“Sapiens” and the Search for Meaning

It has been said that you do not really know where you are going unless you know where you came from. As a species and as individuals we often look to the past to understand how things came to be, and to look for guidance as to how we should proceed. Religion, science, philosophy, and, arguably, simple reflective consciousness attempt to answer some very difficult questions about our history and whether our past infuses our present lives with profound meaning. Those who engage this matter across the panoply of belief, research, hypotheses, conjecture, and hunch, undertake a daunting task.

When Prof. Yuval Noah Harari’s book “Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind” debuted it made a mighty splash, for it purported to take up this question head on. It has now been translated into over 20 languages from its original Hebrew. Sapiens is a paradox – much like the species it purports to represent. For its larger themes it adds a critically important piece to the matter of how we think about ourselves and the systems we have created in order to advance and exist. At the detailed topical level, it is a disaster of unsourced conclusory opinion masquerading as definitive and uncontroverted fact. Two of the most glaring problems are: 1) a failure to address the validity of the Cognitive Revolution (explosive rise in human consciousness) and its causes – while simultaneously acknowledging its enormous importance; and 2) a plea of ignorance regarding the development of human gender differences that is breathtaking. There are many more.

Does this mean that this is not an important book? On the contrary, Sapiens presents us with a reality that is stark and unsettling. It demonstrates that we have become the only animal that is able to transform reality through unreality. Consider this. The explosive development of the human mind has provided extraordinary cognitive development, a mysterious consciousness, an ability to reason through complex problems, to develop advanced technologies, all that set us apart from everything else. We have spread all around the world, conquering the rest of nature as we go. Through all this, humans have developed Story to make sense of the world around them to include all aspects of life and death and how we understand and get through every waking and dreaming moment. Story provides common myths across large numbers of people, so that they can coordinate and cooperate in vast numbers without even knowing each other. Just consider any religion or economic system beyond the merely local. A Roman Catholic in Italy can have the same understanding about the world with an American Roman Catholic whom she has never met. You can trade a stock in a market to a buyer you will never see or know. We can do this because we have the capacity to believe in stories that extend beyond the realities necessary for life such as eating, breathing, or sleeping. As a result, through various cooperative unreal human stories such as religion, nationalism, ideology, economic philosophy, credit and debt, world changing real effects are wrought. When investment bankers suffer catastrophic losses of value that were never really there, real people lose their jobs and homes. When believers in a faith have an idea that an unseen God will reward them with a place in a heaven after they die if they murder some “infidels” who disrespect their belief, real people die and actual property is destroyed. When we believe in an economic system of perpetual growth and the unchecked miracle of human expansion, the land is stripped or paved over and the bulk of animal life on this planet is transformed into brutally treated protein machines for our consumption. Much of the real impact of our stories is, of course, hidden from our view. It can be too distasteful to observe because we come from a past – not so long ago – that would have viewed it as an abomination. At the same time, the human capacity for story has led to great works of artistic achievement, advances in health, and technological wizardry that have been most profound. But, have our stories made us happier? Are we more at peace with the world we inhabit? Our ideas can transform this world, can they do so for the better? I think it depends on what we believe. Here, Harari does open our eyes to what we have done and what we are doing. What stories for our future will win the day?

Our mere existence weaves a web of mystery. Sapiens provides some illumination, but fails to unravel it. It cannot answer the “Why?” But it makes a tremendous contribution: Everyone needs something to believe in; and because all the world pays the price for those beliefs, we should choose them very carefully.