Sapiens - A Brief History of Humankind
by Yuval Noah Harari 2015
Book Review by Ray Herrmann
History seems to evolve like life itself: chaotic, locally unpredictable and with disregard for individual constituents. Initially, we Sapiens had a lot of close relatives. Homo erectus survived almost 500,000 years (the longest surviving relative), but it is doubtful that Homo sapiens will last another thousand years (explanation given near the end).
Other close relatives were Homo neanderthalenis, Homo denisovan, homo rudolfensis, Homo ergaster and perhaps others. I'll summarize the book by listing roughly sequential facts as presented by the author (But I hardly do him justice to skip so much that's necessary for intrepetation. I have left soooo much out.)
A very plausible early History of Sapiens:
- By 150,000 years ago, Sapiens looked identical to us, but world wide, there were still no more than about a million of us.
- By 300,000 years ago Homo Sapiens and Homo Erectus (and perhaps others) were using fire.
- Our own quick rise to the top of the food chain (100,000 years) did not leave us time to adapt.
- About 70,000 years ago, Sapiens (Homo sapiens) spread out from East Africa.
- The Cognitive Revolution (70,000 to 30,000 years ago), Is believed to mark an accidental genetic mutation which changed the inner wiring of our brains. This mutation is believed to be in language enhancement. Whereas many creatures communicate through language, we deepened our ability to "gossip", to know who can be trusted and thus to form larger bands of cooperation. This also gave us the ability to communicate about things that do not exist (Legends, Myths, Gods …)! As will be shown, it is this ability to believe in Myths that both unites and drives our cultures.
- Humans remained weak and marginalized for about 2 million years. But what gave us our advantage was this Cognitive Revolution. We could not only imagine things but could imagine collectively.
- Thereby, we were able to cooperate to build boats and we even could imagine sailing off in search of distant lands! Probably most people never came back, but still many tried.
- All Homo species had a large Brain case (Homo erectus' Braincase was even larger than ours)). Large Brains require a large energy supply (ours consume 25% of body energy at rest)
- Cooking food freed up nutrients we could not otherwise absorb (Chimps spend 5 hours a day chewing, but we need only 1 hour).
- Humans had migrated to Australia 45,000 years ago and by 12,000 years ago, to Alaska and North & South America.
- …and every place Sapiens settled was quickly followed by mass extinctions of large animals!
- Homo neanderthalenis disappeared 30,000 years ago, Homo denisova disappeared 50,000 years ago.
The Agricultural Revolution (12,000 years ago). For 2.5 million years, we had fed ourselves as hunter-gathers. Then we began to sow seeds, to water plants, to pull weeds, and to lead sheep to pastures (which we probably used fire to clear):
- We domesticated Wheat and Goats by 9000 BC, (Peas & Lentils by 8000 BC, Olive Trees by 5000 BC, Horses by 4000 BC, Grape Vines by 3500 BC).
- Most animals can't be domesticated (They are either too rare or too ferocious).
- Farmers became tied to their lands as they had to till, plant, water, watch over and fence-in their animals while keeping out predators.
- Yet the diet of Hunter-gatherers was better than that of farmers, because Hunter-gatherers ate a variety, while Farmers became dependent on a few crops (a later inducement to develop an efficient means of exchange).
- Still, Farmers were able to pool and trade their harvest and thus support larger populations. Luxuries became necessities as the population grew with the food supply.
- Settlements grew from a few hundred people, into villages, into towns and finally into cities. By 7000 BC a town had 5,000 to 10,000 people. But this rapid growth did not allow enough time for an instinct of mass-cooperation to evolve.
- Formation of Kingdoms: The First Egyptian King was in 3,100 BC. Pharaohs ruled thousands of square miles and hundreds of thousands of people.
Money existed long before the invention of coinage. Cowry Shells were used as money for about 4000 years all over Africa, South Asia, East Asia and Oceania. (12,000 years ago).
- Money is a myth that works because everybody believes in it: Everyone always wants Money because everyone else always wants money!
- Money simplified the exchange of value without having to find a person with which to barter.
- Today, more than 90% of all money (over $60 Trillion) exists only on computer servers.
Formation of Empires (First about 2250 BC) Represented a shared National Consciousness (shared myths). Multitudes functioned as a single political unit and their work was coordinated toward common goals.
