In the book Sapiens, Yuval Noah Harari makes the argument that studying biology is insufficient for understanding human society. We cannot understand the complex human societies and different cultures of the world purely by studying the biology of humans. Testing humans on physiological and psychological metrics does provide us with interesting information, but it doesn’t explain exactly why so many differences are seen across cultures and places. It also doesn’t explain why certain hierarchies exist within different cultures across the globe.
To understand complex societies, Harari argues, we have to understand history, context and circumstance, and power relations. By doing so, we can begin to understand the structures within societies that shape the institutions that humans have created, and that ultimately shape the behaviors, opportunities, incentives, and motivations for humans. “Since the biological distinctions between different groups of Homo sapiens are, in fact, negligible, biology can’t explain the intricacies of Indian society or American racial dynamics,” writes Harari.
The two examples that Harari uses to demonstrate culture and society relative to biology demonstrate how chance historical events created unique circumstances that shaped different institutions that are highly influential within certain societies, but are unrecognizable outside those societies. Brahmins and Shudras are not understood as different races, but as different castes within Indian society, with substantial discrimination between the two groups. Racial discrimination has been a driving factor of American economic and political society. However, caste systems are nearly completely absent in the United States and the racial discrimination in the United States is not present in India. The explanations for the caste system and the racial dynamics are not biologically based, but culturally based – dependent on power and institutions.
Harari writes, “most sociopolitical hierarchies lack a logical or biological basis – they are nothing but the perpetuation of chance events supported by myths.” We see this when we look at recent challenges in the replication of psychological studies. Many of the findings from the field of psychology have come from studies involving college age students in the United States. Such individuals represent a very small segment of humanity. Generalizing from studies involving American college students will give us an inaccurate picture of the world – a picture that is not based on true biology, but on chance cultural factors specific to a unique population. We can easily make the mistake of believing that what we observe, either through a psychological study of American college students or through our own experiences with people in our community, state, or country, reflects a biological reality. However, what we observe is often the result of cultural differences or institutions and power structures that we are not consciously aware of.
Harari explains that this is what has happened with the Indian caste system and American racial dynamics. Cultural factors, chance historical events, and subsequent policies and institutions have created differences among people that we can observe and measure. However those differences are not based in biology. It is a mistake to attribute those differences to something innate in Homo sapiens or to assume that the way things are is the way that things should be. Quite often, our sociopolitical hierarchies have no logical or absolute reason for being the way they are.