Wednesday, November 22, 2017

Yuval Noah Harari, "Sapiens. A Brief History of Humanity"

 – Kindle Edition, Vintage Digital, 2014, 466 p. ASIN B00K7ED54M

Read from October 26th to November 15th 2017

My rating:

The amazing book of Yuval Noah Harari, Sapiens. A Brief History of Humanity, could be summed up in two images: the one that reminds us, from the very first pages, of our not-so-noble origins:

Just 6 million years ago, a single female ape had two daughters. One became the ancestor of all chimpanzees, the other is our own grandmother.

And the one that ends the book with the not-so-flattering description of a petulant, overbearing humanity:

Is there anything more dangerous than dissatisfied and irresponsible gods who don’t know what they want?

In between, our not-so-glorious (hi)story, built solely on cruelty and destruction.

The unfortunate (for all the other beings on our planet but also for itself) tale of Homo Sapiens began some 70,000 years ago, when took place the first of the three revolutions that would shape its history: The Cognitive Revolution (The Agricultural Revolution would follow about 12,000 years ago and The Scientific Revolution, about 500,000 years ago). It was caused, according to some theories, by an accidental genetic mutation that “changed the inner wiring of the brains of Sapiens, enabling them to think in unprecedented ways and to communicate using an altogether new type of language. We might call it the Tree of Knowledge mutation.”

This “new type of language” was not used only for essential utilities anymore (for signalling a danger or announcing that there is food nearby, like in the case of other animals), but also to speak about the others and about things and entities that cannot be touched, seen or smelled. This gossip theory could easily explain their ability to cooperate, to form much bigger groups than other animals (a chimpanzee troop consists of about twenty to fifty individuals), for all inhabited a dual world – the natural one and the imaginary one – and believed in the same myths, either religious, juridical or political.

Was it the same “wiring of the brains” that gave Sapiens their unique talent for destruction, too? Maybe, because they showed it from the dawn of time, by decimating all the other human species – Homo neanderthalensis, Homo erectus, Homo soloensis, Homo floresiensis, etc.

Next in line were animals. Some 45,000 years ago, Sapiens navigated to Australia, where they irreversibly changed the ecosystem, killing, in a few thousand years, almost 90% of the continent’s megafauna: giants kangaroos and koalas, marsupial lions, giant lizards and snakes, diprotodons (a two-and-a-half-ton wombat), and so on. How did they manage to do this? There are three explanations that do not exclude each other: because the killings were faster than breeding (which is slow for large animals); because they burnt vast areas to create grasslands; and because of the climate change (but in the absence of humans they had survived the others).

The same “ecological serial killer” took care of the large mammals in North America where thirty-four out of its forty-seven genera were lost and in South America, where fifty out of sixty disappeared within 2000 years of the humans’ arrival.

At the time of the Cognitive Revolution, the planet was home to about 200 genera of large terrestrial mammals weighing over fifty kilograms. At the time of the Agricultural Revolution, only about a hundred remained. Homo sapiens drove to extinction about half of the planet’s big beasts long before humans invented the wheel, writing or iron tools.

And of course, they did not stop there, for every revolution had its own extinction wave: therefore, the extinction initiated by the foragers would be continued by the farmers and by the industrial activity.

After conquering new lands by eliminating its ugly inhabitants, Sapiens were ready for a change in their modus vivendi, too. The foragers accidentally discovered how to grow plants and settled down: thus began the Agricultural Revolution called by Harari “history’s biggest fraud” for it was a “luxury trap” that worsened the life of humans instead of bettering it: the average farmer had to work much harder than the forager, hoeing and ploughing, weeding, watering and fertilizing, developed aches and diseases (bad back, arthritis, hernias, etc.), had more children to feed (around 13,000 BC in Jericho, Palestine there were about a hundred well-nourished foragers, around 8500 BC there were about 1000 malnourished farmers) and became even more violent because he had to protect the land and the harvest. However people couldn’t return to forage days because they were too many and because this way of life had been the same for generations.

