Bestseller “Sapiens” Fact-check: Elixirs or Social Construct?

Myths, it transpired, are stronger than anyone could have imagined. When the Agricultural Revolution opened opportunities for the creation of crowded cities and mighty empires, people invented stories about great gods, motherlands and joint stock companies to provide the needed social links. While human evolution was crawling at its usual snail's pace, the human imagination was building astounding networks of mass cooperation, unlike any other ever seen on earth.
- Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, pg. 76
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The New York Times bestseller, Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind is controversial. The book is loved by many, but not experts familiar with the subject matter, who think Sapiens is misleading and careless with facts. I agree that Yuval Noah Harari is better at storytelling than credibly supporting his case. Still, Sapiens tells a grand story worth telling. I particularly liked how Sapiens described the evolutionary advantage of the human ability to imagine. Do other animals imagine? Human imagination reshaped the world.

Another thing which impressed me about Sapiens is that it described “social constructs” for winners. Sapiens might not have used the phrase “social construct”, but that is just another name for what the author called “imagined orders”, “intersubjective phenomena”, and “collective fictions”. Compared to other species, humans have unusually good teamwork. Multiple humans can keep in mind something invisible, like how to play a sport game. Without this ability, humans could not have created cities, nations, governments, religions, and economies.

Intersubjective phenomena are neither malevolent frauds nor insignificant charades. They exist in a different way from physical phenomena such as radioactivity, but their impact on the world may still be enormous. Most of history's most important drivers are inter-subjective: law, money, gods, nations.
- Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, pg. 87

“Social construct” is a politically loaded word, but a useful concept. But most agree that money are “social constructs”. A dollar bill is worth nothing without social agreement. I agree with Sapiens about money’s overall impact, but not on why gold and silver coins became so universal. Gold’s original religious meaning changes the story.

Unlike the barley sila, the silver shekel had no inherent value. You cannot eat, drink or clothe yourself in silver, and it's too soft for making useful tools - ploughshares or swords of silver would crumple almost as fast as ones made out of aluminum foil. When they are used for anything, silver and gold are made into jewelry, crowns and other status symbols - luxury goods that members of a particular culture identify with high social status. Their value is purely cultural.
- Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, pg. 131

So what did Sapiens get Wrong about Money, Gold, and Silver?

Greek Funerary Mask NAMA

In the book quote above, Sapiens says that silver and gold had little inherit value. “Purely cultural” implies something whose value does not translate in other cultures, but that was not so. Ancient civilizations all over the world accepted gold and silver in trade easily. Why? More is at stake here than the story of how universal money was invented. The universal appeal of gold and silver says something fundamental about the character of Sapiens.

People continued to mutually incomprehensible languages, obey different rulers, and worship distinct gods, but all believed in gold and silver and in gold and silver coins. Without this shared belief, global trading networks would have been virtually impossible. 
- Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, pg. 133

Sapiens proposed that the universal appeal of gold and silver was due to the laws of supply and demand. Merchants would equalize the value across cultures by buying up gold and silver where it was undervalued.

Another widespread value Sapiens ascribes to gold and silver is luxury, wealth, and status. One of Harari’s inspirations, Jared Diamond shares the belief that humans commonly overspend for status and needless luxury. I think their interpretation was overly shallow. Gold and silver’s appeal to the ancients had more to do with religious values than competition for status.

However, a few features of [pre-civilization] traditional trade would be familiar to modern shoppers, especially the high proportion of our purchases devoted to functionally useless or unnecessarily expensive status symbols, such as jewelry and designer clothes. 
- The World until Yesterday, by Jared Diamond, pg.52
Pre-Columbian Funerary Mask —

Much evidence shows gold and silver were associated with immortality, eternity, and the incorruptible part of the human soul which remains after death.

Why? Maybe it was because gold never aged. Unlike other metals, gold never tarnishes, rusts, or corrodes. Gold keeps its purity through time, and therefore draw human’s natural reverence for purity. Maybe it was because of the 7 metals familiar to antiquity, only gold was found in its pure state in nature, as shiny gold dust. Other metals such as copper or tin were bound within mineral rock and required smelting, but not gold. Maybe it was because gold’s shape was so malleable, and could slip through small cracks like spirits. Silver was close to gold, and corroded less than other metals.

