Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, written by Yuval Noah Harari is an interesting non-fiction book about the development of Sapiens, from prehistoric times through our modern day.
As someone without a scientific background I found the book fascinating and the concepts easy to follow. Although some of the ideas presented in the book are not based on hard science they are rooted in firm logic and are plausible theories.
I will attempt to present an overview of the main ideas and themes in the book.
The Cognitive Revolution
The Cognitive Revolution started 70,000 years ago. It is when humans began separating themselves from the rest of the animals intellectually. That's right, we're animals, really no better or no worse than your average mouse, ape or dolphin. We, humans, simply developed into the masters of our world by adapting better than other animals. We are much closer to Apes, Chimpanzees and the extinct Neanderthal than most of us would like to admit.
What secured our place atop the food chain is our brains and the way in which they allowed us to develop and use tools. Along with tools, was our discovery of fire, itself something we used as a tool which allowed us to cook food and clear forest for the farming endeavors that really allowed our species to take off and leave the other animals of the world in our dust, so to speak.
The final attribute that propelled us atop the food chain was our use of language. Language and cooperation allowed us to conquer the world, from the deserts to the coldest regions, humans adapted, and conquered their environment unlike any other animal had before or since.
Language also allowed us to express things that didn't exist. Many animals can and do communicate. Some monkeys, for example can communicate that there is an eagle near by. But only a human can say they saw an eagle when they were a child and that it had scared them. Our use of language allows us to invent complex ideas about things that do not exist in the real world, such as the idea of god, or money or corporations. Apes, our closest relatives in the animal kingdom do not have gods, do not contemplate their existence nor do they covet material goods such as gold and silver. An ape will gladly trade you a bar of gold all day long in exchange for a banana. Although if you think about it; which animal is smarter in this example? At least the ape can eat the banana! Gold has no realistic value other than we have agreed as an abstract idea that gold, is a material, that is valuable, worth fighting over, worth stealing and worth killing for? But why?
Humans currently reign supreme, but at one point in time dinosaurs ruled the world too, and with one asteroid their reign was over as ours most likely will be at some point as well. The interesting question is what will replace us. Will it be the roaches and rats that survive after a nuclear annihilation or will it be the artificial intelligence we are on the cusp of that may decide, after they surpass us intellectually, that they no longer need us and we are in fact a threat to the planet that needs to be eliminated?
The Agricultural Revolution
For 2.5 millions years humans were hunters and gatherers. We ate what was available not altering the terrain to suit us. Many believe this gave us a much healthier diet, we ate what was available, sometimes ripe fruit, other times nuts or game. Our diet was varied and healthy.
About 10,000 years ago that all changed when we began manipulating the natural environment and began farming. Instead of the varied diets of our hunter and gathering ancestors we began eating the staples of farming, potatoes, wheat, rice and corn. A diet which has not changed much since we began farming. This allowed us to feed a much larger population than hunting and gathering did.
Many argue that the agricultural revolution was a trap. Hunting and gathering was easier, it required less work and more leisure time, while farming required long hours toiling in the fields. But having grown our population exponentially we cannot simply shift gears and move away from farming and back to hunting and gathering. If we did, millions of people would starve and die fighting over limited resources. So we continue to farm and also continue to grow the world's population.
Compare this model to the way we currently live. Many college graduates go to work for a large corporation vowing they will work 70 hour weeks so that they can retire at 35 and do what they really want. But then they hit 35 and they have two kids, a mortgage on a house that's twice the size they need and leases on two luxury cars. Add on vacations, fine dining and keeping up with the Jones and our college graduate is firmly trapped in the metaphorical rat race. If he's lucky he may retire at 65, perhaps too old to pursue the things he truly values.
Humans seem to have an innate need to search out an easier life for themselves but again and again the pursuit backfires and we trap our selves. It began with farming, which was supposed to bring us security, peace and leisure. Instead we ended up fighting over land, resources, and working harder and longer. In modern times we have repeated the same mistake. Think of all of the things intended to make our lives easier, dishwashers, vacuum cleaners and emails. Emails replaced hand written letters. But instead of giving us more time for leisure, many of us are now trapped checking our emails hourly and feel a need to respond instantly. Technology that was supposed to make our lives easier in fact has made our lives more hectic and filled us with constant underlying anxiety that we'll never catch up.
Even though humans are more or less identical we separate ourselves into groups based on nothing more than perceived differences. From the Caste System in India to the Slave Culture of early America we designate some humans as better than others based on skin color or where one is born.
To this day women struggle to be seen as equals to men. The United States still has not had a female President and only one President that hasn't been a Caucasian male. 250 plus years and there hasn't been a woman smart enough to lead our country? Or is it more likely we simply place men on a high pedestal that has not been earned.
