Saturday, March 14, 2015

Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, by Yuval Noah Harari

Staff Review by Chris Saliba

Yuval Noah Harari’s iconoclastic history of humans is sure to shock as it presents our species as an aggressive and insatiable animal.

Yuval Noah Harari’s Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind examines the evolution of our species from a biological point of view. Instead of seeing humans as almost divine creatures, separated from the animal kingdom by virtue of our technology and culture, Sapiens places us as one amongst many species jostling for a living on planet earth.

The early chapters describe sibling members of the genus Homo, such as Homo neanderthalensis, Homo erectus, Homo denisova, Homo floresiensis - about six or seven species all up. What happened to these other species, so close to us? The news is fairly grim. Sapiens (which means wise, hence Homo sapiens translates as wise man) probably pushed them from fertile lands or even worse, killed them off. This possible extermination, or even genocide, sure takes the sheen off our exalted self-opinion. Harari’s narrative continues on in this blunt, iconoclastic manner. His tone veers towards the almost sarcastic when pricking the bubble of our self-importance.

This 400 page history then steams ahead through all the various revolutions that humans have somewhat unwittingly engineered. The first revolution was the cognitive one, where humans learnt to communicate and share ideas. Language allowed us to share common myths and fictions, which gave us enormous power. When everyone agreed upon a central concept, like money or God for example, then co-operation could be scaled up to the size of nation states. Harari does a brilliant job of showing how myths - concepts that don’t exist and are purely fictional - have had enormous power in welding humanity together to pursue singular goals.

After the cognitive revolution came the agricultural revolution. While the development of agriculture allowed humans to increase their numbers hugely, it didn’t really add much to the sum of human happiness. Humans worked longer hours for less food. Archeological excavations of human remains show that Homo sapiens actually shrunk in size once they took up farming. Another unfortunate aspect of this revolution was greed and animal cruelty. We learnt to want more and more. Animals were treated appallingly, something that has only grown much worse with the industrial farming of animals in our own time.

In an article published in The Guardian explaining some of the major ideas in Sapiens, Harari writes:

“We can congratulate ourselves on the accomplishments of modern Homo sapiens only if we completely ignore the fate of all other animals. Much of the wealth that shields humans from disease and famine was accumulated at the expense of laboratory monkeys, dairy cows and conveyor-belt chickens. Tens of billions of them have been subjected over the last two centuries to a regime of industrial exploitation, whose cruelty has no precedent in the annals of planet Earth.”

Sapiens roughly ends up with the scientific revolution, discussing the evolution of political, religious and financial systems along the way. Science during the last 500 years has sped along at breakneck speed. Today, with the advance of biotechnology, it seems humans are poised to become gods themselves.

This is a punchy, well-written and well-explained history that tackles some very big ideas. Harari puts forward his own opinions confidently, maybe somewhat brashly, ensuring Sapiens never has a dull moment. The book crackles and pops. It looks at much we take for granted from different angles and is sure to cause you to re-think any currently held attitudes. It paints humans not as aloof beings set apart in an entirely different class to animals, but as almost rapacious beasts that can never get enough. Highly recommended!

Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, by Yuval Noah Harari. Published by Harvill/Secker. ISBN: 9781846558245 $35

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