Sapiens by Yuval Noah Harari is the best, most enjoyable and most depressing book I’ve read for ages. I’ll be thinking about this book for a long time.
The full title is Sapiens: A Brief History Of Humankind. It charts the course of humanity from our early days fossicking around as hunter gatherers to our current position as blithe conquerors of the planet. Harari weaves together a lot of familiar information in new ways that thrilled me, depressed me and terrified me all at once.
The thread of the book seems to be that our bumbling trajectory through history was inevitable. Sapiens doesn’t allow us much room for hope. Nevertheless, I finished the book determined to live a bit better in my own little way, whatever that may look like. At each sad or damning new point in the book I thought, we can do better than this. Overall, it made me want to be a better human.
How to be a better human?
I don’t actually know how to be a better human in way that is effective beyond my own small circles of influence. I am in despair about many things that our species has done and continues to do. I will probably look back on 2016 as the year I lost a lot of hope, particularly in terms of climate change and our impact on the natural world.
The answer is not to wind the clock back in some sort of idealised rejection of modern society. We can’t go back to hunting and gathering because our relationships with the land and our food sources have changed too much already. Besides, you can’t watch Doctor Who or play the piano as a hunter gatherer. (Civilisation isn’t all bad, is it?)
Reading Sapiens made me pause to appreciate what I have, not in terms of material comforts, but in terms of my friends and family. All the riches in the world can’t replace a happy marriage. The joy I get from watching my 8 year old doing a hilarious dance would be the same whether I lived in a mansion or a mud hut.
One thing I wasn’t expecting is that Sapiens has nudged me back to considering the subjective welfare of animals. I thought I had made peace with my meat-eating self, but that might be up for review again. Dammit.
It’s also made me think more about the way I eat, just in terms of variety of diet. Meh. I should probably learn to garden. Get my fingers back in the earth.
I’ll leave it there for now. The rest of this page is purely for my own scrappy note-taking. There are plenty of concise and insightful summaries elsewhere. (Here’s one by James Clear.) I needed to make my own notes to help me process what I’ve just read. Here goes…
Hey, cool: we weren’t the only humans
From 100,000 years ago until around 13,000 years ago there were at least 6 different species of human hunting and foraging around the planet. We weren’t the only ones. By 13,000 years ago homo sapiens – that’s us – were the only ones left. We won by interbreeding, genocide, or a bit of both. Plus some good survival skills thanks to our superpower.
Our superpower was the ability to create fiction
Neanderthals were pretty smart too, but they lacked our superpower. A neanderthal could say “careful, a lion” but a homo sapien could say “the lion is the spirit guardian of our tribe.” Common myths and imagined realities were the glue that helped us organise ourselves and cooperate in ever-increasingly large numbers.
Imagined realities? That’s right, we made everything up
When the author of Sapiens talks about imagined realities, he’s referring to things that would not exist unless humans had invented them. The development of our society relied on everyone accepting concepts like money, nations, religion, laws, human rights. These ideas hang together because we collectively choose to believe them even though they don’t exist as objective realities in the natural world.
It blows my mind to pause for a moment and go, huh, from a strict biological perspective speaking, there’s no such thing as a nation or human rights. Human rights are not something that exist in biology, they’re just a concept that we all agree to agree on. (This is a challenge to the argument for objective truth/morality.)
Thanks to this ability to invent abstract myths and concepts, we were able to change our own social behaviours very quickly, much faster than the sluggish pace of natural selection. As a result homo sapiens became the deadliest species on earth. We took over the globe at an exponential rate. Everywhere we went, plants and animals suffered. They continue to suffer, not through hate but through indifference. Many sections of the book made me feel sad and guilty. We’ve destroyed a huge amount of megafauna and biodiversity along the way. Did you know Australia used to have its own lion? A marsupial lion, with a pouch, no less! And America had native camels.
