Book Review: Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, by Yuval Noah Harari published 2015 by HarperCollins, first published in Hebrew in Israel in 2011.
This book is a massive, dense exploration of our species from a scientific and historical perspective. Harari reminds us that our species has a family: the great Apes, and a genus Homo meaning human, and that there have been many other humans on this planet prior to our emergence 200,000 years ago, and that several of them existed along side of us. He makes a good argument that we may in fact have been responsible for Homo Neanderthal going extinct 30,000 years ago.
Harari divides the book into four sections. In part one, the Cognitive Revolution (70,000 to 12,000 years ago) he provides a surprising answer to why our species has so quickly risen to the top of the food chain and taken over the planet. It is not because of superior intelligence as tool making and daily use of fire predates our emergence as a species. It is not because of a larger brain as Neanderthal’s brain was bigger. It is certainly not because of superior physical strength. The reason has to do with language, and with advanced language ability, we developed story-telling and myth-making, or simply, the capacity to believe things that are not true.
Harari painstakingly develops this argument. Cooperation and inter-dependency is a striking attribute throughout the great ape family, but without advanced language and myth-making, it has severe limitations. Great apes will not cooperate with strangers. In order for an individual chimpanzee to cooperate with other chimps, she needs to trust that other individual, which is developed through various intimacies including grooming, sexual contact, sharing resources, exchanging favors, and defining hierarchies. These are advanced social skills that make it possible for great apes to pass on skills to their rather feeble offspring. However it is impossible to know more than a few dozen other individuals in this way. All others become strangers and cannot be trusted. This limits cooperative activity to fifty or less, which is why bands of chimpanzees tend to stay close to that number.
If you add sophisticated language to the mix, then our ancestors learned to gossip, which is a language based system of developing trust without the need to intimately know every individual in the band. This raises the possibility of up to 150 individuals to cooperate. The next step is myth making. If 1000 individuals believe in religion, or the power of a king, or money, or law, then they can learn to cooperate even with total strangers. With this new-found ability to believe that which is not true, our Sapiens ancestors built pyramids, fought wars, built skyscrapers, and created empires.
In part two, he explores the The Agricultural Revolution which began 12,000 years ago shortly after the last human species besides Sapiens goes extinct, homo floresiensis (the hobbit people). Rather than saying that Sapiens domesticated wheat, Harari argues that wheat domesticated Sapiens as we moved from a hunter-gatherer life of working a few hours a day with a varied healthy diet to 90% of us slaving away in the fields with a worse diet while being watched over by the 10% overlords.
Part three describes the The Unification of Humankind with wonderfully written insightful chapters on empire, religion, and money.
Part four describes the scientific revolution which started 500 years ago and is defined by the discovery of ignorance. Prior to this, Sapiens, utilizing our incredible ability to create sophisticated myths, tended to believe that we knew the world and how it was. When we began to understand how much we did not know or understand, we began to observe with more objectivity and as a result we eventually were able to invent cell phones and nuclear bombs.
The first chapter of the book is entitled “An Animal of No Significance.” The last chapter is “The End of Homo Sapiens” and the Afterword is entitled “The Animal that Became a God.” Harari walks us through this transformation, but it is not pretty picture. We have bypassed evolution and have invented intelligent design. Humans are already editing the DNA of viable human embryos. We do not know what will become of us, or what we will next create.
From the perspective of the Unitarian Universalist movement, there is much in this book to offer reflection and concern. Individualism, money, equality, and justice are all defined by Harari as inter-subjectives or imagined orders. Like law or money, none of these things exist in the real world. Nevertheless they are incredibly powerful. But since they lack objective reality, any and all of them can fade away like a dissolving fog. From the time we first arrived in Australia 45,000 years ago and caused the extinction of 23 of 24 large animals to our arrival in the Americas 16,000 years ago when we caused the extinction of 74 of 107 large mammals to the present where we are in the process of creating the most massive extinction since the big asteroid hit 65 million years ago, we have left destruction in our wake. Life is resilient on this planet and will most likely survive our own extinction. Do we have the wherewithal to take seriously our sweet embracing of “the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part”? Is there time to alter the trajectory we have set forth? I am still rooting for our species, but after reading this book, I am not as optimistic as I used to be.