Sapiens — A Brief History of Humankind by Yuval Harari
Harvill Secker, 2011
Review by John Maindonald
Sapiens is a history of the human species, from hunter-gatherer times through to the present. Harari describes broad patterns and themes that, he argues, help understand and explain human history, from human beginnings through to modern times. As Laurie Chisholm commented in his review of Harari’s later book “Homo Deus” in the March 2019 newsletter, Harari is a master of the grand generalisation.
In Harari’s account, three major revolutions have shaped human society — a cognitive revolution around 70,000 years ago, an agricultural revolution around 11,000 years ago, and the scientific revolution in the 1500s. It finishes with a speculative peek into the future.
At the time of the cognitive revolution, humans started doing things no animal had done before. It was around this time that they acquired the skills, and perhaps the vision, that allowed them to break out of Africa and Asia and settle other parts of the world. Modern language skills may date back to around this time, or earlier.
Religion is, in Harari’s account, “a system of human norms and values that is founded on a belief in a superhuman order.” In the move from hunter-gatherer societies of perhaps 100 or 200 to settled agricultural societies of thousands or tens of thousands, religious myths gave rulers a sense of legitimacy and credibility that lay beyond human authority. The ruler who could claim divine authority was better placed to enforce that authority than a tribal leader whose place in the pecking order was more easily open to challenge. Universal religions have been the third great unifier of human kind, alongside money and empires, with competing ideologies that have led to wars and genocides.
Other myths that have helped order human societies have included ideas of nation, justice, and human rights, and the monetary system. The monetary system relies on belief in a myth that does its job only so long as we believe in it. A loss of public confidence in the banking system brings a financial crash. Is this, also, how it is with human society? The better society for which we crave will come only if enough of us believe in it.
The scientific revolution of the 16th and 17th centuries has provided the technology that has allowed humans to transform both the society and the world outside. Mythical stories have been replaced by theories that can be falsified — no concept or idea is sacred and beyond challenge. The changes from the time preceding the scientific revolution have been breath-taking.
Harari discusses the changes — positive and negative, that have come from harnessing science in the service of capitalism. Free market capitalism does not ensure that profits are gained in a fair way, or distributed in a fair way. Witness the Atlantic slave trade, colonial wars of conquest, the first opium war fought between Britain and China, and countless other crimes that accompanied the growth of the modern economy. While steps have been taken, starting in the early 20th century, to rein in capitalism, there has been an uneasy alliance with modern consumerism that is “destroying the foundations of human prosperity in an orgy of reckless consumption. On the positive side, there have been large improvements, for the majority of humans alive today, in the standard of living and in human health. But, are we any happier?
Towards the end, Harari argues that the next stage of human history will involve biological and technological changes that will change human consciousness and identity, calling the very term “human” into question. Mary Shelley’s “Dr. Frankenstein” may be closer to becoming a reality than we are willing to believe. We should, however, learn from history that attempts to predict the future course of technological development may, due to unforeseen barriers, never materialise.
Homo sapiens, Harari suggests, will become Homo Deus, if humans do not destroy themselves first. Humans are today, Harari argues, on the way to becoming “self-made gods” who are “irresponsible” and “discontented.” Is there anything more dangerous than dissatisfied and irresponsible gods who do not know what they want?
In total, the book is a bold attempt to provide a broad framework for understanding the forces that have driven human history. Whether or not one agrees with him, he provides a useful starting point for thinking about the forces that have operated, and will operate, to shape human societies.