Sapiens. Chapter three: The Unification of Humankind. Globalisation and tomatoes from Mexico, money, empires and why syncretism might be the single great world religion
This is already the third article about Sapiens. A Brief History of Humankind, the book that I am in love with.
Being dense in facts, figures and cross-disciplinary knowledge, it deserves slice by slice food for thought digestion. For the first and second articles, covering the first two chapters (Cognitive Revolution and The Agricultural Revolution), please follow link1 and link2.
I have never reasonated with history in my school years, yet this masterpiece is how history should be taught in school, in a fun way, in an backward-forward, past to future connection, that will enable a Z or even an Alpha generation be curious.
Chapter three, The Unification of Humankind is a puzzle solver of the fine liaisons between people, be they called money, empires or religions. In a time frame, it goes from 5,000 years ago to 500 years ago.
After the agricultural revolution, human societies grew in terms of seize and complexity, therefore the myths and fictions supporting the social order accustomed people since birth to think and behave with certain standards. The result was a set of artifical instincts, whose network is called “culture”. Every culture has its typical beliefs, norms and values, but they are in constant change due to external and internal factors. Unlike the laws of physics, which are free of inconsistencies, every man-made order is a subject of contradictions. But does history have a direction? And if there is one, which is the factor that unites people and takes them further? Some argue money, some argue empires, some argue religion. Which one was and is still having more influence?
First millenium BC is the moment when the idea of a universal order took root and we can speak of three potentially universal oders: economic, political and religious.
Here are my learnings:
- there is no more an “authentic” culture or cuisine left on earth because there is no single culture that developed independently in the last few centuries, without any external interventions. Do you associate tomatoes with Italian restaurants and beef steak with Argentina? Be aware that tomatoes have their origin in Mexico and they reached Europe only after the Spaniards conquered Mexico. And Argentinians were eating llama steak before 1492.
- only the gold can cure the disease from the heart or how money was the first conquistador of the globalisation. During the times of hunting in small bands, the economical exchange could be done based on a thread of favours and obligations. With the societies growth, there was a need for money. This was another inter-subjective reality and it was not limited to coins and banknotes only, shells and cigarettes could be just fine, depending on time and context. And if we speak coins and banknotes, they represent only 90% of the total sum of money available in the world, which is $60 trillion. The rest exists only on computer servers.
- “Get your money for nothin’, get your chicks for free” is a Dire Straits lyrics summing up the following: money is an universal converter and is trusted universally. By example, sex was converted to salvation, as the 15th century prostitutes used the money they got for sleeping with men in exchange of indulgences from the Catholic Church. Money is the most universal and most efficient system of mutual trust ever devised. Money can bridge cultural gaps and does not discriminate, so consider it as the apogee of the human tolerance:)
- Sumerian barley (a cereal) money were history’s first known money, 3,000 BC and the most common measurement was sila, aproximately the equivalent of one litre. A male labourer earned 60 silas per month and a female 30. Barley was followed by the silver shekel, which was not a coin, but rather 8.33 grams of silver, which made the exchage complicated, as you had to weigh every transaction. First coins appeared around 640 BC in Anatolia with King Alyattes of Lydia imprint. Almost all coins in use today are descendants of the Lydian coins.
- the dinar is the official currency name from several countries, most probably inherited from the Roman coins “denarii”
- with their cultural diversity and territorial flexibility, empires were next in line for humankind unification, even if that meant a drastic reduction in human diversity. The first empire about which we have information is the Akkadian Empire of Sargon the Great (2,250 BC) who pretended he had conquered the entire world. Later on, Cyrus the Great of Persians claimed “we are conquering you for your own benefit”.
- standardisation and gaining legitimacy were two important reasons for empires to spead norms, customs, ideas. When you constantly repeat yourself and the others that you are entitled to a “Mandate of Heaven” (imperial Chinese vision) and therefore to ruling over many people, you start believing in your “elite” powers and people start believing you too.
- The imperial cycle - Rome, Islam, European imperialism - is made of 6 stages: a small group establishes a big empire/an imperial cuture is forged/the imperiale culture is adopted/the subject peoples demand equal status/the empire’s founders lose dominance/the imperial culture continues to flourish and develop
- the modern Mandate of Heaven will be given by humankind to solve the problems of heaven, not viceversa:) Holes in the ozone layer, accumulation of greenhouse gases, global markets, all are signs of a new global empire. Who is going to rule it?
- Religion has been the third great unifier of humankind, alongside money and empires. A system of human norms and values that is founded on a belief in a superhuman order, religion needs to be universal and missionary. Animism was the foragers dominant belief system that took into consideration not only the humans, but other beings such animals, plants, fairies and ghosts. The Agricultural revolution changed the facts: animals and plants were no longer considered equal to humans.
- From polytheistic religions (Greek “poly” = many, “theos”=god) to monotheistic religions, from the fertility goddess and the war god (watch Wonder Woman movie for more:) to one single God (be it Aten of Egypt in 1,350 BC, Jesus or Allah), if a person believes that the supreme power of the universe has interests and biases, what’s the point in worshiping partial powers, kind of Deputy Gods? Every man-made order is a subject to contradictions and religion is no more an exeption to that. While you pray to God for your health and wealth, but you suffer from headache, pray to St Agathius too:)
- Zarathustra the prophet created the most important dualistic religion - Zoroastrianism, who saw the world as a cosmic battle between the good god Ahura Mazda and the evil god Angra Maynu. Dualism explains evil, which monotheism can’t, but is puzzled by order. If the world was created by one God, how come that we have a bad one too? This riddle can only be solved by somebody with a strong stomach: the God who created the entire universe was evil!
- Syncretism might be the single great world religion, because it allows several rituals and practices from different religions coexist. Christians believe in the monotheistic God, but also in the dualist Devil, in polytheist saints and in animist ghosts.
- The Law of Nature rather of divine wills is the backbone of Buddhism, the most important of the ancient natural-law religions, with the central figure of a human being, not god, named Gautama. Gautama came to solve the difficult puzzle of suffering with the theory that you need to experience reality without craving. Craving causes suffering regardless of ill fortune, social injustice or divine whims. By controling the flames of craving you enter a state of perfect contentment and serenity, known as nirvana. Guatama was named Buddha, which means “The Enlightned One”.
- The new modern age natural-law religions are liberalism, communism, capitalism, nationalism and Nazism. While theist religions worship gods, humanist religions worship humanity, even if “humanity” refers to the indiviualism (liberalism), collective needs (communism) or subhumans/superhumans (evolutionary, including Nazist).
- Cultures are mental parasites that emerge accidentally and thereafter take advantage of the people infected by them. For their part, individual humans are too weak and ignorant to influence history to their own advantage. Maybe only a mixed humanist (liberal/communist/evolutionary) could make that perfect world…
P.S. “For 1,500 years Christians slaughtered Christians by millions to defend slightly different interpretations of the religion of love and compassion.” This is far more than the Roman empire did to Christians in the 300 years from the cruxification of Christ to the conversion of Emperor Constantine.
P.P. S. The book author, Yuval Noah Harari is an Israeli historian, teaching history at the Hebrew Univeristy of Jerusalem. He (yes, he) married his husband in Toronto Canada, 15 years ago, he is a vegan and does not have a smartphone. In 2015, Sapiens was elected by Mark Zuckerberg for his online book club.