- Between 1000 BC and 500 BC the first mega-empires appeared in the Middle east.
- As late as 1,400 AD the vast majority of farmers along with their plants were clustered in an area of just 4.25 million sq. miles (2% Earth surface), because every where else was too cold, too hot, too dry or too wet or otherwise unsuited for cultivation.
- Culture: A network of artificial instincts that enabled millions of strangers to cooperate effectively.
- As the size and complexity of Agricultural communities grew, the first written "languages" (partial Scripts) were developed by accountants, as a way to tally and document harvests and taxes. Talley's were written on clay tablets which were organized and stored in huge rooms.
- From 3000 BC to 2500 BC, more signs were added to scripts, eventually becoming a full script, called Cuneiform.
Religion: A system of human norms and values that is founded on a belief of Superhuman order. Founded on two distinct criteria:
1) Religions hold that there is a Superhuman order which is not the product of human whims or agreements.
2) Based on Superhuman order, religion establishes norms and values that it considers binding.
But, the need to unite a large expanse of territory inhabited by disparate groups of people requires two more qualities (so it is perceived as legitimate).:
3) Religion must espouse a universal Superhuman order that is true always and everywhere.
4) Religion must insist on spreading this belief everywhere (reinforces legitimacy and truth).
- Theist religions focus on the worship of God.
- Examples of Theistic religions are: Islam, Christianity.
- Examples of Natural-Law religions are Liberalism, Communism, Capitalism, Nazism.
- Humanist religions believe that homo sapiens are the most important and are separate from all other life forms, which exist solely for our benefit.
- Over the past 100,000 years Homo sapiens has grown so accustomed to be the only human species, which makes it easier to imagine that we are the epitome of creation.
The Scientific Revolution of the last 500 years has led to a phenomenal increase in growth of human power. Modern Science differs from previous traditions in 3 ways:
1) A willingness to admit ignorance (so we will seek more understanding).
2) The centrality of observation and math (a mechanism of documenting knowlege).
3) The acquisition of new powers (comes with developing understandings).
- While pre-modern Rulers gave money to Priests, Philosophers and Poets in hopes that they would legitimize their power and maintain social order, modern leaders (governments) give money to Scientists in hopes that they would invent new weapons or stimulate economic growth (without Funds, Darwin would have gotten nowhere).
- The Scientific Revolution and Imperialism were inseparable. The discovery of a cure for scurvy greatly contributed to British control of the worlds oceans (previously half the sailors died in route).
- The James Cook expeditions laid the foundation for British occupation of many Islands in the Pacific Ocean as well as Australia, Tasmania and New Zealand.
- Until the 20th century, one fourth to one third of children in agricultural societies died before adulthood.
- While Asians focused on conquering adjoining lands, Europeans (equipped with an appreciation of the unknown and with its developing technology) were able to conquer far off lands. The British were used to thinking in a scientific and capitalist way.
Capitalism: Credit enables us to build the present at the expense of the future.
- Banks are allowed to loan out 10 times the money they have in reserve, which CREATES Money! [A simplified Example: • A Contractor is paid $1 million for a job. • He deposits it in a Bank, which now has $1 million in capital. • A lady has a dream of building a Bakery, but has no money. • She convinces the bank to loan her $1 million. • Then she hires that contractor to build the Bakery for $1 million and pays him with a check. • The Contractor deposits this second $1 million in the bank, so he now has $2 million in the bank. • The Bakery is successful, so the lady pays off the loan. • The Bank still has only the original $1 million in the bank, but the contractor now has $2 million in that bank(credit) …and society has another bakery.]
- Over the last 500 years, the idea (belief / myth) of "progress" has convinced people to put more and more trust on the future.
- Crucial to Capitalism is the emergence of a new ethic: Profits should be Invested. Capitalism is based on continual growth (its ultimate flaw).
Investing and Stocks: The power of capitalist greed. As Banks started issuing "Credit" the ensuing growth convinced people to "invest" some of their money in businesses that showed promise, anticipating a return on their investment. This expectation motivated companies to show more profits in order to attract more investors (growth begets growth). Hence, the Europeans moved toward "Joint-Stock" companies.
- Nobody wants to pay Taxes, but everyone is happy to Invest!
