Near summer’s end, I read Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind by Yuval Noah Harari, drawn to the book because of quotes on the subject of agriculture here. It was a fascinating read! Here are a few things that stuck with me.

On pages 90-91, Harari talks about Gobekli Tepe an archaeological site dating from 9500 B.C. from pre-agricultural societies. He posits that a common belief enabled the cooperation of Neolithic peoples and that villages grew around this site later, and furthermore, that the initial domestication of wheat 30 kilometres away wasn’t a coincidence but the natural development of people coming and living together. This is contrary to the assumption of the hunter-gatherer, then agriculture then religion order you might assume. But the book is full of these idea reversals and that is what makes it an invigorating read.

This is what Harari has to say about capitalism:

/…/ Smith made the following novel argument: when a landlord, a weaver, or a shoemaker has greater profits than he needs to maintain his own family, he uses the surplus to employ more assistants, in order to further increase his profits. The more profits he has, the more assistants he can employ. It follows that an increase in the profits of private entrepreneurs is the basis for the increase in collective wealth and prosperity.

It may not strike you as very original, because we all live in a capitalist world that takes Smith’s argument for granted. We hear variations on this theme every day in the news. Yet Smith’s claim that the selfish human urge to increase private profits is the basis for collective wealth is one of the most revolutionary ideas in human history – revolutionary not just from an economic perspective, but even more so from a moral and political perspective. What Smith says is, in fact, that greed is good, and that by becoming richer I benefit everybody, not just myself. Egoism is altruism.

Inevitably I think of Trump, most especially during the first debate. But Harari goes on to compare capitalism to a force stronger than religion.

Christians and Muslims who could not agree on religious beliefs could nevertheless agree on a monetary belief, because whereas religion asks us to believe in something, money asks us to believe that other people believe in something. (p 185)

Or perhaps, more to the point, Harari compares capitalism to the most compelling religion ever invented:

The capitalist-consumerist ethic is revolutionary in another respect. Most previous ethical systems presented people with a pretty tough deal. They were promised paradise, but only if they cultivated compassion and tolerance, overcame craving and anger, and restrained their selfish interests. This was too tough for most. The history of ethics is a sad tale of wonderful ideals that nobody can live up to. Most Christians did not imitate Christ, most Buddhists failed to follow Buddha, and most Confucians would have caused Conficius a temper tantrum.

In contrast, most people today successfully live up to the capitalist-consumerist ideal. The new ethic promises paradise on condition that the rich remain greedy and spend their time making more money, and that the masses give free reign to their cravings and passions – and buy more and more. This is the first religion in history whose followers actually do what they are asked to do. How, though, do we know that we’ll really get paradise in return? We’ve seen it on television. (p 349)

He explained the way modern science isn’t just about technology but that it “differs from all previous traditions of knowledge in three critical ways: the willingness to admit ignorance, the centrality of observation and mathematics, and the acquisition of new powers.” (p. 250-251)

One chapter has a lyrical conclusion:

We may conclude by saying that we are on the threshold of both heaven and hell, moving nervously between the gateway of the one and the anteroom of the other. History has still not decided where we will end up, and a string of coincidences might yet send us rolling in either direction.

And then there’s this fascinating discussion about happiness, its only-recent study and its meaning in history:

The crucial importance of human expectations has far-reaching implications for understanding the history of happiness. If happiness depended only on objective conditions such as wealth, health and social relations, it would have been relatively easy to investigate in history. The finding that it depends on subjective expectations makes the task of historians far harder. We moderns have an arsenal of tranquillisers and painkillers at our disposal, but our expectations of ease and pleasure, and our intolerance of inconvenience and discomfort, have increased to such an extent that we may well suffer from pain more than our ancestors did.

It’s hard to accept this line of thinking. The problem is a fallacy of reasoning embedded deep in our psyches. When we try to guess or imagine how happy other people are now, or how people in the past were, we inevitably imagine ourselves in their shoes. But that won’t work because it pastes our expectations on the material conditions of others. In modern affluent societies it is customary to take a shower and change your clothes every day. Medieval peasants went without washing for months on end, and hardly ever changed their clothes. The very thought of living like that, filthy and reeking to the bone, is abhorrent to us. Yet medieval peasants seem not to have minded. They were used to the feel and smell of a long-unlaundered shirt. It’s not that they wanted a change of clothes but couldn’t get it – they had what they wanted. So, at least as far as clothing goes, they were content. […]

… our entire understanding of the history of happiness might be misguided. Maybe it isn’t so important whether people’s expectations are fulfilled and whether they enjoy pleasant feelings. The main question is whether people know the truth about themselves. What evidence do we have that people today understand this truth any better than ancient foragers or medieval peasants?

Harari is fun to read because he acknowledges questions, answers them or else tells you why there isn’t an answer yet. Reading Sapiens makes you feel like you have a falcon’s eye over centuries of human development.