Yuval Noah Harari's remarkable Sapiens: a brief history of mankind left me deeply disturbed. I bow in sincere admiration for the historian's work: he explains human evolution in a brilliant and compelling way. For those who have not read it, go for it!
Below I have gathered some quotes that impacted me most.
How did it happen that what 150,000 years ago was just another species somewhere in East Africa has become the dominant being in this world?
What were the drivers of this dominance?
What were the collateral damages of this 'success story’?
And what does this leave us with today?
The rise of homo sapiens came with the extinction of the others
- Back then there were other human species, e.g. Neanderthals, Denisovans; but the homo sapiens, were more proficient hunters and gatherers – thanks to their better technology and superior social skills – they multiplied and spread. And as sapiens settled all over the world they drove the other human species to extinction. Over the last 10,000 years, homo sapiens has grown so accustomed to being the only human species that it’s hard for us to conceive of any other possibility and it has become easier to imagine that we are the epitome of creation, and that a chasm separates us from the rest of the animal kingdom.
- As homo sapiens spread around the world, the species is holding the record among all organisms for driving the most plant and animal species to their extinction. We have the dubious distinction of being the deadliest species in the annals of biology.
The cognitive revolution laid the basis for the rise of homo sapiens
- Language has been a key driver of human evolution. The truly unique feature of our language is not its ability to transmit information about men and lions. Rather, it’s the ability to transmit information about things that do not exist at all. Legends, myths, gods and religions appeared for the first time with the cognitive revolution (about 70,000 ago).
- Since the cognitive revolution humans have been living in a dual reality: on the one hand there was the objective reality of rivers, trees, lions, weather; and on the other hand the imagined realities of gods, nations, and corporations. Nation states, stocks, money, religion, property, conventions and commandments are all products or our mind; they are not natural realities.
- The immense diversity of imagined realities that Sapiens invented and the resulting diversity of behaviour patterns, are the main components of what we call ‘cultures’.<
The lost paradise?
- Genetically and neurobiologically we are hunters and gatherers, or foragers. Our ancestors lived in communities devoid of private property, monogamous relationships and even fatherhood. In such a band, a woman could have sex and form intimate bonds with several men (and women) simultaneously, and all of the band’s adults cooperated in parenting its children. Since no man knew definitely which of the children were his, men showed equal concern for all youngsters.
- Members of the band knew each other very intimately, and were surrounded through their lives by friends and relatives. Loneliness and privacy were rare.
- The human collective today knows far more than did the ancient band. But at the individual level, ancient foragers were the most knowledgeable and skilful people in history. There is evidence that the size of the average Sapiens brain has actually decreased since the age of foraging. Survival in that era required superb mental abilities form everyone.
- Foragers only hunted one out of three days, and gathering took up just three to six hours per day. This left them with plenty of time to socialise, tell stories, play with children, and just hang out.
- Foragers were generally taller and healthier than their peasant descendant. Their varied diet and natural life styles allowed them of reaching the age of sixty, and some even made it to their eighties.
- The wholesome and varied diet, the relatively short working week, and the rarity of infectious diseases have led many experts to define the pre-agricultural forager societies as ‘the original affluent societies’.
The agricultural revolution was a trap
- About 10,000 years ago Sapiens began to devote almost all their time and effort to manipulating the lives of a few animals and plant species. From sunrise to sunset humans sowed seeds, watered plants, plucked weeds from the ground and led sheep to prime pastures. This work, they thought, would provide them with more fruit, grain and meat. It was a revolution in the way humans lived – the agricultural revolution.
- The agricultural revolution left farmers with lives generally more difficult and less satisfying than those of foragers. Hunter-Gathers 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 explosion and pampered elites. The agricultural revolution was history’s biggest fraud.
- The body of homo sapiens had not evolved for such tasks. It was adapted to climbing apple trees and running after gazelles, not to clearing rocks and carrying water buckets. Human spines, knees, necks and arches paid the price.
- The culprits where a handful of plant species, including wheat, rice and potatoes. These plants domesticated homo sapiens, rather than vice versa. According to the basic evolutionary criteria of survival and reproduction, wheat has become one of the most successful plants in the history of the earth.
- A diet based on cereals is poor in minerals and vitamins, hard to digest, and really bad for your teeth and gums. The essence of the agricultural revolution though was to keep more people alive under worse conditions.
