“Seventy thousand years ago, Homo sapiens was still an insignificant animal minding its own business in a corner of Africa. In the following millennia it transformed itself into the master of the entire planet and the terror of the ecosystem. Today it stands on the verge of becoming a god…”
With the international publication of his book Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind (first published in Hebrew in 2011 in Israel after multiple rejections), the Israeli historian Yuval Noah Harari (born 1976) has, almost overnight, managed to achieve intellectual superstardom. His online course “A Brief History of Humankind” on the website Coursera already boasts 100,000+ participants. In June 2015, Harari became even more famous with two particular events – a TED talk and Mark Zuckerberg’s selection of Sapiens for his book club A Year of Books on Facebook.
An alumnus of Jesus College, Oxford and currently lecturer at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Harari initially worked within the fields of medieval and military history before moving to the broader, more ambitious arena of world history and macrohistorial processes. His project, a grand account of the human race from the Stone Age till the 21st century with speculations on the future, has, to a great extent been inspired by the UCLA-based American scientist (polymath, really) Jared Diamond’s 1997 book Guns, Germs, and Steels: The Fates of Human Societies. The desire to undertake such an ambitious enterprise, however, goes back to Harari’s teenage years. It is the fulfillment of a promise he had made to himself – to not get bogged down in the mundane troubles of life as an adult but instead, attempt to decipher the deeper mechanisms of history, to understand the aim and meaning of life.
2. STRUCTURE AND SALIENT POINTS
Note: YBP = Years Before the Present
Harari begins by maintaining that around 100,000 YBP, our species – Homo sapiens – contemporaneously existed (that “linear model” of evolution is a common fallacy) with at least six or so other human species, namely, Ergaster, Erectus, Denisova, Rudolfensis, Neanderthal and Floresiensis (small DNA portions of some of these species have been found in certain populations of Sapiens today on account of interbreeding). Then, over the next sixty millennia, these our “siblings” were driven to extinction for a number of reasons, leaving us as the only human species who could rise to inimitable dominance. Harari’s narrative of this journey of Homo sapiens from insignificant apes to rulers of the world is divided into four parts: I. The Cognitive Revolution (beginning around 70,000 YBP), II. The Agricultural Revolution (beginning around 12,000 YBP), III. The Unification of Mankind (beginning around 5,000 YBP) and IV. The Scientific Revolution (beginning around 500 YBP).
The chief factor behind the success of Sapiens, according to Harari, is their ability to co-operate themselves into cohesive communities. This, they accomplish by adhering to collective fictions (which can also be called “shared myths” or “social constructs” or “imagined realities”). These collective fictions can take various forms – ancient cults of animal-human hybrid deities, the Code of Hammurabi, the American Declaration of Independence, modern limited liability companies like Peugeot, contemporary human rights – but operate on the same principles. These concepts exist merely in the minds of human beings and function inter-subjectively through groups, that is, they are neither out there in the objective natural world nor are they ever dependent on the subjective preferences of any single self. Although they are human inventions, these myths are not manipulative lies or evil conspiracies but are grounded in ardent and authentic belief. The Cognitive Revolution is that period during which this precious ability of our species to devise collective fictions first began to be developed.
The second major event of human history, the Agricultural Revolution, which marks our transition from a nomadic foraging to a settled farming lifestyle, is, shockingly, for the author, a massive miscalculation. It was history’s biggest fraud, effected by a naive desire for luxury. Food surpluses, Harari argues, did not translate into comfortable and healthier lives. Instead, they led to population explosions and pampered elites. The rise of permanent cities may look like an indication of success. But, in fact, this ostensible communal progress did little to alleviate individual suffering.
Once cultures are instituted, what propels them? Harari says “contraditions”. Every culture is riven by dilemmas and incompatible values. The cognitive dissonance emerging from catch-22s is no defect, but an asset that fuels change and dynamism. We get creative when we attempt to reconcile two opposite values, both of which we hold dear. What would be some examples of such inconsistencies? In medieval Europe, a love of Christ’s teachings of non-violence and the pursuit of militant chivalric ideals and since the French Revolution of 1789, in modern political orders the negotiation between Liberty (aimed at the maximisation of individual freedom) and Equality (aimed at the establishment of an equitable, egalitarian society, which can actually only materialise when individual freedom is curtailed).
As cultures developed, simple and disparate human communities, over time, coalesced into more complex and bigger civilisations, ultimately helping create the global world we live in today, in which states almost everywhere are subject to a common international judicial system and economic framework. Three main agents of this unification of mankind were money, empires and the missionary, universal religions of Buddhism, Christianity and Islam. Money, the medium of exchange that can convert almost anything into almost anything else, certainly has a dark side. It can easily corrode intimate relations and human values. Nonetheless, at the end of the day, it remains the apogee of human tolerance, the most efficient system of mutual trust ever devised. It can quickly transcend any barrier be it race or creed or nationality or class. ‘Imperialism’ ranks second only to ‘fascism’ in our current lexicon of political swear words. Empires are political orders with unlimited appetites that rule over a significant number of distinct cultural units. Empires, we can agree, have been characterised by enslavement, deportation and genocide. And yet they cannot just be seen as engines of destruction and exploitation. Imperial politics has consistently and effectively collapsed the “us/they” dichotomy. This equalisation of status between the conquerers and the conquered have given rise to welfare projects (e.g., Cyrus the Great of Persia taking care of the Jews in the 6th century BC) and have enabled a transmission of valuable idealogies (e.g., Indians adopting democracy and nationalism from the British). After money and empires, the last agent of unification for Harari is religion – a system of norms, values and behavioural standards for humans founded upon a superhuman order which cannot be altered by human whims. Religion unites? This might sound counterintuitive to some. Aren’t we reminded on a daily basis just how much conflict and disruption religion causes and aren’t we encouraged to get rid of it altogether for a more peaceful world? Yes, if you’re thinking in years or decades or a few centuries, religion does look divisive. But if you have an eye that scans millenia, you will realise that every major religion is a glue that holds together a wide variety of populations and otherwise fragile social structures, giving them a solid and stable sense of purpose and meaning. Unbeknownst to many of us, ideas derived from religious creeds seep into our political strategies and our economic policies no matter how “secular” we try to project ourselves as. Liberal and socialist humanisms prevalent today, Harari claims, are only revamped versions of Judeo-Christian convictions.
