Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, 2015

Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind

Yuval Noah Harari, 2015

The best history book I’ve ever read. In his first of four sections, on the cognitive revolution, Harari traces humans past their success out-competing other hominid species. Whether deliberately or proximally (and likely both), we eliminated all our competitors. This revolution came about perhaps because of the use of fire, enabling us to cook food and gather more nutrients in less time, but also for its ability to burn large areas of land. Even modern non-ecologically sound companies would be aghast at our ancestor’s unrestricted use of fire!

Another amazing argument I love: there is no unnatural behavior. If a human can physically fuck a dog (not his example, but it’s the one he’s intending to stimulate) or eat fifty hot dogs, this is possible, naturally. Thus, it is not unnatural, and we should relabel it “abnormal,” instead (my argument). Culture puts restrictions on what humans should do, but there is no point to restricting women from running faster than the speed of light, of course, because that’s preposterous – that’s unnatural. And if we can physically do it, it isn’t unnatural.

 

Second, regarding the agricultural revolution, he describes it as, basically, history’s biggest fraud. I was familiar with this line of reasoning before – we work far more, and are much less happy – than our Paleolithic ancestors. Each successive Neolithic generation, life got a little more efficient and able to support higher numbers, but people had to work slightly harder. That made actual life for individuals worse, but nobody noticed because it was so slow. A few centuries later, especially without written history, how would they know? And even if they did, would a tribe of 110 farmers decide to kill ten of their own in order to go back to the methods that only supported a population of 100 – even if their lives were happier? I hope and pray this scourge of Neolithic suffering ends this century: that we can work less, enjoy more, and be happier. But that’s just a hope.

Here he also describes how ecologically, our species’ spread (unintentially, here) caused mass extinctions around the world. Alternatively, cows, chickens, wheat, maize, rice, and a few others have become perhaps even more successful species than human beings, evolutionarily, at least. But this begs the question: what does successful mean? They are everywhere, of course, but certainly we would not argue that mere numbers account for success. The pain and horror we’ve inflicted on these few animal species is unbelievable.

 

Third, one recurring theme in the book is the importance of fiction, myth, and story. You can’t get a monkey to give you a banana in exchange for unlimited bananas in monkey heaven, he notes. Yet this belief in gods, spirits, animalistic deities, and more is the same source of the shared beliefs we all have today about legal principles, companies, nations, and even human rights. They are fictional stories we believe in. Largest of all is our belief in money. No shared culture or language is even required here, we can safely and confidently interact with others using any currency, content that small pieces of paper and metal will be exchangeable in the future for actual goods.

Harari takes the principles of evolution and applies them beautifully to his writing. Poignantly, he describes happiness in some detail, and notes that we have abandoned our belief in a sense of community and relationships for a religious-like belief in the independent person. But, he states, now government and social programs are the mother and father of the individual – who is far less happier as a result. As an example of consumerism at its worst, he argues, obesity is a double success for economics: we buy more food than we need, and then we buy other products to combat the results of our excesses. (Thinking about the argument more, I actually disagree, since healthy food usually costs more than cheap, nutrient-lacking garbage, and does a better service to our planet and species. Still, the example is illustrative of the principle.)

The book also contains one of my favorite quotes on biology overall. Few quotes have I written several times just to memorize, but I have done that with this sentence:

This is the basic lesson of evolutionary psychology: a need shaped in the wild continues to be felt subjectively even if it is no longer really necessary for survival and reproduction.”

 

The fourth section is perhaps the least focused, but the most important. Here he describes the advances of science, and why it’s worked so well. Notably, science has always been inextricably tied with empire and money. Today’s evermore challenging quest by scientists to grasp the small chance that their proposal might get funded is nothing new – scientists in ages past would have needed to convince kings or other difficult to reach leaders. The difference was that then, good science could be done for either less money, or the finances required were at least within the reach of those minimally fortunate, like Darwin and others. Today, many argue, that isn’t possible anymore. (But it’s still an interesting debate, especially as the cost of smartphones and associated micro-sensors become ever cheaper! I look forward to seeing what teenagers accomplish in the next few decades, especially in developing countries.)

Why did the scientific revolution take so long to come about? Partially, because “most  human cultures did not believe in progress” until recently, believing instead, “the world was stagnant, if not deteriorating.” If the religious prophets were unable to abolish suffering from the world, what hope could scientists possibly have? – This is also the reason money, banking, and economics didn’t grow like they could have – people didn’t believe in the future. So why the hell invest? Today, everyone believes their retirement account will be worth more in a few decades than it is today, no matter the actual numbers. There are few more powerful examples of how an immaterial, imaginary belief can have profound consequences on the history of our species.

Harari ends the book at its logical place, “the end of homo sapiens:”

For these projects are inextricably meshed together with the Gilgamesh Project. Ask scientists why they study the genome, or try to connect a brain to a computer, or try to create a mind inside a computer. Nine out of ten times you’ll get the same standard answer: we are doing it to cure diseases and save human lives. Even though the implications of creating a mind inside a computer are far more dramatic than curing psychiatric illnesses, this is the standard justification given, because nobody can argue with it. This is why the Gilgamesh Project is the flagship of science. It serves to justify everything science does. Dr Frankenstein piggybacks on the shoulders of Gilgamesh. Since it is impossible to stop Gilgamesh, it is also impossible to stop Dr Frankenstein.”

Gilgamesh, seeing worms come out of his dead friend’s corpse, desires to defeat death and become immortal. After scouring the earth and its underworld, he returns, having failed, doomed to die. Gilgamesh realizes that death was forced on humans by the gods, and in some sense, might become a gift. — But we are fast heading towards a world without death. Harari doesn’t want to see this future come about, and I think he describes it in such a provocative way to force us to confront the issues and take action. How can we direct our scientific progress using an ethical compass, while allowing for the prevention and treatment of diseases? Few more pressing questions exist, but we must tackle this one. Although I pray that biology will always outsmart us, and that we will never be immortal, I am no fool. This century or farther ahead, we will live forever. What then?

 

Misc:

Review the last highlighted quote in the file to remember what might happen if we have this available to us, but we don’t distribute it to everyone.

A provocative quote to incite others to read the book:

“To say that a husband ‘raped’ his wife was as illogical as saying that a man stole his own wallet.”

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