Agriculture wasn’t such a great idea
The agricultural revolution was effectively the invention of long working weeks, poverty, disease and poor nutrition. We didn’t domesticate wheat – it domesticated us. (An excellent companion book on this topic is The Story Of The Human Body.) But hey, agriculture was also the invention of society as we know it. I can hardly complain, sitting here at my computer with electricity, running water and classical music at my fingertips.
Agriculture, empires and scientific revolution made us what we are for better (comfy chairs, medicine, art…) and for worse (slavery, extinction of megafauna, miserable chickens, climate change…).
On the brink
We are now at the point where we could potentially change our own biology – if we don’t destroy the planet first. The problem is, as history suggests, we’re not particularly good at planning ahead. We don’t know what we want. We don’t even know what we want to want. We are driven by convenience and pleasure, at the cost of anyone and anything around us. We have stumbled blithely through history as all-powerful gods who never quite realise what we’re doing until it’s too late.
Final sentence of the book: “Is there anything more dangerous than dissatisfied and irresponsible gods who don’t know what they want?”
More scrappy notes on Sapiens
The Cognitive Revolution took place around 70,000 years ago. The big deal here was our ability to invent fiction. We were able to organise ourselves in increasingly large groups. To do that we needed to be able to cooperate in ways that exceeded our biological impulse. Put 1,000 chimpanzees in a room and you’ll get chaos. Put 1,000 people in a room and it’s very different. Why?
Everything from then on has been built upon imagined realities. Human imagination built networks of mass cooperation. Imagined orders.
Biologically there’s no such thing as human rights or the declaration of independence. We collectively agree to believe it. The imagined order is embedded into our world. eg individualism is built into our living spaces: a modern teenager has a bedroom with a door. This is a modern concept, quite different to medieval society.
Every person is born into a pre-existing imagined order.
- Objective: exists independently of human consciousness and beliefs, eg: radioactivity, gravity.
- Subjective: depends on the consciousness and beliefs of a single individual.
- Inter-subjective: exists in the shared imagination of millions, eg: law, money, gods, nations, human rights, companies, brands.
Invention of writing.
Because human social order is imagined, we can’t preserve copies of it in our DNA. How did humans organise themselves in networks of mass cooperation when we lacked the biological instincts to sustain such networks? We created imagined orders and invented scripts … writing – to store data outside of the brain.
The downside of all this was that it divided people into make-believe groups and hierarchies. Fear of pollution has biological roots (to avoid disease carriers) but was exploited in imagined hierarchies.
Biologically, nothing is unnatural. If it is possible it is natural. (No culture has ever forbidden women to run faster than the speed of light.)
Money is the greatest conqueror in history. Everyone needs to believe in money for it to work. It is the only trust system created by humans that can bridge almost any cultural gap. Osama Bin Laden railed against American but still believed in American dollars.
Hunter gatherers were the original affluent society. They lived on the road, roaming for food. Short working week. We know nothing about their lives so shouldn’t write them off.
Back and forth in their home territory. They had lots of knowledge of the natural world, in fact, evidence that their brains were bigger than ours. Were not dependent on a single food source, so had lots of variety, whereas farming produced an unbalanced, limited diet.
Hunter gatherers roamed in small bands that could not sustain epidemics. Most infectious diseases were transferred from domesticated animals to humans only after the Agricultural Revolution. ( Smallpox, measles, TB…)
We were the deadliest species. Everywhere homo sapiens went, megafauna went extinct. Could be a coincidence, but there’s definitely a consistent correlation.
Eg. Australia was the land of marsupials: animals that carry their young in a pouch. They had a marsupial lion, a giant 2 ton wombat and giant kangaroos. All disappeared about the same time hmans arrived 45,000 years ago. America had giant sloths, sabre-tooth cats, mammoths, native horses and camels. They also disappeared around the time humans arrived. (In Asia and Africa, megafauna evolved alongside humans so learned to be more wary.)
Invention of Agriculture: the luxury trap.
