Sapiens by Harari

Yuval Noah Harari offers us Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind. This is a substantial work that covers a lot of ground. He divides the work into four parts:

  1. The Cognitive Revolution
  2. The Agricultural Revolution
  3. The Unification of Humankind
  4. The Scientific Revolution
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Cover of the book Sapiens.

There is much of merit throughout the book, and much that may be subject to debate, but for me, the most significant idea he presents is that of the cognitive revolution.

The concept grows from an awareness that there is so little that divides us from our fellow Great Apes, and even less from the others of genus homo. Language does not distinguish us.

Rather, it’s the ability to transmit information about things that do not exist at all. As far as we know, only Sapiens can talk about entire kinds of entities that they have never seen, touched or smelled.

(Harari, p. 24)

Because we can do this, we are able to break the gossip limits that create our largest groupings. A human, or even a great ape, can build gossip relationships across groups between 50 and 150 members. Most chimpanzee groups split between 50 and 100. With the creation of imaginary entities, we can cooperate across wider ranges. These entities might be a religion, a country, or a corporation.

This idea fascinates me. It opens wide scope for understanding the world we have created. It meshes neatly with other efforts to build understanding, such as Diamond’s Guns Germs and Steel, and Toffler’s Revolutionary Wealth. So many phenomenon become understandable.

Take the question of the rise and fall of a religion or an empire. How could a religion die such as the Nordic pantheon? How is it that an empire could fall as quickly as the British Empire? Given the nature of these constructs as inter-subjective phenomenon, it may be more akin to the difficulties attendant upon suspension of disbelief in the creation of subjective phenomenon such as a good story. When the participants in the inter-subjective entity no longer believe in the construct, typically because it is no longer fit for purpose, then the group divides into other entities that better meet the need, such as Canada, India, and New Zealand.

This is also very interesting in terms of education. Our educational institutions are a function of our constructs. We need to bring our communities together through these institutions and a growing global population is reason for building more robust educational institutions. We need to develop tools to empower educators across the spectrum to facilitate learning across ever larger populations. This requires digital tools. We must look for ways to identify learning and struggles with learning so we can ensure that every person on the planet learns more. Some of what is needed is learning about the constructs we adopt that allow is to work together.

This concept of a cognitive revolution that allowed homo sapiens to operate across large populations as if they were one, smaller, tribe, is an idea that fuels so much else that Harari goes on to explore. His work is worth your time.

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