Sapiens by Yuval Noah Harari is a remarkable book. As I work my way through it, I was struck by his chapter on myths. Yuval explains that one of our most powerful capabilities as humans is to imagine myths that enable us to cooperate with each other.
Our hunter gatherer ancestors only needed to cooperate in small groups. However, once plants domesticated us (you read that right), we needed to cooperate with much larger groups. So, we invented myths like tribes, races, rules of law, religions, and, in time, nations. Over time, we added more complexity including a national identity, tiers of law, human rights, and so on.
Our imagination is a powerful thing. I write about the effects of this imagination nearly every day on a personal level. Our ability to focus on what we control (control can be an elusive myth) is one such example.
Yuval notes that various characteristics of these myths and their pervasiveness in our lives. Folk tales and stories ensure they’re part of our belief system when we grow up. Then, they help shape our aspirations. And, finally, they are inter subjective, i.e., they work because millions of us believe in them. The Limited Liability Corporation, for example, is a myth we’ve created to enable better cooperation. A corporation exists in the rule of law – also a myth. And, a law exists in a nation, and so on.
I had to stop listening to the book for a few days after this chapter to reflect.
I shuddered as I thought about how much mass genocide has occurred over these invented myths.
But, focusing on something closer to home, I was left looking at a lot of things happening around me very differently. We all create a lot of drama in our lives around events like raises, promotions, awards and achievements. But, a lot of them are just a result of these inter subjective myths we’ve chosen to believe in. I don’t mean to call them futile. But, I do intend to question the importance we give them. Their purpose is for us to cooperate and love each other. And, if they only lead to us seeing imagined divisions, then we’ve lost the plot.
I’m still thinking about this idea and its implication in my life. But, for now, it’s given me a very different perspective. And, for that, I’m grateful.