I’ve been doing some light reading lately. A book called Sapiens by Yuval Noah Harari. The subtitle is: A Brief History of Humankind. Now there’s a topic to tackle in 470 pages.
Miraculously, he does it expertly, tracing all the revolutions in thought, social structures and technology that brought us to where we are today and are responsible for the good, the bad and the ugly of our daily experience. I’m sure when you order your coffee at Starbucks that you’re not wondering about everything that happened to bring you this moment. But the fact is is that without the Cognitive Revolution 40,000 years ago, the Agricultural Revolution 12,000 years ago, the first Empire 4,000 years ago, the Alphabetic/ literacy Revolution 2,500 years ago, the Scientific Revolution and the rise of Capitalism 500 years ago, the Industrial Revolution 200 years ago and the Consumer Revolution 50 years ago, you would not be sitting in a chair sipping coffee, reading a book, texting your friend, using the flush toilet bathroom and thinking the thoughts you are thinking and feeling the things you are feeling and wondering while checking out the news whether it all would have been best to just keep hunting and gathering these past 40,000 years or so.
It’s quite a tour-de-force and one of the more provocative books I’ve read in a long time, making me pause to consider that three things I’ve mostly considered evil have actually helped unify humankind in strange ways.
For example, money. Really? Well, here is a currency and universal language we all equally understand. We mostly are willing to take it from and give it to anyone without inquiring about their religious or political beliefs. So we are united in our understanding that money is what will help us make some kind of exchange.
And empires. Really, empires?!! Well, the genocidal damage they caused is incontrovertible, but anyone celebrating the ideal of a multi-cultural unified diverse society, a republic of E Pluribus Unum, has to admit that empires made that idea and ideal possible. Otherwise, we’d all be small warring factions hunkered down in our narrow tribal identities and beliefs.
And finally, religion. Huh? Well consider that a pilgrim could go to Rome or Mecca and pray next to someone from North Africa, Lebanon, Brazil, Indonesia, China, the Philippines, folks in all those countries united in their celebration of Christmas or Ramadan. And the Muslim precept to offer hospitality to strangers and the Christian invitation to love your neighbor without getting to choose who that neighbor is.
Of course, the way human beings have twisted money, empires and religion to serve their own selfish agendas and hunger for power and dominion hardly needs to be questioned. But I found it interesting to think about the other side of these things.
Now the one field Mr. Harari leaves entirely to the side is the arts. Understandably so. The arts mostly are confirming, reflecting and occasionally opening new doors within cultures, but so far, they haven’t had the power to change the face of the planet. But that doesn’t mean they still can’t help. That’s the next chapter myself and my colleagues are trying to write.
Meanwhile, I highly recommend grabbing a copy of Sapiens the next time you go to the coffee shop. And discuss it with the person behind you in line.