Instant Book Reaction: Sapiens by Yuval Noah Harari
A Brief Summary of Homo Sapiens and a Look into the Future
Have you ever wondered how you got to this place in time? Of course you have, but have you ever wondered how we did as a human species?
If you have ever thought about the future and where we are heading it is crucial to understand where we have come from. Yuval Noah Harari does that perfectly in his book, Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind.
He is able to break down the history of mankind in a simple and digestible manner, but leave you with tremendously brilliant insights into the human mind. Using history in conjunction with biology, Harari is able to explain how our transition from simply one of the six species in the genus of Homo quickly put us at the top of the food chain. With little time for evolution to catch up, we still deal with fear, anxiety, and a lack of confidence that predators at the top of the food chain have never really experienced.
We tend to take out this fear and anxiety on each other in the forms of war and ecological catastrophes, yet have completely alienated ourselves from all other animal species. We have come to believe that we are more than the apex predator on planet Earth, and treat other animals accordingly.
Do you think we treat animals as equals or have come to believe in the idea that we are gods?
The Power of Imagination
One of the theories for how Homo Sapiens became so smart, so quickly is the Tree of Knowledge mutation. This was essentially a random DNA mutation that allowed for Sapiens to communicate more effectively and have superior intelligence than our counterparts.
From this mutation, we began to live in a world half-based in reality and half-based in our imaginations. We began to create gods, nations, and companies. Harari writes,
“As time went by, the imagined reality became ever more powerful, so that today the very survival of rivers, trees and lions depends on the grace of imagined entities such as the United States and Google.”
Yet, creating imagined realities allows for strangers to cooperate effectively and without prior or intimate knowledge of one another. Political, religious, and social systems are myths. Plain and simple, but they allow for connection and meaning in a world where there is none. Meaning must be created so we went with: follow the Ten Commandments (Christianity), have pride in your country (nationalism), and work and earn money so that you can consume more goods (capitalism). These cooperation networks are rarely egalitarian or voluntary, and are fueled by myths. We try to imagine humans consenting to these systems (like Rousseau, Hobbes, or Locke all did with the Social Contract) but in reality these myths simply evolved and became more complex, as we did.
If you are a rebel like me, you may try to think about how to escape from these myths or why we continue believing in them.
Harari writes that three things hold us back from realizing that these orders are imagined:
- They are woven into our material world (money, laws, social hierarchy, etc.)
- They shape our desires (commandments, romanticism, consumerism, nationalism)
- They are inter-subjective (meaning even if we change our beliefs, it has little to no impact on other people’s beliefs)
In order to truly change an existing imagined order, we rally behind a different or modified myth.
We see this constantly. When capitalism shows some of its weaknesses, people rally behind other myths, even those that are less practical like communism and socialism.
Harari argues that for all of the arguing and violence that we see in the world today, we actually live in an incredibly peaceful time. The rest of human history seems to be marked with violence and war, that was often justified by myth. Today, politicians and rulers seem to believe that peace is morally right and attainable. Other contributing factors are that the price of war has gone up (#thanksnukes), profits for war have gone down, and finally peace is actually valuable in terms of trade and foreign investment. Because of these things, it seems that we are trending towards a more peaceful and united world in the future. YAY SAPIENS!!
Pump the brakes, we still have a long way to go.
How do we create a world in which suffering is absent?
This seems an impossible task, but the answer seems to lie in an ancient religion: Buddhism. Harari discusses Buddhism a couple times in the book and while he doesn’t argue that Buddhism is our escape route to a better society, he does see the creativity and wisdom in its teachings.
Buddhism believes that no matter what the mind experiences, it always craves. When we have a bad experience, we crave that it ends. When it’s good, we crave that it intensifies and lasts longer. The example he gives is that when we finally find love we are rarely satisfied by it — as we tend to believe one of two things: our partner will leave or we could have had someone better.
What is the way out of this endless suffering, or samsara? Crave for nothing.
Focus on what you are experiencing now; accept things as the way they are, not for what they could be. This state of perfect contentment is called Nirvana. It is not about not craving for external things, like money, status, or things, but even internal things. For in seeking for better things, we suffer.
I love these teachings and ideas, but recognize how hard they are to actually attain without a life devoted to meditation and the teachings of Buddhism.
Finding Meaning and Creating the Future
A lot of people focus on meaning as their goal in life. By finding meaning, Harari shows that happiness almost becomes arbitrary. With meaning, we get happiness, even when we suffer day-to-day. This is because we are able to look back on our lives with contentment and satisfaction.
To find purpose and meaning, search for the truth within.
Harari finishes his book with a look to the future. He discusses the obvious: genetic engineering. In the pursuit of forming better organic life, it seems that we will eventually be able to create a human with whatever characteristics (emotionally, physically, psychologically) that we want it to have. We will also be able to complement organic life with inorganic life and things like neurochips and even create a direct two-way brain to computer interface that allows computers to read the electrical signals of your brain and then send signals that your brain can interpret.
In essence, we will eventually be able to experience and know what other people know and literally put ourselves in their shoes (an idea that I once contemplated extensively as a kid, but only dreamed about being real). From there, the steps to a collective memory bank seem simple enough, but what happens to our self-identity when we are experiencing other people’s lives or follow the dream of someone who we have never even met?
Philosophical and ethical debates will become ever-more important before we start designing the technology that enables us to do such things. Or we rush into new technologies that we don’t fully understand the future implications of (like we often do) and hope for the best! I think the former option is the best, but hey being rational isn’t always sexy.
The third type of life that Harari discusses is inorganic life. We have already created artificial intelligences that can learn from a dataset and continually get better and teach itself new things. Eventually, it seems very logical to propose that computers will one day be much more intelligent than their creators and that software will literally eat the world.
Harari has some interesting conjectures of a dystopian (utopian?) future where machines are the rulers of our world. They decide where to invest money already, from there it could be software that decides who gets hired at a company, who gets a mortgage, and who gets sent to jail.
Harari certainly ends the book by entertaining our imaginative sides (after showing how imaginative much of our world is, it seems only fair). He even goes a step further, positing the idea that while sci-fi films project current humans in future technologies, the future will really be composed of a completely different Homo Sapien. This Sapien could have completely different wants and needs and concerns than modern humans.
Going back to his idea that we should be able to genetically engineer our wants and desires of future humans, this turns into a question of not only what we want to become….
But what we want to want.
The book concludes and we are left having to contemplate what we want, and in the afterword, Harari presents us with an ever-more daunting idea,
“is there anything worse than dissatisfied and irresponsible gods who don’t know what they want?”
That quote alone made me love this book as much as I have loved any other book.
Maybe it’s because I had many of these own thoughts that Harari wrote about or maybe it’s because I have wanted to write a book about the history of humans, but most importantly update the world on the current knowledge that we have, while providing thought-provoking questions on the future, either way: this book is truly remarkable and I cannot wait to read his sequel: Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow.
Feel free to share your thoughts on these ideas, the book, or what you think/want the future to look like!