There is an estimate of nearly 8.7 million species exist right now on Earth. Out of them, only one species, Homo sapiens, that is more intelligent and dominant than all others. Homo sapiens now have attained the power to wipeout life from the face of the Earth, if desired. What’s more interesting to question here is, how we became this much smarter? How we managed ourselves to get on top of the food chain? What’s the secret of our success as a species? There are only a few books that explore on this subject. Israeli historian, Yuval Noah Harari’s Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind is one of them. This is my favourite book on human history as it has awaken many critical questions in me, ranging from evolution to theology. Harari writes the 70,000 years of Homo sapiens’ history in an excellent, vivid and thrilling manner.
In the initial chapters, Harari takes us to pre historic times, as back as 2.5 million years from now. Humans were first evolved around this period from an earlier genus of apes called Australopithecus. Most of us may think that pre historic humans were always dominant right from their evolution, but evidences suggest that they were just insignificant animals with no impact on their environment than gorillas, fireflies or jelly fish. Some of the humans, around 2 million years ago, settled and evolved independently in North Africa, Europe and Asia. For example, Europe was inhabited by Homo neanderthalensis, Eastern Asia was populated by Homo erectus and the island of Java by Homo soloensis. Modern humans, Homo sapiens, were just another human species, evolved around 150,000 years ago, mostly dwelled in the regions of East Africa.
As we see today, only one of those human species, Homo sapiens is still alive, while all other species became extinct. What caused this extinction? Why Homo sapiens emerged as the most successful species on Earth? Harari points out this to our unique cognitive abilities, appearance of new ways of thinking and communicating, happened around 70,000 years ago. He calls this, the Cognitive Revolution. According to historians, communication of Homo sapiens started with yelling at dangers and gossiping about other sapiens. Harari states, “The unique feature of our communication and language is not to transmit information about real things, but the ability to share information about things that do not exist at all”. He further argues that our ability to create imagined realities such as social constructs, laws, justice, human rights, gods, myths, money and nations enabled large number of strangers to cooperate effectively for complex tasks. Ever since the Cognitive Revolution, Homo sapiens have been able to change their behaviour quickly. But this is not the case with other species. For example, Neanderthals were unable to cooperate effectively nor could adapt to rapidly changing challenges, which drove them to extinction.
Harari further moves to second major phase in human history, the Agricultural Revolution, which happened around 10,000 years ago. More and more food was produced by cultivation, thereby enabling Homo sapiens to multiply exponentially. Yet, Harari calls this shift to agriculture from foraging as History’s biggest fraud. He argues that we were better as hunter gatherers. He backs up this with a number of reasons, firstly, foragers received a balanced diet with all nutrients, while agriculturists, even after putting lots of hard work, obtained limited nutrition due to single variety of crops. Second, the agricultural societies were ravaged by natural calamities and even more infectious diseases due to animal husbandry. Third, the social hierarchies were created due to agriculture. Harari reckons that we were trapped in this luxury and couldn’t go back to foraging ever. I like the way he correlates this with modern human psychology of pursuing easier and secure life in return of much hard work.
After agricultural revolution, human societies grew ever larger and more complex. Harari argues that the imagined constructs (social orders) became artificial instincts in us which we named as culture. He further states that the history was moving in a direction of global unity because of three major universal orders- economical, political and religious. Unsurprisingly, these three have impacted on our scientific thinking. For example, economical and political objectives led to a series of geographical expeditions which resulted in numerous discoveries and scientific advancements. Religious myths, on the other hand, were contradicted by new scientific theories in the first millennium. All these findings began the third major phase in human history, the Scientific Revolution. Harari further discusses the impact of scientific and industrial revolutions on Homo sapiens and their happiness. The most interesting part is the final section of the book, the future of Homo sapiens and the questions related to our survival as a species.
There is a plenty of stuff I learned from this book. First, it gave me a brief idea of our species: it’s past, present and future. Second, it answered some prominent questions like- How did we become the dominant species on Earth? How social constructs came into existence? How the industrial revolution impacted our society? Harari beautifully weaved a story out of them, where the readers will never feel bore with his narration. Conversely, there is a lot more to disagree with this book. There are many questions that need to be answered, both from scientific and philosophical point of views*.
- We know, there are millions of evolved species exist without cooperation and imagined realities. Yet Homo sapiens require collective shared myths (fictional stories) for their survival (according to author). Why would evolution care about cooperation in the first place? Why there is a necessity to survive as a species despite the complexities involved in?
- Contrary to Harari’s opinion, animal species of Australia and remaining parts of the world are not 100% different. (e.g., similarities between Placental and Marsupial animals). Doesn’t this suggest that even under different environmental pressures, nature would inherently produce organisms with limited amount of certain features ?
- Prior to language origin, there were no written moral values and laws. Yet, homo sapiens were gossiping on fellow beings’ behaviour, on what standard and judgement ?
- Why the idea of cultivation independently hit different groups of Homo sapiens situated in different regions? Was Agriculture inevitable for human species ?
- Is there any possibility of imagined realities based on objective truths ?
- Harari doesn’t believe in objective morals, yet he treats the social discrimination in the history as an “unfair” act. How could he justify the terms “fair” and “unfair”, unless there are some standard objective grounds? Furthermore, he sounds too much biased with his arguments, especially in the discussion related to homo sexuality.
*(In my upcoming blogs, I’ll be addressing these questions in more details with supporting studies)
Whatever the case, Sapiens is still an extraordinary book that grips the reader throughout the end. It embarks great conversations and debates among us, while imparting the knowledge on human history. Whether somebody agrees or disagrees, the transformation of our species from ordinary ape like animals in jungle to space exploring humans in ISS – is certainly splendid !
If you are interested in reading about human history and evolutionary insights of our species, this is a great book to start with. I strongly believe, it will answer your big questions related to our species, Homo sapiens.
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