People worked harder. Number of children increased. More food was required. Limited diets. Weakened immune systems. Permanent settlements: hotbed for diseases. Reliance on single source of food. Vulnerable to drought and thieves. Human dependence on cereal cultivation. In a way, we didn’t domesticate wheat … wheat domesticated us!
Invention of agriculture meant that home turf shrunk from entire territory to small plot: artificial islands. We were stuck there, accumulating more things. This was the invention of worrying about the future.
Animals were big losers. Wild chickens life span: 7 – 12 years. Cattle life span: 20 – 25 years. Wild cattle roamed as herds with complex social structures. Mother/calf bond. Today domesticated animals get slaughtered for economic reasons. (Kill it as soon as it reaches optimum weight.) We treat domesticated animals like machines as though they have no subjective feelings or emotions.
Industry: everything becomes mechanised, even plants and animals, which stopped being viewed as living creatures and were instead treated like machines: devoid of sensations and emotions, incapable of suffering.
But animals still have subjective needs. Industry takes care of objective needs while neglecting their subjective needs. “A need shaped in the wild continues to be felt subjectively even if it is no longer really necessary for survival and reproduction.”
Empires rule over distinct peoples/cultural variety. Empires are a mix of good and bad – what is “authentic culture”? It’s impossible to isolate pure culture from imperial influences. Eg if you rail against the British Empire in India, you’re left with the Mughal Empire, which was a Muslim empire that took over the Gupta Empire, the Kushan empire, the Maurya empire …
“All cultures are at least in part the legacy of empires and imperial civilisations, and no academic or political surgery can cut out the imperial legacies without killing the patient.”
The arrow of history moves from local to global. History is heading towards a global empire.
Religion started off as animism.
- Animism: local (belief in a rock spirit, a tree spirit) Humans were just one of the many creatures in the world.
- Polytheism developed with the Agricultural Revolution. Saw the world as a reflection of the relationship between gods and humans. It effectively exalted humans as well as gods. Polytheistic religions have a supreme power or deity but usually devoid of interests and bias. People pray and deal with the partial gods, so there’s no conflict. I can bargin with my god of war and you can bargin with yours. I can bargin with my god of rain and you can bargin with your god of sun.
Polytheists didn’t usually try to convert others.
- Monotheism developed out of polytheism.
Just as animism survived under polytheism, so polytheism survived under monotheism, eg pantheon of Catholic saints.
Science was the discovery of ignorance, where we admitted we don’t know stuff. In science, everyone agrees that if new evidence emerges, theories need to be revised or discarded.
Science, colonialism and capitalism. Most new colonies were established by private companies, not governments. (eg British East India Company in India).
Slavery and animal cruelty were driven by money, purely economic enterprise. Not hate, but indifference to suffering. Free market, supply and demand. This is what happens when growth becomes the supreme ‘good’.
Capitalism was the invention of credit. Before credit, the pie remained the same size. With capitalism the pie is always growing.
Industry led to excess. The birth of consumerism. The opposite of most of history, where the poor were frugal and the rich were extravagant; now we buy buy buy. Supreme commandment of the rich is “invest!” Supreme commandment for the rest of us is “buy!” Accordingly, consumerism is the first religion in history whose followers actually do what they’re asked to do.
Objective happiness is the same, no matter where or when you were born.
“Mud huts, penthouses and the Champs-Elysees don’t really determine our mood. Serotonin does. When the medieval peasant completed the construction of his mud hut, his brain neurons secreted serotonin, bringing it up to level X. When in 2014 the banker made the last payment on his wonderful penthouse, brain neurons secreted a similar amount of serotonin, bringing it up to a similar level X. It makes no different to the brain that the penthouse is far more comfortable than the mud hut. The only thing that matters is that at present the level of serotonin is X.”
Towards a new species of human:
– tinkering with our genes, a super race, an objective hierarchy.
– inorganic life; a computer brain – would it still by definition by homo sapiens?
What do we want to become?
What do we want to want?