Little by little, farmers discovered how to domesticate chickens and cattle, and the gene of cruelty showed again, teaching them how to put savage animals into cages, how to bind and leash, whip and castrate them. Even nowadays, when scientific studies have incontestably demonstrated that animals suffer both physical and emotional distress, cattle are still some of the most miserable animals that ever existed on planet Earth.

The domestication of animals was founded on a series of brutal practices that only became crueller with the passing of the centuries.

Therefore. Eliminating other species of potentially menacing humans – check. Killing giant and potentially dangerous animals – check. Domesticating and imprisoning potentially useful ones – check. It was time now for Sapiens to take care of their own backyard, to organize their society.  And what better tool for it than hierarchy, strengthened by convincing myths?

Two of the best-known myths, the Code of Hammurabi and The Declaration of Independence, although separated by exactly a millennium (1776 BC, the first, 1776 AD the second) strangely share the same principles and values: both claim to be written in the name of God(s), both promise to bring justice for all. Both establish a social hierarchy, explicit in Hammurabi’s that divides Baylonian society in three classes, superior people, commoners and slaves and implicit in the Declaration that simply suggests that men are above women, whites above coloured, and riches above poor.

Hierarchies serve an important function. They enable complete strangers to know how to treat one another without wasting the time and energy needed to become personally acquainted.

If natural order is stable (gravity exists even though you don’t know about it) human order is not because it depends on myths that vanish when people cease to believe in them; but people are educated to think that the imagined order is a natural one and are prevented from realising it exists only in their imagination by the fact that it is embedded in the material world, taking the shape of our desires (the desire to travel is not natural but programmed; consumerism makes us buy things we don’t really need) and linking the subjective consciousness of people.

It seems that all human cultures are full of what is called “cognitive dissonance”, holding contradictory beliefs and incompatible values. A good example is religion, either old or new: the monotheistic religion eliminated competition, but the saints replaced the polytheistic gods (the chief goddess of Celtic Ireland, Brigid, will become St. Brigit, the most revered saint in Catholic Ireland); it couldn’t satisfactory explain the presence of evil in the world; in the name of peaceful Christ were committed massacres; etc.

In the last 300 years, old religion was replaced by equally contradictory natural-law religions (which call themselves ideologies): communism, capitalism, liberalism, nationalism and Nazism. Communism strongly opposed religion but had its own gods (Marx, Engels and Lenin), holy script (The Capital), and heretics (the Trotskyism). Capitalism, although it brought morality to the rich (whose “capital” invested benefited the others as well) seems to be more beneficial for society than for the individual. Finally, humanist religions worship humanity but because they could not agree upon the definition of it, they split in three: liberal humanism, believing in human rights, in the free and sacred nature of each individual; socialist humanism, believing in the collective, not individual humanity; evolutionary humanism, or Nazism, believing in the evolution of the humankind and protecting the Aryan race.

Anyway, it is obvious that the dynamics of history are not directed towards enhancing human well-being, and there are theories to prove it: for example, the memetics theory, which says that culture is a parasite that infects humanity by replicating its cultural information (called memes) the same way genes replicate organic information, with no regard for humanity (ex. the infection with nationalism in the 19th and 20th centuries) and the game theory, which demonstrates that views and behaviours that harm all players in a multi-player system spread inexorably (ex. arms races that bankrupt every player without changing the military balance: everyone continues to buy the weapon the others bought).

And here we come to the last and even more potent revolution: the scientific one, beginning around 1500, when humanity became aware of progress (until then they did not invest in discoveries, only took care to maintain the existing knowledge). For the first time, science admitted ignorance, learned to centralize information to obtain new knowledge and began to acquire new technologies. One of its main priorities is the Gilgamesh Project – the eternal life. To succeed, Sapiens dared break the laws of natural selection creating new species, cloning existing ones, reconstructing Neanderthal DNA to implant it into a Sapiens ovum etc. This intelligent design is only one step away from producing superhumans. In fact, we are already more or less bionic, depending on “devices such as eyeglasses, pacemakers, orthotics, and even computers and mobile phones (which relieve our brains of some of their data storage and processing burdens). We stand poised on the brink of becoming true cyborgs, of having inorganic features that are inseparable from our bodies, features that modify our abilities, desires, personalities and identities.”

