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Chapter 9: The Arrow of History (Sapiens)

The Arrow of History

The novels by Charles Dickens teach us that the liberal regimes of 19th century Europe gave much importance to individual freedom, even if it meant throwing poor families in prison, and leaving orphans no choice but to join pickpocket schools. Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s work shows us how Communism’s love for egalitarianism resulted in brutal tyrannies that sought to control every aspect of people’s daily life.

This contradiction in values can be seen in US politics today. Democrats want an egalitarian society, even if it means raising taxes to support the poor and elderly. But this infringes on people’s choice to spend their money as they choose to – a family may want to invest in education and not health insurance. Republicans want the opposite, they want to maximize individual freedom even if it results in more inequality, and more Americans will not be able to afford healthcare.

In the same way that medieval cultures couldn’t reconcile chivalry with Christianity, the modern world fails to square liberty with equality.

But this is no defect. Such contradictions are an inseparable part of every human culture. In fact, they are culture’s engines, responsible for the creativity and dynamism of our species. Just as when two clashing musical notes played together force a piece of music forward, so discord in our thoughts, ideas and values compel us to think, reevaluate and criticise. Consistency is the playground of dull minds.

The fact that we have contradictory beliefs is an essential quality of our culture – we even have a name for it: cognitive dissonance. And these contradictions teach us a lot about each other. A Christian who wants to learn about Muslim culture shouldn’t look at what beliefs Muslims share, but what they disagree about.

We know that human cultures in constant flux, but is there a direction to this change, or is it random?

Harari tells us that there is a direction humanity is moving towards, but it can only be seen if we look at our history from a bird’s eye view. We seem to be moving towards fewer but much larger mega-cultures – we are moving towards unity.

The world today is not homogenous, but neither is the human body (it contains different organs and cells). But while every variety exists, from the New York stockbrocker to the Afghan shepherd, there are ways in which all cultures are becoming increasingly connected. Today, the world argues using the same concepts and fights with the same weapons. When Iran and the US argue, they don’t really represent a clash of civilizations. They perfectly understand each other.

They both speak the language of nation states, capitalist economies, international rights and nuclear physics.

We have evolved to think in us and them terms – we identify with our closest kin, the way animals do, but not as a species. But the Cognitive Revolution took us on a different path. People started to cooperate with strangers, but this was not a universal brotherhood yet.  The ancient Egyptians thought of people outside their borders as barbarians they could not trust.

In the first millennium BC, three universal orders were observed.

The first universal order to appear was economic: the monetary order. The second universal order was political: the imperial order. The third universal order was religious: the order of universal religions such as Buddhism, Christianity and Islam.

The first people who transcended the evolutionary ‘us vs them’ division were merchants, conquerors, and prophets. The merchants saw the world as a single market, and all people as potential customers. The conquerors saw the world as one empire, with the people its potential subjects. And the prophets believed that the world had a single truth, and all people were potential believers. All these groups tried to establish an order that would apply to everyone everywhere.

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

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