Addressing the Value of Intersubjective Phenomena in Harari’s ‘Sapiens’

A piece in the Santa Maria de Montserrat Abbey in Monserrat, Barcelona, Spain: an example of how powerful narrative is in how even contemporary Homo sapiens live their lives. (photo by Anna-Rose Wain June 2017)

Fire, gossip, agriculture, mythology, money, contradictions and science: these are the mile markers Harari uses to break down our progress from feeble apes to conquers of this vast planet. Indeed, it is expected that fire, agriculture, science and money should shape our species, but mythology, contradictions and gossip? Surly, something deemed as scientific as evolution would be beyond the childish fictions of mythology? Well, Harari argues otherwise, exploring in his book, ‘Sapiens’, the power of stories which dominate the intersubjective space in our development over history. If you want an in depth view of how over the 70,000 years of human history we, Homo sapiens (latin for “wise person”), I couldn’t recommend this book more highly. I want to explore just a little how narrative came to help us in our rise to power.

Although published in 2014, here I am ready to review ‘Sapiens’ in 2019 from the perspective of a fine art student living in a Brexit-cazed, Trump-plagued and corporation driven world. I hope you enjoy my insights.

Indeed, living as we do in our anthropocentric egoism we forget that there was a time when we as a species had little influence over our environment or other organisms; in fact, Harari argues that the most significant thing we can learn about our prehistoric ancestors was “that they were insignificant animals”{1}. It is humbling to read that compared to our ancestral siblings, the Homo neanderthalensis, we were weak and feeble in the face of the elements and we even had smaller brains. It is so clear that in recent centuries we have become too used to crowning ourselves the pinnacle of creation, making the void between ourselves and the animal kingdom larger and larger. Having come from a religious background, I am all to familiar with how easy it is for this to seep into our cultural dialogue, shaping how we define ourselves as a species. However, there is no excuse for this disconnect. We are simply one part of a larger, greater design and this should impact the way we treat our environment.

There is one unique factor which Harari argues is the likely reason for the extinction of all other species in the Homo genus (the name given to the branch of ancestors we come from) and that’s our “unique language”{2}. The development of this marked the beginning of the ‘cognitive revolution’ or as phrased in the book ‘the Tree of Knowledge’ mutation, between 70,000 and 30,000 years ago. This is what made us into the species of the Buddha, Henry Ford and Kanye West: culture is what enabled us to move from East Africa to wipe out all other Homos. Although the novel goes into great depth as to how human language differs from that of other organisms and why it was more successful, I am more interested in what this language enabled. Communication of information and ideaologies across people, civilisations and even nations. This was the formation of culture.

Bill Gates makes a very apt link between Harari’s theory and David Christian’s notion in ‘Big History’ of ‘collective learning'{3}, “how the ability to share, store, and build upon information truly distinguishes us as humans and allowed us to thrive”{4}. With this new superpower human beings could transfer information about things that didn’t exist in the material world, such as tribal spirits, nations, limited liability companies (as exemplified in Peugeot) and human rights. In turn this enabled the cooperation of huge numbers of strangers causing a rapid innovation of social behaviour.

I was fascinated to read about Göbekli Tepe, the site of an ancient temple found by archeologists in south-east Turkey in 1995. Available evidence suggests that the builders of the monuments on the site were hunter-gatherers that lived around 9,500 BC. The function of such a structure can only be compared to that of Stonehenge, one which holds no obvious utilitarian purpose yet gives insight into mysterious cultural activities inhabitants engaged with at the time of its construction. The next interesting finding came from geneticists tracing back the domestication of wheat in link with the ‘agricultural revolution'{5}; recent research indicates that at least one variant of wheat originally domesticated can be rooted back to the Karaçadag Hills, about 30km from the temple. Harari suggests this is much more than a coincidence and that instead of foragers switching to settlements to cultivate wild wheat to increase normal food supply, the domestication of wheat took place to ‘support the building and running of the temple’. If this doesn’t highlight the essential link between adaptive behaviour and cultural/religious ideology I don’t know what does.

Gates took issue with Harari’s claim that this agricultural shift was one of humanities biggest a “mistakes”. Gates argues that Harari overlooked “the fact that farming societies were able to specialise, leading to written languages, new technologies, and art”. Whereas this is correct in highlighting the clear advantageous reprocussions of the development human culture with regards to literature and record keeping, Harari frames his perspective from that of other species who’s individual suffering was increased by the domestication of livestock, such as dairy cattle or battery hens. Ironically enough, one wonders if Harari would even have gone as far to challenge our treatment of other species had he not been brought up in a society which is acutely individualistic and is deeply concerned with philosophical ethics. He does, however, pose some interesting questions surrounding fulfilment and happiness for all species.

