It wasn’t inevitable for human beings to control the world according to Israeli historian Yuval Harari, who makes a fascinating argument for what puts us on top in his breakout book “Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind.” We find our power in our ability to organize ourselves around belief systems, or stories, that can be altered relatively quickly to meet changing realities.
“We can’t function as a society without some fictions,” said Harari, fictions that get us all working together. Consider man’s use of currency. “Money is probably the most successful story ever told,” he explained. “It’s absolutely worthless,” but “we think it’s worth something because we believe a story. And when everybody believes it, it works.” Even chimpanzees, which will trade a banana for a coconut, could never be convinced to give up a piece a food for a worthless green piece of paper, Harari explained in a recent interview.
The gift of stories can create good outcomes or bad ones, said Harari. “Human society is far more flexible and dynamic than any other society on earth, and at the same time, it’s far more fragile. And both because it’s based on stories.” Other species can only evolve their social structures over long periods of time by way of evolution, he said, yet humans can start believing a different story and engage in revolution over a period of days or months.
The degree to which humans are driven by narratives is plain to see. The dumb luck of having been born in Greater Boston makes us Red Sox fans. Mr. Whipple gets us to buy Charmin because it is “squeezably soft.” And Democrats are noble while Republicans are evil – or vice versa – based on which story one gets caught up in.
But do the Yankees really suck? Are we overpaying for toilet tissue based on Mr. Whipple’s apparent love affair with soft, scented paper? Are the enormous similarities between the two major political parties lost on many voters who become excited over deceptive narratives designed to demonize the other?
It used to be that Democrats and Republicans believed in a shared national narrative. We chose Kennedy over Nixon or Reagan over Carter because we thought one would better pursue our shared goals rather than because we thought the other was driven by nefarious aims. Now, of course, things are very different, and voters have been divided by political parties that stake out different philosophies to entice different voters. Democrats are devoted to voters who tend to be poor, minority, young or who live in cities, while Republicans are inclined to stake out those who are more likely rural, middle class and white. Because these voting blocs have very different needs and beliefs, we have trouble finding common ground with voters on the other side.
Harari says it is the belief in a common story that keeps a nation together. “This is why every society invests so much effort in propaganda,” he argued, “in images and in brainwashing people from a very early age to believe in the dominant story of the society. Because if they don’t believe, everything collapses.”
If the state of our politics leaves you feeling chagrined, there is grounds for hope; Harari predicts in his new book, “Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow,” that human control over the planet will last only another century or two. Perhaps the new key player, which he expects to be artificial intelligence (or possibly genetically modified humans), will not be so susceptible to false narratives.