The frenzy of the progress has not, however, stopped the destruction and the cruelty. We are still torturing animals, we are still carelessly destroying ecosystems, we are still happily killing each other. If I recall correctly, the author says somewhere that the human damage would never be thorough, because nature is indestructible. I wish I could share his belief, but as I see it, humanity is a cancer that has spread inexorably and menaces to leave Earth “a pebble in the sky”.  If the Human Brain Project, founded in 2005, which wants o recreate the human brain inside a computer, succeeds, maybe the artificial intelligence will take over. And maybe, after a thorough analysis, it will decide to cure Earth. And it will be exactly what we deserve, no more, no less. 

PS My reading was gloomy, despite the optimistic tone of the author who always tried to show both sides of the coin. However, to leave in a more cheerful tone, here are some interesting and sometimes amusing information:

  • discovering cooking shortened human beings’ intestines decreasing their energy consumption (a chimpanzee chews five hours a day raw food – a human only one hour);
  •  the Arabic numerals were in fact invented by the Hindus (but it was the Arabs who spread it);
  • money represents the apogee of human tolerance: we do not trust the stranger, but we trust his money 😀;
  •  history cannot be explained by determinism and cannot be predicted because it is a ‘level two’ chaotic system (a level one is chaos that cannot react to prediction like the weather, a level two reacts to it, so it can never be accurately predicted, like politics);
  • it was Daoist alchemists who accidentally  invented the gunpowder by searching for the elixir of life. They used it only for firecrackers and only 600 years later it was used for canons;
  • once, companies could fight and own lands, like the Dutch West Indies Company (WIC), that  built a settlement called New Amsterdam on an island at the Hudson river’s mouth. The British captured it in 1664 and changed its name to New York. On the remains of the wall built by WIC to defend its colony against Indians and British is today paved Wall Street;
  •  the First Opium War, between Britain and China (1840–42) broke out because the Chinese government, after seeing millions of Chinese becoming addicts, issued a ban on drug trafficking, and began to confiscate and destroy drug cargos. Britain declared war on China in the name of ‘free trade’, won and forced China to let British drug merchants sell in the country and to surrender Hong Kong, which became the base for drug trafficking. “In the late nineteenth century, about 40 million Chinese, a tenth of the country’s population, were opium addicts.”;
  • the aluminium, discovered in the 1820s, was so difficult and costly to separate from its ore than for decades it was more expensive than gold (Emperor Napoleon III of France put aluminium cutlery in front of his most distinguished guests, and gold one in front of the others);
  • timetable was initially created by factories, then adopted by everyone and spread by public transportation. In 1784, a carriage service in Britain published for the first time a schedule specifying only the hour of departure. British cities had their own local time, different from London until 1847, when British train companies decided to calibrate all train timetables to Greenwich Observatory time. In 1880, the British government legislated that all timetables in Britain follow Greenwich.

And some disturbing quotes:

History is something that very few people have been doing while everyone else was ploughing fields and carrying water buckets.
Consistency is the playground of dull minds.
Real peace is the implausibility of war. There has never been real peace in the world. (…) Today humankind has broken the law of the jungle. There is at last real peace, and not just absence of war. For most polities, there is no plausible scenario leading to full-scale conflict within one year.
Like Satan, DNA uses fleeting pleasures to tempt people and place them in its power.

Unless some nuclear or ecological catastrophe intervenes, so goes the story, the pace of technological development will soon lead to the replacement of Homo sapiens by completely different beings who possess not only different physiques, but also very different cognitive and emotional worlds.


  1. Haha, ce mi-ai făcut cu recenzia asta! Am zis că n-o citesc în grabă (și chiar n-am cum, că citesc 4 chestii în paralel, nu știu ce e cu mine), dar vreau să, sper în curîndul apropiat.

    1. Eu am citit-o in zece zile, n-o puteam lasa din mîna. Am aflat o multime de chestii - doar despre cîteva am scris. Mi-a spus o prietena ca tipul a mai scos o carte, abia astept s-o citesc si pe aia. E foarte citibil, nu-i deloc pompos nici umilitor de erudit :).