Suffering for Success

The Cognitive Revolution was a process by which Homo Sapiens developed language that could communicate the abstract; describe things that don’t exist outside of our imaginations. Sapiens generated fictions, which enable cooperation on a scale much grander scale than would otherwise be found in nature. The Cognitive Revolution made the imagined reality of Sapiens more powerful than the biological reality; it was our segue into culture. The Agricultural Revolution was the transition from foraging and hunting to the growing crops deliberately, and domesticating/ herding animals. This revolution occurred only in places where animals and plants could be domesticated, which is why there are still foraging societies to this day. The Agricultural Revolution allowed- indeed, required- more permanent settlements, which allowed mothers to produce offspring at a higher rate than before. The growth in population demanded more food, which demanded more work, which demanded more people. The more permanent and crowded settlements became over time, the more vulnerable they became to disease and famine/ drought. Food surpluses allowed for the cultivation of art and philosophy, and also the creation of an elite social class, which paved the way for economic inequalities that persist to this day.

Imagined orders are how society structures itself around commonly shared myths that dictate the society’s principles of justice and values. Democracy is a myth that tells us we are all equal in the eyes of the law, and that individual freedom is paramount. Romanticism is a myth that tells us that diversity of experience will fulfill us. Consumerism is a myth that tells us satisfaction can be bought. These myths all work in concert to sustain our imagined order, which is that of a land of opportunity. While this imagined order is more true for some than others, it enables us to co-exist relatively harmoniously as an incredibly large and diverse association of people. I am skeptical of Harari’s claim that “imagined orders are not evil conspiracies” (p 110). Harari says later that “the hierarchy originated as the result of a set of accidental historical circumstances and was then perpetuated… as different groups developed vested interests in it” (p 138). These statements seem somewhat contradictory; while accidental circumstances have certainly influenced the shaping of hierarchies, the perpetuation of said hierarchies by vested interests appears directly conspiratorial. This is evident in the reading of ancient Greek philosophy, as well as in certain religious texts such as the Mahabartha.

2 thoughts on “Suffering for Success”

  1. Great summary of the impacts of both the cognitive and agricultural evolution. In regard to your stance on a potential paradox between the two Harari quotes you provided, I have a couple questions. Why is it exactly that hierarchies must be self-vested and therefore “evil”? While most individuals that rise to power undoubtedly have some modicum of self-interest and drive for self-benefit, isn’t it possible that they also are actually interested in the condition of and serving the society/community they rule? I find it hard to believe that hierarchies are simply based on threatening or decreasing the well-being of others to better oneself when it seems to be a rather consistent beliefs throughout cultures that to better another is to better oneself.

  2. Shayne- you make a great point, which is that the guided self-interest of hierarchies doesn’t necessarily imply a degree of evilness, or rather a CONSCIOUS evilness. I tend to think that most politicians do what they do because the are motivated by a genuine belief that their vision for society is better, even while many others would construe them as corrupt or ‘evil’. It is an inherent feature of hierarchies, though, that they have a top and a bottom. For those at the bottom, the structure of the hierarchy will inevitably work against their well-being, no matter what the intent of the hierarchy’s engineers. On a more global scale, I was thinking about the ways in which the American government interferes in foreign governments in order to install leaders that will cooperate with the American agenda. This is an unfortunate reality that exploits the citizens of other countries in order to sustain the imagined order of the United States. Of course there are those at the top, engineering and sustaining the hierarchies, who believe in their agenda as a force for good in the world. For the people who suffer at the bottom, though, the structure remains ‘evil’. While hierarchies may not be consciously based in evilness, they do require active maintenance, and there will undoubtedly be negative consequences for those at the bottom. Excellent question! I hope I was able to answer it effectively..

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