Feature photo courtesy of @aaliyahidk
Turning an existential crisis into awe and hope
In grade school, I would always detest history class. The curriculum was stale-- an uninspiring exercise in memorizing dates of wars and two-line biographies of dead white men. History, as it was taught, seemed rigid and factual, despite the obvious reality that history, as it actualizes, is complex, open to interpretation. It seemed like nothing could ever be traced down to me or the world around me today. But Sapiens: A Brief History of Mankind, written by Yuval Noah Harari, proved me otherwise.
Sapiens: A Brief History of Mankind is a New York Times bestseller that has been heralded by icons such as Barack Obama and Bill Gates as a must-read. The book’s contents very much reflect its title: it covers the history of humankind, from the origins of our species to the future of humans beyond the 21st century.
Sapiens is an experiential read; there were so many moments that I had to pause to take in the immense length of our history on Earth, the finitude of my personal existence, and the vastness of humanity.
We have been around for many millennia of years— during which species of humans have disappeared, empires have risen and fallen, and our societies have been reshaped countless times. Being able to take a step back and see the pace of humanity made me realize that each day in my life may not be as groundbreaking as it seems at the moment, but it can still be meaningful to me on a personal level. I realized that time is like a Russian Nesting doll: everything is contained within a larger being or concept or entity. But ultimately, each entity contained within, no matter how small, is integral to the doll’s existence.
What Harari makes clear in his writing is that history is not just about science. History is not just about the theory of evolution or the Big Bang; it is about the marriage of those scientific processes with culture. Homo Sapiens weren’t always the most powerful animals on Earth. In fact, we used to live harmoniously with other species of humans and animals, hunting for prey and living in bands in the same way wild animals do today. What eventually led to our world domination was our brains. Our brains are able to think in a way that no other animals can; we can imagine. Since we developed language and began to communicate with one another, we were also able to discover our common imaginations. With our imaginations, in which we are able to think and create abstractly, we were thus able to form culture. With imagination, we are able to work together in large capacities with strangers we have never even met. We are able to create religions, the concept of monetary value, and the practice of stock trading to unite ourselves with the people around us. No longer is the miracle in the science experiment itself, with the reaction of chemicals, but in our manipulation of those chemicals to create medicines and weapons.
In realizing society’s reliance on our brains, I felt in awe at their capabilities. While our physicalities may not be everlasting, our thoughts and ideas seem to be eternal and immortal. I think about the archives that we still revisit, from the handprints on the Lascaux cave walls to the equation of gravity invented by Einstein, and realize that each one of us has the power to communicate with not only the past, but also with the future. If I am able to comprehend and involve into my daily life a thought proposed and solidified some time as far as thousands of years ago, I can only imagine what future beings will decipher and perhaps relate to from my life. As I scroll through social media, I think about how preposterous it is that I am able to communicate and relate to many people simply because of one common denominator, such as a favorite artist or book. Human communication has allowed for the suspension of time and place and I am grateful for the relation it has given me to other people across history and personal circumstances.
The man-made nature of our world into one that relies on abstract thinking gives me hope. Because we give meaning to much of our existence, such as the exchange of Instagram likes into popularity and even financial gain, there is something valuable in identifying with the cynical attitude of an angsty teen and knowing how to be flippant or critical towards certain structures. Harari details the construction of hierarchies, based on identity differences such as race and class, used to create order. Being able to recognize such structures as inherently unnatural inspires me to keep pursuing justice and equality without feeling immediately dejected that such a thing might be impossible. After all, my obstacles are merely human like me: it is simply one ideology versus another.
The reality is that I do not and may not ever have a nominal presence in the vastness of human history, but Sapiens allows me to see that history isn’t exclusive to the past and that I am very much connected to the paths that have led us to where we are today. Humankind’s collaborative changes, albeit gradual, are impactful. The power vested in our minds has affected the way we treat each other and the world around us and continues to do so. Sapiens’ exploration of human history helps me to see ways in which we can use our brains to our advantage. Because beyond making robots and artificial intelligence, what I took away from the book is that we are all from the same ancestors and we all have the same thoughts. We all even have the same thresholds of emotional capacity—in fact, our level of happiness has remained the same for millennia. So rather than constantly exerting our differences from one another, why not celebrate the connection we have instead? There is great potential in our unity and empathy.
Through Sapiens, I was able to extricate my relationship with myself and the world. I was able to answer many questions about the origins of today’s society and become inspired by the journey in which we have developed and advanced, from hunter-gatherers to capitalistic moguls. Although Sapiens didn’t necessarily define my role in the development of humanity, it gave me an understanding of, and thus a relationship to, my history. Rather than be scared of the miniscule part I have in the length of our history or demoralized by the issues that our society is plagued with, I am encouraged—to continue making mistakes, to keep learning, to share my voice, to collaborate, and to make each day I have more meaningful and fulfilled.