Finally, what is the Scientific Revolution? It is that episode in history (rooted in European culture) at which humankind deviated from its disposition to preserve the existing order and to disseminate traditional (largely philosophical/religious) modes of knowledge. It admitted its ignorance, accorded centrality to observation and mathematics and became more interested in research and exploration, the acquisition of new powers and the development of new technologies. Roughly commencing in the year 1500, this scientific enterprise could achieve rapid and stupendous success because it was aided by two other extremely powerful forces – imperialism and capitalism. So science increases our store of knowledge with new discoveries but can it by itself decide how to put them into use? Not really. Science cannot set its own priorities. It can only flourish in alliance with some religion or ideology. (This line of reasoning makes Harari a scientific but not a scientistic thinker.)
Towards the end of the book, Harari asks if humans became happier as history unfolded. He also dwells upon a range of possibilities that we have before us. Human life is increasingly being fused with non-organic technology. What kind of creatures will we become in future? Will we be upgraded into unimaginable post-humans functioning on something entirely different from consciousness? Will the rich/poor divide of today create biological castes tomorrow – with those who can afford expensive healthcare turning a-mortal with enhanced immunity (not immortal, though)?
Harari uses Gilgamesh, the ancient Mesopotamian hero, protagonist of the world’s oldest epic, as a symbol for humankind’s quest for immortality. (Gilgamesh, king of the city of Uruk, undertakes a journey to the ends of the earth to meet a man whom he thinks can help him conquer death but returns with little success.) Dr. Frankenstein, the protagonist of Mary Shelley’s celebrated 1818 novel – the crazy scientist who ends up creating a monster – is used as a symbol for humankind’s attempts at manipulating existing and engineering new life. According to Harari, if you ask scientists to explain the rationale behind their projects, “nine out of ten times you’ll get the same standard answer: we are doing it to cure diseases and save human lives.” That’s why the enterprises of Gilgamesh and Dr. Frankenstein are interwoven.
3. WHAT I APPRECIATED/WHY YOU MAY WANT TO READ THIS BOOK
I could identify four primary virtues. First, rarely is history presented in such a memorably vivid manner. The enthusiasm Harari possesses for his field of study is contagious and inspiring. Many people take history to merely be a dull survey of bygone events, a tedious collection of dates and names the study of which holds little relevance for our present. Individuals of such an opinion will be fascinated by the case Harari makes for the study of history. Second, it is not easy to find a scholar who can so effortlessly operate with a cross-disciplinary frame of mind. Academia has become so compartmentalised and is so preoccupied with narrow specialisation that it is refreshing to encounter someone who can connect the dots and give us a big picture of the world. Third, Harari has a knack for distilling complex phenomena into very pithy definitions. He can make things simple without sounding simplistic. And lastly, the project in its entirety is characterised by an impressive lack of tendentiousness. It is an honest enquiry which does not seem to have been conducted in service of any pre-determined agenda or dogma.
4. DEFICIENCIES, AMBIGUITIES AND OTHER PROBLEMS
From start to finish, Harari is too confident and too bold. And his sweeping and provocative assertions are not always duly footnoted, which some readers may find annoying. Then there’s a chance that his treatment of the word “myth”, which occurs repeatedly, might perplex certain people. We have become all too accustomed to ascribing the word “myth” to mass phenomena that we consider deceptive, even dangerous – the exact opposite of which we like calling “fact”. Harari’s use of the term, I believe, is more ancient than modern. Myth, ultimately, we must remember, originates from the Greek/Latin “mythos” – which simply means “story” or “word” or “narrative”. The word itself does not per se indicate an enlightening truth or a misleading falsehood. Also, there are times when Harari does not clearly differentiate between “god” and “God” – religiously sensitive readers may find this vagueness lazy. Another point to note is the frequent cropping up of negative conclusions in the book – (a). Homo sapiens spread out of the Afro-Asian landmass to settle in Australia and America, and with that occasioned the extinction of megafauna on both those continents. (b). History is without justice, so much of it consists of just “chance” events – think of the stratification of Indian society and the transatlantic slave trade. (c). Humans are powerful but irresponsible and clueless. All they know is to wreak havoc on other animals and exploit the ecosystem.
Is there any finding that is not pessimistic or misanthropic in Sapiens? Yes! We are living in the most peaceful time in history, believe it or not (and yes, in spite of the state-sanctioned brutality of the 20th century). This optimistic argument might be difficult to digest but it is not all that flimsy and unguarded. From a macro perspective and on a global level, we are now genuinely governed by a primarily peace-loving elite – an unprecedented development. Here, Harari concurs with the Harvard cognitive scientist Steven Pinker who, in 2011, published a detailed study on the topic called The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined. So amid these exposures of our nasty proclivities, there is one extremely positive and encouraging thought.
5. CONCLUDING REMARKS
Just that Sapiens is a book which burgeons with insights and could and should be read and even re-read. For its exhaustive scope and its inventive presentation, I rate it 9.5/10.
Featured Image Credit: Cave of the Hands in Santa Cruz, Argentina by User “Mariano”, CC BY-SA 3.0, Wikimedia Commons
Preview Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind by Yuval Noah Harari.