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Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind

To understand who we are, it’s always a good idea to look at who we were.  It’s certainly cliché but that doesn’t make it any less true.   Yuval Noah Harari has written a masterpiece on the history of our species in Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind.  He brilliantly takes us on an anthropological journey that defines who we are as a people.  This book has taken its place on my shelf as one of the all-time greats.

He starts from the very beginning.  2.5 million years ago, the humans evolve into being in Africa.  We were weird: big brains, skinny, we walked upright, we used tools.  The world didn’t know what it was in for.  Since we walked upright, women had a really tough time of it when it came to giving birth.  The upright gait required much narrower hips which constricted the birth canal.  Big brains required big heads and death in childbirth was a huge problem.  So we evolved to give birth to very premature babies.  If you look at other species, like horses, or even giraffes, they start walking within days.  It takes us over a year, but we’re vulnerable for far longer than that.  This required us to evolve communication and communities to take care of our young.  That’s what got the ball rolling towards world domination.

Harari breaks the book down into four sections: the Cognitive Revolution, the Agricultural Revolution, the unification of humankind and the Scientific Revolution.  There are a ton of insights in each section of the book so I’ll do my best to capture the ones I found most interesting in this quick review.  There is so much more in there though, so please do yourself a favor and read the book.

Cognitive Revolution

The Cognitive revolution started about seventy thousand (70K) years ago.  This is my back of the napkin math, not Harari’s, but if we consider that over history there was roughly five generations per century, this means that we started serious cogitation about thirty five hundred (3,500) generations ago.  That’s a lot of chance for evolutionary mutations but nothing compared to the roughly 2.4 million years before that time started that it took for us to figure out the tools and weapons to take us from the middle of the food chain to the top.  During that much longer period of time, sapiens weren’t the only kids on the block.  There were the Neanderthals, Homo erectus, Homo rudolfensis, Homo ergaster and several others.  The evolution to sapiens wasn’t a serial progression from these other species.  There is DNA evidence that we did the nasty with Neanderthals and we didn’t drive them to extinction until about thirty thousand(30K) years ago.  It wasn’t until about thirteen thousand years ago that Homo sapiens were the only humans left.

So why did sapiens make it when the rest of the competing human species didn’t?  The conclusion that Harari draws is fascinating.  He claims that our big edge was our ability to create fiction.  In his words, “Large numbers of strangers can cooperate successfully by believing in common myths.”  There are natural laws like the law of gravity that would exist even if humans were not on the planet, but “There are no gods in the universe, no nations, no money, no human rights, no laws and no justice outside the common imagination of the human beings.”  All of those things exist only because we made them up.  Our ability to create these fictions allowed us to “revise our behavior rapidly in accordance with changing needs.  This opened a fast lane of cultural evolution, bypassing the traffic jams of genetic evolution.”  When everyone believes in a similar idea or concept, it builds trust, which allows us to work effectively in much larger groups than chimps or Neanderthals.

The other really big step we took in the Cognitive Revolution was when groups of sapiens near Indonesia figured out how to build ships and leave Afro-Asia.  This was a monumental advantage over other creatures because we didn’t have to wait to evolve flippers and fins.  Instead, we built boats and sailed to Australia.  “The moment the first hunter-gatherer set foot on an Australian beach was the moment that Homo sapiens climbed to the top rung in the food chain on a particular landmass and thereafter became the deadliest species in the annals of planet Earth.”  As soon as we got there, we wiped out 90% of the megafauna.  All of the big animals there didn’t see us as a threat until we stuck them full of spears.  They never had the chance to evolve a fear of sapiens and they were destroyed, by us, long before that could happen.  Sadly, this was true with every other landmass we migrated to.  We migrated there and wiped out all of the big animals.  This is a disturbing trend of our species.  We move in, we pillage and destroy, and we completely change the ecological environment.

Agricultural Revolution

The Cognitive Revolution was followed by the Agricultural revolution which started around 9500-8500 BC.  Harari calls the Agricultural Revolution the biggest con job in history.  “The average farmer worked harder than the average forager, and got a worse diet in return…Moreover, the new agricultural tasks demanded so much time that people were forced to settle permanently next to their wheat fields.  This completely changed their way of life.  We didn’t domesticate wheat.  It domesticated us.”  Farmers got a raw deal and were pretty miserable.  Bigger communities meant a lot more violence and a ton more disease.  As a species though, it was great.  We banged like rabbits and our population went through the roof.

The Agrarian society also had us thinking about the future for the first time.  Since we were no longer foraging, one bad crop could wipe everybody out.  This drove us into planning for the future and accelerated things like trade with other communities.  With that many humans now living together there was a ton of bloodshed.  “The problem at the root of such calamities is that humans evolved for millions of years in small bands of a few dozen individuals.  The handful of millennia separating the Agricultural Revolution from the appearance of cities, kingdoms and empires was not enough time to allow an instinct for mass cooperation to evolve.”  This made fiction and the shared myths even more important, especially when it came to organized violence like armies.  “At least some of the commanders and soldiers must truly believe in something, be it God, honor, motherland, manhood or money….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 the society is an objective reality created by the great gods or by the laws of nature.”

The other big advance that came out of the Agricultural Revolution was writing.  “The human brain is not a good storage device for empire-sized databases, for three main reasons…. First, its capacity is limited.  Secondly, humans die, and their brains die with them.  Thirdly and most importantly, the human brain has been adapted to store and process only particular types of information.”  These were things like what plants and animals it was safe to eat.  With all these people living together it became important to process large amounts of data.  Writing and math were an inevitable progression so the whole system didn’t come crashing down.