- Today the world contains about a billion sheep, a billion pigs, more than a billion cattle and more than 25 billion chickens. From a narrow evolutionary perspective, which measures success by the number of DNA copies, the agricultural revolution was a wonderful boost for chickens, cattle, pigs and sheep. However, it judges everything by the criteria of survival and reproduction, with no regard for the individual suffering and happiness. Domesticated chickens and cattle may well be an evolutionary success story, but they are also among the most miserable creatures that ever lived. The natural life span of wild chickens is about seven to twelve years, and of cattle about twenty to twenty five years. In contrast, the vast majority of domesticated chickens and cattle are slaughtered at the age of between a few weeks and a few months. Not even mentioning their living conditions prior to their slaughtering.
- The discrepancy between evolutionary success and individual suffering is perhaps the most important lesson we can draw from the agricultural revolution.
- This was the turning point for humanity. Around 10,000 BC, before the transition to agriculture, earth was home to 5-8 million nomadic foragers. By the first century AD, only 1-2 million foragers remained (mainly in Australia, America and Africa), but their numbers were dwarfed by the world’s 250 million farmers.
From natural order to imagined order
- As the agricultural revolution opened opportunities for the creation of crowded cities and mighty empires, people invented stories about great gods, motherlands and joint stock companies to provide the needed social links. While human evolution was crawling at its usual snail’s pace, the human imagination was building astounding networks of mass collaboration, unlike any other ever seen on earth.
- How do you cause people to believe in an imagined order such as religion, democracy or capitalism? Frist you never admit that the order is imagined. You always insist that the order sustaining society is an objective reality created by the great gods or by the laws of nature. You also educate people thoroughly. From the moment they are born, you constantly remind them of the principles of the imagined order which are incorporated into anything and everything.
- The subjective order is not a subjective order existing in my own imagination – it is rather an inter-subjective order, existing in the shared imagination of thousands and millions of people.
- The dollar, human rights, and the United States of America exist in the shared imagination of billions, and no single individual can threaten their existence.
- The imagined orders where neither neutral nor fair; they divided people into make-believe groups, arranged in a hierarchy. With at times cruel divisions, think of slavery, the cast system in India, Apartheid, ghettos and holocaust etc.
- People everywhere have divided themselves into men and women. And almost everywhere men have got the better deal, at least since the agricultural revolution.
Our world is based on stories, myths and legends
- After the agricultural revolution, human societies grew ever larger and more complex, while the imagined constructs sustaining the social order also became more elaborate. Myths and fictions accustomed people, nearly from birth, to think in certain ways, to behave in accordance with certain standards, to want certain things, and to observe certain rules. They thereby created artificial instincts (as opposed to natural instincts) that enabled millions of strangers to cooperate effectively. This network of artificial instincts is called ‘culture’.
- The first universal order to appear was economic: the monetary order. Money isn’t a material reality – it is a psychological construct. It works by converting matter into mind. Trust is the raw material from which all types of money are minted. Money is the most universal and most efficient system of mutual trust ever devised.
- For thousands of years, philosophers, thinkers and prophets have besmirched money and called it the root of all evil. Be that as it may, money is also the apogee of human tolerance. Money is more open-minded than language, state laws, cultural does, religious beliefs and social habits. Money is the only trust system created by humans that can bridge almost any cultural gap, and that does not discriminate on the basis of religion, gender, race, age or sexual orientation.
- The second universal order was political: the imperial order. Empires have played a decisive part in amalgamating many small cultures into fewer big cultures. Ideas, people, goods and technology spread more easily within the borders of an empire than in a politically fragmented region. Think of China, the Roman Empire, the Aztecs, the Osmanian and British Empire.
- The third universal order was religious: the order of universal religions such as Buddhism, Christianity and Islam. Today religion is often considered a source of discrimination, disagreement and disunion. Yet, in fact, religion has been the third great unifier of humankind, alongside money and empires. Since all social orders and hierarchies are imagined, they are all fragile, and the larger the society, the more fragile it is. The crucial historical role of religion has been to give superhuman legitimacy to these fragile structures. Religions assert that our laws are not the result of human caprice, but are ordained by an absolute and supreme authority.
…we are living in accelerating mode…
- The last 500 years have witnessed a phenomenal and unprecedented growth in human power. In the year 1,500, there were about 500 million homo sapiens in the entire world. Today, there are 7 billion. While human population increased fourteen fold, production grew 240-fold, and energy consumption grew 115-fold.
