One of my favorite books of 2016: Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind by Yuval Noah Harari. I feel a little sheepish joining the parade of praise — everyone in Silicon Valley seems to be reading the book. I’ve wandered into more than one cocktail party conversation where someone is going on about how myths underpin modern society (which is one of the arguments of the book).
It’s extraordinary in scope, engagingly written, and full of provocative factoids that make you stop and think. Through it all, there is an overarching argument about why homo sapiens overtook other human species on earth (punch line: our ability to cooperate and trade with strangers). And he also presents a history of the world that’s driven by what he calls three revolutions: cognitive, agricultural, scientific.
But even if you don’t follow the overarching argument, there’s plenty to think about when it comes to ancient history, animal rights, religion, happiness, and technological revolution. Not surprisingly, with so much ground covered, subject matter experts have quibbled (or more than quibbled) with some of Yuval’s claims, though nothing triggered me to lose trust in Harari as a guide.
I highlighted 170 sentences or paragraphs in the book. I’ve pasted a bunch of them below. As always, each paragraph is a new thought, and all are direct quotes from the book.
The truth is that from about 2 million years ago until around 10,000 years ago, the world was home, at one and the same time, to several human species. And why not? Today there are many species of foxes, bears and pigs. The earth of a hundred millennia ago was walked by at least six different species of man. It’s our current exclusivity, not that multi-species past, that is peculiar – and perhaps incriminating. As we will shortly see, we Sapiens have good reasons to repress the memory of our siblings.
The fact is that a jumbo brain is a jumbo drain on the body. It’s not easy to carry around, especially when encased inside a massive skull. It’s even harder to fuel. In Homo sapiens, the brain accounts for about 2–3 per cent of total body weight, but it consumes 25 per cent of the body’s energy when the body is at rest. By comparison, the brains of other apes require only 8 per cent of rest-time energy. Archaic humans paid for their large brains in two ways. Firstly, they spent more time in search of food. Secondly, their muscles atrophied.
Death in childbirth became a major hazard for human females. Women who gave birth earlier, when the infant’s brain and head were still relatively small and supple, fared better and lived to have more children. Natural selection consequently favoured earlier births. And, indeed, compared to other animals, humans are born prematurely, when many of their vital systems are still under-developed. A colt can trot shortly after birth; a kitten leaves its mother to forage on its own when it is just a few weeks old. Human babies are helpless, dependent for many years on their elders for sustenance, protection and education.
Raising children required constant help from other family members and neighbours. It takes a tribe to raise a human. Evolution thus favoured those capable of forming strong social ties. In addition, since humans are born underdeveloped, they can be educated and socialised to a far greater extent than any other animal. This is a key to understanding our history and psychology. Genus Homo’s position in the food chain was, until quite recently, solidly in the middle. For millions of years, humans hunted smaller creatures and gathered what they could, all the while being hunted by larger predators. It was only 400,000 years ago that several species of man began to hunt large game on a regular basis, and only in the last 100,000 years – with the rise of Homo sapiens – that man jumped to the top of the food chain.
Millions of years of dominion have filled them with self-confidence. Sapiens by contrast is more like a banana republic dictator. Having so recently been one of the underdogs of the savannah, we are full of fears and anxieties over our position, which makes us doubly cruel and dangerous.
According to this theory Homo sapiens is primarily a social animal. Social cooperation is our key for survival and reproduction. It is not enough for individual men and women to know the whereabouts of lions and bison. It’s much more important for them to know who in their band hates whom, who is sleeping with whom, who is honest, and who is a cheat.
How did Homo sapiens manage to cross this critical threshold, eventually founding cities comprising tens of thousands of inhabitants and empires ruling hundreds of millions? The secret was probably the appearance of fiction. Large numbers of strangers can cooperate successfully by believing in common myths.
In contrast, ever since the Cognitive Revolution, Sapiens have been able to change their behaviour quickly, transmitting new behaviours to future generations without any need of genetic or environmental change. As a prime example, consider the repeated appearance of childless elites, such as the Catholic priesthood, Buddhist monastic orders and Chinese eunuch bureaucracies. The existence of such elites goes against the most fundamental principles of natural selection, since these dominant members of society willingly give up procreation.
Trade may seem a very pragmatic activity, one that needs no fictive basis. Yet the fact is that no animal other than Sapiens engages in trade, and all the Sapiens trade networks about which we have detailed evidence were based on fictions. Trade cannot exist without trust, and it is very difficult to trust strangers. The global trade network of today is based on our trust in such fictional entities as the dollar, the Federal Reserve Bank, and the totemic trademarks of corporations.
