History of mankind

A thrilling tale from species origin through post-humans

Hominins have existed for 2.4 million years. Humans, our vile great apes, have only existed for 150,000 years, or 6% of that period. The subtitle of Sapiens shouldn’t be “A Brief History of Humankind”. Yuval Noah Harari devoted 95% of his book to us as a species because, despite our self-ignorance, we know more about ourselves than other human species, including several extinct ones. Harari calls us sapiens, yet our past is merely a minor part of humankind’s.

Can 400 pages cover its entirety? 

No, it’s easier to write a concise history of time—all 14bn years—and Harari spends several pages on our present and prospective future. But he boldly outlines sapiens’ undisputed deeper lines.

We live unremarkably for half our lives, then we undergo upheavals. The “cognitive” revolution began some 70,000 years ago when we became more intelligent for unknown reasons and expanded fast over the earth. Agriculture began 11,000 years ago when more people switched from hunting and gathering to farming. About 500 years ago, the “scientific revolution” began. It triggered the industrial revolution 250 years ago, which prompted the information revolution 50 years ago, which triggered the biotechnology revolution, which is yet young. Harari believes the biotechnology revolution will replace sapiens with “immortal” cyborgs that can live eternally.

Harari embeds many other significant events

This is one layout. Harari embeds many other significant events, like the emergence of language, which allows us to think deeply about abstract issues, cooperate in bigger numbers, and, most importantly, gossip. Religion is rising and toxic monotheisms are slowly replacing polytheisms. Money and, more critically, credit evolved. As empires and trade spread, capitalism did too.

Harari navigates these complex issues in an engaging and educational manner.

 Interesting that “We did not domesticate wheat. It domesticated us.” Harari calls it “a Faustian bargain between humans and grains” in which humanity “cast off its intimate symbiosis with nature and sprinted towards greed and alienation”. Poor deal: “The agricultural revolution was history’s biggest fraud”. It usually brought poorer food, longer hours of work, a higher chance of famine, cramped living circumstances, more disease susceptibility, new insecurity, and an ugly hierarchy. Harari believes factory farming is evil and concludes with one of his many superlatives: “Modern industrial agriculture might well be the greatest crime in history”.

He agrees that our emotions and desires remain unchanged despite various revolutions, citing the interaction between our hunter-gatherer minds and the post-industrial environment, including mega-cities, airplanes, telephones, and computers. We may live in high-rise buildings with overstuffed refrigerators, but our DNA thinks we’re on the savannah.” He provides the example of how our strong cravings for sugar and fat have made unhealthy and ugly meals widely available. Pornography is another example. Like overeating, pornography addicts’ thoughts would seem like bloated bodies.

In one passage, Harari calls the Gilgamesh Project “the leading project of the scientific revolution”: “to give humankind eternal life” or “immortality”.

 He believes it will succeed. Immortality isn’t immortality because we can always die violently, and Harari is cautious about its benefits. Larry Niven’s Ringworld science fiction novel “Puppeteers” illustrates how immortals might become frantic and paralyzingly cautious. We may lose loved ones more horribly. In Julian Barnes’s A History of the World in 10½ Chapters, the concluding chapter suggests that we may tire of everything, even in heaven. We may agree with JRR Tolkien’s elves, who considered mortality as a blessing humans lacked. We may experience Philip Larkin’s “Beneath it all, the desire of oblivion runs.”

Even if we ignore these concerns, immortality may not make us happier. Harari relies on well-known studies that suggest material wealth has minimal effect on daily happiness. Money helps, but only when it pulls us out of poverty. More money changes a little after that. Luck lifts a lottery winner, but after 18 months her daily happiness returns to its original level. If we had an infallible “happy meter” and traveled to Orange County and Kolkata, we might not have received consistently higher results in the first place.

Sapiens repeatedly emphasize happiness. In July, the New York Times criticized conservative American Enterprise Institute president Arthur Brooks for favoring the rich and justifying income inequality. Critics were perplexed because wealth inequality is damaging to all, yet happiness data is clear. Harari still suggests that humans’ lives now may be worse than 15,000 years ago.

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