The Myths We Need to Survive – Yuval Noah Harari

Never meet your heroes, the saying goes. Not because they might not be as you’d hoped, but more because it might turn out that they don’t like you, and that’s a crushing blow whether its Richard Branson or Bruce Springsteen.

With this in mind, on Wednesday I ventured to see a talk by Yuval Noah Harari, author of internationally acclaimed ‘Sapiens’. Not only did Mark Zuckerberg pick this book for his bi-weekly reading list, but it’s also my book of the year so far (which I think Yuval is likely to be far more bothered about).

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The book is ‘a brief history of mankind’, charting homo-sapien history through the cognitive, agricultural, and scientific revolutions, and focussing on how the ability for us to create fictional stories gave us new powers, including the invention of gossip. He even manages to make a whole chapter on Wheat interesting, just as Alain De Botton did with his Tuna chapter in ‘The pleasures and sorrows of work’. (I have a suspicion that a whole group of authors met in a pub one night, drew topics out of a hat, and were dared to see who could make the most uninteresting topic bearable).

To give you a sense of the book, as early as page 31 Harari shares this thought:

‘(None of these things) exist outside of the stories that people invent and tell one another. There are no gods in the universe, no nations, no money, no human rights, no laws, and no justice outside of common imagination of human beings.’

Strong start. And the next 400 pages, along with his talk this week, carry on in a similar vein…

sapiens book review 3

On these imagined orders:

  • p124 – ‘We believe in a particular order not because it is objectively true, but because believing in it enables us to cooperate effectively and forge a better society. Imagined orders are not evil conspiracies or useless mirages. rather, they are the only way large numbers of humans can cooperate effectively.’
  • p127 – ‘From the moment people are born, you constantly remind them of the principles of the imagined order, which are incorporated into anything and everything… In the middle ages, to be addressed as ’Sir’ or ‘Madame’ was a rare privilege reserved for the nobility, and often purchased with blood. Today, all polite correspondence, regardless of the recipient, begins with ‘Dear Sir or Madame.’
  • Talk – ‘There’s little connection between the objective truth of a story and its success’


On money

  • p207 – ‘Christians and Muslims who could not agree on religious beliefs nevertheless agree on a monetary belief, because whereas religion asks us to believe in something, money asks us to believe that other people believe in something’
  • Talk – ‘Money is the best story ever told. The US Fed printed £3Bn a day during the crisis, just adding data. The material from which you make money is human trust.’
  • Talk – ‘The myth of consumerism is that any problem can be solved by buying something’


On perception and prejudice:

  • p152 – ‘Most people claim that their social hierarchy is natural and just, while those of other societies are based on false and ridiculous criteria. Modern Westerners are taught to scoff at the idea of racial hierarchy…But the hierarchy of rich and poor – which mandates that rich people live in separate and more luxurious neighbourhood, study in separate and more prestigious schools, and receive medial treatment in separate and better-equipped facilities – seems perfectly sensible to many Americans and Europeans. Yet its a proven fact that most rich people are rich for the simple reason that they’re born into a rich family, while most poor people will remain poor throughout their lives simply because they were born into a poor family.’
  • p289 – ‘When judging modernity, it is all too tempting to take the viewpoint of a 21st Century Westerner. We must not forget the viewpoints of a nineteenth-century Welsh coal miner, Chinese opium addict, or Tasmanian Aborigine.’
  • Talk – ‘People need stories to act as a justification for the fortunate positions, rather than admitting it’s an accident of history – such as your ancestor owning a bigger horse than everyone else’


On the future:

  • p148 – ‘Our computers have trouble understanding how Homo Sapians talks, feels, and dreams. So we are teaching Homo Sapians to talk, feel, and dream in the language of numbers, which can be understood by computers.’
  • Talk – ‘Nothing being taught in the educational system today will be relevant in the future. The most important skill will be to be able to continually learn and reinvent yourself’
  • Talk – ‘We can’t predict the future, but we can understand the possibilities and make preparations’


You can do many things as a result of reading this book or hearing the talk. You could give up your religion, burn all of your money, and tear up your passport. Or you could pretend you didn’t read it, act as if everything you’re told is true, and join the masses in the comfort of society.

I took three lessons from the book and the talk, all compelling reminders about the fallibility of our own perceptions:

  • Don’t take what you’re told at face value as true, but scratch beneath the surface to find some evidence to form your own considered opinion
  • Take the time to really understand other peoples’ perspectives, and the context they’re living in
  • Stay inquisitive: ‘The best thing about science is the ability to say ‘I don’t know.’


I really hope you enjoyed this article. If you did, I’d love you to subscribe to my blog at to get new thoughts sent to you on an infrequent basis, and find me on twitter @johnJsills.


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