. Sapiens challenged me to stay engaged, partly because I’m reading the hard copy and don’t have easy access to the equivalent of “smart look-up” when I run into words I’m not one-hundred percent confident I understand the meaning of, and partly because there is a lot of background info on the book’s pages that doesn’t always feed my curiosity or enhance my grasp.
And yet, I found myself thinking differently, and that excites me: realizing things I had taken for granted as common knowledge or proven fact, only to find much of it is just “the way it’s always been.” Like the pot roast story:
At a family gathering, a young woman asks her mother, “Why do we always cut the ends off of the pot roast?” And the mother answers, “You know I’ve always assumed it enhances the flavor by letting it cook more evenly, but I really am not sure. Let’s ask Grandma.” So, they go to Grandma and ask her, and Grandma says, “I don’t know either; let’s ask Great Grandma.” And they go over to Great Grandma and she informs them, “I never had a pan big enough.”
I did not recruit a think-tank to test the merits or work out the details of the following thoughts that surfaced while, and after reading Sapiens. This will become obvious.
I got to wondering about legacies and privileged generations, and reparations, and I wondered how we would ever expand the opportunities in a society that accepts that every generation ought to inherit its predecessor’s wealth, holdings, and position. What if…there was a limit to unearned legacies? If we weren’t able to accumulate ad infinitum within a family, and instead we would benefit general society with our excess…what might happen? (This idea rankled my own sensibilities as I considered what I wanted to do for my children, though was easier to digest when I thought about the Trump family).
And as Harari notes towards the end of the book, strong families and communities have been replaced by strong governments and markets.
“’Become individuals,’ they said. ‘Marry whomever you desire, without asking permission from your parents. Take up whatever job suits you, even if community elders frown. Live wherever you wish, even if you cannot make it every week to the family dinner. You are no longer dependent on your family or your community. 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.’”
With the burden shifted, why should wealth remain within the family after I am done with my individual need for it? Give it away, share it while alive, and bequeath a portion to my family, (especially if I leave dependent children or partners). The state would get the remainder to help defray the costs that families no longer bear.
There was a time when members of a family could be punished for the crimes of its members. We stopped that nonsense. We looked at each member individually, except for the favors and entitlements that stay within the privileged families. We left those intact.
I got to wondering, too, about our focus on our bodies. We all know that our bodies are here temporarily, and so maybe part of our focus is in trying to keep them running as long as possible. But you would have to admit, we take it a few steps further than just maximizing health. What if we spent more time focusing on our consciousness — the part of us that is the infinite part of us — maybe you call it your soul. What if we even allotted equal time to what we spend on thinking about our bodies: input (food, eating, cooking, recipes) and output (working out, burning calories, counting steps, conquering physical goals) and spent it on the enduring essence of ourselves?
And then I got to wondering about money. As Sapiens’ author Harari points out,
“…whereas religions ask us to believe in something, money asks us to believe that other people believe in something.”
That made me reconsider the ubiquitous Venn diagram that intersects my passions and the markets with my talent to come up with my niche, (my sweet spot, my happiness, or whatever other outcome I might search for clarity via a Venn diagram). I’m still thinking about it: what is it that I can create (or acquire) more readily than others can, that interests me in creating, and that others want?
Daylight savings time was ending as I was finishing Sapiens. As a kid, I always wondered how on earth they got the whole world to cooperate and move clocks forward and backward twice a year? Without the internet or group texts, they synchronized that! It amazes me. But I took my amazement further to ask myself — why aren’t we just on one time — why isn’t the current hour’s label the same around the world? Why isn’t it just 1800 hours everywhere at once?
Instead of having to arrange a meeting that has to be communicated like this:
It would instead look like this:
Airplane schedules would be much simpler — you get on a plane at 1600 hours. in Los Angeles, fly for 5 hours to NY, and voila, it’s 2100 hours when you land! 2100 everywhere in the world!
One challenge would be that business hours would be different all around the globe, (no standard 9-to-5) and yet, the reality is, this is already true. In this one-time concept, all of your global offices might open first thing in the morning, and in your Paris office that might now be called 2100 hours. It’s simpler than today’s time dilemmas: try arranging a 5-country conference call or provide time details when one of your participants is flying in from one time zone to attend the meeting in another.
These are details. It is not the point of the book that we should take its content and apply it myopically as I have done up to this point. I couldn’t help myself — the transactional details lured me and my curiosity.
It is the overview — the “how we got here” (showing us, the boiling frogs, the pot we are in and the flame beneath it) and where might we be going? Are we better off now that we don’t have to forage for food? What does better off even mean? Does it involve happiness?
Could we achieve a utopian world vision without invading, conquering, manipulating or warring our way to it? Does better off include only homo sapiens? What of animals that live in stalls, unable to move, or imperfect chickens discarded from conveyor belts to be compacted like trash? How far are we comfortable with genetic engineering or artificial intelligence, or social media expectation-setting, and how willing are we to tolerate a deteriorating environment and natural resources to have what we want?
That brings us to the author’s most probing question:
“What do we want to want?”
This requires serious reflection. We need to be very careful what we wish for. History has shown that there are unintended consequences to most things, despite the best of intentions.