Title: Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind
Edition: Vintage Books, Paperback
Piotrek: Ambitious title for a 500 pages book, ain’t it? This young (born 1976) and charismatic Israeli historian – and his is a professional historian, with his DPhil thesis titled History and I : war and the relations between history and personal identity in Renaissance military memoirs, c.1450-1600. written in Oxford – aims to catch the essence of our history, as a species, in one tome. The result is certainly very successful, since 2011 published in multiple languages and its author became a public intellectual with TED Talks and countless interviews available on Youtube and elsewhere. We are here to judge if the world is right 😉
Ola: Oh well, there’s nothing like a catchy beginning, is there? 😛 But on a more serious note, Harari’s ambitions were huge, and a bit of hubris was, I guess, unavoidable – especially if you want to market a de facto historical book to a wide, mostly lay, public. Harari’s book, however, deserves its hype, for it’s written in a flowing, precise style, and delivers an abundance of catchy, well devised examples to better explain the more abstract concepts.
Piotrek: Harari had to be concise. Book begins with a two-page Timeline of History that starts 13.5 billion years ago and divides the history of our species – this is not a history of civilization, or from antiquity to modernity, we deal with the evolution of homo sapiens. It is conceptualised into several stages, and let’s name them all, it will give you an idea of what the author means to do here:
1. The Cognitive Revolution
All the illustrations are taken from the reviewed edition of the book.
Piotrek: When humans began to communicate, to create shared meanings and, consequently, culture and technology. It allowed large numbers of people to cooperate and vastly improved our social skills. It was the necessary and underappreciated basis of our future ascendancy.
Ola: I see we’re going for the big words here 😛 Ascendancy sounds a bit pompous, don’t you think? The point is, though, that through the cognitive revolution, it in itself being most probably a fluke of evolution, human processes of biological evolution changed and were capable of incorporating culture and cultural artefacts as means of adaptation to the environment (or, more and more often, adaptation of the environment).
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; on the other hand, the imagined reality of gods, nations and corporations.
2. The Agricultural Revolution
Piotrek: When hunter-gatherers discovered the way to make more food, live shorter, oppressed lives in autocratic, unhygienic cities and multiplied all around the world. It was not fun, but it made us rulers of the world.
Ola: Like He-Man? 😛 I still think viruses are better at that, especially considering the strategy of scorched earth 😉 But, seriously, the agricultural revolution is much overhyped, at least according to Harari. And I must agree with him – when I visited a Neolithic striped flint mine I was quite astonished to learn that people working there were much taller than their Middle Ages counterparts – the average height of men was something of 178cm, according to the guide I quizzed about it. They also lived longer, despite the difficult mining conditions, than the farmers who lived there centuries later, in what we are used to see as benefits of civilization. As Harari nicely puts,
There is no evidence that people became more intelligent with time. Foragers knew the secrets of nature long before the Agricultural Revolution, since their survival depended on an intimate knowledge of the animals they hunted and the plants they gathered. Rather than heralding a new era of easy living, the Agricultural Revolution left farmers with lives generally more difficult and less satisfying than those of foragers. Hunter-gatherers spent their time in more stimulating and varied ways, and were less in danger of starvation and disease. The Agricultural Revolution certainly enlarged the sum total of food at the disposal of humankind, but the extra food did not translate into a better diet or more leisure. Rather, it translated into population explosions and pampered elites. The average farmer worked harder than the average forager, and got worse diet in return. The Agricultural Revolution was history’s biggest fraud.
Piotrek: Yeah, sure. Only the foragers had it too good, and could never build the civilization we have today. So, I feel sorry for all the oppressed people of agricultural societies, but I’m grateful I can write about it on a computer. Of course, genre literature explores alternatives to that kind of progress, but there is usually magic involved 😉
Ola: Sure, let’s be honest: it’s another iteration of the Romantic noble savage trope, clearly inspired by Rousseau and his predecessors. And the remote tribes that still try to live this way are on the verge of extinction, because this lifestyle is not viable anymore.
