REVIEW BY KEN PUDDICOMBE
Copyright 2014 By Yuval Noah Harari.
Sapiens, Latin: meaning “one who knows.”
Yuval Harari has a PhD in History form the University of Oxford. His three books Sapiens, Homo Deus and 21 Lessons for the 21st Century have become global bestsellers, understandably, with more than 19 million copies sold.
Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind was given to me as a Christmas gift and after reading it I believe that it is one of the best 498 pages of non-fiction I’ve read in a very long time.
Harari states upfront that “This book tells the story of how these three revolutions have affected humans and their fellow organisms.” The Cognitive Revolution. The Agricultural Revolution. The Scientific Revolution.
1. THE COGNITIVE REVOLUTION
“Like it or not, we are members of a large and particularly noisy family called the great apes.” After the origin of the species (whenever that was) we prehistoric humans “were insignificant animals with no more impact on their environment than gorillas, fireflies or jellyfish” with a diversion occurring 6 million years ago when “a single female ape had two daughters…one the ancestor of all chimpanzees, the other our own grandmother.”
Somewhere along the way (about 2.5 million years ago) we graduated to toolmaking long after we started walking upright. This inevitably led to an increasing concentration of nerves and finely tuned muscles in our fingers. It was not only these that promoted a Cognitive Revolution, but the fact that humans are the only species born helpless, vital systems underdeveloped, and with a dependency that takes a tribe to raise a child, all of which result in the expansion of social abilities from birth. Social interaction and cooperation, after all, are key not only to reproduction, but to survival and ascendency over all other species.
On the way to the top of the food chain, we discovered fire (about 800,000 years ago) and domesticated it, leading to cooked food, thereby eliminating germs and parasites and increasing our life span compared to our fellow inhabitants of the planet. Around 70,000 to 30,000 years ago, we developed new ways of thinking and communicating (all of which contributed to the Cognitive Revolution), and saw the invention of boats, oil lamps, bows and arrows and needles. From these news ways came the development of language as a means of sharing information about the world, and as Harari puts it, “Our language evolved as a way of gossiping.” It all comes back to us as social animals!
This unique ability to transmit data in the Cognitive Revolution enabled Homo Sapiens to cross a critical threshold, leading to the foundation of legends, the belief in common myths, an establishment of religion and Gods, and of course, Fictions (writers be cognizant!).
For a long time prior to the Agricultural Revolution, however, earth was home to some 5-8 million nomadic foragers and these hunter-gatherers made little impact on the land in which they roamed. This would change radically with the coming of the Agricultural Revolution, and by the 1st Century AD the remaining 1-2 million foragers were overshadowed by the 250 million farmers in the world. The adulteration of Mother Earth had begun and the world would never be the same again!
2. THE AGRICULTURAL REVOLUTION
The Agriculture Revolution started about 10,000 years ago and by the 1st Century AD had been completed.
Moving away from a nomadic existence with the discovery and cultivation of a variety of plant life meant that people were forced to settle in villages close to their farms and wheat fields, resulting in a change in their way of life. A population explosion resulted but the reliance on an agricultural lifestyle posed challenges to the physical comportment of humans. The result: an increase in slipped discs, arthritis, hernias, impact on human spines, knees, necks and arches. (Another reason to blame our ancestors!)
With the coming of the Agricultural Revolution and crowded cities, food surpluses, larger villages and towns, kingdoms, mighty empires (the first being the Akkadian around 2250 BC formed by Sargon the Great —interesting how leaders are quick to append “great” to their name!), also came a period when people invented stories about great gods, deities, motherlands; stock companies were created and shared-myths to provide needed social links (that reference to our innate DNA again). Along came a hierarchy and control of the masses, of course, since from time immemorial there has always been leaders and followers.
