December 19, 2017
I don't do book reviews too often. But this was definitely one of the most important books I've ever read. For me it was a massive shift in perspective that cleared up a lot of confusion I had about history and our strange modern life. The thesis is simple and profound; Q: What makes Homo Sapiens so different from the rest of the animal kingdom, and why are we so dominant? A: Our ability to create and share our Fictions; "the Inter-Subjective Realm." I had studied many different philosophies over the years but I had never heard of this phrase, the "Inter-subjective Realm." And now, it is staring me in the face as obvious. I've heard similar references about 'artificial worlds' or 'hyper-realities', but usually these things are characterized as a distraction or a kind of human malfunction (i.e. kids addiction to video games). Harari demonstrates in a convincing way that it is our Fictions...and our ability to share them, that give us immense power in nature. It is clearly this ability which sets us apart from the other animals. Many mammals can flexibly cooperate in small numbers through intimate acquaintances (say up to the Dunbar number, think of Chimps and Wolves). With this ability these small bands can adapt to changing group politics and to new environmental challenges. On the opposite end of the spectrum, some species can cooperate in huge numbers through hard-wired instincts (i.e. think of ants, or migratory or co-evolutionary species). Those species can do amazing things with their large numbers of individuals but they cannot adapt quickly to change as their behavior is 'hard-wired', only modified through eons of natural selection. However us humans can do both; we can flexibly cooperate in small or unlimited numbers, and in unprecedented ways. The mechanism behind this is our Fictions; which provide us the ability to communicate, simulate, plan, coordinate, and adapt in unlimited numbers. It is our Fictions that allow us to exceed the creative and manpower limits of modest numbers. Our Fictions are a kind of Software that we can use to rapidly adapt to the world around us. We can march in huge armies for a united cause for a monarch, then turn around and have a revolution which overthrows the King who launched the movement.
So what are these Fictions? They are our Languages, our Gods, our Nations, our Corporations, and much more. Money is a kind of shared Fiction that establishes trust. Brands and Companies are fictional inventions, and so are religious or philosophical ideologies and idols. Our most cherished rituals and beliefs that we assume to be 'true' are the most powerful of all our Fictions. Fictions allow us to not only speak the same language, but to share the same customs, beliefs, and rituals. They allow us to follow the same laws & customs, to share strategies, and even swap dreams. So a devout Catholic can travel to Europe for the 1st time and meet another devout Catholic who is a stranger, yet instantly they can collaborate on an important project. Muslims could do the same with each other, as could employees of Volkswagen, or fans of the New England Patriots who have never met. Despite having no intimate acquaintance, they can meet for the 1st time and feel kinship. They can collaborate via their titles, beliefs, rituals, and procedures. Fictions allow us to specialize and to diversify in amazing ways. A scientist who studies the water cycle, a hydrologist, a structural engineer, a builder and a politician can come together to create a dam (something beyond any single person's reach). In this doing this, they can alter the course of major rivers, a capability which was formerly the exclusive domain of the Gods of Old. We can even work together to build a ship that travels to the Moon, something WAY beyond the imagination of the ancients who wrote our 'Holy' books.
Our Fictions are not only our means to achieve power in nature, they are also the embodiment of our power in the real world. Indeed it is legal fictions like Gods and Nations and Companies...not individuals, that have the true power and influence in the real world. Even when an individual appears powerful or famous...its not the physical person per se with whom the power resides. In truth it is the 'Celebrity', the brand, or the LLC. Even the author of Sapiens is not working right now to achieve a book sale on Amazon. His likeness, his celebrity, his ideas and his copyright are doing the real work. That's also how an Elvis who has been dead for 40 years can still sell $70 million worth of merchandise in 2017, and his Estate can buy property, hire employees and feed his decedents. That's a pretty impressive feat for a (long since) dead guy! With this understanding of Fictions in mind, suddenly this crazy world actually makes a bit of sense. Seemly disparate things: bureaucracy, religions, Celebrity worship, LLC's, people's addiction to Facebook, the immersive quality of stories and movies, even Idealism itself...it's all related to our Fictions. Our technologies also feed this passion and ability for shared imaginings. First with the invention of writing which allowed for accounting, bureaucracy, and the creation of laws, commandments, and legends. Then came an extension of those abilities with photos and films, TV and movies, and more recently the internet and social media. So what's to come? I'd guess immersive environments, gamification, shared realities, and interactive collaboration. But the real technology then and now has always been our ability to imagine and embody our ideas into shared Fictions.