Yuval Noah Harari’s Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind is a big book: it may be only 400 pages, but it’s scope is breathtaking. Don’t come to this book looking for dates or expositions of key historical events. Harari’s approach to history is to stand back and see what patterns emerge from the big picture.

He starts – as everything did – 13.5 billion years ago with the Big Bang (that’s physics), pauses 300,000 years later as matter and energy began to coalesce into atoms, then molecules (that’s chemistry), takes a breath on planet Earth 3.8 billion years ago as molecules began to form into organisms (biology), before embarking on his central quest to explain the rise and rise of Homo sapiens around 70,000 years ago, when our species of the genus Homo overcame the other species, most significantly the Neanderthal, to begin its ascent to world domination (history begins).

His widescreen history focusses on three important revolutions that have shaped the human story: the Cognitive Revolution that kick-started history some 70,000 years ago as sapiens developed speech, and thus bigger, better organised social groups that enabled us to break free from the limits of biology; the Agricultural Revolution of 10,000 years ago; and the Scientific Revolution of 500 years ago.

The processes unleashed by these three revolutions have led, argues Harari – and here we encounter one of his central themes – to ‘the unification of humankind’:

Today almost all humans share the same geopolitical system (the entire planet is divided into internationally recognised states); the same economic system (capitalist market forces shape even the remotest corners of the globe); the same legal system (human rights and international law are valid everywhere, at least theoretically); and the same scientific system (experts in Iran, Israel, Australia and Argentina have exactly the same views about the structure of atoms or the treatment of tuberculosis).

That’s just one example of Harari’s bold approach: sweeping assessments that seem to electrify new neural pathways in your brain, but which, after further thought, begin to raise nagging doubts. Particularly for the first 200 pages or so it makes for a mentally-stimulating- experience as Harari hurtles full-throttle through time and space.

Not the only ones

Once we were not alone: for most of its history Homo sapiens shared the planet with several humanoid species. We’re all familiar with the Neanderthals (Harari points out that they had the bigger brains), but one hundred thousand years ago, Homo sapiens – just as today there are several species of bears or pigs – there were different species of humans. While Sapiens were found primarily in East Africa, the Neanderthals inhabited Europe, while other species – such as Homo erectus and Homo soloensis – populated Asia, and Java. Our sense of our own uniqueness, Harari concludes, is a myth spawned by an accident of evolution:

The earth of a hundred millennia ago was walked by at least six different species of man. Suppose some or all of these species had survived alongside ourselves up to the present. What would become of the cherished sense that we are set apart from the rest of the natural world by having some peculiar transcendent value?

We have grown so accustomed to being the only human species that it’s hard to conceive of the possibility of a world with others like us. This, argues Harari,is what makes it easy to imagine that we are the crown of creation, and that a chasm separates us from the rest of the animal kingdom:

When Charles Darwin indicated that Homo sapiens was just another kind of animal, people were outraged. Even today many refuse to believe it. Had the Neanderthals survived, would we still imagine ourselves to be a creature apart? Perhaps this is exactly why our ancestors wiped out the Neanderthals. They were too familiar to ignore, but too different to tolerate.

Eradicating others

These days we have become familiar with the idea that patterns of human behaviour and development have led to the extinction of other forms of life on the planet, but Harari argues the case with examples drawn, not from the modern world of intensive farming or industrial pollution, but instead from human communities that we have come to regard as being – both philosophically and practically – in harmony with their environment.

He argues that the first human settlers of Australia, for example, didn’t just adapt, but transformed the Australian ecosystem beyond recognition:

The first human footprint on a sandy Australian beach was immediately washed away by the waves. Yet when the invaders advanced inland, they left behind a different footprint, one that would never be expunged. As they pushed on, they encountered a strange universe of unknown creatures that included a 200-kilogram, two-metre kangaroo, and a marsupial lion, as massive as a modern tiger, that was the continent’s largest predator. Koalas far too big to be cuddly and cute rustled in the trees and flightless birds twice the size of ostriches sprinted on the plains. Dragon-like lizards and snakes five metres long slithered through the undergrowth. The giant diprotodon, a two-and-a-half-ton wombat, roamed the forests. Except for the birds and reptiles, all these animals were marsupials, like kangaroos, they gave birth to tiny, helpless, fetus-like young which they then nurtured with milk in abdominal pouches. Marsupial mammals were almost unknown in Africa and Asia, but in Australia they reigned supreme.

