This article is an excerpt from the Shortform summary of "Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind" by Yuval Noah Harari. Shortform has the world's best summaries of books you should be reading.
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Does everything happen for a reason? Looking back at the past, can we tell why certain things happened and not others? Is history progressing to create a world that’s better for us?
According to many scholars, history doesn’t benefit humans and things don’t necessarily happen for a reason. We’ll cover theories from historians and scholars in the humanities and social sciences to answer the question, “Does everything happen for a reason?”
Does Everything Really Happen for a Reason?
The other thing we can say with confidence about history is that it doesn’t care about us. We like to think that as history progresses, life for humans gets better, but there’s no reason to think that what’s good for humans is also what’s good for history or vice versa. Our well-being doesn’t necessarily increase as history moves forward. So does everything happen for a reason? If the reason is to make life better for us, the answer is no.
Similarly, there’s no reason to think that just because Christianity and Islam defeated other religions, they are therefore the best religions for humanity. We have no objective way to judge what’s best or even what’s good because different cultures define “good” differently.
Still, we believe that the way things are is the way they should be, and that everything happens for a reason, for two reasons:
- The victors always think their way is the best way, and the victors are the ones who write the history books, rule empires, and define what’s “good” for humanity. Christians say the spread of their religion was the best outcome for mankind, but there’s no evidence that Christianity benefits us more than Manichaeism would have.
- We’re biased toward the present—we think that the victory of a particular ideology or system is an indication of its goodness rather than an indication of a chance occurrence. For instance, we assume that Islam and Christianity must be so widespread today because they benefit humanity, but their prevalence isn’t proof of their goodness.
Cultures Take Advantage of Humans
But doesn’t the greatness of what we’ve achieved–our art, science, and culture–prove that the answer to Does everything happen for a reason? is yes?
We think that cultures exist to serve us, but we’re actually serving them. Scholars in different fields have different analogies to describe this process. Therefore, this concept has three names: mimetics, postmodernism, and game theory.
Mimetics: Culture as a Parasite of Humanity
Many scholars compare cultures to parasites, an approach called mimetics. Just as parasites live in human hosts, feed off of them, and “care” only about multiplying and spreading from host to host (often at the expense of the host’s health), humans are just the hosts and vehicles of cultures. In other words, cultures don’t exist for the benefit of humans; rather, they infect and feed off humans.
If this analogy sounds threatening, it should. Cultures live inside our minds and spread from person to person. They often weaken or even kill the host when the host is willing to die to propagate the culture, such as those who’ve died in the name of Naziism, democracy, Christianity, human rights, Islam, and nationalism.
Does everything happen for a reason? Do we believe in democracy because it’s the best system of government? Mimetics scholars don’t necessarily believe that the progress of history benefits humans.
Postmodernism: Culture as a Plague of Society
Scholars in the humanities call the process of humans serving cultures “postmodernism.” For example, they talk about nationalism as a plague that infiltrated the world in the 19th and 20th centuries. It started in a few countries, then spread to its neighbors, leaving war and genocide in its wake. Nationalism was purportedly good for humans, but it actually weakened and killed its hosts. It was and is only good for itself.
So does everything happen for a reason? Again, not if that reason is meant to further our well-being.
Game Theory: Culture as a Game That No One Wins
Scholars in the social sciences call this process game theory. For example, they compare arms races to a game that no one wins. Arms races benefit no country or individual. Like a parasite, an arms race hurts all the players involved, and yet the players still spread the system. If Pakistan buys more weaponry, so does India. When India develops a nuclear bomb, Pakistan develops one in response. When Pakistan increases the size of its navy, so does India. At the end of this process, the balance of power between the two countries is exactly the same as it was before the arms race started, but both countries have bankrupted themselves, spending money that could have been used for health care or education. Systems like arms races only benefit themselves.
Does everything happen for a reason? Because the progress of history is inherently unpredictable, we can’t explain why today’s world is the way it is. But we should remember that, just as history is unpredictable, history isn’t inevitable, and our world isn’t the product of benevolent hands of time. It’s important to question our values, cultures, and systems, and ask why we adhere to them in the first place. Not everything happens for a reason.
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Here's what you'll find in our full Sapiens summary:
- How Sapiens outlived and outlasted the 8+ other human-like species on Earth
- The 3 critical revolutions in human existence that led to our domination of the planet
- How much of what powers our world today is really just a shared mass delusion
- What the future of humanity might look like