Profundis: “Sapiens”, by Yuval Harari

Harari’s “Sapiens” is a quality work of popular science. As is usually the case with books of this sort most of the material will be review for anyone who has been paying attention to evolutionary biology, anthropology, and religious and economic history. But “Sapiens” nevertheless manages to be an engaging and thorough treatment of these fields. Better, it has a number of compelling definitions, generalizations, and claims which I would like to catalogue here.

First, though, let me briefly summarize the book’s thesis, which is essentially this: around 70,000 years ago a ‘tree of knowledge mutation’ caused changes in the neural architecture of the human brain. The brain had been increasing in size for about two million years, but it wasn’t until this mutation that we gained the ability to use exceptionally sophisticated language to represent entities that not only might not be currently present (i.e. bison glimpsed near the river earlier in the day) but might not exist at all (a pantheon of sky gods).

This was significant because it allowed for the creation and promulgation of shared myths which facilitate cooperation at super-Dunbar scales. The ‘Dunbar number’ is about 150, which is thought to be the theoretical limit on how big groups can be with all members having personal, detailed knowledge of all other members.

Groups at this size and lower are held together by kinship and perhaps friendship. Beyond this, something else must provide cohesion, and throughout man’s history this ‘something else’ has been shared fictions. The Catholic religion is vastly bigger than the Dunbar number, and Catholics distributed in both time and space can cooperate with one another because of a shared belief in the divinity of Christ (among other things).

Markets, science, religion, and indeed civilization itself stemmed from this supreme ability to cooperate. What Hariri calls ‘fictions’ and ‘imagined orders’ provide the basis for this ability.

Now, on to the compelling bits:

  • On an individual level humans aren’t significantly different from chimpanzees. We are only superior in large groups.
  • Early humans did not live is idyllic harmony with nature. They routinely burned huge swathes of land through the practice of ‘fire farming’ and were directly responsible for the extinction of hundreds of animal species.
  • For a long while the Agricultural Revolution actually didn’t make life better. It did support the population explosion which eventually gave rise to a profound division of labor, and that did make life better.
  • Cultures are defined as ‘networks of artificial instincts.’
  • Our ‘imagined orders’ (cultures, religions, jurisprudential customs, etc.) affect our lives because 1)they are embedded in our material world, 2) influence what we desire and how we pursue our desires from a very early age, 3) are intersubjective (i.e. ‘held by most other people’) and thereby acquire a kind of force.
  • Something is ‘objective’ when it does not depend on the contents of anyone’s consciousness, ‘subjective’ when it does, and ‘intersubjective’ when it isn’t objective but is believed by enough people that it does matter in the way objective facts might.
  • At least as important as a method of writing was a way of storing, indexing, and retrieving documents.
  • One of the earliest forms of money was barley, which has biological value, but it is hard to store and thus doesn’t facilitate the accumulation of wealth, which means no loans, no credit, no investment.
  • How do we tell what is biology and what is culture? A good rule of thumb: ‘biology permits, culture forbids’. There is no biological reason that two men shouldn’t have sex, but cultures have reliably been unenthusiastic about the idea.
  • Cultures are rife with contradictions because they are not bound to the rules of consistency the same way physics is. This isn’t a weakness, it’s a virtue, because exploring contradictory terrain propels cultures forward.
  • The ‘us v.s. them’ distinction seems hardwired into humans, but the religious, imperial, and economic imagined orders are capable at least in theory of subsuming everyone.
  • Trust, more than money, powers the economy.
  • Money is remarkable because it is able to transform anything into anything else and it enables profound cooperation. But it is denigrating, too, because when people cooperate they value the money, not each other, and for a high enough payoff people have been known to do unspeakable things.
  • ‘Empires’ must have two characteristics: 1) they must rule over numerous (more than two or three) different peoples; 2) they must have an insatiable desire for more territory. So size isn’t a factor here. The Aztec empire was a true empire even though it’s smaller than modern Mexico, because it subsumed some 300 different tribes and was constantly expanding.
  • Empires are often criticised as being unstable and evil. The latter claim is problematic because empires have done quite a lot of good throughout history, but the former claim is plain nonsense. Empires are one of the oldest and most stable forms of government, and most people have lived and died within empires.
  • The Persian King Cyrus the Great (c. 600-530 BC) was the first ruler to claim to be conquering on behalf of the conquered. He didn’t consider himself a Persian king subjugating the jews, he saw himself as the rightful king of the jews and thus responsible for their safety and well being.
  • Religions are defined as imagined orders which must be based on tenets that are supernatural in order and binding. Religions tend to have a missionary element.
  • The development of theism had a lot to do with the Agricultural Revolution. Before almost everyone was an animist, perceiving valuable sentience in every fern, rock, and river. But once farming became commonplace it felt silly to try and commune with things you owned, so people began to conceive of distinct gods acting on their behalf in the natural world.
  • Polytheistic empires like Rome were pretty religiously tolerant. They tended not to care much who you worshipped, so long as you also worshipped the gods of the ruling state. Two Egyptian gods, Osiris and Isis, were even brought into the Roman pantheon without trouble. The Romans persecuted the monotheistic Christians primarily because they refused to play by these rules.
  • There are two kinds of chaotic systems. Level 1 chaotic systems like the weather do not respond to attempts to predict their behavior. Level 2 chaotic systems like the stock market do.
  • The scientific revolution was unique in a few different ways. First, unlike religionists, scientists were willing to admit ignorance; Second, no theory or concept is sacred within science; Third, science leads ineluctably to the development of new technologies and new powers.
  • We take it for granted that superior military technology is a decisive advantage, but this was not always the case. Scipio Africanus would’ve had a decent chance of defeating Constantine the Great, who lived several hundred years later. But Napoleon would’ve been slaughtered by McArthur.  The difference is that the intertwining of capitalism, science, and imperialism caused arms development to become extremely quick, so a few decades or centuries would matter a lot in determining the outcome of a conflict.
  • There are two kinds of poverty — social and biological. Social poverty is not having the same opportunities as everyone else, and might be ineradicable. Biological poverty is not having enough to eat, and certainly is eradicable.
  • What made Europe great was a set of prevailing myths which encouraged expansion and discovery. The first commercial railroad was opened in Britain in 1830 and fifty years later there were a quarter-of-a-million miles of railroad there. There were only something like 22,000 miles in the rest of the world put together, much of which had been laid by the British in India. The difference? The imagined orders of science and capitalism.
  • Prior to the 15th century mapmakers usually pretended a vague familiarity with unknown parts of the world by putting monsters there. Afterwards, they made no such pretenses.
  • The discovery and conquest of America was truly unique. Most empire-builders sat out thinking they basically knew what the world contained and they wanted to rule over it. Not so with America, where the conquistadors and their financers knew damn well that they were totally ignorant of what awaited them.
  • European empiro-mancy was aided by scientific advances, and reciprocated by being very generous in funding scientific ventures. Most expeditions had more than one scientist among its team members.
  • Throughout history profit has been seen as evil because economies were tacitly viewed as being zero-sum, so any money I accumulated had to be taken from someone else. But once scholars realized that the size of the economic pie could be increased by productive effort, views on profit began to change.
  • Adam Smith’s view that selfishness can drive benevolent, prosocial behavior was among the most remarkable claims ever made. I think he was right.
  • The distinguishing feature of capitalism is that profits are reinvested in expanding production and distribution. Wealthy dukes or barons mostly sat on their wealth, they didn’t apportion a fraction of it to researching how to grow more wheat per acre.
  • In early-modern history it wasn’t unusual for private companies to hire armies, generals, ships, artillery, and everything else.
  • A big reason France didn’t emerge as the financial center of Europe to fill the vacuum left by the collapse of the Dutch merchant empire was because of an enormous hit she took when the bubble growing around development of the Southern Mississippi river collapsed, wiping out most of the French financial apparatus. Britain did managed to fill that vacuum, and France never really caught back up.
  • With the development of a strong central state the family and community had less and less of a crucial role to play in individual development, regulation, and protection. Occasionally this trend reversed: one reason the spectacular Carolingian empire collapsed a mere generation after the death of Charlemagne was that the crown was unable to adequately defend against Magyar and Viking raids. The fragile ties binding these communities the state began to fray because the state couldn’t provide them with adequate defense.


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