Moving forward in time, past the ‘agricultural revolution’, the third part of the book focusses on ‘The Unification of Humankind’. With the ever expanding nature of human civilisation, Harari brings forward a focus on one of the biggest uniting myths in history: money. He goes as far as claiming that money is “the most universal and most efficient system of mutual trust ever devised”{6}. The nature of such a medium is that it allows people to convert everything into almost anything else through representation in something of minimal material substance such as a coin or bank note, something which only takes value only in the collective imagination. The necessity of trust in financial transactions is why economics is so concerned with social, political and ideological systems. Brexit is surely a testament to how fragile this trust can become as business fluctuates in the face of political uncertainty and ideological debate. I shall refrain from going into in-depth economics and the politics of nations simply because I’m more interested in how religion links into this bigger picture. Harari highlights the interchangeability of religion, politics and economics saying “brutal warriors, religious fanatics and concerned citizens have repeatedly managed to trounce calculating merchants, and even to reshape the economy”{7}. Great religious leaders have always been aware of the power of financial investment in promoting their ideologies as well as merchants being conscious of the power ideology has in sales; hence, claiming unification was merely an economic feat undermines reality. The same can be said for politics: as Mahatma Gandhi proclaimed, “Those who believe religion and politics aren’t connected don’t understand either.”{8}

The definition of religion and what differentiates a religion from a cult requires in depth study into the historical provenance of religious texts and accounts and much more; historically many philosophers I have researched have oversimplified this enquiry, but for the sake of accessibility I will agree with Harari’s definition of religion for this article alone. Harari thus defines religion as “a system of human norms and values that is founded on a belief in a superhuman order”. As Göbekli Tepe proves, we can link back religious inclinations in our species as far back as the agricultural revolution and most suspect even earlier. The beginning for us as hunter-gathers was animism – ‘the attribution of a living soul to plants, inanimate objects, and natural phenomena'{9}. These beliefs were localised to tribes in specific areas who held beliefs about species which they believed protected them from adversity in that given habitat; there was no purpose in an evangelic effort to spread their belief with tribes to whom their knowledge was irrelevant. Placing humanity above other organisms and vegetation was in vain as we were still very much at the mercy of our environment and had no reason to prize ourselves above the rest of the world.

Only when we entered the Agricultural Revolution did we et ourselves below angels God’s but above wildlife and plants in the religious hierarchy. Suddenly, we desired to control livestock and manipulate the genetics of plants, hence we created a fictional order which would justify it. Theism – the belief in a God or Gods, specifically a Creator who intervenes in the universe{10} – is believed to have developed out of the fear rooted in little-to-no control over the elements that wished to harness. In the face of infertility, humans made sacrifices and prayed to the God of Fertility; much of ancient theology came in the form of contracts between man and God to intervene naturally with the returned promise of everlasting devotion to the supernatural. This can be seen at the root of most theistic religions as demonstrated in Genesis as well as in Greek mythology. However, although the contractual nature of these religions stands superficially similar their nature was distinguished clearly in differing polytheistic and monotheistic doctrines.

An interesting point highlighted in the discussion of polytheism is their recent ostracisation of such religions in the Western world having been deemed childish, ignorant or idolatrous. Furthermore, a common misconception is that polytheists don’t engage with the belief of a supreme power or single law governing the entire universe like Allah or Yahweh; this can be seen in the classical Greek belief in Fate(Moira Ananke) or the Hindu belief in Atman. The difference lies in the relevance of such supreme powers to the lives of those practising the religion. Polytheistic religions contend that such almighty leaders are devoid of concern for the desires, cares and worries of mundane humanity. To pay attention to such God’s is pointless as there are mediators such as the Zeus or Ganesha who can directly influence their lives. I was fascinated to find that polytheistic religions were also a lot more accepting of the deities of foreigners as we see in the Romans who enthusiastically added the Asian goddess Cybele and the Egyptian goddess Isis to their pantheon (again highlighting how the geographical/militant interests of a people can directly influence their religiosity and vice versa). However, as time marched on civilisations grew to favouring particular patrons, thus growing into monotheistic religions. Obviously, this wasn’t the case of locally monotheistic peoples such as the Israelites who believed in the omnipotent God of the Jews, forming the exclusivities of Judaism.

