There is no Natural Way of Life - Yuval Noah Harari - Sapiens - Joe Abittan

There is No Natural Way of Life

Are human beings naturally peaceful, or naturally violent? Are they naturally traders, or are they naturally competitors? Is it natural for them to pursue progress, or natural for humans to stick to tradition and avoid new ways of organizing the world around them? These questions rage every day in academic circles, on the news, in our offices, and everywhere that people gather. We like to believe that there are things that are simply natural for human beings, and things we consider natural are considered broadly good, while things that are unnatural are lumped in with everything bad and evil.
However, in his book Sapiens, Yuval Noah Harari argues that there is no natural way of life for Homo sapiens. Instead, according to Harari, there is a wide horizon of possibilities which includes, “…the entire spectrum of beliefs, practices, and experiences that are open before a particular society, given its ecological, technological, and cultural limitations.” Even for people living in the most remote, technologically limited, and culturally strict villages on Earth, there is a wide horizon of possibilities for what any individual or group could do. For those of us lucky enough to live in the United States, the horizon of possibilities is effectively endless. The ways in which we could live and experience the world are greater than what any of us could imagine, and all the different perspectives and permutations could be considered natural from a certain point of view – or unnatural from another. Trying to attach values such as good or bad, through labels of natural or unnatural, doesn’t really make sense for any given permutation chosen from the horizon of possibilities.
Harari continues, “The heated debates about Homo sapiens’ ‘natural way of life’ misses the main point. Ever since the Cognitive Revolution, there hasn’t been a single natural way of life for Sapiens. There are only cultural choices, from among a bewildering palette of possibilities.” Dating back at least 70,000 years ago, human tribes have varied and differed based on numerous factors. Looking at a single ancient tribe or group of humans and deciding that how they lived was natural gives us a misleading understanding of how we should live today. We can look back and find tyrannical leaders who conquered other tribes and sacrificed their victims to their gods, but this doesn’t mean it is natural for humans to be lead by a single genocidal tyrant. It is just as fair to look around today and see transsexual men and women cooperating and sharing virtual resources in a video game and make conclusions about what is natural for humans as it would be to look back at the genocidal tyrant, to look back at human groups from the days of the first books in the Christian Bible, or to look back at any other group of humans from any part of the globe since the Cognitive Revolution and decided that how people live, interact, behave, and interpret the world is ‘natural’. At each point in space and time there are options available to us based on the ecology of where we find ourselves, based on the technology and knowledge available to us, and based on many other factors we cannot enumerate. Some ways of living are more likely to help us and others survive, some ways of living are more likely to help us enjoy our lives, but that doesn’t mean they are natural, good, or will continue to help us survive and enjoy our lives indefinitely. There is no natural way of life for a human, only a staggeringly large set of possibilities.
Natural Doesn't Mean Anything

Natural Doesn’t Mean Anything

I am generally not a fan of the term ‘natural.’ I’m fine with it in the context of human talents and skills, such as saying that someone is a natural runner or painter, but applying natural in other contexts, such as to foods, human social orders, and behaviors is often problematic. In the first context I mentioned, relating to human skills, we use the term natural to mean that something comes easily to someone. They have a proclivity toward something as a result of genes, epigenetic factors, or a lucky upbringing that gave them lots of exposure to the thing from a young age. In the other context, we are using the term natural to make normative judgements that don’t sound like normative judgements. We are attaching our values to what is desirable or undesirable, and cloaking that judgement in an idea that something simply happens because it happens and its a good thing.
To demonstrate this phenomenon, we can look at what might be considered ‘natural’ for human beings in terms of living and social arrangements. When looking back at human history in his book Sapiens, Yuval Noah Harari writes about the evolution of Homo sapiens in tribal groups. He writes, “Even if a particularly fertile valley could feed 500 archaic Sapiens, there was no way that so many strangers could live together. … In the wake of the Cognitive Revolution, gossip helped Homo sapiens to form larger and more stable bands. But even gossip has its limits. Sociological research has shown that the maximum ‘natural’ size of a group bonded by gossip is about 150 individuals. Most people can neither intimately know, nor gossip effectively about, more than 150 human beings.”
What has helped Homo sapiens form societies larger than about 150 individuals are technologies such as religions and political institutions. Man-made structures for organizing human life have propelled us beyond our small tribes which would compete, fight, and  break down. Harari’s quote suggests that what is ‘natural’ for humans is to live in small bands where we are distrustful of strangers we don’t know intimately. What is unnatural is for us to exist and coordinate across large groups of human beings.
The way that Harari describes the ‘natural’ state of being for humans helps us see that ‘natural’ is often used to propel certain ways of being without actually considering whether the idea of ‘natural’ is a good or bad thing. It would be ‘natural’ for humans to live in small groups that fought each other, but that wouldn’t be good for the flourishing of humanity. So when we make arguments that eating the paleo diet is good because it is ‘natural’ or that political leaders need to be tough, strong men because that is ‘natural’, we are simply hiding a normative judgement behind the phrase ‘natural.’ What we can see, however, is that ‘natural’ is not a good or bad thing on its own. We should be responsible and stop using ‘natural’ as an argument or as a way to advertise products. It doesn’t mean what we purport it to mean.