Within a few thousand years, virtually all of these giants vanished. Of the twenty-four Australian animal species weighing fifty kilograms or more, twenty-three became extinct. A large number of smaller species also disappeared. Food chains throughout the entire Australian ecosystem were broken and rearranged. It was the most important transformation of the Australian ecosystem for millions of years. Was it all the fault of Homo sapiens?

Yuval Harari
Yuval Harari and Sapiens

It’s all in our minds

Why did homo sapiens become so successful? Harari believes it was a unique aspect of our cognitive abilities that made the difference. From about 70,000 years ago, he argues, homo sapiens underwent a cognitive revolution founded upon the power of collective imagination: our capacity to believe in stories and myths unified us and made us powerful:

Large numbers of strangers can cooperate successfully by believing in common myths. Any large-scale human cooperation – whether a modern state, a medieval church, an ancient city or an archaic tribe – is rooted in common myths that exist only in people’s collective imagination.

In a summation typical of Harari’s style he states that ‘You could never convince a monkey to give you a banana by promising him limitless bananas after death in monkey heaven.’ The most powerful force in our brains is that which generates and leads us to believe in abstractions such as religion, capitalism, the rule of law, and the trustworthiness of a company represented by its logo:

None of these things exists outside the stories that people invent and tell one another. There are no gods in the universe, no nations, no money, no human rights, no laws and no justice outside the common imagination of human beings.

The consequences of this power to believe in and unite around ‘imagined realities’  are immense:

Ever since the Cognitive Revolution, Sapiens have thus been living in a dual reality. On the one hand, the objective reality of rivers, trees and lions; and on the other hand, the imagined reality of gods, nations and corporations. As time went by, the imagined reality became ever more powerful, so that today the very survival of rivers, trees and lions depends on the grace of imagined entities such as the United States and Google.

The Stadel figurine
The Stadel figurine

Harari draws a striking parallel between a small ivory figurine of a ‘lion-man’ carved around 32,000 years ago and the Peugeot lion logo. The prehistoric carving with the head of a lion and the body of a human, found in a cave at Stadel in Germany, is one of the first examples of art, and possibly of religion: of the ability of the human mind to imagine things that don’t really exist.

Peugeot symbol
The Peugeot symbol

The Peugeot icon somewhat resembles the Stadel lion-man – not only in appearance, Harari argues, but more importantly as a comparable ‘figment of our collective imagination’. In what sense, he asks, can we say that Peugeot exists?

There are many Peugeot vehicles, but these are obviously not the company. […] The company owns factories, machinery and showrooms, and employs mechanics, accountants and secretaries, but all of these together do not comprise Peugeot. […] Peugeot has managers and shareholders, but neither do they constitute the company. All the managers could be dismissed and all its shares sold, but the company itself would remain intact. […] Peugeot is a figment of our collective imagination.  Lawyers call this a ‘legal fiction’. It can’t be pointed at; it is not a physical object.  But it exists.

The example of Peugeot demonstrates how the ability to believe in things which ‘can’t be pointed at’ has enabled Sapiens to cooperate in many different and very flexible ways with countless numbers of strangers:

That’s why Sapiens rule the world, whereas ants eat our leftovers and chimps are locked up in zoos and research laboratories.”

Agriculture and animals

‘We did not domesticate wheat. It domesticated us.’

The impact of the first agricultural revolution – in which Sapiens shifted from surviving as hunter-gatherers to settling down to live as farmers – is well understood. But Harari’s take on the process which began some 10,000 years ago is somewhat different. He presents it as ‘a Faustian bargain between humans and grains’ in which our species ‘cast off its intimate symbiosis with nature and sprinted towards greed and alienation’. It was, he argues, a bad bargain.

