By Emily Foss
The third segment of Yuval Noah Harari’s Sapiens explores the emergence of money, empires and religions and how these imagined orders acted as the three great unifiers of humankind.
Following the Agricultural Revolution, humans continued to live in disparate clans and settlements. Barter economies began to emerge as specialization increased. Exchange rates of different commodities soon became too numerous and convoluted for humans to comfortably handle, so common currencies emerged. Because money can convert, store and transport wealth easily, it enables trade on larger scales. The adoption of a universal currency allowed for trust between sellers and consumers, and mutual trust seems to be a critical component in interhuman cooperation.
Harari claims that empires are political orders characterized by “cultural diversity and territorial flexibility” (Harari 190). The proliferation of empires played a decisive part in the amalgamation of many small cultures into few large cultures. The Imperial Cycle follows a distinct pattern in which an imperial culture is forged and seeks to conquer as many peoples as possible. The subject peoples then adopt the culture of their subjugators and these values, habits and lifestyles then persist and flourish, often despite the collapse of the founding empire.
The Agricultural Revolution spurred the conversion from animism to theism. For the first time in human history, we began actively manipulating the plants and animals with whom we cohabitated the biosphere, thus distinguishing ourselves as separate from and dominant over them. Gods had more ubiquity than spirits inhabiting the local rocks, trees and rivers – something expanding human domains necessitated. As polytheism morphed into monotheism, believers began to organize “widespread missionary activities aimed at all humans” (Harari 218). As these ideologies took root, so did hundreds upon thousands of Sapiens fall under the collective influence of a handful of religious umbrellas.
Though the past is and always will be immutable, the future presents us with a vast horizon of possibilities. We study history in order to better understand how a seemingly inconsequential decision or twist of fate can alter the course of human history in drastic ways.