Whatever the reason, archeologists find gold in burial sites. Reducing that to “dying with status” overlooks other evidence. Golden death masks were found across many ancient cultures: Egypt, Greece, Pre-Columbian America. Timing and differences in custom indicate that the idea arose independently, and wasn’t a spreading fashion. Ancient Egyptian procedure for mummification said that gold linked the body to eternity¹. Ancient Egyptians believed that purifying human bodies chemically also purified their souls for the afterlife. Many ancient cultures believed that chemical purification helped both body and soul.

To misunderstand the past because of modern bias is a fallacy so common that historians have given it a name, presentism. To us, gold, the afterlife, and longevity are unrelated things, because that is the viewpoint of modern science. Gold played a starring role in how the “superstitious” magic of alchemy evolved into the modern science of chemistry. My data on this change in attitude comes from the history of chemistry.

For centuries, drinking, eating, or externally applying gold was considered a potent medicine². Incorruptible gold was seen as an antidote to personal corruption like illness. Fortunately gold was less toxic than mercury, another metal believed to have magical curative properties.

This belief didn’t just appear in Medieval Europe. During the second century AD, the father of Chinese Alchemy, Wei Boyang, wrote an alchemical treatise on how to make living beings immortal. Wei Boyang claimed his “pill of immortality” created both immortality and gold, exactly like Medieval Europe’s Philosopher’s Stone.

The hit franchise Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone wasn’t all fictional. The “Philosopher’s Stone” was a historical belief in Medieval Europe. It was related to the disproved theory, “transmutation of elements”, that lesser metals could be “healed” or transformed into the highest metal, incorruptible gold. Laboratory work appeared magical in its ability to change minerals into metals, and even reverse the corrosion of metals like copper. Thousands of year of experiments finally convince people gold couldn’t be created in the lab. But before then, age could be removed from metal, so why not human bodies?

Photo by Matt Briney on Unsplash

The magic talk probably makes the ancient medicine sound crazy, so try another example. Medicinal perfume also helped create the science of chemistry. The first oldest known reference to chemical filtration and distillation referred to medicinal perfume, on a 1200 BCE cuneiform Babylonian tablet⁴. Why did the ancients believe perfume was medicine? Miasma theory was the belief that “bad air” or smells cause illness, so it follows that good smells stop it. Miasma theory works, sort of, since cleanliness and staying away from cesspits is healthy. Some smells do feel sickening. The modern germ theory of disease defeated miasma theory less than 150 years ago.

The common premise is that gold and some perfumes were a “good” powerful enough to ward away the “bad” of illness. It is instinctive to associate good with good, and bad with bad. The bad of illness must have been caused by another bad, like a bad smell. A good causes good. So the good smell of perfume causes the good of good health. I call this simple logic based on biological values⁴ dogbrain math, since dogs understand good and bad.

Two of the most priceless perfumes were frankincense and myrrh. They were used in embalming as well as medicine, and modern bias thinks this was just a practical method to reduce the smell of a corpse. But ancient cultures like Egypt thought that these perfumes great goodness could purify the soul and create a more pleasing afterlife¹.

Knowledge of chemistry’s history transformed my view of religion. The biblical magi bought three gifts to the nativity, gold, frankincense, and myrrh. Many analyzed the religious symbolism. But I’ve never heard that the baby Jesus was gifted with the most powerful medicines of his time, which seems significant since he is still referred to as the great physician.

Gold itself was a concrete link to solar deities like Horus and Ra¹. Gold and silver were popular materials to shape the face and form of gods, idols, and royalty. So how different from a religious item is a coin stamped with the Roman emperor’s face? So using gold and silver would have strengthened money’s link to the human instinct for religion. Sapiens did make the point that money was like a religion, a “Gospel of Gold”. So by misunderstanding how ancients valued gold, Sapiens missed an opportunity to tell a better story and support one of its major premises.

Excerpts and Notes:

  1. Alchemical Active Imagination: Revised Edition (Kindle), by Marie-Louise von Franz. Quote about Egyptian mummification, “Then gold is put on the fingernails and one says, ‘Now the gold which belongs to Horus comes to your fingernails and makes you eternal.’”
  2. The Chemistry of Alchemy, by Cathy Cobb, Monty L. Fetterolf, and Harold Goldwhite, pg. 275. Quote: “Potable gold was thought to be a suspension of very fine metallic gold particles, and as such would not be digested.”
  3. The Chemistry Book, by Derek B. Lowe, pg. 22, Chapter: 1200 BCE Purification
  4. Dogbrain math is a super-simplified version of an AI simulation of biological thinking based on good vs bad, biological values, by Gerald Edelman. Both Edelman and another great neuroscientist, Antonio Damasio, rely on biological value for their fundamental theory of mind.

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