09.23.19 | Sapiens

Yuval Noah Harari certainly doesn't lack for ambition in his book Sapiens -- his work is nothing less than an epic history of human evolution. Our focus article is equally ambitious in that it condenses the essence of this otherwise ten-hour read into a compact one-hour summary (click: Sapiens) Here, in one sitting, you'll be exposed the full panoply of homo sapien development: the brain; cognitive revolution; agricultural revolution; imagined reality; unification of humankind; advent of money; the imperial cycle; religion; scientific revolution; capitalism; industrial revolution; collapse of family. The overview is tight, comprehensive, and eminently readable in the same way a previous discussion article zoomed out and provided the connective tissue in our discussion of the life cycle of empires (MM 7/30/18).

Our goal here goes well beyond the mere understanding and appreciation of what brought the human project to this point. No, what we hope to accomplish in our discussion is to better understand what was behind the massive and fundamental historical transformations which, at the time, might have seemed unimaginable. From that we can be open to possible shifts that may seem unimaginable today. In other words, human history is more than history -- it may be instructive as to what is possible as the breed looks to the future.

The look-back starts with the cognitive revolution. First came some accidental genetic mutation 30-70,000 years ago rewiring the brain to enable Sapiens to think in unprecedented ways and to communicate using a new type of language. The combination led to the human's ability to process and communicate information that was increasingly conceptual. Out of that arose the appearance of fiction, cooperation, and the power of common mythology. Our discussion shall focus on the immense role played by imagined reality.

Estimates set the critical threshold for the necessary "circle of trust" among humans directly to be one hundred and fifty i.e. for tribes smaller than that members could pretty much rely on each other for their continued existence; a larger group of strangers required some sort of imagined reality in order to engage in successful cooperation. Religion is cited as one such unifier to maintain the necessary social stability through a system of human norms and values. As social orders and hierarchies become more fragile with size, the power of religion rested in its appeal to some superhuman abstraction, something beyond the tangible. We previously discussed this in terms of the power of religious fundamentalism which seemed to increase, not diminish, with the absurdity (scientifically speaking) of certain underlying holdings e.g. the universe is but six thousand years old (MM 8/20/18). We may then speculate on the increasing role of modern science, based on empirical observation, to hold the social order i.e. technology becoming an almost quasi-religion.

And so it is when it comes to trade, money, and the entire financial system. Barter might work when it's based on the trust inherent in personal relationships. The rise of cities, kingdoms, and commerce dictated a broader basis of trust, a trust based on an abstraction. Money has to be the ultimate (next to religion) psychological construct. View the dollar, indeed the federal reserve, as but an imagined reality (MM 2/4/19). What happens when trust is lost in any fiat (literally: let it be done i.e. edicted) currency? Notice the degree to which so much of America's future is tied to her dollar being the world's reserve currency, an advantage threatened by the fact that we are nearing the end of the hundred year average length of time for any previous world currency (last one being the UK Pound from 1815 to 1920).

Myths usually don't die out on their own but as they are supplanted by a new belief system. Right now we are experiencing what might be described as the myth of romantic consumerism or, to take a line from Fight Club, "We buy (stuff) we don't need, with money we don't have, to impress people we don't like." Perhaps a new ethos will follow. People sniff at the utter unimaginality of movements like the Green New Deal. But, before dismissing too quickly the suggestion of major change, it's good to reflect back on the cited one-time practice of the ancient Egypt elite to spend their fortunes building pyramids and having their corpses mummified rather than engage in what we'd regard today as a shopping spree (imagine a man today addressing a relationship crisis with his wife by building the sumptuous tomb she had always wanted rather than taking her on a spending holiday). The lesson: perhaps we Sapiens are more adaptable and changeable than we thought.

Snobbery itself may be viewed as but an imagined reality. Sebastien Chamfort wrote in the late 17th century of a nameless French gentleman: "A fanatical social climber, observing that all around the Palace of Versailles it stank of urine, told his tenants and servants to come and make water around his chateau."

Steve SmithComment