As humans we like to sit back and marvel how intelligent we are as a species, we have traveled to the moon, invented the internet and have created marvels of technology. Yet most of us believe in an unseen god that makes no logical sense. We struggle with seeing the equality of different races or the sameness of males and females. As the planet is poised on the brink of collapse by global warming we ignore it and half of us deny it exists even in the face of overwhelming evidence.
Given these facts, are we the image of god or would the planet have simply been better off without us? Or at least, would not the hunting and gathering Neanderthal been a better steward of the planet than modern man?
Before you look down on that ape who we descended from, consider it is not hard to find a modern male who considers themselves better than females, who believes in a loving god that isn't tolerant of gay people and at the same time passionately defends gun rights, a device specifically designed to murder another human being? We are not proving to be the enlightened species we like to think of ourselves as.
The Unification Of HumanKind
Culture is what unites people, I am Irish or I am Australian are statements which define a person through their culture.
Culture is a set of rules that people abide by and agree on. However, those rules often do not make sense. For example, in medieval times, religion was highly valued, as was valor. A man might attend church in the morning and hear about being humble and meek and then later that day attend a jousting tournament where aggression and competition was the point. These two ideas of medieval culture contradicted themselves. This cognitive dissonance is what enabled the Crusades to occur. In the Crusades a man could be both holy and also a brave Knight who killed other humans. In modern times, we see the same discrepancies in American Culture. Democrats want to see a role for government taking care of the poor and weak members of society, while Republicans tout the virtue of personal freedom without government interference. Obama Care being an example, Democrats support raising taxes so that all Americans have health care, while Republicans fight the mandate that they must spend their money on health care that they may not want. They may want to spend their money on other things that are more important to them, and they feel Obama Care takes away part of their freedom to choose.
More and more cultures are merging around the world as globalization takes over. With the speed of travel and the internet it is increasingly unrealistic for cultures to remain separate. For better or worse the world is uniting into one world culture and this has been occurring for much longer than most people realize. Take for example, the movie genre, Westerns. In Westerns, we see Indians, on horse back. Brave warriors who used horses in battle much like the Mongols did. However, Native Americans riding horses was a modern adaption to their culture. In 1492 when Columbus landed in America, there were no horses on the continent. Indians had never seen a horse, let alone ride one into battle. Native American culture adapted to use the horse once it was introduced by Europeans. Most if not all cultures currently existing are a blend and mix of other cultures, like the Native Americans portrayed in film on horseback.
Humans did not start out having a desire to unite across the globe. For most of history, it's typically been an us versus them mentality. The Chieftain of one Tribe did not want to unite all Tribes, he wanted to protect the interests only of his own Tribe. This mentality started to change with the advent of religion. Religion began uniting groups across the globe, a Christian in France now had something in common with a Christian in Honduras. However, Religion could not unite completely and in some ways it divided. Simply look to Israel and Palestine to see how religion can break down unification.
The idea that ultimately drove true human unification where religion failed, is money. All groups honor and pursue monetary gain. China wants to cooperate with the United States for trade purposes, whether they agree with each others cultures or not, money brings them together.
Are You Happy?
The book concludes asking what makes us, as humans, happy? Is it simply pleasure, sex, drugs and rock and roll? Feeling good? Or is it living a meaningful life?
The author gives the example of raising children, an act that day to day isn't that pleasant. It entails changing diapers, doing dishes and managing tempt tantrums. Yet most parents claim that their kids are what bring them happiness. Are they delusional? Lying? Or does raising children give meaning to their lives and hence a perceived contentment or happiness?
So the two perceived causes of happiness, pleasure versus a meaningful life are debated. It's pointed out that people in medieval times may have been happier even though their day to day existence was quite miserable. Why? Because most if not all believed in the promise of everlasting life. Weight that against today's secular society with no long term meaning, only oblivion upon death and you can see why those that lived in medieval times may have been overall, happier.
The author concludes that Buddhists may have it right. They believe that any kind of emotion, including happiness is fleeting at best, so why bother pursuing it to begin with as it just makes you anxious and unsatisfied. The lynch pin of the Buddhist philosophy is meditation, where one simply lets feeling and thoughts flow through the mind without fixating on them, which brings if not happiness, then serenity. The author uses the metaphor of a man on a beach, trying to embrace the good waves and keep the bad waves a bay, a futile and frustrating endeavor. In contrast, a Buddhist would simply sit down on the beach and let the waves wash over him, both good and bad equally and be more content for it.
Sapiens is a book that will keep you fascinated and more importantly thinking about what you read long after you put down the book.
The author concludes the book by pointing out that to Neanderthals, modern man, with our vast technology would appear to be gods. And as technology continues to advance exponentially we are in many ways becoming godlike.
As the author, Yuval Noah Harari states, "Is there anything more dangerous than dissatisfied and irresponsible gods who don't know what they want?"