The subject of Sapiens is a trifle broad, covering as it does, beginning at the beginning, Big Bang and what followed – being physics, chemistry, biology and finally culture, throwing in everything but the kitchen sink, though it is implied.
Once evolution had produced, according to Harari, the last common grandmother of chimpanzees and humans, we emerged as the genus Homo, breaking into several main camps – Erectus, Rudolfensis, Neanderthalensis and Sapiens, with other short-lived (relatively speaking) members who didn’t make it. Of course, neither did the main ones, except for a ferocious serial killer called Homo Sapien. Harari accuses this group, us, of virtual genocide in bringing to extinction the other members as well as hoards of other species and genera.
You can keep your left thumb marking the timeline just before the first chapter. It informs us that the Universe has been expanding for 13.5 billion years, the earth settled in around 4.5 billion, a billion years later organisms emerged, and the genus Homo appeared about 2.5 million. Homo Sapien comes in at 200,000 years and their (our) cognitive revolution at 70,000. A lot of this stuff you, as a casual reader, have to, like the Trump follower, take on faith, trust the experts, although in this case the “experts” have credibility.
The timeframe in question here is divided up into major revolutions by the author – after hunting and foraging for a few million years someone got the fateful idea, about 12,000 years back, to have an Agricultural Revolution, with its domestication of plants and animals. This was gradual, despite my wit but carried on until the Scientific Revolution of only 500 years ago. What made these revolutions possible also sealed the extinction of the other members of the Homo club, what Harari calls the Cognitive Revolution of about 70,000 years back. This DNA mutation or whatever, enabled Homo Sapien to imagine, which enabled complex social structures. Sapien was no match, one to one, for the stronger Neanderthal but the capacity to imagine, to “fictionalize”, gave us a fatal, for them, advantage. And it laid the ground for our own successor, the non-biological being we are about to create. Harari leads us to this argument but puts off the sales job to his next book, Homo Deus.
And that is an impressive feat, to have another book to follow this comprehensive, dense look at our journey. I would have thought he’d be exhausted and at most, ferreting around for the energy to begin to research his next scholarly project. The guy has already done it. But back to this one. He throws in interesting details like, it took 300,000 years for the daily use of fire to become routine. There is a persuasive description of how animals became domesticated. He credits the quirky adoption, in Western Europe, of an attitude of incomplete knowledge, curiosity, with its eventual dominance, in the form of a capitalist colonialism. That colonialism was (is) cruel with dire consequences AND he would argue, benefits. The mindset retrieved lost knowledge of India’s past civilizations, for example, and united a diverse array of people into the present state of India. It also engaged in some serious drug dealing, even going to war with China for its right to sell opium there, gaining also the long-term lease of what came to be Hong Kong.
Harari likes to challenge convention, provoke a little controversy. He suggests that Homo Sapien was more content in the days of hunting/gathering, had more leisure and enjoyment whereas the agricultural life brought us tedium and long work days, extending down the long line to our own over-scheduled lives. He argues that the ability to imagine myths and religions, beliefs, enabled Sapiens to create large cities and empires, something the pre-cognitive peoples lacked. This short-coming limited the size of a band of foragers to less than 150 members. He lays out some perfectly arbitrary and ridiculous beliefs, contrasts them with contemporary thought and suggests that they serve the same function. When someone says they love their country they don’t realize that the whole thing is fiction, the “country” is an arbitrary area. That the value of money or property are completely fictive, unreal. He sketches the development of money from early barley to coinage to electronic transfer of funds around the planet, all imaginary and based on trust. Despite the “truth or not” of these beliefs, they unify, provide the cohesion necessary for a society to thrive, even if it’s only an elite who actually prospers.
Speaking of controversy, Harari describes Sapien as a vicious, efficient serial killer. He backs this up by showing that we had reached the far corners of the earth, spread from Africa, across Europe and Asia, to Australia, to the tip of South America by 10,000 BC. Wherever we went, vast numbers of other species went extinct. This trend continues though of course, like a virulent parasite, we insure our own demise when we kill our host. We have grown in numbers from one million 150,000 years ago to today’s near 7 billion, crowding other species out, with our numbers and with our domestication and thus proliferation of certain species ie, chickens, cows, pigs. All unsustainable.
Along with two colleagues, in the late 90s, I attended a 5 day course called Living on the Edge of Evolution. We covered much of the same ground as Sapiens and there was an emphasis on values. What values brought us to this moment in time? What values do we need to adopt to survive the fate our current values are bringing us to ie, nuclear holocaust, polluted life system, over-population? The three of us returned to Atlanta and did several 7 week workshops using the template of that training in California. The workshops culminated in intensive weekends in North Georgia where we all left rejuvenated and optimistic about the future of Sapiens and the life system. Little did we know what was coming in the Bush/Cheney administrations, the disappointing Obama presidency and now, the calamity.
The author’s notion of where Sapien is heading does not cheer me up either. When I think of how empires have treated their new subjects, how corporate raiders treat their acquisitions, how the patriarchy treats women, minorities, slaves… I fear for the people of my home country when the next empire rumbles into town, China perhaps, Harari’s notion of AI (artificial intellegence) a non-biology critter or an advanced culture from another galaxy or dimension. We can hope, despite discouraging precedent, that they will break with the historical record and come with beneficial intentions. It could, and should, happen from within but in these discouraging times it is hard to muster the imagination in that direction.
Post-script: The citizen who identifies with the current leadership supposes that that leadership represents their interests. Why? Probably because the leadership seems to mouth important shared values. One way for the ordinary citizen to free themselves from this association, which I suggest is actually NOT in that citizen’s interests, is to examine those supposed shared values – racism for example. The average citizen actually has more in common with workers of other races, ethnicities and nations than with the so-called leadership and those who control them, the 1%.