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Book Summaries History

Chapter 6: Building Pyramids (Sapiens)

History is something that very few people have been doing while everyone else was ploughing fields and carrying water buckets.

Some argue that the agricultural revolution resulted in a period of great prosperity for human beings, a glorious turning point. Others say it was a curse. What we know for certain is that like any remarkable event in history, it had its winners and losers. The peasants, those that ploughed the fields all day under the scorching sun to feed themselves were the losers. The kings, politicians, soldiers, priests, artists, and thinkers were the winners – they ate not from the sweat of their brow, but from the surplus of the peasant farmers (90 percent of the population).

Hammurabi’s code and then the Declaration of Independence are documents, based on fictional ideas, that led to cooperation between masses of people. The Declaration of independence proclaimed universal principles of justice, and unlike Hammurabi’s code, were inspired by God, it states:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

If people believed in this code, and followed it, then millions of people would be able to cooperate peacefully with each other. But if we look at the code from a scientific perspective, then we run into trouble.

People, according to science, were not created, they evolved. And equality, an idea from Christianity that argues that each person has soul that was given to them by god, is a myth that scientists do not uphold. In fact, evolution tells us the opposite – that people are not equal, since it is based on differences between people. Everyone has a unique genetic code and is exposed to different environments, and this leads to the development of different qualities, which give them different chances of survival.

‘Created equal’ should therefore be translated into ‘evolved differently’.

And people weren’t created, but exist through a blind evolutionary process

 ‘Endowed by their creator’ should be ‘born’.

Further, biology does not recognize rights. Birds don’t have a right to fly, they have wings that allow them to. And none of the characteristics that determine our abilities are ‘unalienable’, they constantly mutate and eventually will be lost.

 ‘Unalienable rights’ should be translated into ‘mutable characteristics’.

What about liberty? There is so such thing in biology. Liberty is a human invention, just like limited liability companies, it is in our imagination. And happiness is something we don’t really know how to measure. Science only acknowledges the existence of pleasure.

So ‘life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness’ should be translated into ‘life and the pursuit of pleasure’.

If the American Declaration of Independence was translated into biological terms, this is what it would say:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men evolved differently, that they are born with certain mutable characteristics, and that among these are life and the pursuit of pleasure.

It is normal to be outraged by this line of reasoning, and you may argue that it doesn’t matter if these statements are true or not, what matters it that they lead to a well-functioning, prosperous society, and in which case, Harari would agree. An imagined order is not a bad thing, without it, very few things would be possible.

The other things we take for granted such as individuality, consumerism, and romanticism are also fictions. Individuality is something we believe in strongly today, a teenager thinks they have a right to lock themselves in their room, hang posters of rock musicians on the wall, and listen to loud music to express themselves – they think that their self-worth is internally and not externally determined. But in the middle ages, teenagers slept in large halls, they didn’t have their own room, and they certainly couldn’t lock any doors. What others thought of them was very important, in fact, it was all that mattered.

Consumerism, a descendent from the capitalist myth, tells us that we can be happy only if we buy certain things. If only we can get that car, clothes, or service, all our worries would disappear, and life would be great.

Romanticism says that human potential can only be reached through experience, so our goal should be to have as many as we can. That is, to try as many cuisines as possible, to appreciate different styles of music, and to travel to distant lands.

Imagined order is a fact of life, and there is no way to escape.

When we break down our prison walls and run towards freedom, we are in fact running into the more spacious exercise yard of a bigger prison.

Read Sapiens

"Silence is the best expression of scorn" - G.B. Shaw

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