He calls the agricultural revolution ‘history’s biggest fraud’ which brought a worse diet, longer hours of work, greater risk of starvation, crowded living conditions, greatly increased susceptibility to disease, new forms of insecurity and uglier forms of hierarchy. Later in the book, in a not wholly convincing analysis of happiness, Harari suggests that we may have been happier as hunter-gatherers.

Because he is focussed on the question of how species of all kinds have interacted through history he also has challenging things to say about the impact of farming – and particularly modern intensive farming methods – on other animals, concluding that ‘modern industrial agriculture might well be the greatest crime in history’.

The natural lifespan of wild chickens is about seven to twelve years, and of cattle about twenty to twenty-five years. In the wild, most chickens and cattle died long before that, but they still had a fair chance of living for a respectable number of years. In contrast, the vast majority of domesticated chickens and cattle are slaughtered at the age of between a few weeks and a few months, because this has always been the optimal slaughtering age from an economic perspective. […] Egg-laying hens, dairy cows and draught animals are sometimes allowed to live for many years. But the price is subjugation to a way of life completely alien to their urges and desires.

The agricultural revolution allowed civilizations to thrive, but on an individual level, Harari argues, we were much better off as hunter-gatherers. As farmers, people had to work a lot harder and in exchange they had a worse diet than they had as foragers. Agricultural societies also created social hierarchies in which the majority toiled as peasants and a minority of elites ruled over them. Which leads him to the next stage of his argument: how Sapiens became a globally-integrated species as a result of religion, science and empire.

Religion, science and imperialism

For Harari, history has a direction. In his view the’arrow of history’ has moved relentlessly towards unity. Today, we are used to thinking about the whole planet as a single unit, whereas for most of history the earth was ‘an entire galaxy of isolated human worlds.’

In the central section of his book, Harari is concerned with explaining how this process of global unification came about. To put it succinctly: homo sapiens began to cooperate on an increasingly regular and more widespread basis as a consequence of the spread of religions, empires, and scientific understanding.

In a typical passage, Harari expresses the commonplace assessment that we live in a globalized world as a result of the spread of capitalism – but in  his own unique style. Capitalism is, he says, a religion – the only one in history which all followers have lived up to:

Capitalist and consumerist ethics are two sides of the same coin, a merger of two commandments. The supreme commandment of the rich is ‘Invest!’ The supreme commandment of the rest of us is ‘Buy!’ The capitalist–consumerist ethic is revolutionary in another respect. Most previous ethical systems presented people with a pretty tough deal. They were promised paradise, but only if they cultivated compassion and tolerance, overcame craving and anger, and restrained their selfish interests. This was too tough for most. The history of ethics is a sad tale of wonderful ideals that nobody can live up to. Most Christians did not imitate Christ, most Buddhists failed to follow Buddha, and most Confucians would have caused Confucius a temper tantrum. In contrast, most people today successfully live up to the capitalist–consumerist ideal. The new ethic promises paradise on condition that the rich remain greedy and spend their time making more money and that the masses give free reign to their cravings and passions and buy more and more. This is the first religion in history whose followers actually do what they are asked to do. How though do we know that we’ll really get paradise in return? We’ve seen it on television.

The future of history

Towards the close of his book, Harari extrapolates from current trends in science and technology to predict what form the story of sapiens might take in the future. It was at this stage in the book that I began to have some doubts: with his statements ever more sweeping, niggling doubts set in. The problem with Harari’s approach is that to test his assertions the sceptical reader would need to do their own further investigations (probably no bad thing, actually).

An example – drawn from earlier in the book – was picked up in Galen Strewson’s review for the Guardian:

There’s a kind of vandalism in Harari’s sweeping judgments, his recklessness about causal connections, his hyper-Procrustean stretchings and loppings of the data. Take his account of the battle of Navarino. Starting from the fact that British investors stood to lose money if the Greeks lost their war of independence, Harari moves fast: “the bond holders’ interest was the national interest, so the British organised an international fleet that, in 1827, sank the main Ottoman flotilla in the battle of Navarino. After centuries of subjugation, Greece was finally free.” This is wildly distorted – and Greece was not then free. To see how bad it is, it’s enough to look at the Wikipedia entry on Navarino.

