In the book Sapiens, Yuval Noah Harari writes, “People easily acknowledge that primitive tribes cement their social order by believing in ghosts and spirits, and gathering each full moon to dance together around the campfire. What we fail to appreciate is that our modern institutions function on exactly the same basis.”
My post yesterday gave several examples of modern myths that we believe in, even though we don’t recognize them as such. Harari focuses on the things in our world that are not tangible, but nevertheless are agreed to and recognized by humans across the globe. Many of our institutions are based on little more than trust and agreement, but those two factors, shared among enough people, are able to create shared myths. These shared myths allow us to make real, tangible objects. They allow us to organize and manage huge numbers of people. And they also allow us to come together, enjoy being social humans, and to have shared stories and legends.
I think the easiest way to see how modern humans are not much different than primitive tribes in terms of myths and community cementation is within sports, especially college sports. We will root for a team, often unreasonably given a team’s performance, and come together in unison to yell special chants meant to boost our team’s performance while hindering the performance of the other team. After the game we will discuss miracle plays, debate the performance of gifted, sometimes god-like individuals, and we will share the experience of being present to watch the special ritual of a comeback win or buzzer beater. The part of humanity which brought primitive tribes together around a campfire for bonding is still on full display in sports stadiums and college towns around the country.
But Harari goes further in his book than sports fanatics when exploring institutions, human organizations, and myths. Yesterday’s post referenced corporations, nations, and even human rights as being myths that humans have developed to bring people together around something intangible. Harari explains that human rights have been invented and agreed upon, that you cannot find human rights inside a person the way you can find lungs, bones, or livers. They exist because we agree that they do, much like the deities of ancient civilizations.
Harari also compares lawyers to shamans in his book. A corporate lawyer tells a story by making an argument from a certain point of view. Their words, how they phrase, present, and describe certain actions and situations, can ultimately change the reality of the world. It is not unreasonable, even if it is a creative stretch, to compare a modern lawyer to an ancient shaman who could mutter special incantations to cure the sick or bring rain.
What Harari is ultimately trying to argue is that the myths which helped kickstart societies and human cooperation never really left our human species. The myths changed over time, perhaps became less mystical and less magical, but still exist. We still rely on rituals and hidden forces to bring humans together, but we have shaped them as specific institutions that feel more grounded in reason and rationality than the institutions present in ancient myths. Ultimately, we still depend on stories to hold our societies together and connect millions and billions of humans peacefully and cooperatively.