Yuval Noah Harari, ‘Sapiens’

sapiensYuval Noah Harari’s fascinating Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind is the latest big book on the thinking person’s bookshelf, garnering praise from Barack Obama, Bill Gates and Jared Diamond among others – but as far as I know it hasn’t made many waves in ‘development’ circles yet. It should do. This is an astonishing, provocative, worldview-changing book. Read it and give it to all your friends for Christmas.

Christmas is a time for myths. We repeat the same stories and go through the same rituals, from carol singing to Christmas trees, from ‘traditional’ food to present giving, year in, year out. In our modern, secular liberal world, with its faith in science and technology, it’s worth asking why. Because we believe in the literal truth of the incarnation of the Son of God? Not so many of us, nowadays. Because we are conned by big business into spending far too much of our hard-earned cash on things that nobody really needs? Perhaps – but there are many of us who do really believe in something as nebulous as the ‘magic of Christmas’ or the ‘Christmas spirit’. Yuval Noah Harari’s fascinating book provides another answer: because human beings need myth and ritual to bind them together, and to give their lives meaning and purpose.

Harari’s book is an exhilarating romp through 70,000 years of human history with many interesting sidelines but one central argument: that the defining characteristic of Homo Sapiens as distinct from other species has been our ability to talk about and believe in things that do not exist. It’s a characteristic which does not only define ‘traditional’ societies but all humanity:

“People easily understand that ‘primitives’ cement their social order by believing in ghosts and spirits, and gathering each full moon to dance together around the campfire. What we fail to appreciate is that our modern institutions function in exactly the same way. […] Modern businesspeople and lawyers are, in fact, powerful sorcerers.”

Harari argues that businesspeople and lawyers are ‘sorcerers’ because they maintain humans’ belief in things like laws, concepts of justice and human rights, and limited liability companies – which are all critical to human cooperation but do not strictly exist in any physical or objective sense. Sapiens makes the case that many of humans’ most important advances have been developments in myth, changes in human minds which have profound impacts in the physical world. For example:

  • The company Peugeot exists as an idea distinct from any of its cars or factories or employees. Even if all of them were to be destroyed, the legal entity would continue to exist.
  • Money is “an intersubjective reality that exists solely in people’s shared imaginations”. It exists independently of coins and notes (more than 90% of all money nowadays exists only on computer screens!) and depends on trust that others will put the same value on these artificial counters as we do.
  • The US declaration of independence is based on powerful myths that “all men are created equal” and that they are “endowed by their Creator with unalienable rights”. Whatever we think about these statements, concepts of equality and rights have no basis in biology. They only have reality in humans’ imaginations.

From the point of view of development, one of the most critical mind-changes Harari outlines is the emergence of credit and its importance in driving the modern capitalist economy. Before say 1500, credit existed but there was little of it and it was very expensive. This was because people saw the total amount of wealth was limited: anyone who made money must be taking it away from someone else. With the exploration and exploitation of the ‘New World’, people started believing that there were more resources to be discovered, more money to be made, and that the total amount of wealth could increase. This meant that more people were willing to lend money to businesses, and at cheaper and cheaper rates.


The astonishing thing about this is that the capitalist revolution was based not so much on any real-world change as a simple change of mindset. People believed the economy would grow, so it did grow. Of course, the economy only grew in practice as people discovered new resources, new technologies and new ways of organising production – but it was all financed on the basis of trust in the future.

Harari doesn’t go into the implications of all this for the development industry but it’s not difficult to do so. Although development agencies pride themselves on their scientific approach, use of the latest ‘evidence’ and so on, we clearly trade in myths: myths of progress, of modernisation, of development. There has been quite a bit of literature showing how some development myths bear little resemblance to reality and can have some quite pernicious effects: for example James Scott’s Seeing Like a State shows how myths of modernism and progress that inspired collective farming in Russia and compulsory villagisation in Tanzania were extremely damaging to rural people’s lives. But few have looked at the positive role that such myths play. In fact, in order to get any development intervention started, those involved need to build a vision of the future that is likely to be highly optimistic and unrealistic. Development is something that people need to believe in before it becomes reality. *

If development myths are sometimes positive and sometimes damaging, is there a way to find the right kind of myths and avoid the wrong ones? It’s not easy, but perhaps one idea is to think about who is doing the dreaming. Development myths are most damaging when they are dreamed up by states or development agencies with little understanding of the realities they are supposed to be engaging with, and imposed on people against their will. As poor people have little political clout and their voices are seldom heard, this happens all too often. But sometimes myths of progress – even those peddled by much-maligned development agencies – can inspire people to change their own lives and even their political situations. Myths and dreams inspired the French Revolution in the eighteenth century, anti-colonial movements in Africa in the twentieth, and the Arab Spring in the twenty-first. Maybe development agencies need to spend less time dreaming up new myths in their headquarters and more time understanding and supporting the dreams of people we are trying to help.

* For an interesting discussion of how development planners deliberately exaggerate benefits and downplay risks of projects in order to get them funded, see Albert Hirschmann’s classic Development Projects Observed (1967).


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