Throughout the book Sapiens Yuval Noah Harari argues that modern humans are able to cooperate and live in large societies because we share common myths. There are certain institutions which we have developed based on little more than myths that smooth our interactions with others, allow us to follow basic norms, and create a shared understanding of the world. This allows us to buy food from people we have never met, to bestow authority on others, and to coordinate movements over vast distances. But at the heart of our system is myth.
Harari demonstrates this through the political thought of the United States, specifically looking at the founding texts of the United States, such as the Declaration of Independence. Harari compares the founding principals of the United States to the principals of Hammurabi, an early human political leader thousands of years before the United States existed. Demonstrating political myths and their roles in unifying people and creating institutions within society, Harari writes:
“Hammurabi and the American Founding Fathers alike imagined a reality governed by universal and immutable principles of justice, such as equality or hierarchy. Yet the only place where such universal principals exist is in the fertile imagination of Sapiens, and in the myths they invent and tell one another. These principles have no objective validity.”
Ideas of divine leadership, equality among all humans, human rights, or reciprocal punishment, are little more than myth. To be clear, these ideas are incredibly useful political myths, and when everyone agrees and accepts these myths a society can function well. But nevertheless, each of these ideas can be demonstrated to be an inadequate way of understanding the universe given various situations. They are not inherently and objectively accurate and correct ways to understand humans and the world we occupy, but they can be incredibly useful ways of organizing ourselves for cooperation and peaceful living within large societies. Harari continues, “It is easy for us to accept that the division of people into superiors and commoners is a figment of the imagination. Yet the idea that all humans are equal is also a myth.”
Within the United States we have superiors and commoners, but we call them by different names. Business owners, managers, and landlords all fit into a category of superiors with authority over other people. We have specifically written down the ways in which they can and cannot exercise that authority, but they clearly exist within a hierarchy. We strive for a level of political equality among all people, where the law applies equally regardless of ones authority or status as a superior, but we all know that we don’t manage this process perfectly. We believe we are all equal and that one person is not more valuable or inherently better than another, but we can demonstrate that not all people are equal. For example, I don’t have a learning disability and I excelled in school, while others have dyslexia and struggled in school. I was born to a solidly middle class family which offered me a safe and enjoyable childhood, while others grew up in poverty stricken homes and others still grew up in incredibly luxurious homes that provided a great deal of opportunities for future economic success. Clearly there is no real equality either biologically or socially within our society.
What I am not trying to do with this post, and what I don’t believe Harari is trying to do in his book, is to argue that myths are bad. Instead, I am trying to demonstrate that many of the things we believe and hold as obviously or intuitively accurate, is little more than happenstance. Some ways of living and being are excellent for the current time and place, while others have been excellent in the past or will be more advantageous in the future. It is important that we recognize how much of our lives is driven by myth, so that we can adapt and be flexible where needed in how we understand and approach the world. It is easier to believe that our myths reflect an inherent reality about the universe so that we don’t have to question our beliefs, but that would be incorrect and could lead us to make essentially tyrannical decisions that belie the actual reality of the universe. We can use myths to cooperate and function in a society, but those same myths can be abused when believed too strongly or in the wrong scenarios.