A Review of Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, by Yuval Noah Harari
Chaplain Mike gifted me with a copy of Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind by Yuval Noah Harari, a sprawling tour-de-force summary of the human race from pre-humans to… well… what he speculates are post-humans. It’s a combination of rigorous science, scholarly history, and breezy, humorous pop culture. I’m sure the author would make a fascinating conversational partner over a few beers. A conversation, that, would no doubt, stretch long into the wee hours of the night. The author, Yuval Noah Harari, has a PhD in History from the University of Oxford and lectures at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, specializing in world history.
Sapiens is the only surviving species of the genus Homo. The other (now extinct) members of genus Homo include:
- Homo Heidelbergensis
- Homo Rudolfensis
- Homo Habilis
- Homo Floresiensis
- Homo Erectus
- Homo Neanderthals
- Homo Denisova
Harari notes there were humans long before there was history. Sometime around 2.5 million years ago animals much like modern humans first appear in the fossil record. But for countless generations they did not stand out from the myriad other organisms with which they shared their habitats. Harari divides human history into four main parts:
- The Cognitive Revolution, 70,000 years before present (YBP)
- The Agricultural Revolution, 12,000 YBP
- The Unification of Humankind, 5,000 YBP
- The Scientific Revolution, 500 YBP
According to Harari, the appearance of new ways of thinking and communicating between 70,000 and 30,000 years ago constitutes the Cognitive Revolution. He says:
What caused it? We’re not sure. The most commonly believed theory argues that accidental genetic mutations changed the inner wiring of the brains of Sapiens, enabling them to think in unprecedented ways and to communicate using altogether new type of language. We might call it the Tree of Knowledge mutation…
A second theory agrees that our unique language evolved as a means of sharing information about the world. But the most important information that needed to be conveyed was about humans, not about lions or bisons. Our language evolved as a way of gossiping. According to this theory Homo Sapiens is primarily a social animal. Social cooperation is our key for survival and reproduction. It is not enough for individual men and women to know the whereabouts of lions and bisons. It’s much more important for them to know who in their band hates whom, who is sleeping with whom, who is honest, and who is a cheat.
Well, there you go… the pinnacle of our evolution is… the National Enquirer??? Throughout the book Harari keeps tossing out these juicey bon mots of controversy in this breezy, but semi-serious manner. It is really an entertaining read. And thought provoking.
Another example of that breezy controversy is that he calls the Agricultural Revolution “history’s biggest fraud”. He says foragers knew the secrets of nature long before the Agricultural Revolution, since their survival depended on an intimate knowledge of the animals they hunted and the plants they gathered. Hunter-gathers spent their time in more stimulating and varied ways, and were less in danger of starvation and disease. They ate a more varied and healthful diet than the monoculture that developed with farming. Even though the Agricultural Revolution enlarged the sum total of calories available to humankind, the extra food did not translate into a better diet or more leisure. In fact, it translated into a population explosion, and attendant plagues, as well as a pampered elite. The average farmer worked harder than the average forager, and got a worse diet and worse social conditions in return. Is that true? Could we assess remaining forager bands in places like New Guinea or South America and compare their health and well-being to… say… agricultural village life in Africa, or India? I don’t know, but again, a provocative idea.
In Part Three- The Unification of Humankind, Harari notes that at around 10,000 BC the planet contained at least several thousands of mostly separate “worlds”. By 2,000 BC their number dwindled to the hundreds or at least a few thousand. By 1450 AD, just before the age of European exploration, their numbers had declined even more drastically. There were still a significant number of dwarf worlds, like Tasmania; but close to 90% of humans lived in the mega-world of what Harari calls “Afro-Asia”. Most of Asia, most of Europe, and most of Africa (including substantial chunks of sub-Saharan Africa) were already connected by significant cultural, political, and economic ties.
As Map 3 from his book shows, most of the remaining tenth of the world’s human population was divided between four worlds of considerable size and complexity:
- The Mesoamerican World, which encompassed most of Central America and parts of North America.
- The Andean World, which encompassed most of western South America.
- The Australian World, which encompassed the continent of Australia.
- The Oceanic World, which encompassed most of the islands of the south-western Pacific Ocean, from Hawaii to New Zealand.
Over the next 300 years, the Afro-Asian giant swallowed up all the other worlds. Harari says:
It took the Afro-Asian giant several centuries to digest all that it had swallowed, but the process was irreversible. Today, almost all humans share the same geopolitical system (the entire planet is divided into internationally recognized states); the same economic system (capitalist market forces shape even the remotest corners of the globe); the same legal system (human rights and international law are valid everywhere, at least theoretically); and the same scientific system (experts in Iran, Israel, Australia, and Argentina have exactly the same views about the structure of atoms or the treatment of tuberculosis).
Harari says that Homo Sapiens first evolved to think of people as divided into us and them. No social animal is ever guided by the interests of the entire species to which it belongs. No chimpanzee cares about the interests of the chimpanzee species. All concern is localized into the family and the tribe. But beginning with the Cognitive Revolution, Homo Sapiens became more and more exceptional in this respect. People began to cooperate with complete strangers, whom they imagined as “brothers” or “friends”. By the first millennium BC there appeared three potentially universal orders, whose devotees could for the first time imagine the entire world and the entire human race as a single unit governed by a single set of laws. Everyone was “us”, at least potentially. There was no longer “them”.
