Once upon a time, six human species roamed the Earth. Now, only one does. What happened to the others? How did Sapiens gain dominance of the entire world? How did we progress through history, build empires, become a global community that we are today? More importantly, what does it truly tell us about ourselves and where we are headed?
This is a book worth experiencing. There. I had to say that first before I say anything else about Sapiens. 100,000 years ago there were at least six human species (trust me, I didn’t know this one! So much for my historical/anthropological knowledge!). Today of course, there’s just one. Us. Homo sapiens. This is the one point that has greatly piqued my curiosity (and trust me, I’m going to read more on this subject). Imagine having six different species of humans roaming the planet. What would that world have been like?
In Sapiens, Yuval Noah Harari attempts to briefly outline the history of humankind, from pre-history to the present day to a glimpse of our anticipated future. It is a wonderful book to help us understand how we got to be who we are right now.
The book begins with the origin of species and takes us on a journey of humans by talking about them in three revolutions – cognitive, agricultural and scientific. The cognitive revolution began about 70,000 years ago – we started to behave in far more ingenious ways. The agricultural revolution started about 11,000 years ago – we turned from foraging to farming. The third revolution, the scientific one is only about 500 years old and it brought with it everything that builds the world we see today – the industrial revolution, the information revolution and the biotechnological revolution. The question that Harari poses, and a pertinent one at that, is will the last revolution signal the end of humans as we know them and be replaced by bioengineered post-humans capable of immortality (or rather amortality since we might still die as a result of violence)? If yes, is that the future we really want?
You will begin to question the way you understand life, humans and our place in history once you start reading this book. Drawing on insights from biology, anthropology, palaeontology and economics, Harari tries to connect the dots and make sense of the major events in history.
Sapiens (or rather The Brief History of Humankind) was once a course on Coursera. Back in 2014, if you were looking to take some history lessons, you could have been a part of the course conducted by Harari himself. If you missed the chance (like I did) you won’t find the course in the archives today, but you’ll still be able to access a playlist of 62 lecture videos. The book was also featured by Bill Gates’ in his recommendation for “The 5 books to read in the Summer of 2016.” You can read about his opinion on Sapiens on his blog
Here are 10 thought-provoking ideas from the book that are great conversation starters and will find both adherents and dissenters.
- We were once an animal of no significance with an abundance of uncivilised cousins – the noisy family of the great apes that includes chimpanzees, gorillas and orang-utans. And, we had a few brothers and sisters. Besides homo sapiens (who evolved in East Africa), there were Neanderthals (Europe and western Asia), Homo Erectus (East Asia), Homo soloensis (Java in Indonesia), Homo floresiensis (Flores in Indonesia) and Homo denisova (Siberia) and many more fossilised siblings perhaps, still waiting to be discovered.
- When homo sapiens spread out from their home in East Africa and landed in Arabia, most of Eurasia was already settled by other humans. So what happened to them? How did we manage to wipe out the Neanderthals for instance, who had larger brains and greater competitive advantage? How did our species win the battle for dominance? There are two theories for this, both equally interesting. The Interbreeding Theory – of attraction, sex and mingling and the Replacement Theory – incompatibility, revulsion and perhaps even genocide.
- The secret of Sapiens’ success over other animals (though we aren’t the strongest or the fastest) is that we had a unique language. It’s not the first language. It’s not even the first vocal language. But, Sapiens have the ability to connect a limited number of sounds and signs and produce an infinite number of sentences with distinct meaning.
- Our language (and even we) evolved because we gossip (indeed!). Sapiens are a social animal and that means our survival and reproduction depend on our ability to cooperate socially. It was important to maintain information about the ever-changing relationships even between few individuals. Reliable information about who could be trusted (and who could not) meant that small bands of people could expand into larger groups and develop tighter and more sophisticated types of cooperation.
- The ability to speak about fiction is the most unique feature of our language, fiction has enabled us to imagine things and to do so collectively. We began to think of abstract concepts. We weave common myths which allows us to cooperate in huge numbers, based on shared beliefs and this cooperation is possible even between people who are not intimate with each other and might even be complete strangers. This means we gained an upper hand over other animals, because we could transmit information about things that do not really exist – tribal spirits, nations, limited liability companies and, even human rights.
- The journey of the first humans to Australia is one of the most important events in history. It was the first time any human had managed to leave the Afro-Asian ecological system. Within a few thousands years of their arrival, of the 24 Australian animal species weighing 50 kilograms or more, 23 became extinct. The question remains – was it the fault of our ancestors?
- Agriculture is history’s biggest fraud. It brought about a worse diet, longer hours of work, greater risk of starvation, crowded living conditions, greatly increased susceptibility to disease, birthed new forms of insecurity and uglier forms of hierarchy. Harari puts it all quite cleverly, “We did not domesticate wheat. It domesticated us.”
- Merchants, conquerors, and prophets were the first people who managed to transcend the binary evolutionary division, ‘us vs them’, and to foresee the potential unity of humankind. For the merchants, the entire world was a single market and all humans were potential customers. They tried to establish an economic order that would apply to all, everywhere. For the conquerors, the entire world was a single empire and all humans were potential subjects, and for the prophets, the entire world held a single truth and all humans were potential believers.
- Money is the most universal and most efficient system of mutual trust ever devised. Whereas religion asks us to believe in something, money asks us to believe that other people believe in something. Gold coins and dollar bills have value only in our collective imagination. So if it is really a mental construct why are we willing to go to such lengths (and severe ones at times) to make and trade and grow money? Because my neighbours believe in it. And why do they believe in it? Because I believe in it. And we all collectively believe in it because the king or rather the governments now demands them in taxes and the priests demands them in tithes.
- The Gilgamesh project is a huge scientific quest to give humankind eternal life or amortality. It will make huge strides in anti-ageing. We won’t grow old anymore. Or at the very least grow old much slower and thus live a lot longer. Bionic technology is witnessing advances. The merging of humans with machines, like giving bionic limbs to those who have suffered an accident can undo the damage and the trauma. We might end up changing our bodies so drastically that we might not even technically remain Sapiens anymore. We might just become a completely new species – part organic, part inorganic.
What you have to remember while reading Sapiens is that it is almost impossible to capture 13.5 billion years of the history of the humankind in just 400 odd pages. So if you are expecting a deep dive into who we are, you should prepare to be disappointed. Think of this work as a primer, for human history needs several hundreds of volumes to be truly captured and understood. Still, what an amazing primer this is.
Harari emerges as an excellent social scientist. The book is an intellectual act of history. If you’ve ever had someone debate with you about the relevance of studying history (and they’ve been skeptical about the role it plays), gift them this book. Brilliant in its range of material and depth (even if a tad bit compressed), the book is bold and provocative because it makes you question a lot about how you interpret history.
Harari’s view is that we (or rather our ancestors) were better off as foragers. Even if you don’t agree with it, it will make you think hard. Of course there’s no way to truly know this and debate about it intelligently, unless scientific research can prove it to be so, but it is an interesting take nevertheless. Would we as barbarians (for barbarians we would have been) have been better off? Would our faculties have been as advanced as today (I doubt it). Would we have produced the kind of art, philosophies, technology as we have? Again, I think not. Perhaps this bleak attitude of Harari leaves a lot of readers with disappointment.
Sapiens is full of entertaining historical anecdotes, stimulates your grey matter and pushes you into the deep-end of philosophy. It is superlative storytelling. Love it or not, you will have a hard time putting this book down. And that I think it is a great way to test a storyteller. In Harari’s case, he proves to be a great one.