Why Study History? Yuval Noah Harari Sapiens - Joe Abittan Blog

Why Study History?

In his book Sapiens, Yuval Noah Harari asks why we should study history if history is not deterministic. If history was deterministic, then we would be able to look back in time at what has happened and determine where things will go next. We would  be able to see clear causal links between events of the past and easily adjust our behaviors and decisions moving forward. If history was truly deterministic, then the trite saying, “those who don’t understand history are doomed to repeat it,” would actually mean something.
 
 
But history is not deterministic. There are random changes, chance events, and other unpredictable factors that influence everything from technological development, to GDP, and even marriage and family structures. We can look back and create a compelling narrative, but the causal power of our explanations is extremely low. We can see the how of history, that is how things unfolded, but not the why, not the causal structures underlying everything.
 
 
And that makes it reasonable to ask why we should bother studying history at all. Harari responds to this inquiry by writing, “history is not a means for making accurate predictions. We study history not to know the future but to widen our horizons, to understand that our present situation is neither natural nor inevitable, and that we consequently have many more possibilities before us than we imagine.”
 
 
History helps us see that racial hierarchies, monarchies, and other aspects of life and culture are based on little more than chance. It helps us understand that humans can live in more ways than we imagine and can have more experiences than we imagine. History doesn’t help us predict what is going to happen in the future and doesn’t tell us how we should live now, but it does help us see that the world is not as rigid as we may imagine. History should expand our knowledge of the possible and humble us in the choices and decisions we make.
The Biological Possibilities of He and She

The Biological Possibilities of He and She

In his book Sapiens, Yuval Noah Harari writes, “most of the laws, norms, rights, and obligations that define manhood and womanhood reflect human imagination more than biological reality.” Throughout human societies, imagined orders and hierarchies define the way that humans interact and relate to one another.  These hierarchies matter in terms of how people understand their role in the world, understand what is good and evil, and understand how they should behave. However, these hierarchies are not necessarily grounded in any scientific fact or objective reality. They are often influenced by chance historical events and myths that societies adopt as they develop. Some myths are helpful for development. Some myths lose their grip and cease to function in a helpful way over time. And other myths never manage to get beyond a fringe group.
 
 
Often, the status quo that is produced by chance events and myths become entrenched and defended as natural. Those who stand to benefit from the status quo, and those who do not wish to believe that their lives are driven by myths, will argue that biology, economy, or other seemingly objective sciences inevitably produced the society and culture in which they live. But this is a mistake. We can see that throughout time and space human societies have differed in many important ways. There is far more variation possible than we often recognize. “Biology is willing to tolerate a very wide spectrum of possibilities,” writes Harari. Whatever organization we choose to adopt, for whatever reason we choose to adopt such organization, can be defended as natural. Harari continues, “whatever is possible is by definition also natural.”
 
 
This can be seen in the ways in which cultures and societies relate to concepts of gender. Biology is often used to define men and women as purely XY and XX, as having male anatomy and female anatomy, and as occupying certain roles that are determined and entirely influenced by biology. But if Harari’s quote from earlier is correct, much of the way we think about masculinity, femininity, and gender is not based in biology, but in human constructs. Perhaps our sex chromosomes and the biological differences that our genes reliably produce (in most individuals) is the basis for the differences we see in how we understand gender, but that doesn’t explain why the picture of manliness changes so much throughout time or why so many people don’t seem to fit with the dominant gender roles of any given period.
 
 
Harari contrasts a picture of King Louis XIV of France with a picture of Barack Obama. Both men are in poses of masculine domination, but the pictures could not be more different in how they demonstrate masculinity. King Louis XIV is wearing tights, has a long flowing wig, is dressed in something like a ball gown, and is even wearing make-up and high heeled shoes. President Obama, on the other hand, is wearing a dark relatively fitted suite. He has little jewelry on and the only thing with any shine are his polished black dress shoes. He sits on the desk in the oval office with a confident, yet calm look on his face. The masculinity presented in each photo could hardly be more different.
 