The Unification of Humankind

The next stage he covers is the unification of humankind which started about 5,000 years ago.  Harari posits that the three great unifiers were money, empires and religion.  “Money is based on two universal principles: a. Universal convertibility: with money as an alchemist, you can turn land into loyalty, justice into health, and violence into knowledge. b. Universal trust:  with money as a go-between, any two people can cooperate on any project.”  There was a serious dark side that came with money.  “When everything is convertible, and when trust depends on anonymous coins and cowry shells, it corrodes local traditions, intimate relations and human values, replacing them with the cold laws of supply and demand.”

Our current liberal societies don’t relish the idea of Imperialism.  However, empires were incredibly effective in unifying people.  “Ideas, people, goods and technology spread more easily within the borders of an empire than in a politically fragmented region.  Often enough, it was the empires themselves which deliberately spread ideas, institutions, customs and norms.”  They did this for two reasons.  This made life easier for those running the empire but a common culture also brought legitimacy to their rule.

Religion was the final unifier.  This is how Harari defines religion, “Religion can thus be defined as a system of human norms and values that is founded on a belief in a superhuman order.”  All religions had two big rules, “First, it must espouse a universal superhuman order that is true always and everywhere.  Second, it must insist on spreading this belief to everyone.  In other words, it must be universal and missionary.”  Two pretty powerful rules, they knew their marketing.  It’s not a huge surprise that the idea of religion became such a unifier.

The Scientific Revolution

The Scientific Revolution started about 500 years ago.  Science was very different from the traditions that came before it in three primary ways, “The willingness to admit ignorance…The centrality of observation and mathematics….The acquisition of new powers.  Modern science is not content with creating theories.  It uses these theories in order to acquire new powers, and in particular to develop new technologies.”  This led to my favorite quote of the book, “The Scientific Revolution has not been a revolution of knowledge.  It has been above all a revolution of ignorance.  The great discovery that launched the Scientific Revolution was the discovery that humans do not know the answers to the most important questions.”

One of the kickers for science is that it needs an alliance with an ideology to flourish.  The ideology is necessary to justify the cost of research.  The two big allies for science were imperialism and capitalism.  One of the primary reasons why Europe dominated the Scientific Revolution was, in Harari’s words, “The key factor was that the plant-seeking botanist and the colony-seeking naval officer shared a similar mindset.  Both scientist and conqueror began by admitting ignorance – they both said, ‘I don’t know what’s out there.’  They both felt compelled to go out and make new discoveries.  And they both hoped the new knowledge thus acquired would make them masters of the world.”  This quote reminded me of the Patrick O’Brian books where Captain Jack Aubrey was always accompanied by Dr. Stephen Maturin, conqueror and naturalist going hand in hand to take over the world.

This ultimately led to the Industrial Revolution.  “The Industrial Revolution turned the timetable and the assembly line into a template for almost all human activities.”  This led to a great story he told about time.  All local communities used to track time in their own unique way.  Based on how they calculated time, It might be 8 AM in London but 8:04 AM in Liverpool.  This was true until trains starting making their way across Britain and the train timetables were getting all screwed up.  So, in 1847, the train companies set all of their timetables to Greenwich time  Thirty years later, the British government followed suit and that is how the world got Greenwich Mean Time.

The Industrial Revolution came with a serious downside.  “Yet all of 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.”  Neighbors used to work on barter agreements.  Your fence falls down, I help you fix it.  My wall topples, you help me.  With the Industrial Revolution all of this changed.  “In order really to break the power of family and community, they needed the help of a fifth column.  The state and the market approached people with an offer that could not be refused.  ‘Become individuals.'”  Study after study shows that when we are surrounded by family and community we are happier.  We love to describe ourselves as rugged individuals but the cost turned out to be a whole lot of happiness.

Harari is a bit of a cynic when it comes to happiness.  He broke happiness down into three theories.  The first is that happiness is in the hands of our biochemical system.  Once we can regulate that machine like a well-tuned air conditioner we can engineer our way into happiness.  Meh.  The second is that “perhaps happiness is synchronizing one’s personal delusions of meaning with the prevailing collective delusion.  As long as my personal narrative is in line with the narratives of the people around me, I can convince myself that my life is meaningful, and find happiness in that conviction.  This is quite a depressing conclusion.  Does happiness really depend on self-delusion?”  He didn’t like that idea either but this seems to be the Facebook fallacy.

Know Yourself

His third theory comes down to ‘Know Thyself!’.  This is the one I prefer.  He uses Buddhism as a way to describe this knowledge.  In Buddhism, “People are liberated from suffering not when they experience this or that fleeting pleasure, but rather when they understand the impermanent nature of all their feelings, and stop craving them.”  He goes on to add, “In contrast, for many traditional philosophies and religions, such as Buddhism, the key to happiness is to know the truth about yourself – to understand who, or what, you really are.  Most people wrongly identify themselves with their feelings, thoughts, likes and dislikes.  When they feel anger, they think, ‘I am angry.  This is my anger.’  They consequently spend their life avoiding some kinds of feelings and pursuing others.  They never realize that they are not their feelings, and that the relentless pursuit of particular feelings just traps them in misery.”

I like his systematic approach to analyzing happiness.  He seems to come to no conclusion on what theory is the best approach allowing us to draw our own.  He closes by bemoaning that we really don’t have any historical study of happiness and that is a huge gap in our collective knowledge.  “Most history books focus on the ideas of great thinkers, the bravery of warriors, the charity of saints and the creativity of artists.  They have much to tell about the weaving and unraveling of social structures, about the rise and fall of empires, about the discovery and spread of technologies.  Yet they say nothing about how all this influenced the happiness and suffering of individuals.  This is the biggest lacuna in our understanding of history.”  Lacuna, cool word.

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