Significant differences begin to appear only when we cross the threshold of 150 individuals, and when we reach 1,000–2,000 individuals, the differences are astounding. If you tried to bunch together thousands of chimpanzees into Tiananmen Square, Wall Street, the Vatican or the headquarters of the United Nations, the result would be pandemonium. By contrast, Sapiens regularly gather by the thousands in such places. Together, they create orderly patterns – such as trade networks, mass celebrations and political institutions – that they could never have created in isolation.
The pursuit of an easier life resulted in much hardship, and not for the last time. It happens to us today. How many young college graduates have taken demanding jobs in high-powered firms, vowing that they will work hard to earn money that will enable them to retire and pursue their real interests when they are thirty-five? But by the time they reach that age, they have large mortgages, children to school, houses in the suburbs that necessitate at least two cars per family, and a sense that life is not worth living without really good wine and expensive holidays abroad. What are they supposed to do, go back to digging up roots? No, they double their efforts and keep slaving away. One of history’s few iron laws is that luxuries tend to become necessities and to spawn new obligations.
As humans spread around the world, so did their domesticated animals. Ten thousand years ago, not more than a few million sheep, cattle, goats, boars and chickens lived in restricted Afro-Asian niches. Today the world contains about a billion sheep, a billion pigs, more than a billion cattle, and more than 25 billion chickens. And they are all over the globe. The domesticated chicken is the most widespread fowl ever. Following Homo sapiens, domesticated cattle, pigs and sheep are the second, third and fourth most widespread large mammals in the world. From a narrow evolutionary perspective, which measures success by the number of DNA copies, the Agricultural Revolution was a wonderful boon for chickens, cattle, pigs and sheep.
To ensure that the pigs can’t run away, farmers in northern New Guinea slice off a chunk of each pig’s nose. This causes severe pain whenever the pig tries to sniff. Since the pigs cannot find food or even find their way around without sniffing, this mutilation makes them completely dependent on their human owners. In another area of New Guinea, it has been customary to gouge out pigs’ eyes, so that they cannot even see.
Immediately after birth the calf is separated from its mother and locked inside a tiny cage not much bigger than the calf’s own body. There the calf spends its entire life – about four months on average. It never leaves its cage, nor is it allowed to play with other calves or even walk – all so that its muscles will not grow strong. Soft muscles mean a soft and juicy steak. The first time the calf has a chance to walk, stretch its muscles and touch other calves is on its way to the slaughterhouse. In evolutionary terms, cattle represent one of the most successful animal species ever to exist. At the same time, they are some of the most miserable animals on the planet.
Until the late modern era, more than 90 per cent of humans were peasants who rose each morning to till the land by the sweat of their brows.
Yet the idea that all humans are equal is also a myth. In what sense do all humans equal one another? Is there any objective reality, outside the human imagination, in which we are truly equal? Are all humans equal to one another biologically?
So here is that line from the American Declaration of Independence translated into biological terms: We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men evolved differently, that they are born with certain mutable characteristics, and that among these are life and the pursuit of pleasure.
When, in 1860, a majority of American citizens concluded that African slaves are human beings and must therefore enjoy the right of liberty, it took a bloody civil war to make the southern states acquiesce.
How do you cause people to believe in an imagined order such as Christianity, democracy or capitalism? First, 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. People are unequal, not because Hammurabi said so, but because Enlil and Marduk decreed it. People are equal, not because Thomas Jefferson said so, but because God created them that way. Free markets are the best economic system, not because Adam Smith said so, but because these are the immutable laws of nature. You also educate people thoroughly.
An objective phenomenon exists independently of human consciousness and human beliefs. Radioactivity, for example, is not a myth. Radioactive emissions occurred long before people discovered them, and they are dangerous even when people do not believe in them.
The subjective is something that exists depending on the consciousness and beliefs of a single individual. It disappears or changes if that particular individual changes his or her beliefs. Many a child believes in the existence of an imaginary friend who is invisible and inaudible to the rest of the world. The imaginary friend exists solely in the child’s subjective consciousness, and when the child grows up and ceases to believe in it, the imaginary friend fades away. The inter-subjective is something that exists within the communication network linking the subjective consciousness of many individuals. If a single individual changes his or her beliefs, or even dies, it is of little importance. However, if most individuals in the network die or change their beliefs, the inter-subjective phenomenon will mutate or disappear. Inter-subjective phenomena are neither malevolent frauds nor insignificant charades. They exist in a different way from physical phenomena such as radioactivity, but their impact on the world may still be enormous. Many of history’s most important drivers are inter-subjective: law, money, gods, nations.
If I alone were to stop believing in the dollar, in human rights, or in the United States, it wouldn’t much matter. These imagined orders are inter-subjective, so in order to change them we must simultaneously change the consciousness of billions of people, which is not easy.
The Sumerians thereby released their social order from the limitations of the human brain, opening the way for the appearance of cities, kingdoms and empires. The data-processing system invented by the Sumerians is called ‘writing’. Continue reading