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Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind by Yuval Noah Harari – review

Human beings (members of the genus Homo) have existed for about 2.4m years. Homo sapiens, our own wildly egregious species of great apes, has only existed for 6% of that time – about 150,000 years. So a book whose main title is Sapiens shouldn’t be subtitled “A Brief History of Humankind”. It’s easy to see why Yuval Noah Harari devotes 95% of his book to us as a species: self-ignorant as we are, we still know far more about ourselves than about other species of human beings, including several that have become extinct since we first walked the Earth. The fact remains that the history of sapiens – Harari’s name for us – is only a very small part of the history of humankind.

Can its full sweep be conveyed in one fell swoop – 400 pages? Not really; it’s easier to write a brief history of time – all 14bn years – and Harari also spends many pages on our present and possible future rather than our past. But the deep lines of the story of sapiens are fairly uncontentious, and he sets them out with verve.

For the first half of our existence we potter along unremarkably; then we undergo a series of revolutions. First, the “cognitive” revolution: about 70,000 years ago, we start to behave in far more ingenious ways than before, for reasons that are still obscure, and we spread rapidly across the planet. About 11,000 years ago we enter on the agricultural revolution, converting in increasing numbers from foraging (hunting and gathering) to farming. The “scientific revolution” begins about 500 years ago. It triggers the industrial revolution, about 250 years ago, which triggers in turn the information revolution, about 50 years ago, which triggers the biotechnological revolution, which is still wet behind the ears. Harari suspects that the biotechnological revolution signals the end of sapiens: we will be replaced by bioengineered post-humans, “amortal” cyborgs, capable of living forever.

This is one way to lay things out. Harari embeds many other momentous events, most notably the development of language: we become able to think sharply about abstract matters, cooperate in ever larger numbers, and, perhaps most crucially, gossip. There is the rise of religion and the slow overpowering of polytheisms by more or less toxic monotheisms. Then there is the evolution of money and, more importantly, credit. There is, connectedly, the spread of empires and trade as well as the rise of capitalism.

Harari swashbuckles through these vast and intricate matters in a way that is – at its best – engaging and informative. It’s a neat thought that “we did not domesticate wheat. It domesticated us.” There was, Harari says, “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 a bad bargain: “the agricultural revolution was history’s biggest fraud”. More often than not it 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. Harari thinks we may have been better off in the stone age, and he has powerful things to say about the wickedness of factory farming, concluding with one of his many superlatives: “modern industrial agriculture might well be the greatest crime in history”.
He accepts the common view that the fundamental structure of our emotions and desires hasn’t been touched by any of these revolutions: “our eating habits, our conflicts and our sexuality are all a result of the way our hunter-gatherer minds interact with our current post-industrial environment, with its mega-cities, airplanes, telephones and computers … Today we may be living in high-rise apartments with over-stuffed refrigerators, but our DNA still thinks we are in the savannah.” He gives a familiar illustration – our powerful desires for sugar and fat have led to the widespread availability of foods that are primary causes of unhealthiness and ugliness. The consumption of pornography is another good example. It’s just like overeating: if the minds of pornography addicts could be seen as bodies, they would look just like the grossly obese.

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

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