Satisfaction in a Good Act

As a stoic, Marcus Aurelius believed in self-awareness and growth through a deep reflection and understanding of ones thoughts. His book Meditations in many ways serves as a manual for how to think about and approach the world as a stoic. His book was originally a place for him to collect the lessons of his life so that he could continually return to thoughts of how he could live better.  He stresses a sense of contentedness with the present moment, and provides examples where we can shift our thoughts to be more fulfilled with the experiences, and lives that we live.


Regarding doing good acts and how we should view our actions when we are doing something positive Aurelius wrote, “When thou hast done a good act and another has received it, why dost thou still look for a third thing besides these, as fools do, either to have the reputation of having done a good act or to obtain a return?”  What the Emperor was expressing in this section is our desire to have others recognize our positive actions and praise us for them, and our desire to benefit from our good deeds.  He is challenging this desire of ours and suggesting that we should simply be happy knowing that we have done something positive for another person.  Building this sense of contentedness requires self-reflection and awareness to recognize our thoughts and desires for good karma or recognition.  His passage seems to say that doing good should always be enough to satisfy ourselves and our desires. Seeking out a return on our good deeds will not decrease the positivity that we provided to the world, but it will put an undue stress and burden on ourselves, and may cause us to be looked upon by others less favorably.


This quote aligns with the thoughts and recommendations that Aurelius presents throughout Meditations. He encourages us to be content with ourselves and not strive to take action for the purpose of impressing people who are alive or will be alive in the future.  Staying present and focusing on the moment in which we live will help us be more genuine in our actions, and will help us maximize our decisions.  Building in a sense of self-awareness and abandoning our need for reward or recognition in social settings can allow us to better align our actions with our values.  I think that Aurelius would agree with the idea that we would see more positivity in our own lives grow from our good deeds when we do not look for reward or take action with the hopes of receiving reward or recognition.

Transformation and Opinion

In many sections of his writing in, Meditations, Marcus Aurelius comments on how we react to things around us, and how we can recognize that the outside world does not truly affect who we are, but that our reactions and thoughts are what shape us as human beings.  Aurelius writes,


“But among the things readiest to thy hand to which thou shalt turn, let there be these, which are two.  One is that things do not touch the soul, for they are external and remain immovable; but our perturbations come only from the opinion which is within.  The other is that all these things, which thou seest, change immediately and will no longer be; and constantly bear in mind how many of these changes though hast already witnessed.  The universe is transformation; life is opinion.”


In this quote Aurelius is explaining the stoic idea that we can chose how to react to the world and events around us, and that we can control our emotions to better behave and think throughout our days and lifetime.  There are few things which truly change the brain and shape the way in which the brain functions, and for the most part, how we experience life will be determined by the decisions we make, and how we allow our choices and experiences define us.  We can label things as good or bad, but nothing truly is good or evil unless we decide in our mind that it is.


Aurelius is also speaking about the brevity of so many of our experiences in life.  It can often be hard to imagine being someplace else, or having different experiences, but whatever our current state is, we likely will live in a massively different state in the future. There are things such as chronic disease or the loss of family which will be permanent and unchangeable, but the way that those things affect us can be temporary and bearable.  Aurelius is reminding us that good or bad, we can change our lives and how we experience life through our thoughts and opinions. When we chose to bring a better perspective to our lives we can shape the lens through which we perceive our experiences, and we can chose whether things have positive or negative outcomes for ourselves.  Recognizing that things don’t shape us as much as our own mind shapes us shows the importance of mental fortitude, and remembering how quickly life transforms helps us build the grit needed to maintain our thoughts and positivity.