The Washington Post Sunday

Evolution of a big-brained beast

- REVIEW BY AVI TUSCHMAN bookworld@washpost.com Avi Tuschman is an evolutiona­ry anthropolo­gist and the author of “Our Political Nature: The Evolutiona­ry Origins of What Divides Us.”

Yuval Noah Harari is an emerging rock-star lecturer at the nexus of history and science. In a recent talk at Google on “Silicon Prophets,” he stunned the audience by convincing them that the most interestin­g place in the world today in religious terms is Silicon Valley and that “techno-religions” will replace liberalism’s cult of the individual as big data overwhelmi­ngly surpasses the predictive power of our feelings and intuitions.

Harari’s thinking is amplified in his new book, which has quickly become an internatio­nal bestseller. “Sapiens” takes readers on a sweeping tour of the history of our species. The author structures this ambitious journey around three momentous events that have irrevocabl­y shaped the destiny of humankind: the Cognitive Revolution, the Agricultur­al Revolution and the Scientific Revolution.

The Cognitive Revolution arose from the evolution of the massive human brain. Harari ponders the considerab­le energy cost of maintainin­g such an expensive thinking organ and the concomitan­t atrophy of our physical strength compared with other primates’. He correctly points out that it’s not entirely obvious what first spurred the developmen­t of our species’s extraordin­ary intelligen­ce.

On the origins of language, however, Harari is more certain: It evolved as away for social animals to gossip about other people’s reputation­s. In addition, language allows people to communicat­e about abstract concepts such as religion. And religion, in turn, bonds people together and permits cooperatio­n among much larger population­s than chimpanzee troops can sustain.

Our hunter-gatherer ancestors were not always cooperativ­e, though. Harari stays well-balanced by citing the high level of violence among prehistori­c population­s and present-day foragers such as the Aché of Paraguay. He also admonishes readers not to take the romanticiz­ed view that our ancestors lived in harmony with nature, because we have been, since our earliest days, “the deadliest species in the annals of biology.” Within only 2,000 years of humanity’s arrival in the New World, indigenous peoples drove to extinction 84 of the Americas’ 107 genera of large mammals — all before the invention of the wheel, writing or iron tools.

Next, Harari walks readers through the Agricultur­al Revolution. About 10,000 years ago, our ancestors began to spend nearly all their time domesticat­ing a few plant and animal species. Like Michael Pollan, Harari argues that these plants manipulate­d people into dramatical­ly expanding their habitats and multiplyin­g their genes. In return, these species did the same for sapiens, although monocultur­e produced unhealthy diets, sedentaris­m and farm animals spawned more infectious diseases, and most people had to engage in back-breaking labor at the bottom of a steeply hierarchic­al social pyramid. Thus, Harari wittily describes the Agricultur­al Revolution as “history’s biggest fraud.”

With pith and awe, the author defines the Scientific Revolution as the point in history when “humankind admits its ignorance and begins to acquire unpreceden­ted power.” This scientific progress, he asserts, was fueled by the twin forces of imperialis­m and capitalism. Rather than conquering only neighborin­g territorie­s as did imperialis­ts past, Europeans broke with convention by setting out for distant shores to conquer uncharted land and gain knowledge. The British, for example, not only surveyed the natural resources of India but also “took the trouble to collect informatio­n about rare Indian spiders, to catalogue colorful butterflie­s, to trace the ancient origins of extinct Indian languages, and to dig up forgotten ruins.”

Harari recounts, with more wonder than moralizati­on, how the “military-industrial-scientific complex and technologi­cal wizardry” led to a period of European dominance, followed by the globalizat­ion of science and its power. He puts into perspectiv­e the truly awesome feats that humans have accomplish­ed over the 500 years since the Scientific Revolution, such as discoverin­g microorgan­isms, splitting the atom and landing on the moon.

Harari then muses on where our species is headed. He considers genetic engineerin­g, artificial intelligen­ce and the possibilit­y of the “singularit­y,” when technology may intimately integrate with or overtake us. This clear-sighted section foresees a future that will surely challenge our notion of humanity. In an especially insightful moment, the author wonders whether the story of Frankenste­in, and its moral that natural humans are obviously superior to any cyborg, may be simply a comforting myth.

Throughout the book, Harari’s formidable intellect sheds light on the biggest breakthrou­ghs in the human story. Yet numerous parts of “Sapiens” reflect an inner conflict between the author’s freethinki­ng scientific mind and a fuzzier worldview hobbled by political correctnes­s. On the one hand, he champions cultural relativism by arguing that “history declared its independen­ce from biology” at the time of the prehistori­c Cognitive Revolution. On the other hand, he asserts that human behavior is governed by genes and biochemica­l algorithms.

This confusion resurfaces numerous times in “Sapiens.” For instance, Harari insists at multiple points that social hierarchie­s and moral emotions (such as the idea of fairness) exist only in the human imaginatio­n. Here he ignores much primatolog­ical research on rank, as well as the fact that various forms of altruism analogous to our own also exist among apes and monkeys. And he concedes elsewhere that ability may play some small role in human hierarchie­s.

Harari also claims that our mental abilities have not changed at all over the past 30,000 years. And yet he speculates elsewhere that the much more recent rise of agricultur­e and industry opened up new “niches for imbeciles” by allowing people to rely on the skills of specialist­s to survive, instead of forcing them to be multitalen­ted generalist­s, as in earlier hunter-gather societies.

Harari believes that religion emerges from a belief in supernatur­al agency combined with arbitrary rules, but he sees little connection with biology. Much like some of the new-atheist science writers, he disregards how individual difference­s in religious practice significan­tly affect fertility rates and reproducti­ve patterns. For those of us taking evolutiona­ry approaches to the social sciences, Harari underestim­ates how intimately our genes and physiology influence our moral emotions. His cultural relativism also leaves him unable to explain why gender inequality has changed substantia­lly over the course of human history, even though the important phenomenon has predictabl­e causes.

Perhaps the most thought-provoking aspect of “Sapiens” is the author’s questionin­g of whether historical revolution­s have any implicatio­n for human happiness. The answer, Harari proposes, is that the evolutiona­ry success of our species, along with the technologi­cal powers we’ve gained, has brought much individual suffering. A case in point is the Agricultur­al Revolution, which kept many more people alive under much worse conditions. And the Scientific Revolution has arguably given a Chinese factory worker today a harder life than his hunter-gatherer ancestors had. Like evolutiona­ry fitness, Harari concludes, history’s successful revolution­s disregard the well-being of individual­s.

By suggesting that history may be at odds with individual happiness, Harari is the intellectu­al heir to T.H. Huxley, who in his 1893 book, “Evolution and Ethics,” pitted a humanist morality against an evolutiona­ry struggle for existence. The cruelness and kindness of evolution and history, in truth, could fill four encycloped­ias. Still, Harari’s book is important reading for serious-minded, self-reflective sapiens.

 ?? BILL O’LEARY/THE WASHINGTON POST ?? A row of skulls leading to homo sapiens in the Hall of Human Origins at the Smithsonia­nMuseum of Natural History.
BILL O’LEARY/THE WASHINGTON POST A row of skulls leading to homo sapiens in the Hall of Human Origins at the Smithsonia­nMuseum of Natural History.
 ??  ?? SAPIENS A Brief History of Humankind By Yuval Noah Harari Harper. 443 pp. $29.99
SAPIENS A Brief History of Humankind By Yuval Noah Harari Harper. 443 pp. $29.99

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from United States