From Animal into Gods (Part II)
Written by Alfonso Elizondo
Created on Tuesday, 13 September 2016, 13:45
I have made a great effort to give a very brief summary of the extraordinary history book written by history professor Yuval Noah Harari, since most of his narrative covers the 2.5 million year period since the appearance of the first species of Homo erectus that roamed Africa, Asia and Europe until the first settled villages were created around 9500 AC. And from that time until the late modern period that began with the Industrial Revolution in the early nineteenth century, all human society lived off farming.
Efforts related to farming had very important consequences as farming was the foundation of large-scale political and social systems, although farmers never achieved security in the immediate future of their economies. Everywhere rulers and elites emerged who lived off the surplus food produced by farmers who barely managed to survive.
Harari says that these confiscated food surpluses fueled wars, politics, art and philosophy, and built palaces, forts, monuments and temples. Up until the late modern era, 90% of humans living on the planet were farmers who woke up every morning to till the land. The surpluses they generated fed the minority elites, whether kings, bureaucrats, soldiers, priests, artists or thinkers who fill the history books.
The food surpluses as well as new forms of transportation enabled the formation of larger villages, then small towns and then cities linked by new kingdoms and trading networks. Despite the food surpluses, however, there was an increase in conflicts between the settlers for which no practical agreement could be reached.
According to Harari, most of the wars and revolutions in history were not caused by lack of food but by conflicts between members of the elite. The root of the problem of war and conflict was that for thousands of millennia humans lived in groups of a few dozen people and then, in a few thousand years, after the agricultural revolution in 8,500 BC, cities, kingdoms and empires appeared that did not allow for the development of the cooperation instinct in the masses of humanity.
No sociologist of antiquity would have thought that the mythologies of the ancient past would still be alive several millennia later, but the truth was that the stories of ancestral spirits and tribal totems were strong enough to start trade in kind, produce celebrations and bring forces together to fight bands from other tribes. But no one thought that these mythologies would enable millions of people of the most diverse ethnicities and cultures to cooperate on a task of a global nature.
In fact, myths have been much more powerful than anyone imagined. In 8,500 BC, the largest settlements in the world were small villages like Jericho where a few hundred people lived, but in 7000 BC, the city of Catalhoyue in Anatolia had the largest population in the world, ranging between 5000 and 10000 inhabitants. And in 3,100 BC, the entire Nile Valley was unified under the first Egyptian kingdom. Their pharaohs ruled over territories stretching over thousands of square kilometers and with hundreds of thousands of people. And in 2,250 BC the first Akkadian empire was created with a million subjects and a standing army of 5,400 soldiers.
Between 1000 BC and 500 BC the first mega empires emerged in the Middle East: the late Assyrian, Babylonian and Persian Empires with millions of subjects and tens of thousands of soldiers. During its heyday the Roman Empire had more than 100 million subjects, with a standing army of hundreds of thousands of soldiers, a bureaucracy with more than one hundred thousand employees, a road network that was still being used 1,500 years after its construction, as well as theaters and public spaces for all kinds of spectacles.
However, in reality, the vast majority of human cooperation networks were organized to oppress and exploit the working classes. All cooperation networks, from the cities of Mesopotamia to the Roman and Chinese companies were institutions that emerged from the imagination. The rules that sustained them were not based on natural instincts or personal relationships but on the belief in shared myths.
Harari makes a comparison between two well-known historical myths separated by a difference of 3,000 years: The Code of Hammurabi from the year 1776 BC and the United States Declaration of Independence in 1776 AD, which is still in force for more than 300 million US citizens. Harari concludes that the concepts of the world in every age were totally false, as they have come from different interpretations of divine myths that have been displaced by scientific facts and even by the evolution of collective culture.
We now know that from a scientific point of view the world does not have different castes, that all human genes and brains are similar, and that it is ridiculous to think that existing gods have transcendental powers and preferences for certain social groups, as was the case with eighteenth-century American mythology.
Harari’s basic hypothesis is that all human developments have involved the dissemination of false narratives for several thousand millennia and these narratives have been accepted by the great majority of people and they continue to function in the same way up to the present time.
Addendum: The most enigmatic aspect of the history of humans so far is that we do not yet know whether the millennial evolutionary process has improved their intellectual capacity and whether they are now more or less happy than before.