Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind by Yuval Noah Harari
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
There’s a song by Leonard Nimoy called “Highly Illogical,” in which Nimoy – as his “Star Trek” character, the astute Mr. Spock – is perplexed by all the inconsistencies he finds observing the human race. The humor is on the “why do we drive on a parkway and park on a driveway” level, but it’s still amusing.
Let me tell you, Mr. Spock, you don’t know the half of it.
Yuval Noah Harari attempts to trace several hundred thousand years of humankind’s evolution in “Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind,” and if I have to draw one conclusion from his voluminous research, it’s that we’re one fucked-up creation and it’s our own damn fault.
Harari is at his best when he’s being provocative. He calls the Agricultural Revolution of 10,000 years ago – which changed our species from small bands of hunter-gatherers to larger groups of farmers – “history’s biggest fraud,” because it led to “population explosions and pampered elites” that had poorer nutrition than the hunter-gatherers.
Of course, you could also argue that it led to villages and cities, and trade and commerce, and even the idea of “the future,” as our species suddenly had to plan months or years ahead, instead of making the nut for the day. And to his credit, Harari mentions all of these things – though it’s hard to escape that initial headline.
(Some organisms that did make out well with the Agricultural Revolution? Cereal grasses, which used us to spread all over the world while making us dependent on them. So when you say someone is dumber than grass, maybe you’re underestimating grass — or greatly overestimating the person you’re talking about.)
He also points out that many aspects of life are myths commonly agreed upon. After all, there really are no such things as corporations, or religions, or money, or even countries – they’re just human inventions on whose existence we concur. In regards to countries, in fact, Harari notes that many modern nations don’t even have a shared tribal base, just some bonds of culture and taught history. So much of what we identify with is really nurture, not nature.
And – in an almost passing thought on the nature of good and evil – he talks about the dilemmas raised by monotheism and dualism. In the former, the assumption is that God is omnipotent but has given his human creation free will, so we’re allowed to choose evil. The latter assumes that there are independent good and evil forces in the world making their claims on us humans.
Harari notes that there is a solution that satisfies the dilemma: there is one omnipotent God, and He is evil. But, as he adds, that’s not something we humans really want to consider. (Though science fiction writers certainly have – often with us as God.)
Harari is less interesting when he’s combining history, sociology, anthropology, psychology and various other disciplines into his stew. Some of the vignettes are interesting in a “Connections”/James Burke-type way; for example, I didn’t know that Captain Cook’s voyage was funded by a variety of scientists and that he used the opportunity to test citrus fruits as a prevention for scurvy, as well as using his tour of the Pacific to colonize Australia and Tasmania, thus practically wiping out the indigenous people who’d been there for centuries. (For Harari, there’s always a dichotomy, which is as it should be.) But there are also long stretches where he’s explaining the basics of history and culture, and he’s not nearly as interesting or amusing as Bill Bryson giving short takes on science in “A Short History of Nearly Everything.”
Still, one can’t help but be impressed by the fortitude of us carbon-based life forms, bumbling forward in spite of ourselves, these days holding on to Bronze Age concepts while manipulating iPhones. At one point Harari notes that someone born around the year 500 would find virtually nothing different 500 years later in A.D. 1000, but someone born in 1500 would be gobsmacked by the world of 2000, given the impact of printed matter, the Industrial Revolution, and scientific advancement. I was reminded of a famous line from “Mad Men”: After a secretary, Mrs. Blankenship, dies at her desk, an executive observes, “She was born in 1898 in a barn. She died on the 37th floor of a skyscraper. She was an astronaut.” That episode was set in 1965 – the year I was born.
(And let me tell you, I’ve seen some things. Now get off my lawn.)
Overall, even with its flaws, “Sapiens” is engaging and thought-provoking. Harari is, by training, an historian, so it’s an observation about history that has stuck with me afterwards. Though psychologically we like to see history in trends and patterns, he notes that nothing is foreordained, nothing is guaranteed. Ask a European in 1940 what the world would look like in five years; for that matter, ask a Mongol in 1240.
History can turn on a dime — and lead to unexpected places. Trade can spread ideas and disease; colonization can bring back riches and destroy civilizations. All history can tell us is where we’ve been. The rest is interpretation and speculation, even if it’s highly informed.
Those hunter-gatherers of 9500 B.C. had no idea what awaited them. More than 11,000 years later, we still don’t, even if we think we do. If I were Mr. Spock, I might want to head back to Vulcan.
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