Revisiting Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, one of the most influential books of our times

'We are on the threshold of both heaven and hell, moving nervously between the gateway of the one and the anteroom of the other. History has not decided where will end up, and a string of coincidences might yet send us rolling in either direction.’ — Yuval Noah Harari, Sapiens: A Brief History Of Humankind

Millennials are a unique generation. We live in an era that would be considered magical by those preceding us. The technological advancements we have made in the last few decades are astounding, especially when you wrap your head around the fact that humans have been walking the planet for millions of years.

Yuval Harari's Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind

Yuval Harari's Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind

We have overcome a majority of problems that plagued those before us, but have created new ones — social anxiety, depression, loneliness and existential ennui, to name just a few.

One of the main reasons modern society faces these problems is because of the lifestyles we have chosen. The good-looking ones, the ones with more money and the ones with more 'talent' are winners, while the rest are left fighting for the scraps. Or at least that's what society has trained us to believe.

We have modeled our own definition of success and failure based on these extremely superficial factors, which leads us down a road of helplessness and despair, even though we have more comforts and opportunities than any generation in history. And it doesn't look like the trend is going to end any time soon.

But as it turns out, we're all living in an imagined reality. A reality that has been created by circumstance, history and a few people who were in the right time, at the right place. To put it succinctly, it's a reality created out of sheer randomness. It's this randomness that chooses the haves and the have-nots.

This isn’t the plot of a sci-fi movie, but the gist of Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind. The book, originally published in Hebrew in 2011, was released in English in 2014. It is written by Professor Yuval Noah Harari, an Israeli historian and author. The book has made a resurgence as Harari recently released the follow up — Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow only a few months ago.

The book has received high praise from international leaders and titans of industry, including Bill Gates and Barack Obama. On the surface, this meticulously researched book is simply an analysis of the journey of humankind since we came into being, to where we could be in the near future. It’s the transition of humans from insignificant hunter-gatherers to, possibly and not-so-implausibly, the Gods of the future.

But once you dig deeper, though, there's a larger, more powerful narrative that every millennial needs to experience. Our generation is going to produce the next batch of leaders, and this narrative has the potential to shake our core beliefs and give us a brand new perspective on our own existence and our role in the world.

While the book covers a myriad of philosophical themes, it isn't philosophical in nature. It has been written by an academic and presents its arguments in a very matter-of-fact way, with a dash of wry humour. At 443 pages, it's a fairly long read, but worth every minute of your time.

Harari covers hotly-debated topics like religion, gender equality, human rights, racism, nationalism, capitalism, homosexuality and the human condition with a level of disarming objectivity, explaining how all of these are merely figments of our collective imagination. According to him, these fictions have helped human beings separate themselves from the rest of the planet.

Harari boils down the progress of mankind to external circumstances, needs of human beings at a particular time in history, and plain old dumb luck.

Another topic Harari discusses is particularly relevant — happiness. What is happiness? Is it a bunch of chemical reactions in our brain, the people we surround ourselves with, our attitude towards life, or just an abstract term medieval philosophers and writers came up with in their free time? He admits that he no amount of research or analysis can produce the right answer. Happiness is truly an individual, subjective pursuit.

That brings me to the present. Here we are, in a world brimming with potential. We’re staring into our screens, searching for validation and dreaming of greatness. We want success, we want riches, we want pretty things, and we want them now. And today, we have every opportunity to achieve our dreams. Yet, we’re miserable.

We have feminists, misogynists and everyone in the middle, conservatives and liberals, religious zealots and hardcore atheists, all existing together, insisting that their imagined reality is more real than the others. We’re all fighting for beliefs that are nothing more than constructs of the mind. And we’re angry at anyone who disagrees with us.

We’ve been told that we are the ones who will shape the future, that we can do whatever we want, and that our opinion matters. But most of us are slowly realising that this simply isn’t true. Despite what we would like to believe, most of us are insignificant drops in the ocean of humanity. And we feel helpless and lost.

Most of us will never be rockstars, or supermodels, or billionaires. But you know what? That's okay. Because if you look closely enough, none of it matters. Success is truly in the mind of the beholder. This isn’t a pep talk, it’s simply behaviourial science.

So if everything is a fiction, shouldn’t that make you more cynical? I disagree. When you see that the world is, in fact, stitched together by a bunch of invented truths, this observation gives you more perspective than most others things. It gives you the opportunity to find your own truth, the narrative that gives your life purpose. Yes, we all need creature comforts, but now, we can decide to not make the material world the center of our existence. We may not attain nirvana, but we can learn to live more positively.

There’s a greater truth out there that we don’t know, and it will set us free. We scoff at holy men and religious heads when they say this; but when it comes from a scientist, backed by facts and analysis, we can’t help but accept our delusion. Maybe that’s exactly what we need today to build a better tomorrow.

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Updated Date: Apr 16, 2017 14:22:41 IST

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