Two of the best-known myths of history are explored in the book. First: the Code of Hammurabi (c1776 BC) in the Babylonian Empire (includes modern day Iraq), the world’s largest back then, with over a million subjects, whereby “the gods Anu, Enlil and Marduk…appointed Hammurabi to make justice prevail in the land” and established “a strict hierarchy within families according to which…children [are] the property of parents.” The Code also established a hierarchy consisting of two genders and three classes: superior people, commoners and slaves. The value of a woman was considered half that of a man, a female slave even less. Thus, Hammurabi established that all people are unequal, quickly adopted throughout history by Empires and Colonial Powers. Coincidentally, some 3,500 years after that, The American Declaration of Independence in 1776 on the contrary considered all people equal but their idea developed from Christianity: “every person has a divinely created soul, and that all souls are equal before God.” If only it had been practiced as written when it came to slavery and conquered peoples, because the American Imagined Order created a hierarchy of Whites who would enjoy liberty and blacks and Native Americans considered lesser humans who did not share the equal rights in the Declaration. For the slave-owning Fathers, “the rights of men had little to do with Negroes.”
With the advent of mass agricultural practices came complex societies. The human brain being incapable of retaining massive amounts of data, the need for enhanced communication and storage followed along with the appearance of writing, mainly for record keeping purposes. Interesting enough, the first recorded name in history belongs to an accountant, rather than a prophet, a poet or a great conqueror. But the most important development in script gradually changed the way we humans think and view the world, leading to the language of numbers and eventually to a binary system of zeros and ones. Binary! Human physiological development now recognizes Binary physical characteristics!
The Agricultural Revolution, the expansion of territory from local areas to kingdoms, the establishment of trade networks, all spurred a religious revolution and polytheistic religions controlled by powerful gods. The myth of these powerful gods and their (sometimes) all-powerful proponents in the form of mighty Mullahs, Popes, Ayatollahs, Rabbis, brainwashed followers to make sacrifices (sometimes human) in the need to appease those Gods and sustain continued prosperity. The expansion of polytheistic faiths and different interpretations also resulted in holy wars where millions were slaughtered.
With the spread of farmers and farming life, came the Second Wave Extinction.
Razing of the rain forest in Brazil. Slash and Burn techniques that clear the land and leave it barren as farmers move on to another area.
3. THE INDUSTRIAL REVOLUTION
It was the development of the steam engine that fueled the Industrial Revolution and ultimately a revolution in energy around 1700. This led to steam ships, locomotives and railway lines that facilitated the movement of products. The Industrial Revolution is often referred to as the Second Agricultural Revolution, resulting in it becoming the mainstay of agriculture and creation of vast factory farms where tractors replaced horses and oxen, grain was stored in silos instead of reaped and taken to market, and farm animals were produced in the thousands instead of hundreds.
The assembly line soon governed most human activities. Schools, hospitals, government and grocery stores and most human activity adopted timetables, providing new powers to the free market and government and its new army of clerks, teachers, policemen and social workers. This growing power would eventually weaken the traditional bonds of family and community with the state (big brother?) overlooking relations between parents and teachers, establishing a foster family system where parents failed established standards. Today, according to Harari, “parental authority is in full retreat.”
With the coming of the Global Order due to industrialization, the entire world’s economy is so interdependent that countries can hardly conduct an independent economic and foreign policy. Countries are also unable to conduct a full scale war on their own—even the US with its dominance had to form alliances for its last major escapades in the Middle East and Eastern Europe. The world is now a World Empire.
But the Industrial Revolution paved the way for Third Wave Extinction today.
The seven billion sapiens inhabiting the earth with about 700 million tons of domesticated farmyard animals far outnumber large wild animals of less than 100 million tons. Our children have to rely on and will continue in the future to have an experience of wildlife only through books and TV screens as the real world has very few of them remaining.
4. THE SCIENTIFIC REVOLUTION
Humans knew virtually nothing about the 99.99 percent of the microorganisms of the planet for most of history. It was only in 1674 that Anton van Leeuwenhoek discovered “tiny creatures milling about in a drop of water” through his home-made microscope. It took another 500 years to leap to the development and explosion of the first atomic bomb—the defining moment of the Scientific Revolution.
What essentially sparked the Scientific Revolution was an admission of sorts that we humans didn’t have answers to the most important questions plaguing us. And yet, all the premodern traditions of knowledge—the religious texts of Islam, Christianity, Buddhism and Confucianism among others, all propagated the myths that everything humanity needed to know was already imbedded in their texts. They all dwelled on the premise that if scientific principles were important and necessary for human prosperity and salvation, God would have included them in the texts.