My problem is that I know next to nothing about Navarino – so until I read this review I could have no inkling that I might be being misled.

In the final section of Sapiens, Harari makes some debatable assertions about happiness (referred to earlier):

While people in today’s affluent societies work an average of forty to forty-five hours a week, and people in the developing world work sixty and even eighty hours a week, hunter-gatherers living today in the most inhospitable of habitats – such as the Kalahari Desert – work on average for just thirty-five to forty-five hours a week. They hunt only one day out of three, and gathering takes up just three to six hours daily. In normal times, this is enough to feed the band. It may well be that ancient hunter-gatherers living in zones more fertile than the Kalahari spent even less time obtaining food and raw materials. On top of that, foragers enjoyed a lighter load of household chores. They had no dishes to wash, no carpets to vacuum, no floors to polish, no nappies to change and no bills to pay.

He rehearses Steven Pinker’s argument (in The Better Angels of Our Nature) that the world has, despite appearances, become less violent (again, I haven’t read Pinker’s book, so can’t make an informed judgement).

Finally, Harari wonders how artificial intelligence, genetic engineering, and other technologies might change our species in the future. His conclusion is that homo sapiens could be about to change. We now have the ability to reshape our species, but much more rapidly than evolutionary change in the last 70,000 years. Referring to the Gilgamesh Project which aims to ‘give humankind eternal life’, he warns that we are on the verge of being able to wield godlike powers over ourselves and the planet. In the same vein he draws attention to Google director of engineering Ray Kurzweil’s idea of the Singularity – an explosive acceleration in knowledge that will enable humans to merge with a type of artificial intelligence vastly more powerful than any human mind. He leaves us with a couple of big questions: What do we want to do with our knowledge? What do we want to become?

Just as I finished writing this post I noticed an article in the Guardian about Harari’s next book, due to be published in the autumn: AI will create ‘useless class’ of human, predicts bestselling historian. In Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow, he will argue that, rather than evolving into omnipotent, all-knowing masters of the universe, most of us will end up jobless and aimless, whiling away our days off our heads on drugs, with VR headsets strapped to our faces. The Guardian reports that:

Harari calls it ‘the rise of the useless class’ and ranks it as one of the most dire threats of the 21st century. In a nutshell, as artificial intelligence gets smarter, more humans are pushed out of the job market. No one knows what to study at college, because no one knows what skills learned at 20 will be relevant at 40. Before you know it, billions of people are useless, not through chance but by definition.

Oh well, at least it’ll take our minds off global warming,the sixth extinction, and the collapse of capitalism.

See also

  • Sapiens: insightful review by Charles Mann in Wall Street Journal
  • Review by Chris Knight THES: ‘one of those books about everything in general, nothing in particular. A concoction of fascinating facts, plausible theories and bizarre speculations’.
  • Review by John Gray in the FT: in his inimitable style.
  • Big History: like Sapiens, explains13.7 billion years of history, from the Big Bang on
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5 thoughts on “Sapiens: a big history of the species

  1. Thanks again for sharing Sapiens in such a tempting style. The CBC recently did a scary series on AI which described a future in which it would replace much of the contributions of human professionals. Thought provoking, as is so much of your work.

  2. This book has been thoroughly panned by the informed academic community. For that reason, I’ve not touched it; nor will his next. The critics allege misuse of data; overstatement; superficiality; over-generalisation. So it’s a best-seller pile of tripe, expropriating ideas from better-informed others and passing them off as a joined-up picture. Comfort food for the middle-brow reader. Not more.

    http://www.theguardian.com/books/2014/sep/11/sapiens-brief-history-humankind-yuval-noah-harari-review

    1. This is what comes of being seduced by a three for two offer in *stones. It was an entertaining read, but as I inferred raised many doubts.

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