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Religions of the Commuter Belt: Sapiens Reviewed

Updated: Apr 10, 2019

by Niall Walker

If power is the ultimate justification for science, in what way does it differ to the myths and religions of the past?

In the beginning, silence reigned throughout the universe.

Then there was a bang.

Noise erupted in infinite forms. Asteroids collided, stars exploded, and in one small corner of the cosmos, a grand chorus of bickering, screaming and fighting began.

Dawn of Man

Homo Sapiens emerged from the East African delta about 2 and a half million years ago. Our bloated cerebella and opposable thumbs made us a uniquely proud mammal, obsessed with our own sounds, gazing at our own reflection. It should come as no surprise, then, that Yuval Noah Harari’s biography of mankind - Sapiens - has been translated into 45 languages and continues, 5 years after publication, to occupy the front shelves of every respectable book shop.

Harari argues that our species’ unique ability to construct shared mythologies has allowed us to develop cultures capable of dominating the world. Yet this hasn’t assured us of security or happiness, because ‘cultures are mental parasites that emerge accidentally and thereafter take advantage of all people infected by them’.

Our ready acceptance of myth has been tempered in our recent history by the emergence of science, the author develops, a belief system that ‘has no dogma’. True, suffering, hatred and misery still exist, as they did in those population caught under the spell of old ideologies. But in the right hands, loyalty to empirical, rationalist analysis has changed the world for the better.

Science fiction

Sapiens opens with observations on ancient skulls and anthropological findings of hunter gatherer communities. Harari is keen for us as readers to acknowledge that his book is an example of this 'good' science. Yet there is a mythical quality to the book. It is full of historical warnings and heroic characterisation. Money is described as ‘the most universal and efficient system of mutual trust ever built’. The American Declaration of Independence, condemned for its religious and humanist vocabularies of the past, is translated into the language of modern Biology.

For a book which weighs so heavily on the potential of co-operative enterprise, it is also sparsely sourced. Chapter 13, ‘The Secret of Success’, includes only one reference over 12 pages. It is tempting to conclude that Sapiens is, like its grand-narrative predecessors Harari so patronises, just another speculative shout into the cosmos, harking at the latest 'objective authority'. Science may have brought us material and physical benefits, yet Harari is wrong to claim it lacks dogma. In the hands of the human imagination, it slips into the language of myth with ever greater willingness.

Power in the wrong hands

‘Science now enjoys immense prestige because of the new powers it gives us’, writes Harari. Power to amplify our voices. Power to destroy at ever more breathtaking rates. And power to make of us gods, sages and oracles.

If power is the ultimate justification for science, in what way does it differ to the myths and religions of the past?

Harari’s book, in an ironic twist, has itself begun to symbolise this power myth. Its ubiquitous cover displays glowing reviews from Bill Gates and Barack Obama, and is read on every carriage I share commuting through the nucleus of London’s financial and political district. For those in power, Sapiens is an engaging, convenient assurance of the significance and relevance of the world they are making.

And there is always value in validating those in power, it seems.


Want to get involved? We are accepting submissions for Issue #5, Mythology, up until May. Contact for all enquiries


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