The first time I heard of Yuval Noah Harari’s Sapiens was also at Bill Gates’ blog. I had a couple of false starts with this book where I read a page or two before putting it down. I had it on my list for a long time but never managed to get into it. As I was finishing up “Gene”, my interest in human history and evaluation peaked. So, this time I was fully committed to get through it. The book is a delightful read. The english translation version was so easy to read. The storytelling approach kept me hooked till the finish.
Harari tries to take an objective approach while telling the story of sapiens. It’s like an alien watching how things are evolving on planet earth. He starts with a word of caution that everything that we claim to know about ancient times are actually following our invented causal relationships, many of these things cannot be proven with certainty; we can only accept the explanations as plausible cause, nothing more than that.
The book presents the history of human evolution in a linear way with highlighting four major jumps. I don’t know in reality how linear this was but I definitely agree with the four major points where something drastic happened that changed the course of our history. Another point Harari makes about these jumps is that they are just chance events; Sapiens did not deliberately try to make things happen, they just reacted to the environmental changes.
The first jump, the cognitive revolution, gave us an upper hand over other humans. Even though sapiens were not the physically strongest, our language, emotions, thinking ability directed us to get more socially and politically organized, compared with other humans. We found strength in numbers and we used that to conquer other humans.
The second jump, the agricultural revolution, is a fascinating one. It has created a long lasting impact on our food choices and our social, political and financial systems. Hunter-gatherer sapiens foraged in the forest and ate whatever was available. When sapiens invented agriculture, they gave up the variety of food choices and settled for only those crops and animals that they were able domesticate. I think our body biologically did not evolve for such a drastic change in our food choices and a lot of health issues that sapiens face are very directly related to this jump. This is also the first time we started experiencing food-surplus, which directly and indirectly contributed to the invention of writing, the idea of personal property, specialized professions, bureaucrats and kings.
After the second jump, the sapiens societies kept getting bigger and complex. We see the rise of fall of empires, the arrival of prophets with messages from Gods. Sapiens were the king of the land in Eurasia, the Americas and in Australia. But before the third jump happened, each of these continents had little or no idea about the others. It all began with European explorers finding ways to the New World. As maritime technology improved, soon European empires were able to colonize the Americas and Australia. Pretty soon, sapiens living in all continents became aware of others. As more technological progress were made, the geographical barriers among various sapiens societies disappeared and the unification of sapiens happened. Going forward from here, we see the emergence of globalization. Something happening in one place of the planet started to impact other places also.
Harari points out our current time as the fourth jump. The twentieth century has seen enormous progress in science and technology. Sapiens, collectively, adopted scientific method as a way to explore new and unknown things. We invented capitalism which seems to be pervasive in nature. I think the biggest difference with the third jump is that we are more aware of our ignorance this time and also more aware about our past. Also, I think we are more aware of this jump as it is happening compared to the three previous ones.
In the last chapters, Harari makes some predictions about how things will look like in the future. Some of these seem a little far-fetched to me. But sapiens will probably soon start inhabiting other planets and will start aggressively modifying their genetic code. We might even establish contact with other living things outside of earth. I am curious to know how that will affect some of our long held beliefs.
If we look at the timescale of these jumps, we see that the gap between each jump is shortening. Also, we can also feel that the pace of change is not slowing down rather increasing as time passes. This pace sometimes feels unsustainable. That makes me wonder whether we are at the verge of another jump or any other cataclysmic event that will wipe out the sapiens.
One key point Harari makes and I think we sometimes forget is about the dynamicness of culture. Change is happening all the time but sometimes we try to ignore or resist it. Also we fancy a past where everything was serene and beautiful. But in reality, it was never like that. There was always some conflict between our values and beliefs, and our thoughts and ideas. These conflicts shaped the way societies moved forward and cultures evolved. The same thing also goes for climate changes. Sapiens are actively causing climate change and destroying other flora and fauna since the cognitive revolution. Maybe now we are more aware of this, but we have been doing it for long.
Another interesting concept Harari describes is the “Imagined Order”. The whole civilization is actually hinged upon very few shared imagined orders. I thought about it also using a different example. Think about all the people that are driving on the road. Everyone assumes that the car coming from the other side is going to stay on the other side of the line. You will not have to think about cars being on your lane and travelling opposite to your direction. If that were to happen, productivity due to the invention of driving would not scale. Same goes for the idea of currency, border, etc.
Overall, this was a fascinating read. It helps you to look at the development of sapiens societies as a distant observer. It tries to answer a few questions on why things are done the way they are done.Published at: 09/12/2020