Whilst reading Yuval Noah Harari’s book Sapiens, it occurred to me the extent to which humans have just created rules for ourselves. An imagined order as Harari describes it in his book. Whilst the way I use the term here is perhaps slightly looser than in Harari’s book, it follows the same idea: the lives of humans come partly down to our genes and a lot to what’s in our heads.
The humans of 12,000 years ago weren’t dissimilar from the ones today. Biological changes have been relatively minor (because if humans had significantly evolved then we wouldn’t still be ‘humans’) and our brains have more or less stayed the same since the creation of spoken language. However, humans pre-10,000 BC lived very different lives.
Humans used to be hunter-gatherers, which means we did a fair amount of hunting and, surprisingly, a decent amount of gathering too. The life of a human was like that of other animal species. We’d find food to eat, survive long enough to reproduce — hence fulfilling a fundamental tenet of evolution — then look after some children, hunt and gather some more, and then die.
In terms of biology — where the main aim is to pass on one’s genes to the next generation — this could be deemed a relatively satisfactory life. At a fundamental level, the brains and bodies of creatures on the Earth are hard-wired to be good at surviving for long enough to reproduce but, outside of that, there isn’t really much prescribed meaning. And really, if you look closely, even that meaning is illusory. It’s not as though the universe cares about this tiny dot in the expanse of space any more than any other of the tiny dots out there. The closest answer to what we’re meant to do is ensuring the continuation of our genes, but outside of that, we’re left in the dark.
What sets humans apart is the amount of chatting that we do. As soon as we developed the ability for conversation, we quickly diverged from the other species of planet Earth. When we weren’t hunting — or dare I say, gathering — we’d be sitting around chatting about other humans, maybe the mammoth or giant kangaroo we saw that day and about, I suppose, all the hunting and gathering we got up to (can you tell anthropology is not my area?).
As Harari explains in his book, things quickly went downhill for humans at around the 10,000 BC mark.
Early humans realised that instead of spending our days finding animals and vegetables, we could make the animals and vegetables come to us. At first glance, the agricultural revolution that followed seems like a huge win for humankind as it allowed the population of humans to grow significantly.
The reality, however, for any one of those people were long days spent ploughing, tending to fields of wheat and a less varied diet, which lead to decreased health and general wellbeing. Humans have evolved to eat a variety of fruit and vegetables, which is why we’re told to eat a varied diet today. Eating bread for every single meal — despite the appeal — is not what you’ve evolved to do.
Moving from an active, varied and intellectually stimulating lifestyle to a stationary, labour intensive and repetitive one could be considered a bad decision for humankind — not the first and, amazingly, not the last. The naivety of humans, to make ourselves more productive, efficient and busy but at the expense of our happiness and wellbeing. Sound familiar?
As agriculture became more prevalent and groups of humans were able to settle in one location and grow, complex societies formed. Whilst society and imagined order had existed before the agricultural revolution it was nowhere near to the same extent. With the formation of larger cities, there came more workers to make food, a place to trade it and, of course, a way for those in power to take from those who did the work: taxes.
Without oversimplifying too much, this seems to be how society operates today. Groups of humans live in one place, relying on farmers to provide us with food. The food is collected from farms and brought to markets where we, fulfilling an innate desire to gather and hunt, make our way through the rough terrain of supermarket aisles with our tribes — sometimes called ‘housemates’, ‘family’ etc.
We can then pat our chimp brains on the back for being so great at hunting those selectively bred, imprisoned, pre-slaughtered, pre-processed, plastic-wrapped sausages. Precisely what humans have “always done” and just as nature intended! But I digress.
Our early human ancestors would be curious to see how we finalise the acquisition of our gathered supermarket goods. If you offered 1 million dollars in cash or a box of grapes, the average early human would probably choose the grapes, not realising that 1 million dollars could be exchanged for a heck of a lot of grapes.
Whilst the notion of trading goods might be relatively easily understood, trading with paper of no intrinsic value would seem somewhat strange. Not only would it be rather confusing that we’ve all collectively decided to trade paper for grapes, but people spend their lives figuring out the best way to store and trade that paper. Furthermore, there are people who don’t even ever handle the grape paper, they just deal with hypothetical paper stored in a depression-inducing box of blue light.
This is one of many examples of the imagined order that Harari talks about in his book. A whole bunch of concepts that humans have come up with to live, function in society and keep our big talkative brains occupied. Imagined order is everywhere, from brands to politics, to rules and laws, and even to morality. Our imagined order is layers upon layers of ideas that humans have set out to make living more… interesting? Well, that’s the thing.
Certainly, there’s some imagined order that makes modern life easier. Money seems to do a pretty good job at mediating transactions and ensuring people can trade goods with one another. Businesses seem to be a pretty effective way of ensuring that we can ultimately obtain goods. You might be able to think of a few more examples of how using our collective imagination has made the world seemingly better. Though, it’s worth questioning how necessary it really all is.
Humans have taken imagined order to the extreme. For the sake of brevity let’s put a pin in religion and leave that next to our suspiciously plant-based assertion from earlier. Imagined order relies on a mutual agreement that something is worth thinking about and abiding by. That mutual agreement is often established with such sincerity that we somehow become convinced that it is not completely imaginary and totally non-existent outside of our heads.
Humans create meaning for themselves. That’s important. Without meaning, we’re right back to square one, in a totally meaningless universe desperately trying to ensure we survive long enough to pass on our genes, because continuing existence is, for some reason, an important thing to do.
But creating meaning is a dangerous game. We can make anything meaningful with enough thinking. We can work really hard and be five times as productive as our hunter-gatherer ancestors, only to find ourselves with a few hours a day to spend on things that — if we thought hard enough — might be even more important, like being with friends and family.
We might be convinced — by others, or by ourselves — into thinking that typing numbers into a spreadsheet or writing a report on last month’s tax efficiency quota is meaningful, despite it making our lives no better than those hunter-gatherers who never had to think about numbers, spreadsheets or tax efficiency.
Imagined order exists in our brains but not in the real world. The same brains that over 12,000 years ago were trying to figure out which mushrooms were good, which were bad and which would make everything go a bit crazy for a few hours.
When you start to become aware of the triviality of so many of the actions we take so seriously and realise that we’re making ourselves busy, tired and unwell whilst achieving very little, you might start to wish that you were roaming the fields of 10,000 BC, picking berries with your mates and chatting about the huge koala you just saw.
Our society is so incredibly different to that of our ancestors of 12,000 years ago but our brains are very similar. Our ancestors had their own versions of an imagined order, and that’s not a bad thing. Imagined order gives us meaning where there is otherwise none. However, sometimes it’s worth forgoing the earnestness of society and its imaginary constructs. Remember that every conversation about taxes is between two hunter-gatherer friends, who want to eat, sleep and have a chat, but with a few layers of mutually agreed nonsense added on top.