Book Club: Sapiens, A Brief History of Time (July 2017)

James Clear and I discuss July’s book Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind. We cover the major themes in the book as well as the author’s thought provoking interpretation of human history, contemporary society, and beyond.

If you would rather read the transcript, you can download it here.

Below are some of the highlights:

…on myths and our ability to share collaborative fictions:

James: I found the book fascinating. Harari is very interesting in the way that he frames issues and the way that he talks about things. He does a really great job of looking at things from a new angle… I love thinking about laws as one example. For example, why do we all stop at a stop sign or a red light? Well we stop there because we’ve all agreed we’ve decided that there are certain laws of the road and we’ll adhere to those.

Our ability to collectively agree upon this shared myth or story allows us to have roads and cities that function in an orderly fashion. There’s nothing fundamental about that in the sense that it’s not a fundamental law of the universe (like dropping a ball, it will fall regardless if someone agrees with it or not) and that’s just one example of some of the interesting ideas that he shares.

Scott: I will give a good example: the fact that George Washington is the first American president is pretty uncontroversial. There’s writing that supports this. But this would be exactly the kind of “myth” that Harari is talking about.

It can sound a little bit inflammatory but it’s not to point out the idea that there’s some conspiracy but rather to point out the idea that the whole concept of a “president” or a “United States” is a shared, collective idea that there’s nothing physical in terms of matter that specifies a “President” or specifies a “United States”, rather, they are just shared ideas we have about this.

By calling these myths or these shared collective ideas, he [Harrari] is not trying to share that these are superstitious but rather, this is our great strength and that we have the ability to coordinate on all these shared fictions or created realities that are not necessarily tied down to some kind of materialistic account of the world.

…on the reality of money:

Scott: One thing I thought was great was his section about money. Harari says, “Money is accordingly a system of mutual trust and not just any system of mutual trust. Money is the most universal and most efficient system of mutual trust ever devised.”

What I thought was very interesting is that Harari said the power of money is that money works because you believe other people value it. You don’t need to value it yourself; you just need to believe other people value it so you can get the things you really want from people.

This is a real turn your head around idea and I remember when I wrote a piece about this and I got some economist who said you’ve fallen into the trap of thinking that the US dollar is just a fiat-currency and you’re one of those gold thugs who need to go back to the old days. Really money is based on US debt and securities… but I think that missed my point because those US debt securities are also a sort of an inter-subjective reality. If I didn’t believe in the US and the debt that the US holds then of course the money doesn’t have any value.

James: I’ve actually taken to thinking that, capitalism of which money is of course a central concept, capitalism is perhaps the most successful religion that the world has ever seen. It’s the only religion that everyone agrees upon regardless of what your actual spiritual religion is or is not.

Pretty much everybody agrees that you should work and earn money and have a career and have a job. We’ve all bought into this shared myth together and it makes up the fabric of our culture. The vast majority of our lives are spent working. If we talk about what percentage of our lives are these imaginary concepts versus these physical realities, it is interesting to see just how much of our time on this planet is spent living out the imagined realities that we’ve agreed upon like capitalism and money.

For those of you who want to read the book, it is available here. If you want to participate in the group discussions and join our book club, click here.

Special thanks to James Clear of Be sure to visit his website for great articles.

The book for August will be Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman! by Richard Feynman.

  • Zen Dexter

    Hi Scott – in your post and transcript, you have “thea-currency” instead of “fiat currency”.

  • M Van der Poorten

    Excellent book! Fully agree it’s a must read!

  • Scott Young

    Good eye. I missed that!