The march of history is long and mysterious in many ways. In the last 150,000 years, our species has evolved much from an ape-like tree-dwelling mammals of genus homo.
There are a number of theories about what make us human, or superior to other animals in terms of our impact on the ecological system, or why we today sit on top of the food chain.
Seventy thousand years ago, homo sapiens, us, were among many other weaker animals, helpless against the forces of nature and larger predators. Yet, with time, homo sapiens thrived at the cost other human species and animals. We not only survived but invented tools which helped us fight against the nature’s cruelties.
But Yuval Noah Harari has a complete new and stunning perspective on history. He believes that when homo sapiens became capable of cooperation in larger numbers through shared myths and ideas, they gained superiority over other animals and human species. The crucial reason we have done so well is our ability of myth making, inventing belief systems which were essential for social organization.
In early ages, humans lived in small groups. They were foragers (hunter gatherers). According to Harari, the group numbers never crossed the 100 or so because those prehistoric societies did not have the social tools to surpass that number. Like other animals, they only cooperated with people they knew like family members or friends. But some 70,000 years ago, homo sapiens developed new cognitive abilities, which Harari describes as the beginning of the Cognitive Revolution. These new abilities made homo sapiens capable of creating languages, ideas and stories. Those who believed in the same story could now cooperate without ever seeing each other.
Harari argues in his book that human superiority over other animals is only in collective terms. If you leave one human being and one chimpanzee in an island, the chimpanzee will survive better. But if you leave one thousand human beings and one thousand chimpanzees in the island, humans will survive better, because chimpanzees cannot cooperate in large numbers and humans can.
This cooperation led to the Agricultural Revolution and the eventual formation of cities, states and religions. But here too Harari has a new perspective. He calls the Agricultural Revolution the biggest fraud in human history, as it made human life more miserable though it helped them grow in large numbers and become more powerful ever.
Once homo sapiens domesticated a wild grass, wheat, they spent less time foraging and much more time looking after the crops. They lost their freedom. The foragers worked little and ate a more balanced diet. Domestication of crops made them dependent on a few crops and they worked longer hours tending to fields.
According to Harari, our greatest achievement is the creation of common myths. The belief in a common story, be it religious or political, leads us to greater social cooperation and pave the way for the first city states. A set of moral and social values or religious belief systems made way for a broader web of social cooperation.
The first human societies consisted of foragers who lived a freer and happier life and domestication of animals and crops was started accidently and in an unorganized manner. After the Agricultural Revolution, humans had to toil for longer hours in the field, breaking their back as human body had not been evolved for such kind of work. A bad crop and famine were ever present which resulted in the death of hundreds of thousands of humans.
In the foraging era, a band of foragers could easily migrate to another territory if faced with famine or lack of wild plant and game. But in an agricultural society, you just cannot abandon your fields and homes.
Harari says it was not the homo sapiens who domesticated the wheat but it was the other way around. It was the wheat which domesticated the homo sapiens. We left our much happier lives for the benefit of a wild grass and transformed it into the omnipotent wheat crop we know today. In this bargain we made sure we help the wheat thrive, protect it from weather and pests, and provided it with a conducive environment to survive.
For thousands of years, we toiled to transform a wild grass into today’s wheat. When we traveled we took the wheat with us and provided new regions for its plantation. So Harari says the story of agricultural civilization is the success story of a wild grass against an intelligent being.
Harari says money and empires had a crucial role in human unification, money being the only story in the world that everyone believes in. Osama bin Laden might had had differences with the United States, but he had nothing against the US dollar.
Harari argues that dollar or any money has no value in itself as it is just a piece of paper. But our general belief in the value of money makes it valuable.
Once you can convince a large population of homo sapiens to believe in a common story — be it religious or political – you can create empires and banks.
The formation of empires resulted in the emergence of huge bureaucracies to manage and keep records. He says the first scripts emerged as a necessity to keep property and taxation records. The Sumerians created a partial script they devised only to keep records of land and taxation. One could not write poetry or novel with it because it was like a mathematical script or musical connotations created to serve a particular purpose.
Later the scripts became more sophisticated, capable of recording every aspect of human life. This phenomena of written language and empire building was going on in different homo sapien societies almost simultaneously — with little or no contact between these societies. From Mesopotamia to Egypt and from China to Central America, the homo sapiens were almost engaged in the same way of empire building and creation of scripts keep records. Yuval Noah Harari has no clear insight into why all these societies embarked simultaneously on a similar pattern of social and political process and for some reason all these societies were patriarchal.
