While this book has many interesting historical tidbits and anecdotes (for example, the first recorded human name was an accountant, not a king, priest, or warrior) there is only one piece of information that needs to be strongly considered, as it is the thesis of this book: What sets Homo Sapiens apart from all the other animals who have ever walked the earth’s surface? The answer is our ability to collectively formulate and believe in shared ideas. This is scientifically known as inter-subjectivity. In his book, Harari gives the example of a regular subjective belief: a child who has an imaginary friend. This belief hinges on just one person, and as soon as the child stops believing, the imaginary friend ceases to exist. Inter-subjectivity is this same phenomenon applied to a group of people. If ten people believe in an imaginary person, and one of them stops believing, the imagined person still exists, because the remaining nine people keep it alive. Harari then applies this to any and all institutional creations of mankind, including law, money, religion, countries, companies, free-market capitalism, liberalism, the family unit, the Lakers Basketball team, Wal-Mart, high school, et cetera ad infinitum.
A stark reality about our lives is that everything that is, was, or will be, originated in the mind first. We could not sharpen rocks to make knives before we had the idea to do so. This is an uncomfortable realization, because it means that literally everything we know of today is, in a way, fiction. McDonald’s didn’t exist before the McDonald brothers and Ray Croc came up with the idea for an affordable burger restaurant. The rule of law, the value of money, and the belief in God(s) follow this same logic. All of these things occurred in the mind of a Homo Sapien before they developed into the institutions and ideas we know them as today. If any one person stops believing that McDonald’s has good burgers, or stops believing that the laws of their country are fair, the overwhelming majority of other people who keep believing keep them running. Collective belief is a powerful thing.
While this book has less scientifically proven results than your standard book on evolution, what Harari offers instead are reasoned arguments for both sides of many historical coins. For a fun example, he notes how “in medieval Europe, aristocrats spent their money carelessly on extravagant luxuries, whereas peasants lived frugally, minding every penny. Today, the tables have turned. The rich take great care managing their assets and investments, while the less well-off go into debt buying cars and televisions they don’t really need.” For a more sober example, take the cultural ideas that money is the root of all evil, that religion drives people apart, and that the empires of old and new are built on blood and tyranny. Those things may all be true, but what if the opposite was also true, that these three things are actually the greatest unifiers of human history? Money is arguably the single greatest idea that humankind has ever come to collectively believe in, and it is this universal belief that midwifed the modern economy we know today. It is why the first recorded ancient texts were numbers. Similarly, organized religions have produced both wonderful and horrific results. On one hand, there have been an uncountable number of wars fought and lives lost getting other people to believe what the powerful want them to believe. On the other, bringing more and more people together under a similar umbrella of say, Christianity, Judaism, or Islam, has led to an overall greater peace, as people have assimilated into believing in the same grand ideas. This is also how society has been able to increase in size. Three thousand years ago, two different people from two different corners of the planet would have been strangers and most likely enemies had they had the fortune to meet. Today, two strangers from across the planet can meet each other in an airport, discover that they both believe in the same God, political ideology, or football team, and instantly have a connection. This leads into another theme of the book, which is the idea that humanity is always progressing towards unification. Harari writes how “from about 2 million years ago until around 10,000 years ago, the world was home, at one and the same time, to several human species.” Today, there is only one. Likewise with religion, when humanity was segregated by continent, country, region, kingdom, city, village, and tribe, they each had their own independent structures of beliefs. Today, there are far fewer religions (albeit with numerous different sects), but larger numbers of people believe in them, and there is thusly a larger shared consciousness amongst a wider range of people. The technological revolution of our current lifetime has further unified the world via the now instantaneous global-transferability of information.
So, what sets Homo Sapiens apart from all the other animals on the planet? Somewhere around 70,000 years ago, Homo Sapiens began developing larger and smarter brains enabling them to construct larger and smarter ideas and work together. Harari refers to this period of time as the Cognitive Revolution. This is how humanity has come to consistently grow as a species, to ultimately dominate the globe, and why it always will. What does it mean to be a Homo Sapien at its utmost core? Believing in something that someone else also believes in.