It is scientific discoveries–like a new gadget every year, new industries, internal combustion engine, biotechnology, artificial intelligence—that fuel the growth in the economy in the modern era. Capitalism has played a major role since the earliest discovery of the New World, financed by credit where needed, or by the Spanish Crown under Queen Isabella. It’s no coincidence that it was the driving force behind Spain’s rise to the most powerful state in Europe in the sixteenth century. Indeed, Capitalism financed the gold and silver mines, sugar and tobacco plantations in the New World and lead to the monopolization of the Dutch Burghers and the creation of the Dutch West Indies Company in the Atlantic and the British East India Company dominance in the Indian Sub-Continent.
One of the intriguing aspects of the book is its explanations (some of them mere theories) of human behavior today, many of these rationalizations going back millennia.
- Like when Harari explains that the craving for high calorie food (and growing obesity levels in modern societies) has been hard-wired into our genes based on our Stone-Age foragers with the instinct to gorge on sweet food (like ripe fruit) “before the local baboon band picked the tree bare.” This of course was long before the Agriculture Revolution enabled extensive cultivation of crops and mass storage in warehouses.
- Harari says our foraging ancestors didn’t suffer from the infectious diseases (such as smallpox, tuberculosis and measles) that plagued people in the Agricultural and Industrial societies where domesticated animals easily transferred those debilitating afflictions to humans who lived in densely packed unhygienic conditions in urban societies. [Our current Covid pandemic is stark evidence of this in the twenty-first century.]
- A startling look at the foraging era reveals that foragers had a cruel and often times terminal treatment of their old or disabled people and unwanted babies and children. This practice continued as late as the 1960’s in Paraguay where the Ache people, hunter-gatherers, customarily killed a little girl and buried her alongside a valued band member when he died.
- Harari refers to Homo Sapiens as a terrestrial menace, an ecological serial killer leaving death and destruction behind as he advanced around the world, earning us the dubious distinction of being the deadliest species in the annals of biology. Time and again, we see our destructive side in action. The coming of first humans to Australia—one of the most important events in history, resulting in the eventual disappearance of the Australian megafauna like giant kangaroos and Koalas. Within two thousand years of man’s arrival in the Americas, most of the unique species such as mammoths and mastodons, rodents the size of bears, were extinct; Madagascar, where the arrival of the first humans about 1,500 years ago resulted in the extinction of the giant lemurs—the world’s largest primates.
- Harari subscribes to the theory of Imagined Orders, that “humans believe in a particular order because it enables us to cooperate effectively and forge a better society.” Such an Order needs true believers and followers, if only because it’s in our nature to want to believe, in something, anything. Jim Jones and his cult leading his followers deep into the Guyana jungle comes to mind. Republicans following their Messiah Trump blindly is another example.
- HIERARCHIES. Hierarchies are the product of human imagination (the Imagined Orders). Typical example: the caste system “created by laws and norms invented by humans in northern India” but these imagined categories perform an important function by creating a system whereby strangers know how to treat one another(!). Such a system was crafted by Indo-Aryan invaders about 3,000 years ago as a means of subjugating the local population and keeping them in check. The subsequent stratified society eventually became an intrinsic part of religious mythology and practice and exists even today.
- Established hierarchies also led to one of predominance of (male) gender—men always getting a better deal than women since the time of the Agricultural Revolution. In many societies women were considered the property of men—fathers, brothers, husbands—and is still practiced in paternalistic societies today. This has occurred throughout history where dominant men such as Native American chiefs, Indian Maharajas, Empire colonialists, wore colourful and flamboyant outfits similar to the animal kingdom. Patriarchy became the norm in agricultural and industrial societies.
- “The most cherished desires of present-day Westerners are shaped by romantic, nationalist, capitalist and human myths,” and those desires are programmed by the Imagined Orders which convinces millions of strangers to cooperate blindly. Romanticism, for example, leads us to the need for different experiences. Consumerism steers us to purchase products and services which we don’t really need. Conformity directs us to idolize and follow our forebearers—like ancient elite Egyptians who built pyramids—today we are after a suburban cottage or gleaming penthouse.
- The Imagined Orders or Constructs established by and sustained by the social order eventually became more elaborate with myths and fictions which programmed us into artificial instincts, almost from birth, to think and behave according to established standards and rules, leading to cooperative movements by strangers. These artificial instincts led to what’s called Culture.