- During the last five centuries, humans increasingly came to believe that they could increase their capabilities by investing in scientific research. Modern science differs from previous traditions of knowledge in three critical ways:
- the willingness to admit ignorance
- the centrality of observation and mathematics (Newton showed that the book of nature is written in the language of mathematics)
- the acquisition of new powers/technologies
- Science, industry and military technology intertwined only with the advent of the capitalist system and the industrial revolution. Once this relationship was established, however, it quickly transformed the world.
- What made Europe the leading force in the early modern period that enabled it to dominate the late modern world? The combination of modern science and capitalism. Europe and Europeans no longer rule the world, but science and capital are growing ever stronger.
- The idea of progress is built on the notion that if we admit our ignorance and invest resources in research, things can improve.
- Without the industrialisation of agriculture the urban industrial revolution could never have taken place – there would not have been enough hands and brains to staff factories and offices.
- For the first time in history, supply began to outstrip demand. And an entirely new problem was born: who is going to buy all this stuff. A new kind of ethic appeared: consumerism.
…and it came at a cost…
- As the world was moulded to fit the needs of homo sapiens, habitats where destroyed and species went extinct. Our once green and blue planet is becoming a concrete and plastic shopping centre.
- If you took all 7 billion sapiens on a large set of scales, their combined mass would be about 300 million tons. If you then took all our domesticated farmyard animals – cows, pigs, sheep and chickens – on such scales their combined mass would be 700 million tons. In contrast, the combined mass of all surviving large wild animals – from porcupines and penguins, to whales and elephants – is less than 100 million tons.
- Ecological turmoil might endanger the survival of homo sapiens itself. Many call this process ‘the destruction of nature’. But it is not real destruction, it’s change. Nature cannot be destroyed. 65 million years ago, an asteroid wiped out the dinosaurs, but in doing opened the way forward for mammals. Today, humankind is driving many species into extinction and might even annihilate itself. But other organisms are doing quite well. Rats and cockroaches, for example, are in their heyday. Perhaps 65 million years from now, intelligent rats will look back gratefully on the decimation wrought by humankind..
- The industrial revolution brought about dozens of major upheavals in human society. Adapting to industrial time is just one of them. Other notable examples include urbanisation, the disappearance of the peasantry, the rise of industrial proletariat, the empowerment of the common person, democratisation, youth culture and the disintegration of patriarchy. Yet all these upheavals are dwarfed by the most momentous social revolution that ever befell humankind: the collapse of the family and the local community and their replacement by the state and the market. Prior to the industrial revolution most people worked in the family business – the family farm or the family workshop, for example, or they worked in their neighbours' family businesses. The family was also the welfare system, the health system, the education system, the construction industry, the trade union, the pension fund, the insurance company, the radio, the television, the newspapers, the bank and even the police.
- The state and the market approached people with an offer that could not be refused: ‘become individuals’.
- Millions of years of evolution have designed us to live and think as community members. Within a mere two centuries we have become alienated individuals. Nothing testifies better to the awesome power of culture – i.e. an imagined order.
- Like the family, the community could not be completely disappearing from our world without any emotional replacement. The two most important examples of the rise of ‘imagined communities’ are the nation and the consumer tribe. Consumerism and nationalism work extra hours to make us imagine that millions of strangers belong to the same community as ourselves, that we all have a common past, common interests and a common future. This isn’t a lie. It’s imagination. Like money, limited liability corporations and human rights, nations and consumer tribes are inter-subjective realities. They only exist in our collective imagination, yet their power is immense.
- Evolution moulded our minds and bodies to the life of hunter-gatherers. The transition first to agriculture and then to industry has condemned us to living unnatural lives that cannot give full expression to our inherent inclinations and instincts, and therefore cannot satisfy our deepest yearnings.
- The main question is whether people know the truth about themselves. What evidence do we have that people today understand this truth any better than ancient foragers?
As mentioned above this book left me deeply puzzled. While it helped me understand better ‘how we could do this?’, it leaves me with profound concerns about our future on this planet.
Just as I board a plane I read a short article that Stephen Hawking predicts that we have less than 100 years on this planet before pandemics, nature catastrophes, war or other will extinct humankind, hence his and other peoples' interest in finding new homes in space. Harari himself offers some guidance in his new book ‘Homo Deus’.
I fear that consumerism and nationalism will not help address the human challenge.
Personally, I will start by creating more spaces to relate with and to live our human nature. Be out there, wandering and wondering. I am compelled by the idea of small groups of human beings, aligned behind a common purpose, relating with solidarity and compassion, each one contributing his or her respective strengths, including a varied and healthy diet, movement, and time for socialising, rituals and hanging out.