Nevertheless, why as it that monotheism dominates the lives of 21st century sapiens leaving polytheism as a seemingly secondary belief system? Monotheists by nature believe they are in possession of a universal truth, pure in its nature and urgent to everybody. A religion, such as that of the ancient Romans, that recognises the legitimacy of other beliefs has no competition, thus no reason to defy others or spread their own. Hence Christianity grew from an esoteric Jewish sect to take over the Roman Empire and Islam broke out of the Arabian deserts to conquer an empire spreading from the Atlantic sea to India{10}. We are only too aware of how much conflict we have suffered over the last two millennia through the violent assertion of such beliefs as the ‘whole truth’. The claim that the Crusades, for example, were caused alone by the monotheistic and dominant nature of the medieval church is a gross oversimplification as often religion is used as a superhuman justification for very human desires.

This is where Harari’s opinions become interesting as he claims “the monotheistic religions expelled the gods through the front door with a lot of fanfare, only to take them back through the side door”. This comes with view of the ‘pantheon of saints’ formed by Catholics which differed little from the Roman and Aztec religions. With this I can agree with as much as the Christian doctrine has been neglected in its original monotheistic format. The part I take issue with is his conclusion that “either you believe in a single omnipotent God or you believe in two opposing powers, neither of which is omnipotent”{11}. Christians, Muslims and Jews have all maintain they’re monotheistic religions yet seem to adopt dualistic beliefs surrounding the presence of an evil force, working against good in the world. From a Christian view, there is the belief in the workings of a fallen angel in the world – Satan – who is described in the bible as an ‘ancient serpent'(Rev 20:1-6) or a ‘prowling lion'(1 Peter 5:8-9) who works to tempt humanity into disobeying the Almighty. However, according to the bible the “ The reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the devil’s work.” – therefore it is the desire of humanity for autonomy from God’s law that allows the devil to work, the final victory of good has already been proclaimed in Jesus, it is a promise waiting to be fulfilled. Thus, I argue that Christianity is not a Dualistic belief but rather a temporarily dualistic belief in which good has ultimately won but evil still has strongholds if allowed.

There is so much discuss surrounding the nature and purpose of narrative in this book, but ultimately all beliefs, whether in the power of money or the divine authority of a deity, rely on the subject’s authentic trust in its veracity. I value Harari’s very sincere respect of the value of religious belief in a scientific discourse which usually glorifies secularism and dismisses religion as fanatical causes of conflict. This book gives fantastic insight into how intrinsic belief in the immaterial is to our species’ evolution and how essential it has been in our success whilst also warning us of its negative implications on other species as well as our own.

I’d love it if you could comment and give me some of your thoughts on this article or even on the book if you’ve edit yourself! Please use the list of sources below if you want any further reading.

References:

{1} Harari, N. (2014). Sapiens. London: Vintage, p.4.

{2} Harari, N. (2014). Sapiens. London: Vintage, p.21.

{3} Big History Project, 2018. Big History Project, 2018. [online] Available at: https://www.bighistoryproject.com/chapters/4#human-evolution [Accessed: 31/07/19]

{4} Gates, B. (2019). How Did Humans Get Smart? | Bill Gates. [online] Gatesnotes.com. Available at: https://www.gatesnotes.com/Books/Sapiens-A-Brief-History-of-Humankind [Accessed 31 Jul. 2019].

{5} Harari, N. (2014). Sapiens. London: Vintage, p.100-103.

{6} Harari, N. (2014). Sapiens. London: Vintage, p.201.

{7} Harari, N. (2014). Sapiens. London: Vintage, p.209.

{8} Gandhi, M. (2019). A quote by Mahatma Gandhi. [online] Goodreads.com. Available at: https://www.goodreads.com/quotes/954170-those-who-believe-religion-and-politics-aren-t-connected-don-t-understand [Accessed 2 Aug. 2019].

{9} Lexico Dictionaries | English. (2019). animism | Definition of animism in English by Lexico Dictionaries. [online] Available at: https://www.lexico.com/en/definition/animism [Accessed 2 Aug. 2019].

{10} Holloway, R. (2009). A little history of religion. 2nd ed. Yale University Press.

{11} Harari, N. (2014). Sapiens. London: Vintage, p.247.