- MONEY. Just as writing appeared and was developed to solve growing administrative functions in an expanding commercial world, so was the need for a common means of trading to replace a barter system. “The real breakthrough in monetary history occurred when people gained trust in money.” Where communities once developed around values such as honour, loyalty, morality and love, Money broke through those barriers and became the first universal common denominator of trust. It’s like an all pervading religious sect.
- EMPIRES. Even though humans have lived in Empires since around 200 BC, Empires are different today—ruled by a global network of trade and finance over 200 states in which cultural trends spread swiftly a la Indian curry and Hollywood movies. These states share the same problems like global warming and Climate change.
- While Money and Empires have been historical significant unifiers of humanity, Religion—“a system of human laws founded on a belief in superhuman laws”—is the third factor. The best known in history: Buddhism, Islam and Christianity are universal and missionary.
- WHY EUROPE? What enabled European powers to gain ascendency over two American continents and the oceans between 1500 and 1750? Harari claims it was mainly because Asiatic powers (China, India, etc) showed little interest in those areas of the world. These powers certainly had the wherewithal to mount successful campaigns since “their combined economies…alone represented two-thirds of global production…and Europe was an economic dwarf” in comparison. From 1850, it was the military-industrial-scientific complex and technological wizardry of Europe that dominated the world and propelled it towards its conquests. “Canned food fed soldiers, railroads and steamships transported soldiers…a new arsenal of medicines cured soldiers…and locomotive engineers.” In line with this, and as part of its legacy to the world, European imperialism has endowed the world with science and capitalism. It was capitalism along with the search for scientific knowledge that spurred the voyages of discovery.
- IMPERIALISM. Imperial powers insisted that their empires functioned mainly for the betterment of non-European races but the facts prove otherwise. Typical example: in British conquered Bengal, the richest province in India in 1764, “a disastrous economic policy…led to the outbreak of the Great Bengal famine in 1769 and the death of 10 million Bengalis.” Likewise, the powers used science to establish Europeans as superior to all other races with the right to rule over them.
- THE CAPITALIST HELL. At the extreme end of the pursuit of a Capitalist utopia and free markets lie greedy industrialists who establish monopolies as seen with the rise of European capitalism that went hand in hand with the creation and rise of the slave trade.
The increased demand for sugar and market forces resulted in the importation of some ten million slaves from Africa, organized and financed by private slave trading companies with shareholders.
- By the middle of the 20th century, the segregationist Confederate States in America kept its black population in check with laws that were probably worse than pre-civil war days. Before desegregation in the 50’s the cry of those States: Give it time, and yet one hundred years after the Civil War, Blacks were still not free. With an American aesthetic culture built around white criteria for beauty, the prevailing standards were established by a white dominated media.
- THE WORSHIP OF MAN. Harari argues that “the modern age has witnessed the rise of a number of new natural law religions, such as liberalism, Communism, capitalism, nationalism and Nazism,” since “religion is a system of human norms founded on belief in superhuman order.” Communism is no less a religion than Islam, he argues, Das Kapital a holy script, that is, a religious book.
- FINDING THE RIGHT BALANCE.
- While we live in a “lonely world of unravelling communities and families,” it is possible to find happiness which, in the final analysis, comes down to “objective conditions and subjective expectations” and further explained by “being satisfied with what you already have is far more important that getting more of what you want.” Medieval peasants went without washing for months, Harari says, and hardly ever changed their clothes. As far as clothing goes, they were content with what they had. If you want a bullock cart and you got a bullock cart, you were happy!
- Third World discontent, when it comes down to it, is fomented not simply by poverty, disease, corruption and political oppression but by trying to meet First World standards. “The two pillars of our society—mass media and the advertising industry—are depleting the globe’s reservoirs of contentment.”
- “Buddhism shares the basic insight of…happiness, namely that happiness results from processes occurring within one’s body, and not from events in the outside world…and the problem…is that our feelings are no more than fleeting vibrations.” Our basic problem, it seems stems from fantasizing about what might have been, instead of living in the present moment!
- THE FUTURE. Does it lie in Biological and Genetic engineering? The new technology of Cyborg (combining organic and inorganic parts such as human with bionic hands) engineering could “change the laws of life.”? Eventually, to even engineer complete inorganic beings? Vast ethical questions will have to be addressed. (Was Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein prescient?) Will inheritors of our society become almost godlike in the future?