Sapiens, Yuval Noah Harari, 2011

 

 

Fiction has enabled us not merely to imagine things, but to do so collectively. We can weave common myths (such as the biblical creation story, the Dreamtime myths of aborigines). Such myths give sapiens the unprecedented ability to cooperate flexibly in large numbers.

As far as we can tell, changes in social patterns, the invention of new technologies and settlement of alien habitats resulted from genetic mutations and environmental pressures more than from cultural initiatives. This is why it took humans hundreds of thousands of years to make these steps.

When two strangers in a tribal society want to trade, they will often establish trust by appealing to a common god, mythical ancestor or totem animal.

In the savannahs they inhabited, high calorie sweets (ripe fruits) were extremely rare and food was in short supply. A Stone Age women would eat as many fruits as possible on the spot, before the local baboon band picked the tree bare. The instinct to gorge on high calorie food is hard wired into our gene.

Evidence from fossilized skeletons indicates that ancient foragers were less likely to suffer from starvation and malnutrition than their peasant descendants. The forager’s secret of success was their varied diet (while pre-modern agricultural population got their calories from limited number of crops -wheat, potatoes, rice) .

New agricultural tasks demanded so much time that people were forced to settle permanently next to their wheat fields. We did not domesticate wheat. Wheat domesticated us.

The Agriculture revolution made the future far more important than it had ever been before. Farmers work in its service. Peasants were worried about the future [not only because it impact on their corps but also because] they could do something about (e.g. clear another field etc.). The stress of farming has far-reaching consequences: it was the foundation of large-scale political and social systems.

Bureaucracy (methods of cataloguing information, schools for scribes) proved to be more difficult than writing to invent.  Many writing systems developed independently. But most of those remain curiosities because those who invented them failed to invent efficient ways of cataloguing and retrieving data.

Rape in many legal systems, falls under property violation – the victim is not the woman who was raped, it the male who owns her. The legal remedy was the transfer of ownership – to pay a bride price to the woman’s father or brother. The Bible consider this a reasonable arrangement ( if a man meets a virgin and lies with her….he shall give 50 shekels of silver to the father and she shall be his wife).

One theory is that, in order to ensure her own survival and the survival of her children, the woman had little choice but to agree to whatever conditions the man stipulated so that he would stick around and share some of the burden. As time went by, the feminine gene that made it to the next generation belong to women that were submissive caretakers. [But women could have been dependent on other women instead…and as women have superior social skills to collaborate, why are they not in charge?] – we have no good answer.

The best known religions (Islam, Buddhism) are universal and missionary. People tend to believe that all religion are like them. In fact the majority of ancient religions were local (local deities) and exclusive (no interest in converting the entire human race).

 

The insight of polytheism is conducive to far-reaching religious tolerance. Polytheists believe in many partial and biased powers: they have no difficulty accepting the existence of other gods. Polytheism is inherently open minded, and rarely persecutes heretics and infidels.

Roman persecuted a few thousand Christians who would reject all attempts at compromise. In contrast, over the course of the next 1500 years, Christians slaughtered Christians by the millions to defend slightly different interpretations of the religion of love and compassion.

St Mathew lent a hand to tax collector in distress…

Dualism explains that the entire universe is a battleground between good and evil, and that everything that happen in the world is part of the struggle.

Sometime between 1500 and 1000 BC a prophet named Zoroaster was active in the middle east. It was an important religion during the Achemenid and later the Sassanid, and inspired Gnosticism and Manicheism. Today only a handful of communities survive in India and the Middle East

The Chinese and Persians did not lack technological inventions such as steam engine (which could be freely copied). They lacked the values, myths, judicial apparatus and sociopolitical structures that took centuries to form and mature in the West and which could not be copied and internalized rapidly. Chinese and Persians did not catch up quickly because they thought and organized their society differently.

What did Europe develop in the early modern period that enable it to dominate the late modern world? There are two complementary answers: modern science and capitalism.

In year 2000 only 1.6% of dead bodies in the world are related to war and violent crimes.