- The first universal order to appear was economic: the monetary order.
- The second universal order was political: the imperial order.
- The third universal order was religious: the universal religions such as Buddhism, Islam, and Christianity.
The main point that Harari makes about these underlying unifier’s are that they are fictions. They are shared and agreed-upon illusions. And here Harari’s underlying default atheism comes to the forefront. Atheism is the rock-bottom truth, all else, is simply self-deception. He has a whole chapter entitled, “The Benefits of Idolatry”. He says, for example:
The insight of polytheism is conducive to far-reaching religious tolerance. Since polytheists believe, on the one hand, in one supreme and completely disinterested power, and on the other hand in many partial and biased powers, there is no difficulty for the devotees of one god to accept the existence and efficacy of other gods. Polytheism is inherently open-minded, and rarely persecutes ‘heretics’ and ‘infidels’.
But lest you think this just another screed by an academic decrying the bad influence of religion, Harari, as he discusses the rise of the Scientific Revolution, endeavors to make the point that the Scientific Revolution didn’t free us from religion, but the growing secularism is actually a natural-law religion that causes modernity to be an age of intense religious fervor, unparalleled missionary efforts, and the bloodiest wars of religion in history. Communism, capitalism, nationalism, Nazism, and in particular, liberalism, prefer to be called ideologies, but to him that is just a semantic exercise.
Most of us want to believe that modern Western Liberalism, as propounded in documents such as the Magna Charta, the American Declaration of Independence and the American (and similar) Constitution is a political and moral philosophy based on liberty and equality. We generally support civil rights, democracy, secularism, gender equality, racial equality, internationalism, freedom of speech, freedom of the press, freedom of religion, and free markets. Probably most of us think this is the best system to ever have evolved for human flourishing, or we credit God for having revealed it. But not to Harari, they are fictions; they are shared and agreed-upon illusions. They might last, and they might not last, who’s to say, because no one can predict the future, it’s a level 2 chaos system that reacts to predictions about it, and therefore can never be predicted accurately. Once again, his default atheism comes to the surface:
So our medieval ancestors were happy because they found meaning to life in collective delusions about the afterlife? Yes. As long as nobody punctured their fantasies, why shouldn’t they? As far as we can tell, from a purely scientific viewpoint, human life has absolutely no meaning. Humans are the outcome of blind evolutionary processes that operate without goal or purpose. Our actions are not part of some divine cosmic plan, and if planet Earth were to blow up tomorrow morning, the universe would probably keep going about its business as usual… Hence any meaning that people ascribe to their lives is just a delusion.
Not surprisingly, Harari’s view of the future of Homo Sapiens tends to be a little bleak. He references bio-engineering and projects like Project Gilgamesh. Project Gilgamesh, formally established on 3rd May 2014, is an initiative devoted to educating the public about radical life extension and cryonics as scientific possibilities and moral imperatives. In that context, Harari brings up Mary Shelley and her 1818 book Frankenstein. He notes that we seek comfort in the fantasy that Dr. Frankenstein can only create terrible monsters, whom we would have to destroy to save the world. He warns that we could have a hard time swallowing the fact that scientists could engineer spirits as well as bodies, and that future Dr. Frankensteins could therefore create something truly superior to us, something that would look at us as condescendingly as we look at the Neanderthals. In the Afterword he says:
Moreover, despite the astonishing things that humans are capable of doing, we remain unsure of our goals and we seem to be as discontented as ever. We have advanced from canoes to galleys to steamships to space shuttles—but nobody knows where we’re going. We are more powerful than ever before, but have very little idea what to do with that power. Worse still, humans seem to be more irresponsible than ever. Self-made gods with only the laws of physics to keep us company, we are accountable to no one. We are consequently wreaking havoc on our fellow animals and on the surrounding ecosystem, seeking little more than our own comfort and amusement, yet never finding satisfaction. Is there anything more dangerous than dissatisfied and irresponsible gods who don’t know what they want?
Is there anything more dangerous than dissatisfied and irresponsible gods who don’t know what they want? No. No, there isn’t. Good thing we aren’t God. Still, would God permit us to destroy ourselves? Maybe all those warnings of plagues and judgments in Revelation are just that; a warning to those of us who would say to ourselves:
“I’ll climb to heaven. I’ll set my throne over the stars of God. I’ll run the assembly of angels that meets on sacred Mount Zaphon. I’ll climb to the top of the clouds. I’ll take over as King of the Universe!”
But you didn’t make it, did you? Instead of climbing up, you came down—down with the underground dead, down to the abyss of the Pit. People will stare and muse: “Can this be the one who terrorized earth and its kingdoms, turned earth to a moonscape, wasted its cities, shut up his prisoners to a living death?”
Maybe that’s not a warning to Satan, maybe it’s a warning to us.