 
Our ideas about gender are not set in stone and constantly change and evolve. Technology, global relationships, and the type of labor that is rewarded in society can all influence what is manly, what is feminine, and what is acceptable within both spaces. Throughout history the way masculinity and femininity have been defined has hardly been stable, and has hardly been fair. “Gender is a race in which some of the runners compete only for the bronze medal,” Harari writes to describe the inequalities that women have faced throughout much of history. There is no reason this inequality  has to exist. It is not truly biologically based, though men and women typically do have predictable biological differences, and there is no reason we have to consider such discrimination natural. The biological possibilities of he and she are greater than what we usually realize and accept.
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.
Ever Present Perils

Ever Present Perils

We live in a very dangerous world, but we don’t always recognize it. Most of the time we move about our lives without feeling too much threat to our own personal safety and to our lives, but sudden events can remind us of how close death can be. We see terrible car crashes, are forced away from other people due to a global pandemic, or reminded of health risks when a relative dies of cancer. These sudden shocks of mortality can shake us out of a routine and rhythm, and leave us feeling fearful for what evil might befall us. But the reality is that we do live with ever present perils – the dangers are not just there when a pandemic strikes or when we see a traffic accident.

 

In Letters From a Stoic, Seneca writes, “What, have you only at this moment learned that death is hanging over your head, at this moment exile, at this moment grief? You were born to these perils.”

 

For Seneca it is important to recognize how fragile life can be and how we are always living with risk. It is interesting to see is how far back in human history these risks have been with us, how they have persisted, and how we have thought (or failed to think) about the perils we face. It is not only today in the age of the automobile that we can be suddenly reminded of the ever present perils of death and destruction. It is not only in a time of changing demographics and social relationships that people may be afraid of cancel culture – exile has been a threat to humans for a long time. And grief over the loss of a loved one is also nothing new.

 

The reality of ever present perils isn’t new, but we all come to the realization of how fragile and risky life can be at our own pace, at different moments, and it seems to be a realization that we all must reach on our own to truly appreciate. It is important that we pause and reflect periodically on our mortality, to ensure that we are focusing our lives in a meaningful direction, and to ensure that we are using our life, our physical body, and our mental faculties in a way that is worthwhile and valuable. We shouldn’t be shocked into remembering our mortality by sudden events, we should be calm and collected as we reflect on the perils around us, confident that we have used our life in a meaningful way, so that when such evils do occur, we are prepared.

If You Could Not Fail

Before Senator Cory Booker had taken up politics, he went to law school and dedicated much of his time to civil rights and helping those who had the fewest resources. Throughout law school he had only a vague idea of what he wanted to do, and focused on helping people who did not have the means to help themselves. As every young person going through college, he was bombarded with questions about what his next steps would be and what his plan looked like. Booker did not have a clear path toward a large law firm, the way many of his colleagues did, since he was instead motivated by social issues and injustice in the communities around his hometown in New Jersey. Questions about plans and the future haunted Booker, as they have so many young people, until one day, his mother posed a question that changed his narrative.
In a conversation with his mother she referred back to biblical teachings and switched Booker’s thoughts of fear into perspectives of untold possibility. The question posed was not what would he do after receiving his degree but rather, “ask yourself what would you do if you could not fail? If you knew for sure you would be successful, what would you do?”
Booker writes about his reaction to his mother’s question saying, “It was a question that began to keep me up at night—not with anxiety but with energized thought. The question awakened my imagination again; it ignited dreams. What would I do if I could not fail?”
The question posed by Booker’s mom is an excellent shift in the way we think about the challenges and hurdles ahead of us. It is easy to get sucked into a space where we can only seem to focus on the negative possibilities of failure rather than the various forms of success that we may find along our journey. We often view failure as if it is a final end and a defining characteristic of our life, but in reality failure is just one of many experiences that we have throughout our lifetime, and we should not let it hold us from our dreams and pursuits.
When Booker’s thought process switched he recognized the power of the thoughts he was living with. He recognized how damaging his narrative about himself had become. “The most powerful conversations we have in any day,” he wrote, “are the conversations we have with ourselves.” Focusing on the negative and the fear of not knowing what his next steps would be had limited Booker and trapped him in fear. Shifting the focus to what he could do gave him new energy and inspiration to accomplish great tasks.