Miss­ing links amid il­lu­mi­nat­ing ideas

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Miriam Cosic

Sapi­ens: A Brief His­tory of Hu­mankind By Yu­val Noah Harari Harvill Secker, 443pp, $35 THERE’S some­thing un­set­tling about the re­cent spate of books cov­er­ing the his­tory or phi­los­o­phy or sci­ence of ab­so­lutely ev­ery­thing. Are their au­thors try­ing to fill the void left by the roar­ing with­drawal of an­cient metaphysical sys­tems? Are they try­ing to fill the shoes of the sages who wrote the sa­cred texts of those sys­tems? At least the op­po­site, and just as popular, mar­ket­ing strat­egy of to­day’s pub­lish­ers, the book that homes in on a mi­cro-sub­ject, has hu­mil­ity on its side.

Yu­val Noah Harari’s Sapi­ens: A Brief His­tory of Hu­mankind is a new ad­di­tion to the om­nibus genre. He be­gins at the very be­gin­ning: “About 13.5 bil­lion years ago ...” And he ends with the Sin­gu­lar­ity, that terrifying con­cept of a fu­ture man-ma­chine per­fec­tion of in­tel­li­gence and per­for­mance that will end hu­man­ity as we know it, and with a dire warn­ing about the mess we are mak­ing of the world.

Loss of com­mu­nity, global warm­ing, con- sumerism: the hu­man species is stuff­ing up. Not least, Harari is trans­fixed by a kind of flip side of the Sin­gu­lar­ity: the moral hor­ror of fac­tory farm­ing our fel­low an­i­mals.

Sapi­ens is in­deed brief. De­spite its 400-plus pages, it skates across the sur­face of its vast sub­ject, some­times ex­hil­a­rat­ingly, of­ten on very thin ice. A best­seller in Harari’s na­tive Is­rael, it was al­ready be­ing touted as an in­ter­na­tional best­seller be­fore its re­lease in An­glo-Amer­i­can re­gions. Harari also has posted an on­line course on the sub­ject, clicked on by mul­ti­tudes.

The book cov­ers many things, from the de­feat of Ne­an­derthals by Homo sapi­ens, through the build­ing of the Egyp­tian pyra­mids to the in­ven­tion of the limited li­a­bil­ity company and the in­ter­na­tional hu­man rights regime. Sev­eral or­gan­is­ing themes drive the nar­ra­tive — evo­lu­tion, cog­ni­tion, cu­rios­ity, the un­end­ing search for hap­pi­ness and the so­cially bind­ing use of myth — and the vast sweep is punc­tu­ated by three cru­cial turn­ing points.

The first was the cog­ni­tive revo­lu­tion, which oc­curred be­tween about 70,000 and 30,000 years ago and changed man from just another an­i­mal into one who wielded mas­tery over his en­vi­ron­ment, in­clud­ing an­i­mals much larger and more fe­ro­cious than him, some of which he drove to ex­tinc­tion, and even­tu­ally the very el­e­ments them­selves.

The next shift came with the agri­cul­tural revo­lu­tion about 10,000 years ago, which greatly re­duced the hap­pi­ness of hu­man­ity. Harari longs for the psy­cho­log­i­cally un­com­pli­cated and phys­i­cally hy­gienic days of the noble sav­age: un­com­fort­able to read while in­dige­nous peo­ple are fight­ing for their ex­is­tence.

This revo­lu­tion re­duced hunter-gath­er­ers’ no­bil­ity and mo­bil­ity to an ugly ex­is­tence, tied to a fief and rife with hideous dis­eases spread by prox­im­ity to other hu­mans and to the an­i­mals that had been so clev­erly or­gan­ised for farm­ing. The hu­man form be­came stunted, life ex­pectancy dropped, in­equal­ity and slav­ery flour­ished.

This of­fers one of the cog­ni­tive dis­so­nances that Harari thrives on. Why would nat­u­ral se­lec­tion drive mankind from an em­pow­ered, in­de­pen­dent ex­is­tence to this wretched one? Be­cause it led to a pop­u­la­tion ex­plo­sion. All the self­ish gene cares about is repli­ca­tion: the more the bet­ter. It doesn’t care whether its repli­cas are happy or sad, free or tyran­nised, or whether they live very long after hav­ing pro­cre­ated.

Harari de­votes a sec­tion to memes: ideas and prac­tices that mu­tate like genes and spread through so­ci­eties. He sees the twin abil­i­ties to mythol­o­gise and evan­ge­lise as defini­tively hu­man: they are the source of all the or­gan­i­sa­tional in­ven­tion — moral­ity, re­li­gion, pol­i­tics — that has al­lowed us to ag­gre­gate and dom­i­nate. The in­creas­ing so­phis­ti­ca­tion of myth was both a re­sult and a driver of the do­mes­ti­ca­tion that fol­lowed the agrar­ian revo­lu­tion.

Harari’s third turn­ing point is the sci­en­tific revo­lu­tion of about 500 years ago. Strangely, he men­tions nei­ther the Re­nais­sance nor the En­light­en­ment, with­out which peo­ple would not have dis­cov­ered the re­sources, or fought for the free­dom, to chal­lenge re­li­gious dogma and de­velop the meth­ods of sci­ence, which in­clude the provo­ca­tions to un­ques­tion­ing belief of em­piri­cism and fal­si­fi­ablity. The long­est nar­ra­tive in the chap­ter ded­i­cated to sci­ence is about the set­ting up of the first life in­surance scheme.

Like your nan’s sto­ries, Harari’s time­line is con­tin­u­ally side­tracked. In just the sec­ond chap­ter, in the mid­dle of the climb from mon­key to man, we di­vert to the es­tab­lish­ment of the car­maker Peu­geot. The dis­cus­sion of sci­ence gives rise to its ser­vice to Euro­pean im­pe­ri­al­ism, its corol­lary in the no­tion of progress and the de­vel­op­ment of cap­i­tal­ism.

Sapi­ens is wildly am­bi­tious, writ­ten flu­ently and with con­fi­dence. The re­sult is in­fu­ri­at­ing. In

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