Sapiens—By Yuval Noah Harari
I enjoyed this book. The structure provides a high level introduction to seeing the world through the eyes of several disciplines. Historians, economists, archeologists, scientists, industrialists, capitalists, futurists, and more. The over-arching theme is that humans are animals that can and do believe myths. These myths facilitate cooperation. They have no moral value, because moral value is itself a myth that fosters cooperation.
I think there’s a lot of truth in this theory of myth building. My entire job is building layers of abstraction to make continually harder problems look like a collection of more easily understood problems. The problem with this approach, is abstractions are not free. They always come with a cost. In Sapiens, the level of abstraction is so high that we’re left with nothing to stand on.
My meaning is, contradictory appeals are made depending on the argument of the moment. In one chapter it is being argued that it is wrong to call a practice “natural” or “unnatural”…because nature is merely observing what animals do in practice. In another chapter, humans are chastised for not caring for the social and emotional needs of subjugated animals in industrial farming. What makes bovine social/emotional needs natural, and worth tending to? Why should we care as we advance our conquest over nature? Aren’t cows merely animals that believe their myth of social and emotional needs? Personally, I think we should care and that the cows’ needs are worth consideration, but in this framework of myths it seems fitting that the same measure should apply consistently. Unsurprisingly, the author must constantly appeal to human emotion/virtue (that may have been casually dismissed only paragraphs earlier) to make the arguments that are trying to abstract away human emotion and virtues.
Despite contradictions in appeals, the suggestion to question our abstractions and learn what we lost with their application is valuable. I realize in writing this, I am substituting myth and abstraction liberally. It’s my brain substituting a better understood problem (abstractions) for a newly introduced problem (myths). What have I lost with this substitution?
- Yuval Noah Harari