Missing links amid illuminating ideas
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