In Sapiens, Yuval Noah Harari writes, “The immense diversity of imagined realities that Sapiens invented, and the resulting diversity of behavior patterns, are the main components of what we call ‘cultures’. Once cultures appeared, they never ceased to change and develop, and these unstoppable alterations are what we call ‘history’.”
Across the globe humans have different ways of living, different ways of relating to each other, and different ways of understanding the universe. Harari would argue that many of these differences stem from different realities invented at different times by different peoples across the globe. I would agree with him. We can argue over whether some differences are good or bad, whether some some differences are fair or unjust, and whether some differences reflect the nature of reality more or less accurately, but in the end, a great deal of what we call culture is more or less random, based on invented realities that fit the time. History is the study of how these invented realities and associated customs and behaviors change.
I have written before about the fact that human rights do not exist. At least, and Harari would agree, they are not anything tangible that you could identify in the real world if you autopsied a human. Ultimately, human rights fall into the same category as spirits and the human soul. For many years humans investigated the human body, trying to find the soul, trying to weigh the soul as it left a dying human body, and trying to confirm that it was indeed a tangible thing. In the end, reasonable scientists had to conclude that the soul was an invented reality, not an objective reality, and human rights fall in the same category. They are an invention that we make real through institutions, customs, and behaviors. The idea of human rights helps us understand how we relate to each other and the systems and structures of governance that we have established in the United States. They have been helpful in organizing society and helping us develop, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they reflect a true reality about the universe, or that they always will serve humans well. They are a specific product of culture that has grown out of Western, educated, industrialized, rich, and democratic (WEIRD) societies.
Humans have not always had human rights, as we can see by studying and exploring history. Cultures, and the values that cultures cary, such as human rights, have altered through time. Harari argues that these changes are unstoppable, and that new invented realities are constantly arising to fit the new developments and needs of human beings. Much to the chagrin of those who lean toward conservatism, desiring a stasis rather than a progression, culture doesn’t stand still, the stories we invent about reality don’t stay the same. cultures move, invented realities morph, and history progresses. Ideas that serve us well in one cultural setting may not serve us well in the future, and may evolve into something entirely different.