The old adage about the curate’s egg probably applies to Harari’s sensational bestseller, Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, in that it’s good in parts. He has attempted to encompass everything about humanity in one volume, an exceptionally difficult task, but by doing it in a chronological order the process itself becomes a little bit tedious and predictable at times. Nevertheless, he has succeeded in offering many intriguing illuminations on our identity as a species of this planet Earth.
A lot of people today believe in the Paleolithic diet and way of life and in some respects this was a period in history when humans had the best deal going. On average a man had to work maybe one day in three and spent the rest of the time lounging around. The diet was varied with a wide range of constituents, including fish, meat, berries, mushrooms, plants and roots. Although the average lifespan was not all that long, the figure was shortened by the high rate of infant mortality. Compare this to the later agricultural age which roughly started 10,000 years ago where a man had to work from dawn till dusk in all weathers and conditions, doing backbreaking hard work all for a bowl of rice a day. Not a good deal you would think? Of course, the work of a woman was arduous regardless of the era in which she lived!
The author turns evolution on its head when he says that instead of humans cultivating wheat, the reverse was true in that wheat cultivated humans. To see how this is true one only has to look at how successful wheat has become from its lowly origins as bits of grass here and there to covering large areas of the planet, tended to for its every nutritional requirement by slavish humans. In terms of fecundity, wheat has been very successful.
100,000 years ago there were probably six varieties of humans on the planet but we are the only lot left, which begs the question as to why this became the case. All were reasonably well adapted to the environment but Homo Sapiens had an advantage, so it seems, with an extra bit of intelligence which could utilise imagination. What good would this be, one may ask, but the author suggests that the ability to imagine what is around the corner and to plan for the future gave us more than a competitive edge against the opposition.
Surprisingly, another advantage was our ability to gossip. Looking at social media, gossip seems to be one of humanity’s best traits and it cements relationships within communities making them more secure. Probably Neanderthals around the campfire did not gossip to any extent which left them doomed to failure! But how does one measure success? Neanderthals and other species had been around for much longer than Sapiens so when will we go extinct? Our confidence as a species takes a dip when we consider that our extinction is a certainty at one time or other and the way we are going, it may be sooner than we think. One problem with the assumptions he makes is that, in reality, we have very little idea of the thought processes of Neanderthals or any other human lifeform.
Harari puts the boot into religions past and present, considering them as products of the imagination and also vehicles for control. Not surprisingly he doesn’t put the boot into Judaism quite so much as the other religions probably because he comes from Jerusalem and the book is published by a Jewish organisation. Don’t bite the hand of the one that feeds you, comes to mind.
In his summary of human activities, we haven’t come out very well because in our colonisation of Earth we have wiped out a large number of other species. Even the so-called noble savage doesn’t escape because he points out, probably truthfully, that the Australian aborigine and the native American Indian, consciously or not, changed their environments and exterminated a huge number of indigenous animals. We have also cultivated animals to our needs and in the process given them nothing but abject misery and pain. He mentions chickens which normally live five or six years but end up on the dinner plate just after a few months of a tortured existence.
Continued population explosion of humanity will only make matters worse but what will the future bring for Sapiens? He says that predicting the future is very difficult because it’s likely that whatever humans turn into, the reference frame of their minds will be completely different from what we regard as normal today. Genetic engineering will alter the path of evolution, taking it away from the conditions that have governed it for 4 billion years. While this may be true it could also be said that meddling with genetics is all part of the same process. He also states that humans could be radically altered by the adoption of electronics. We could all end up as cyborgs!
Harari’s book is written in a very easy to read style and the concepts he puts forward are made in a competent and logical fashion, so much so that they tend to be regarded favourably by the reader. One seems to be left with the assumption that, as logic goes, what he says is probably quite true. But, he also attests that seemingly logical arguments, such as in Hitler’s Mein Kampf, are all very well until you look at the foundation on which they are built. To give the author credit, he doesn’t base his arguments on doctrines or ideologies.
Sapiens is certainly an interesting book to read and it will get you thinking about all aspects of our existence. There are lots of scintillating points which will intrigue you and so provide many subjects for discussion at a later date. In terms of science fiction, we imagine other worlds in space and time but in doing so do we really break away from our human preconceived notions? That’s just another illumination which emerges from the book and despite this being a very difficult subject to write about effectively, the author has done a good job. It’s a book to be recommended.