- Capital trickles away from dictatorial States and toward States that uphold the rule-of-law, because of a lower "trust" in the former.
- Banks became the major powers in the World as governments worked to nourish them and thus to maintain growth and appease the populace.
Rise in Slavery: Slavery was almost unknown in Christian Europe until modern Capitalism.
- People invested in Sugar or Banana companies anticipating profits. But to maximize profits, these companies turned to Slavery. Most investors did not even know that they were enabling this Slavery! (a Human tendency to look only as far as their profits!)
- Growing public awareness has mostly eliminated human slavery, but what about animals?
- Just as the Atlantic Slave trade did not stem from hatred toward Africans, so the modern animal industry is not motivated my animosity; it is fueled by indifference.
- Mechanized animal farms ignore the complex sensory and emotional makeup of mammals and birds (Priority is low cost and taste).
- Tolerance is not a sapiens trademark. In modern times a small difference in skin color, dialect or religion has been enough to prompt one group of sapiens to set out to exterminate another group.
Happiness: (defined as Subjective Well-being): Today, most of us enjoy a stable food supply, housing and creature comforts unheard of in the past. Yet are we happier? Understanding the importance of human expectations has far-reaching implications for understanding the history of Happiness.
- Happiness seems to be a biological state that we are born with (driven by serotonin or dopamine). Studies have indicated that some people are inherently happier than others and while we all experience periods of more or less happiness, we tend to pivot about some personal set point.
- • Studies indicate that ancient Sapiens were probably no happier than us moderns.
Our Future: We are on the cusp of incredible advances in technology and medicine. Technology is freeing us from the constraints of Natural Evolution. …We are becoming gods!
- Biological engineering is a deliberate human intervention on the biological level aimed at modifying an organism's shape, capabilities, needs or desires in order to realize some cultural idea.
- Already, we are able to "design" plants and some animals to better serve our wishes.
- Too many opportunities are opening up too quickly and our ability to modify genes is outpacing our ability to make wise and far-sighted decisions.
- Already, we have put Fish genes in Potatoes, Worm genes in Pigs, Genetic Engineered Cows so their milk makes a chemical toxic to certain bacteria. The French made a Fluorescent-Green Rabbit(named Alba)!
- With our new-found powers, there is already talk of resurrecting the Mammoths by recovering their genes and impregnating a surrogate elephant. Some have proposed also restoring a Neanderthal.
- A wayward Chinese Scientist (Dr He jiankui) has brought two human babies to life with genes he modified. He was sentenced to 3 years in prison, but will that stop others?
- There is pressure to tinker with our own genes, not only to cure diseases, but to "improve" features like intelligence, looks, strength, longevity and even eye color.
- Tinkering with our own genes won't necessarily kill us, but we might fiddle to such an extent that we are no longer Homo sapiens.
- Then there are the implantable "cyborg" devices (we now have Pacemakers, Eye Lenses, and Ear implants). In development are bionic limbs and coming soon are longer lasting direct brain-electronic interfaces. We stand poised on the brink of having inorganic features that affect our abilities, desires, personalities and identities.
- There is a current project to devise a direct two-way human-computer interface that will allow computers to read the electrical impulses of our brain and to transmit signals that we can read. What happens to the concept of the self when minds become a collective?
- Completely inorganic beings: We are working to develop computer programs that can undergo independent evolution (a prototype example is a computer virus).
The Animal that became a God: We are more powerful than ever, but have very little idea what to do with that power. Sapiens regime on earth has so far produced little that we can be proud of. We have mastered our surroundings, increased food production, built cities, established empires, and created far-flung trade networks. But did we decrease the amount of suffering in the world? Time and again massive increases in human power did not necessarily improve the well-being of individual sapiens and usually caused immense misery to other animals.
The book ends with: "We are wreaking havoc on our fellow animals and surrounding ecosystem, seeking little more than our own comfort and amusement. Yet never finding satisfaction. Is there anything more dangerous than dissatisfied and irresponsible gods who don't know what they want?"
The above items were taken from the book, but they do not do justice to the cohesive case the author makes as he explains, not how we adapted, but why we made the adjustments we did. To truly understand all the author's claims you have to read the book!.
This book was very well written and should be recommended reading for sociology and history students as well as for those who want to find a plausible, comprehensive history of mankind all in one place.