Gavin’s Friday Reads: Sapiens, A Brief History of Humankind by Yuval Noah Harari

This book covers human history over the last 200 thousand years but it is much more than that.It gives great insight into what sort of creatures we are and how we were shaped by evolution.

The reason I picked this book this week is for one particular topic he covers. Our ability to collaborate is based on  our biology.  Our brains reward us intrinsically for the behaviors that benefit our groups.  I discussed this in my reviews of the books The How of Happiness and The Book of Joy. 

However it is not all roses in a garden of Eden.  There are people who take advantage of others and act selfishly.  How do human groups cope with this?

In Sapiens Harari writes about the importance of gossip.  Many organizations attempt to stop their people from gossiping.  Gossiping however is how we humans keep track of who is behaving and who is misbehaving in our tribal groups (or small companies) up to about 150 people. (Dunbar’s number)  When our groups get larger than this we can’t keep track of the bad apples in our group and we either need to split into two smaller groups or we need to find another solution.  

When we invented agriculture we became stationary and we began to live in larger and larger groups numbering in the thousands.  If someone ripped you off in the market place there was a good chance they would get away with it.  It is about this time that for the first time religions emerged with gods who cared about laws, were vengeful,  just, and would hold people accountable in an afterlife.  IE Zoroastrianism.  (Previously gods were mischievous trickster gods or nature gods who might require sacrifices to appease them.)

This belief system in a just and vengeful god and an afterlife was a useful thing.  If I know that you also believe in the same vengeful god then I know I can trust you, and if you cheat me, I know that in the afterlife you will get what is coming to you.  This allows the economy to operate more smoothly.

Our belief in our currency is a similar thing.  A $20.00 bill has value because most of us believe it does.  If most of us now believe it is only a piece of paper (which objectively it is) then it is just a piece of paper.  

Only humans can do this.  We are the only creatures who can create and share a fictional belief system that can promote cooperation of millions of individuals.  You are not going to convince a chimpanzee to give up a banana for a $20.00 bill.  It is not possible for 10,000 chimpanzees to gather peacefully in a stadium to hear a speech or attend a ceremony either, but humans can do this because we can believe in ideas and these ideas can unite large numbers of us.

“You could never convince a monkey to give you a banana by promising him limitless bananas after death in monkey heaven.”

Yuval Noah Harari

What we have lost track of is how many other “fictions” like this we currently depend upon and believe in, and how dangerous a lack of belief in those fictions can be if they are undermined and too many of us decide they are no longer true.

It was not long ago that most people believed in the divine right of kings.  Then overnight we thought that was just a silly idea and we chose to believe in government by the people instead.  Democracy, and Human rights, are just as much “fiction” as was the divine right of kings. Objectively no god endowed us with inalienable rights.  THere is no sovereign god protecting our democracy.  The only way these rights are “true” is if most of us believe it is true.  These truths are “self evident” only because we all believe it.

When a group of people undermines our basic beliefs and “faith” in our system by ignoring evidence, spreading lies, and engendering “false” beliefs for their own selfish aggrandizement they are literally taking apart our society.  There is nothing, no institution or system to prevent its collapse.  We believe the system is strong and can protect itself but that is not true.  (hundreds of societies have collapsed in the past)  As we have seen recently (I wrote all of this before the insurrection in the capitol building which just makes it more obvious) if it was not for a handful of people with hard facts in hand and moral spines in a few key positions, our democracy would already be over, or on life support.  These people have performed heroically under a lot of pressure from very powerful people.  Our society is still under attack and I am afraid it will continue to be for a long time.  

We need to wake up and realize how fragile our democracy and freedoms are. 

Freedom of speech is a value we all hold dear.  Along with the good of being able to speak freely to authority comes the downside of people freely being able to spread false information and blatant lies.  However opinions are one thing and facts another thing entirely.  We may not be able to legally shut down these lies but we can speak up and reach out to others we know who have bought into the lies. 

To change a person’s point of view you need to be respected by them.  Therefore the only expedient way out of this is for the leaders of these groups to have the decency to now speak truth to their followers.

Cheers for Friday,

Gavin Watson, Chair, Conscious Capitalism Connecticut Chapter

Gavin Watson & Associates

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