Sapiens

Last year, I read 21 Lessons for the 21st Century by Yuval Noah Harari, which I reviewed here. Several friends recommended I read Harari’s earlier book Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind. Now I know why. It’s an excellent book.

As the subtitle says, Sapiens is a history of our species from about 70,000 years ago to today. Brief, yes, but sweeping. It contains so many fascinating ideas and themes. I’ll only be able to scratch the surface in this review.

Harari is an author, historian and philosopher who lectures on world history at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. He earned a PhD in history from the University of Oxford. 

Sapiens is an international bestseller and it’s still on New York Times bestsellers list six years after publication.

Cover of Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind

Sapiens
By Yuval Noah Harari
Harper Perennial, New York, 2015

Harari’s main idea is that the history of Homo sapiens has been shaped by three revolutions: a Cognitive Revolution, an Agricultural Revolution and a Scientific Revolution. The book is structured around these three revolutions

The Cognitive Revolution

About 70,000 years ago, we humans were a fairly insignificant species living in a corner of East Africa. Somehow – no one seems to know exactly how or why – something changed in the way our brains work, in the way we think and communicate. The Cognitive Revolution gave Homo sapiens language. Perhaps more importantly, it gave us the ability to talk and think about things that do not exist: it enabled us to tell stories. We tell stories – myths, actually – about our tribes, our nations, our gods, and recently our corporations and local sports franchises. Myths help bind large numbers of us together, even strangers, to coexist and cooperate on common goals. 

These new cognitive abilities enabled Homo sapiens to emerge from Africa and to spread all over Europe, Asia, Australia (around 45,000 years ago) and the Americas (around 15,000 years ago). They enabled us to out-compete other human species like the Neanderthals, and possibly drive them to extinction.

Different groups of humans created their own stories and those stories evolved and developed over time. Different stories in turn led to different behavior patterns, different ways of being within each group. Here we have the beginnings of culture and of history too. Harari argues that starting from the Cognitive Revolution history emerges from biology, meaning that the explanations for human development come primarily from historical narrative rather than from our biological needs or make-up.

The Agricultural Revolution

About 12,000 years ago, Sapiens started to transition from foraging to farming. Key species of plants and animals were domesticated and humans traded their nomadic existence for permanent settlements. The Agricultural Revolution brought about a huge increase in human population fed, literally, by the vastly increased quantity of food that became available.

Harari argues that in fact the Agricultural Revolution was history’s greatest fraud. The lives of individuals probably got worse – they worked harder but enjoyed a less varied and less nutritious diet than their forager ancestors, and they were more vulnerable to disease, crop failure and violent conflict too. But for the species as a whole, agriculture could support exponentially more people than hunting and gathering on the same amount of land.

It also marked a critical turning point in our relationship with the natural world. For the first time, humans began to control their environment and began to see themselves as separate from it.

Yet just as important as changing our source of food, the Agricultural Revolution also changed the way we live with each other. As foragers, Sapiens created myths to bind tribes together, but once we settled into villages and cities we needed more sophisticated stories to organize and regulate our lives. How do we settle disputes about property boundaries? How much tax should be paid to provide for common defense? Who gets to decide?

The Agricultural Revolution led to the creation of social hierarchies, governments, laws, justice and religion. Later on, we created nation states and joint stock corporations. Harari calls them all “imagined orders.” They don’t exist in the physical world. They are entirely creations of our imaginations. They are myths, but because these myths are shared beliefs, they have incredible power. People will work their whole lives, even sacrifice their lives, for these imagined orders.

The Scientific Revolution

The third revolution, the Scientific Revolution, got underway around 500 years ago. Harari argues that the key to igniting the Scientific Revolution was admitting ignorance. When we admit ignorance, we recognize that all our present knowledge is insufficient and we start to figure out ways to acquire new knowledge.

Science, imperialism and capitalism have been closely intertwined, Harari says. All of them start by admitting ignorance: we don’t know the answer to an important question about the world; we don’t know what lands might be found across that ocean.

“The discovery of America was the foundational event of the Scientific Revolution. It not only taught Europeans to favour present observations over past traditions, but the desire to conquer America also obliged Europeans to search for new knowledge at breakneck speed. If they really wanted to control the vast new territories, they had to gather enormous amounts of new data about the geography, climate, flora, fauna, languages, cultures and history of the new continent. Christian Scriptures, old geography books and ancient oral traditions were of little help.” [p. 288]

While the Agricultural Revolution enabled humans to control the environment, Harari emphasizes that the Scientific Revolution enabled us to destroy it, first with atomic bombs, and more recently with climate change and environmental degradation.

A Fourth Revolution?

Will there be a fourth revolution? Harari argues that advancements in genetic engineering, artificial intelligence and cyborg technology have effectively ended evolution. Humans are now the “intelligent designers” of our species and whatever may follow. In fact, he predicts that the last days of Homo sapiens are fast approaching.

“Unless some nuclear or ecological catastrophe destroys us first, the pace of technological development will soon lead to the replacement of Homo sapiens by completely different beings who possess not only different physiques, but also very different cognitive and emotional worlds.”  [p. 412]

The question is what do we want to become? And what do we want to want?

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Sapiens is a remarkable book. I think the three revolutions form a really effective framework for explaining human development. Harari deftly weaves important strands of our history through that framework. It’s amazing how much he’s able to cover in just over 400 pages. 

Only one other book I’ve read surpasses Sapiens in terms of how much history it spans. That’s Origin Story: A Big History of Everything by David Christian, which traces the entire 13.8 billion year history of the universe. (You can read my review here.) The two books overlap somewhat but I think they’re terrific companions. I highly recommend both of them. 

They share the idea that history progresses through stages of increasing complexity. Complexity is the central theme of Origin Story, but Harari touches on it too. He says that over the course human history smaller cultures have gradually merged into larger, more complex civilizations, until today everyone in the world belongs to just a handful of highly complex “mega-cultures.” Along the way we’ve developed more complex stories and “imagined orders.”

I love this idea of imagined orders. It’s such a powerful concept. So many of the things we consider “natural” and “permanent” are just inventions of our minds, from money to nations to gods. And let’s not forget race, class and gender. And if they are human inventions then they can be modified or replaced. Don’t believe anyone who tells you this or that thing has always been the way it is now and cannot be changed.

Harari writes really well too. This isn’t a dull history text. It’s lively and engaging with occasional flashes of sardonic humor, for example when describing how human language sets us apart from other species:

“A parrot can say anything Albert Einstein could say, as well as mimicking the sounds of phones ringing, doors slamming and sirens wailing. Whatever advantage Einstein had over a parrot, it wasn’t vocal.” [p. 22]

He also suggests that wheat domesticated humans and not the other way around!

He asks compelling questions. Like, has it all been worth it? Until fairly recently, human development through all three revolutions has done little to alleviate human suffering. True, there are a lot more of us now than there used to be, but at what cost to individual well-being?

Certainly the cost to the environment and especially to other species has been devastating. We are “ecological serial killers” he says.

“Don’t believe tree-huggers who claim that our ancestors lived in harmony with nature. Long before the Industrial Revolution, Homo sapiens held the record among all organisms for driving the most plant and animal species to their extinctions. We have the dubious distinction of being the deadliest species in the annals of biology.” [p. 74]

Based on the history he presents so brilliantly, Harari is not overly optimistic about our future prospects. He thinks we have developed too much power without enough responsibility to use it wisely.

I’m personally more optimistic than Harari, but we would be foolish to ignore his warning.

Thanks for reading.

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2 Responses to Sapiens

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