For Further Study:

https://www.alhambradegranada.org/en

https://www.ted.com/speakers/yuval_noah_harari

https://www.ynharari.com/book/sapiens/

https://www.theguardian.com/books/2014/sep/11/sapiens-brief-history-humankind-yuval-noah-harari-review

https://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/books/bookreviews/11120947/Sapiens-a-Brief-History-of-Humankind-by-Yuval-Noah-Harari-review-urgent-questions.html

https://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/books/reviews/sapiens-by-yuval-noah-harari-book-review-eloquent-history-of-what-makes-us-human-9712106.html

https://www.gatesnotes.com/Books/Sapiens-A-Brief-History-of-Humankind

11 thoughts on “Addressing the Value of Intersubjective Phenomena in Harari’s ‘Sapiens’

  1. I skimmed through your post, which seems quite detailed and probably has spoilers, but can there be spoilers on a book that is not fiction. I am almost exclusively a reader of fiction, though this book is there in my list due to the recommendations and the rave reviews. Your thoughts make it even more enticing.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Ye, I need to learn to chop down the words in my reviews 😂 I don’t know really, I tried not to quote too much to avoid revealing any ‘spoilers’ – I was more interested in discussing some of the points he raised. The book is fantastic and eye opening, would highly recommend

      Liked by 1 person

      1. It is difficult to keep it short when you are writing about something you love, or loved. The book, if I go with your review does seem like it would incite discussions.

        Like

    2. Interesting tangent, ESP and Anna-Rose, on spoilers in non-fiction. For me, as a rule, there are no spoilers in non-fiction. In non-fiction, I like to know up front what point(s) the writer is trying to make. That helps me to know if I want to read it and it helps me to evaluate their evidence as I read along. (There are exceptions, such as Christopher McDougall’s “Born to Run,” which tells a non-fiction story along a plot line based on suspense, but books like Harari’s should not play hide-and-seek with their thesis; thus, reviewers should not fear giving spoilers.) Oh yeah, I should add “imho” 🙂

      Liked by 2 people

      1. I completely agree! I was trying to convince my boyfriend to read this post of mine and struggled to as he contested to the ‘spoilers’ it’d give away! I am the same as you Greg, I prefer to have some sense of their thesis before I even read the book. To be interested in a non-fiction I have to have some sense of direction. Your opinion was very humble indeed 😉

        Liked by 1 person

      2. I agree, but only to the extent of facts. Non-fiction writing is more about interpretations of the facts, or say interpolation, extrapolations, and drawing conclusions from such exercises. And that is where spoilers come into picture, a reviewer brings in another layer or interpretation, and there in lies the risk of getting biased, by the reviewer’s take, as you read the book and the author’s methods and conclusions. IMHO that is 🙂

        Liked by 2 people

      3. It’s true that you could pick up the bias of the reviewer. But I advise Anna-Rose not to forward your message to her boyfriend, as we were about to convince him that he can read her review risk-free 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Thanks for an enlightening review of this book, which so many have recommended to me but which I’ve neglected to read it. A few thoughts. Fire, gossip, agriculture, mythology, money, contradictions and science. My initial reaction differs from yours in that I see mythology as a powerful, perhaps the most powerful, milestone. Also, I think I get the power of gossip – as the emergent capacity to “chit-chat” would certainly separate our species from, say, those beautiful howler monkeys in Costa Rica 😊. “Contradictions” as a milestone, though, eludes me.

    As for as our prehistoric ancestors being “insignificant animals” and the Gates-Harari dispute about agriculture, note that in the big picture we may be the most insignificant. Unless we last another half million years, which seems unlikely, even Neanderthals will go down as having more successful and less destructive tenure on Earth than their short-lived Sapiens cousins.

    Monotheism has always struck me as stark and lonely for the poor god who has to rule over it. Looking back, I can see how it set us on the long path toward the existentialist gloom that settled over philosophy in the mid-20th century 😊 (emphasis on my 😊 counterpoint to my existentialist brothers and sisters).

    By the way, I like the delightful style of your writing 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It’s definitely worth a read, ignoring his often hyperbolic tone (hence my slightly scathing stance on his stance that mythology is the MOST important milestone) he’s got some radical insights into the value of fiction in our development as a species. “Contradictions” is a tricky concept to address on the comments section but you’ll nevertheless find a perfect explanation in Harari’s work itself 😉

      Indeed, it monotheism (of indeed any form of theism at all) does offer a solace in contrast to existential philosophy, yet I find the questions that arise with faith in a God tend to tie me in far from peaceful knots😂😩

      Thank you for your comment! I really enjoyed your thoughts and will welcome the compliment as always. ☺️

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Hahaha. Thanks, Anna-Rose. I can’t figure out how to attach my replies to the exact message I’m replying to, but you now have the philosophical basis to tell your boyfriend he has no excuse 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Exactly my opinion thank you for being on my side, I’ve already sent the screenshot to him haha!

      Liked by 1 person

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