Sapiens by Yuval Noah Harari

20873740Nonfiction – Kindle edition. Translated from the Hebrew. Harper, 2015. Originally published 2011. 541 pgs. Library copy.

Subtitled “A Brief History of Humankind”, Harari’s book covers three “revolutions” that shaped the course of history – the Cognitive Revolution, the Agricultural Revolution, and the Scientific Revolution – before delving into a lesson in how culture binds the world together and a short speculation about the future.

Beginning about 70,0000 years, the Cognitive Revolution led to the evolution of Neanderthals and other early humans into the Homo Sapiens who inhabit the earth today. In the four chapters comprising this section, Harari explains how our understanding of the evolution of Homo is incorrect. We tend to think of evolution as a linear path; one genus of the species Homo to the next.

But Harari documents how these different genus groups overlapped in time, if not space. Mass graves dating from the beginning of time show evidence of murder, suggesting that one Homo could have wiped out another. Or, like donkeys, horses, and mules, our efforts to mate with another genus might have resulted in sterile offspring. Or, as our theory of evolution suggests, Homo sapiens had larger brains and, therefore, were better at hunting and gathering food.

“Over the past 10,000 years, Homo sapiens has grown so accustomed to being the only human species that it’s hard for us to conceive of any other possibility. Our lack of brothers and sisters makes it easier to imagine that we are the epitome of creation, and that a chasm separates us from the rest of the animal kingdom.”

One of Harari’s biggest assertions in his book is that we just can’t know about our ancestors. We can speculate and theorize, but we have very little evidence to back up our claims. And, therefore, it’s easy for us to set ourselves (as sapiens) and our history as the best and most important path for the advancement of society.

“Scholars tend to ask only those questions that they can reasonably expect to answer. Without the discovery of as yet unavailable research tools, we will probably never know what the ancient foragers believed or what political dramas they experienced. Yet it is vital to ask questions for which no answers are available, otherwise we might be tempted to dismiss 60,000 of 70,000 years of human history with the excuse that ‘the people who lived back then did nothing of importance’.”

In his cautioning of readers not to fall into this trap, Harari asserts that the Agricultural Revolution did not leave us as humans better off than we were prior to it. This runs absolutely counter to the way I was taught history. Without the Agricultural Revolution, we would never have created the great markers of civilization – written language, complex mathematics, machinery, etc.

But, as Harari explains, these advancements came with a physical cost on our bodies. It seems almost like a cliché now to assert that we weren’t meant to sit at desks all day. Harari, thankfully, takes his statements beyond the cliché, shattering the myth that becoming farmers extended our lifespans.

“Evidence from fossilised skeletons indicates that ancient foragers were less likely to suffer from starvation or malnutrition, and were generally taller and healthier than their peasant descendants. Average life expectancy was apparently just thirty to forty years, but this was due largely to the high incidence of child mortality. Children who made it through the perilous first years had a good chance of reaching the age of sixty, and some even made it to their eighties. Among modern foragers, forty-five-year-old women can expect to live another twenty years, and about 5–8 per cent of the population is over sixty.”

While it is true that the amount of food available to humankind expanded, our diets became far more restricted and our routines became less stimulating. Our bodies bent in unnatural ways as we stooped to plow and hoe the fields, and we spent far more time working to grow food than our ancestors did in the past. (In a somewhat similar vein, I spend way more time at my job earning money to buy food then I do buying or cooking food.)

Not only that, the gains in food production were lost as the population exploded. And, as the population grew, our societies were transformed from egalitarian ones to those ruled by kings, lords, and other elites. This fundamental revolution of our society changed our culture and our understanding of the world around us, which Harari details in the third section on the Scientific Revolution.

During this section, Harari largely turns his attention to how we formulate our societies and our interactions with one another. He points out the inherent contradictions in the Constitution of the United States, with equality requiring the curtailing of freedom to do what wishes and freedom requiring an unequal society. To him, “the entire political history of the world since 1789 can be seen as a series of attempts to reconcile this contradiction”.

“If tensions, conflicts and irresolvable dilemmas are the spice of every culture, a human being who belongs to any particular culture must hold contradictory beliefs and be riven by incompatible values. It’s such an essential feature of any culture that it even has a name: cognitive dissonance.”

He also spends time detailing the contradictions in the major religions of the world, although he does make the caveat that religion can and has been one of the major binding forces of society throughout his more.

“…religion has been the third great unifier of humankind, alongside money and empires. Since all social orders and hierarchies are imagined, they are all fragile, and the larger the society, the more fragile it is. The crucial historical role of religion has been to give superhuman legitimacy to these fragile structures. Religions assert that our laws are not the result of human caprice, but are ordained by an absolute and supreme authority. This helps place at least some fundamental laws beyond challenge, thereby ensuring social stability.”

A greater force that binds society, though? Money. Printed money requires a great deal of trust between the holder of the money, the seller of the good, and the governing body issuing the piece of paper. Humans have to believe that the piece of paper they’re holding is equal in value to the goods they’re selling. Right now, though, the economic system in the United States allows banks to loan $10 for every one dollar they actually possess.

“The sum total of money in the world is about $60 trillion, yet the sum total of coins and banknotes is less than $6 trillion.7 More than 90 per cent of all money – more than $50 trillion appearing in our accounts – exists only on computer servers.”

Sharing this “fun” fact then allows Harari to dovetail into his speculation on the future, which he sees as being driven by the desire to outlive death and possess supercharged minds through biotechnology. If biotechnology and nanotechnology fail, then we are likely in for another economic crisis.

If they succeed, then we are likely headed towards a future where some very wealthy individuals become a-human (accidents are unavoidable) and the rest of humanity is seen as unneeded. This is a very bleak prediction; one Harari wrote an entire book on in 2015. I read his predictive text prior to this one so the last few chapters felt rather repetitive to me.

“When judging modernity, it is all too tempting to take the viewpoint of a twenty-first-century middle-class Westerner. We must not forget the viewpoints of a nineteenth-century Welsh coal miner, Chinese opium addict or Tasmanian Aborigine. Truganini is no less important than Homer Simpson.”

I highlighted a number of passages while reading this book – far too many to share here – and I spent many lunches with coworkers sharing what I’d learned.  Between that fact and the length of this post, I think it’s clear that I found Harari’s book to be an utterly fascinating and incredibly engaging and thought provoking read.

4 comments

    • I kept bypassing the print copy at the library — the size was so intimidating! But Harari uses a conversational style so it moves quicker than the page count would suggest.

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