Zooming out from our place and time in the planet's history is both terrifying and refreshing. Terrifying in the sense that we're faced with the reality of our species' minuscule nature – how we're merely a part, not the centerpiece, of a host of other living organisms and ecosystems at play around us. Refreshing in the sense that we can stop taking ourselves so seriously – even though we may persist in conditioning ourselves to think we are the masters of our fate...captains of our souls...etc.
In reality, we're quite biologically vulnerable and genetically manipulable.
But perhaps our greatest strength as a human species, what Harari posits as having set us apart from every other species on the planet, roughly 70,000 years ago, is our ability to use fictive language; a skill that has enabled us to attribute meaning to the world around us, and from that meaning develop imagined orders that provide unity and governance to our social structures.
Over the last few years, I have been studying communal narratives, examining the shared values that tie groups more closely together and influence the way they interact with the environment and those around them. This research has mostly played out within the traditions of my religious community – Orthodox Christianity is rich with ancient ritual and tradition – but has also taken place within new groups forming around startups focused on higher education and community development. All this to say that I have been steeped in the world of fictive language – developing it, promoting it, and embracing a sense of belonging within it – without ever having considered that it's one of the most powerful tools our species has ever developed.
Myths and fictions accustomed people, nearly from the moment of birth, to think in certain ways, to behave in accordance with certain standards, to want certain things, and to observe certain rules. They thereby created artificial instincts that enabled millions of strangers to cooperate effectively. This network of artificial instincts is called 'culture'. (Chapter 9, pg. 163)
Reading Harari's comprehensive review of the entire history of humankind (audacious project, right?) caused me to view the world and its societies with a more objective lens. Of course, I have been raised to uphold and preserve certain value sets, and these are forever ingrained in me, but knowing that they were once created by humans, just like me, provides me with newfound hope. Hope because it tasks you and I with constructing the social orders we inhabit, which means we can create peaceful, sustainable, and loving ones (my values of choice). We can leverage the unifying power of human language and imagination to rise above our individual limitations. It's what has set us apart from all other animals, after all.
If we do not use our collective language and imagination to live harmoniously with planet and people then, as bleak as this may sound, this book reminded me that we are just one of many species here, whose survival is not top on the universe's priority list, no matter what stories we recite to convince ourselves otherwise.