What is the right origin story?

Evolution of Man — Wikimedia

The stories we tell about where we come from define who we are, what we do, where we are going, and why. From the Book of Genesis or the Big Bang Theory to the Popul Vuh or Hopi creation myths, these stories help groups of people to understand how order can come from chaos and how we fit into something larger than ourselves.

A good creation story must be able to balance collective knowledge with also a strong sense of what is “good”, providing a foundation for higher virtues like truth, purpose, morality, and beauty. Yuval Noah Harari in his book, Sapiens, shares arguably the most prevalent creation story in contemporary western culture.

Harrari starts with the idea of the Big Bang and then moves forward, demarcating the formation of our solar system, our planet, the dawn of life, and ultimately the beginning of the genus we humans are a part of, Homo. From this cosmological timeline Harrari narrows the focus to the development of western society, specifically our development into a monolithic, technocratic force.

The first major revolution among humanity occurred about 70,000 years ago: The cognitive revolution. Humans evolved the ability to imagine things that otherwise didn’t exist. Homo sapiens expressed this ability through “what if” questions — What if I rub these sticks together? Would it create fire? The imagination inspired experimentation and creation. Humans developed societal norms and began to develop structures that fostered cooperation, community, and common purpose, such as governments and religions.The advent of the agricultural revolution, about 10,000 years ago, saw humanity create the ability to cultivate crops, livestock, and other resources. This created, as E.O. Wilson has suggested, a proverbial “nest” — a common resource of food and shelter that enabled diversification of individual abilities, both in terms of power (ruling class and worker class, Harrari’s key suggestion, not in a complimentary way) and skills (farmers, blacksmiths, hunters, caretakers). Our technological abilities enabled us to pursue virtues that benefited the members of our culture as a whole.

About 500 years ago, humanity moved into the scientific revolution. Humanity developed the ability to rigorously interrogate nature via empiricism and inductive reasoning. With this came increasingly greater knowledge and expanded power to enact our individual and collective intentions on the world. The industrial revolution came quickly thereafter, with its logical progression towards the unification of humanity into a single large empire, often labeled globalization.

Importantly, this scientifically and historically grounded creation story suggests a few important things. One: We came from a place of disorganization and primitivism. Two: The defining feature of humanity is the ever-increasing ability to impose an envisioned order on the natural environment or universe. Three: Technology (the knowledge and material tools we use to impose order) improves the lot of human beings by optimizing our efficiency in adapting the environment to our needs. From this perspective, one might view the Internet as the crowning achievement for western culture because of its capacity to universalize knowledge and human experience and, by extension, facilitate an order created by and for humans.

There are some compelling reasons to espouse this story. It has produced material improvements that can support improved quality of life of humans. Advancements in measurement, fundamental understanding of diseases, mapping of the human genome and human brain, and, now, artificial intelligence, augmented intelligence, and the promise of Big Data — these are all artifacts of this story. There is reason to believe that we are on the cusp of major positive societal change, ushered in through science and technology.

And yet, while utopian sci-fi fantasies are becoming a reality (we can now talk to “computer” as in Star Trek via Alexa and Google Home), there is a sense that something is profoundly broken. While, rationally, one can argue that things are getting better based on the data, for many, it feels like things may be getting much worse.

Numerous interconnected problems loom. We see increasing societal inequality and lack of faith in our governing bodies, inspired by a sense that “the other” is to blame for our problems. We anticipate global-scale catastrophes: Climate change, ocean acidification, collapsing ecosystems, and large scale water shortages and famines. Even locally within the US, ideological wars, political gridlock, and infighting are damaging the neediest in our populations, while individuals at the top of the socioeconomic strata control an increasingly large portion of total wealth and resources.

This reality does not fit with the definitions of good that are implied by the technocratic, human-centered narrative that Harrari provided. We are on the cusp of seeing our collective higher virtues destroyed by the social and technical structures that we have built.

Indeed, Harari’s book concludes not with optimism but a view of an emerging dystopia. Within Homo Deus, he implies, building on Nietzche, that we are striving to become gods and, in so doing, we will destroy ourselves and others. In 21 Lessons for the 21st Century, he offers up his thoughts on how to face these anxieties and complexities. But for all his depth of analysis, Harrari’s approach to solving these problems feels a bit like the classic adage about the definition of insanity, in which one repeats the same predictable, failed approach (in this case, the creation story) and expects a different result.

Creation stories are powerful.

We can see from the threats to our world that our current creation story — the one Harrari explicates — is failing, and may have outlived its usefulness.

The doomsday conclusion that Harrari advances (as many reviews highlight) is giving us a sense of what not to do, but doesn’t tell us how we should re-orient our society to address the challenges we now face. Without a reworked sense of what it means to be good, Harrari neglects to provide a useful creation story (though he does acknowledge this and offers some starting points, such as “the circle of life” narrative of the Lion King, but then describes why that and other plausible stories are insufficient).

The way forward, and out of our current predicament, requires us to embrace our full collective capabilities. This includes science, technology, engineering, economics, technology AND the humanities, including art, religion, music, and, perhaps above all…

We need effective storytelling.

We need to acknowledge that Harrari’s origin story is just that — a story. Not incontrovertible. Indeed, this was a key message of Harrari’s 21 lessons boo. This may be emotionally difficult for some. It requires a willingness to reset how we understand ourselves and how we understand the universe.

A first step is to note that initial reactions to label Harrari’s story as “evidence-based,” “historical” or some other adjective that grants a tinge of infallibility is not right. Although it may be historically accurate, based on the evidence and information we have, it is also a story. It’s a narrative that ties the evidence together to help us make sense out of it. This means that there can be other stories that can tie the evidence together to help us make sense of our history and evidence.

Any good scientist understands that evidence is always open to re-interpretation as we learn more and situations change. Telling new stories that better explain the evidence is actually the highest form of evidence-based and historical thinking! Just as how Einstein’s general relativity superseded Newtonian physics (a highly functional story itself), we can adapt the story of who we are, where we came from, and where we are going, to give us an improved orientation for navigating our existential challenges.

What is the right creation story?

In a separate post, I’ve written up my guess on a good creation story for our time. This one is systems-centered over human-centered, oriented to diverse resonance over striving for progress/change/technology, and finally, is tuning-oriented over problem-solving oriented.

I don’t know if this story is right, but in the face of systemic failure, as called for by others, questioning our stories in a way that still honors the evidence and our history must begin. We can all explore and disseminate our own creation stories, in an intentional, collective effort to determine who we are, what we do, where we are going, and why. We can find a way to understand ourselves in context and help us to understand what “good” is. Through that, we can rediscover and reconstruct core virtues such as truth, purpose, meaning, and beauty and how to act morally and ethically. We can move past the collective malaise that is corroding our society and threatening our world. Above all, we must all realize that no one else is coming. Each of us, individually and collectively, have a responsibility to shape our story.

If you embark on this journey with me, please share your creation story back with me and I’ll share yours with others.

Mine can be found here.

Written by Eric Hekler. Edited by Daniel Seward.