3. The Unification of Humankind
Piotrek: By commerce, empires and universal religions. Religion is something Harari understands in a very specific way that is roughly equal to the casual understanding of ideology, and includes both traditional religions (tribal and universalistic) and modern, secular religions of liberalism, communism or nazism. The unification was seldom voluntary, and hardly ever beneficial for all the peoples involved, but it happened.
Ola: And was a necessary stepping stone for the globalization we face today, with all its benefits and disadvantages. It was also an unavoidable element of the process of broadening the definition of “us”, the members of “our” tribe, forcing humans to look beyond the superficial differences to the inherent sameness expressed in the fact of being a member of human species – or, maybe in the future – a member of sentient species.
4.The Scientific Revolution
Piotrek: This is now, and it made us go beyond the wildest dreams of our ancestors. Beyond homo sapiens, soon, as we change ourselves with technology to a degree that we might become a new species. The afterword? The Animal that Became a God. This is how Banks’ Culture starts!
Ola: Wow, you’re a true believer, after all (at least in the sense proposed by Harari)! 😀 It’s useful to notice, however, that Harari puts the beginning of the scientific revolution back around 1500 AD, focusing it on three main points:
1) The willingness to admit ignorance
2) The centrality of observation and mathematics
3) The acquisition of new powers (new technologies)
It seems to me that this worldview is neither universal nor constant, and what Harari doesn’t really comment upon, at some points of time – not very welcome. The willingness to admit ignorance, especially, seems to have fallen from favor these days.
Piotrek: Well, I tried to present his views, in an event shorter form. Doesn’t mean I don’t see any problems here. The book is, obviously, full of shortcuts. As something popular all around the globe and widely discussed, it reminds me of H.G. Wells’ Outline of History, or Toffler, or, indeed, one of the authors Harari admits to having been influenced by – Jared Diamond. Such works get fashionable, provide food for thought for the thinking public, while often being sneered at by the experts. If the core of the argument is built up well enough, damned be the experts, masses need some simplifications. And I would argue that Harari’s perspective on our history is interesting enough to balance out his shortcomings.
Ola: Because there are shortcomings 😉 Shortcuts are the easiest way to produce them, I believe, and Harari had to take more than a few… The simplification can only go so far before it completely distorts the original image, and for me, as a sociologist, it is easiest to see in the way Harari deals with sociological issues, culture and religion. I cannot help but see the definition of religion that he proposes as perfectly serving his assumptions and confirming his theses, and I sorely feel the lack of the willingness to admit ignorance here 😛
But for me, ultimately, the biggest shortcoming of Sapiens doesn’t come from the shortcuts – it comes from the fact that he presents his personal views as fact. Examples? Here are just a few:
The history of ethics is a sad tale of wonderful ideals that nobody can live up to.
The state and the market are the mother and father of the individual, and the individual can survive only thanks to them.
Obviously, they are intended to be controversial and thought-provoking. But they are also a personal view dressed up as an axiom, and I much prefer these two to be separated.
Piotrek: Ultimately, I see Harari as a public intellectual arguing for a kind of future that I also happen to find attractive – at least, when compared to likely alternatives. He frames the past in a way that leads him to this vision, better explained in the next book, Homo Deus. Both books are not only a mix of history and futurology, but also a source material to the way of thinking that is quite influential in our world.
So, to sum up… it’s political, controversial, breathtaking, extremely readable – but it had to be, as Harari’s predecessor here were. It’s still a fresh, meticulously researched insight into our history, and author’s biases are not exactly hidden. I’ in awe and recommend it to everybody!
Ola: I might not be in awe, but I am definitely impressed 🙂 It’s a highly recommended read, inspiring, well written and thought provoking, giving us as a global audience a chance to better understand – and to discuss – not only where we come from, but also where we’re going next.