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Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind by Yuval Noah Harari


Sapiens is a thought provoking book.

It shouldn’t be surprising that a book with the subtitle “a brief history of humankind” covers a lot of ground but while the book was a times a bit of a slog (I took my time getting through it), author Yuval Noah Harari relays some very interesting information about homo sapiens and suggests reasons why we have advanced so far beyond other creatures.

It’s our ability to flexibly co-operate which is the chief reason. So what, you say, bees and ants who collectively build colonies and, in the case of bees, produce much much more as a hive than an individual could also co-operate. But that co-operation, impressive though it is, differs dramatically from the more sophisticated type of co-operation humans achieve.

As Harari points out to Russ Roberts, in this EconTalk interview from 2015, bees cannot overthrow the Queen to establish a republic of bees or a communist dictatorship of bees (the reader can judge whether either of these would progress bee society).  Furthermore, bees and ants in a colony or a hive are all related. Humans co-operate with many different types of people who are not family in the biological sense.

The point is that human beings can readily adapt their social structures. Other animals cannot.

We co-operate through corporations, churches, political parties, the broader economy, and in other ways.

There was a time when these things did not exist. They had to be created.

So, why did we create them?

Harari’s answer is as interesting as it is challenging.

He says it’s all about “stories”.

Sapiens’ capacity for imagination, Harari argues, allows us to create these stories which foster co-operation over a shared “myth”.

There are many examples. Religions created gods to establish group norms of morality* which consolidated in group identity. Political parties created ideologies based on shared “myths” such as exploitation around which group members could coalesce. Capitalism is an ideology centred around the fiction of money to establish norms of trust in the market economy. Why should little green pieces of paper with a dead president or prime minister on them mean anything?

It’s interesting when you really think about these things.

Religion is, for the most part, in our modern liberal society the “easy” story to discard. Marx’s observation that religion is the “opiate of the masses” has simply become de rigeur and I do not think that Friedrich Neitzsche’s Zarathustra really shocks any longer (there is an odd cognitive dissonance in the increased western sacralisation of Islamic religion at the same time Jewish or Christian practices are demystified and ridiculed but I digress).

So which other “ideologies” used stories?

Harari adds liberal democracy to the list. And human rights. The latter, Harari clinically but factually notes to Roberts in that EconTalk conversation, are not a biological reality. This jarred with me (in a good way) because I believe in universal human rights and I think, generally speaking, the performance of liberal democracy and capitalism is quite good. Yet, Harari is right when he tells Roberts that you can cut open a body and not see any rights. They are a “myth”.

Harari’s dispassionate analysis of these respective deeply cherished stories is, in itself, reason for reading the book.

It’s also worth reading because of the interesting historical tidbits Harari relays.

Before reading the book, I did not know just how industrious the ancient Sumerians (a people who lived in modern day Southern Iraq) were. Not only did they derive the first primitive written script but they also came up with a form of money as a means of exchange. That’s interesting and I’m glad I learned it.

I do have one point of criticism or perhaps more an additional observation about Harari’s own “myths”.

The Israeli  historian is a vegetarian. Harari spends much time lamenting humans’ terrible environmental impact on the earth. It’s true that humans have caused the extinction of a lot of animal species though I think there is reason to believe that modern legal farming is less likely to cause extinction or indeed harm to animals than earlier forms of exploitation.

And yet, Harari’s views on battery hens and on animal suffering in general did challenge my priors.  I am happily a meat eater. Perhaps it’s my contrarianism at heart but I don’t buy “free range” eggs either though I like to think animals whose meat or other produce I eat are humanely treated (animal welfare is, of course, yet another “myth” in the Harari sense). Here’s what interested me. Harari cites research on monkeys where a baby chimpanzee was given two fake mothers, one which was metal and contained milk, another which had no milk but had warm cloth. Though “she” offered no sustenance, the monkeys preferred the cloth mother to the metal one and spent more time with her. That animals should have emotional as well as physiological needs isn’t surprising. Any pet owner could tell you, though they are not an impartial judge, that this is so. Nonetheless, dogs and cats do recognise their owners and forge connections with them. I am unconvinced that animals are better off in the wild. Wild animals are subject to such horrors as being eaten alive which the domesticated do not face.

Harari finishes by opening up further avenues for questions. Humanity has come far with fewer people starving to death or suffering through horrible wars but how much further can it go? That is the subject of his next book, Homo Deus, which I was given as a Christmas gift. I shall report on it in due course.

*Jonathan Haidt discusses group morality in some detail in his excellent book The Righteous Mind: Why good people are divided by politics and region which I have just recently finished. I will endeavour to make some comments on that book soon.

Additional links: A Financial Times profile of Harari.

The aforementioned EconTalk episode.


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