As said earlier, the homo sapiens had no greater impact on the eco system than a jelly fish or firefly before 70,000 thousand years ago. But we were about to embark on a quest that would trigger a process of unprecedented change and impact the eco system and other species and in the result they became the masters of this planet taking the center stage. We are the only species which can have serious impact on our environment and drive other species to extinction.
The one factor which is key to the running and survival of our modern and sophisticated societies is money. Harari says money is one of the greatest inventions the homo sapiens came up with as the barter system was not capable to sustain the economic systems of empires. He points out towards an interesting fact that money is the only thing that even enemies love and cherish alike. The crusaders never refused Muslim gold and silver coins imprinted with Islamic religious symbols and similarly Osama bin laden was an enemy of the United States but he would not have anything against the US dollar bills.
According to Harari, money has become the dominant force in human unification. And like religion and political ideas, it doesn’t exist in reality. It is just another myth believed by humans. Money doesn’t have any objective value. Harari says if you give a dollar bill to a chimpanzee and ask him to give you a banana it is carrying it would never agree to such a deal. Or if you tell a chimpanzee to give up his banana now and he will later be rewarded in heaven with three bananas, it will never go for such a bargain. It is only us who are capable of believing in myths and that makes us different from a chimpanzee.
Harari thinks human rights is another myth which have no objective existence. He says human rights only exist in our minds like all other ideas. We homo sapiens don’t have inherent human rights, and human rights can change from time to time. We believe the white and black people have the same rights today. But we didn’t believe so in the past. In South Africa, there was a time when the black people were treated as lesser humans. They could not visit white beaches. It was not because white people had better skin protection against the sun. They may be naturally more venerable to sun exposure. But once human beings choose to believe in a certain idea it is very hard to convince them otherwise. You have to create another idea to replace an existing one.
The advent of agricultural revolution, city states and later empires made the way for first multinational states. There was a time when foraging societies lived in small villages like settlements where everyone knew everyone but these empires were multilingual and multiethnic and multicultural entities where people worshiped different gods and followed different religions.
Harari ponders over the fact that if we didn’t chose monotheistic religions in a certain time in history we would have been more tolerant as worshippers of polytheistic or duelist religions. He points out that after the emergence of these monotheistic religion as main the religions of a significant portion of human population the religious violence intensified in human history. No point in history human beings exerted as much violence in the name of religion as after the monopoly of monotheistic religions. He says during Roman paganism, the Romans never conquered people to convert them into their religion. Most of the time, the Roman subjects were free to practice their ancestral gods freely but monotheistic religions felt the strong need to convert their new subjects through violence. We have seen this phenomenon with Christians in South America and Africa, and Muslims in India and Persia. They regarded the coverts and their souls as valuable as their lands and women acquired during the war.
Harari think these factors led to the unification of homo sapiens throughout the world and this unification of human societies is still underway and especially after the age of Industrial Revolution a global civilization has emerged which will gradually result into a global empire.
He argues that if we study human history we can see this unification has a developing pattern in all human societies. More and more human societies now similarities with each other. We can already see a global culture emerging which indicates towards the unification of homo sapiens as one global community.
Harari fears that homo sapiens might get extinct in the near future due to their own doing. He think the science revolution which is responsible for the technological age today and the developments in the fields of biotechnology and genetics will enable us as a species to achieve immortality and creation of cyborgs. These much stronger and more intelligent beings will replace us, making the homo sapiens irrelevant.
It will be the first time in the evolutionary history of living things that non organic and material will merge with the living organic life form to create a man-machine unification. It will change homo sapiens beyond our imagination and also will open the door for unlimited new possibilities which were previously thought to be unconceivable.
The book is a fascinating read and I suggest that anyone with even a little interest in human history or in our species should read this enthralling 400 pages of roller coaster ride.
It is for the first time a historian has merged the evolutionary biology and history together to have a better perspective about ourselves.
Humans are strange creature with huge appetite for knowledge about everything. But we as a species know less about our own history and social evolution or future.
Yuval Noah Harari’s Sapiens: A brief History of Humankind opens new roads into understanding ourselves, our origins and a future we are sleepwalking towards.