Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind

Yuval Noah Harari’s brief history of humankind is brief enough that I could read it and listen to its audiobook in one weekend. It is long enough that my reading chair could do with shaking my weight off it.

Leaving its accuracy aside, since I am not a historian myself (not yet, neither you nor I know what the future holds) and cannot evaluate the accuracy of the content, suffice it to say that I enjoyed reading this book so much that I did not do much else this weekend besides spending time with her.

The immediate impact of this book on me is: I shall eat even less meat than I already do; I shall give great consideration to consuming less fish but I am not sure I can yet forgo that as well; Cakes or sweets are generally not allowed except on special occasions. Part One of this book, the Cognitive Revolution, nearly persuaded me to become a vegan, but then I recall my time spent with vegan friends, how challenging it was to find food and drinks 100% vegan, even in California, the state with great health and environment consciousness, and how few options we were left with. I conclude that I shall be a vegan by and large, but when the difficulty arises, my stomach is open to any reasonable choices.

One other lesson I draw from this book (whether intended by the writer or not): much of where we are now is by chance. “It is an iron rule of history that what looks inevitable in hindsight was far from obvious at the time.” I would like to agree with that. It brings sanity and eliminates excessive entitlement, which is one common disease of our present world. A few words from a classmate of mine at Stanford some time ago resurface in my mind often. This lady needs visual assistance and she attends classes with a very handsome service dog called Nathan. During a discussion, she said, “I am worthy of love and…”. I was impressed by its expression and delivery, and by the word “worthy” here, by that choice instead of “entitled”.

It is amazingly liberating and humbling to read that we were pretty insignificant millions of years ago.

On a hike in East Africa 2 million years ago, you might well have encountered a familiar cast of human characters: anxious mothers cuddling their babies and clutches of carefree children playing in the mud; temperamental youths chafing against the dictates of society and weary elders who just wanted to be left in peace; chest-thumping machos trying to impress the local beauty and wise old matriarchs who had already seen it all. These archaic humans loved, played, formed close friendships and competed for status and power – but so did chimpanzees, baboons and elephants. There was nothing special about humans. Nobody, least of all humans themselves, had any inkling that their descendants would one day walk on the moon, split the atom, fathom the genetic code and write history books. The most important thing to know about prehistoric humans is that they were insignificant animals with no more impact on their environment than gorillas, fireflies or jellyfish.

I like the way that Harari began the book with these paragraphs. Simple, straightforward, and preparing the reader with what this book is about.

About 14 billion years ago, matter, energy, time and space came into being in what is known as the Big Bang. The story of these fundamental features of our universe is called physics.

About 300,000 years after their appearance, matter and energy started to coalesce into complex structures, called atoms, which then combined into molecules. The story of atoms, molecules and their interactions is called chemistry.

About 4 billion years ago, on a planet called Earth, certain molecules combined to form particularly large and intricate structures called organisms. The story of organisms is called biology.

About 70,000 years ago, organisms belonging to the species Homo sapiens started to form even more elaborate structures called cultures. The subsequent development of these human cultures is called history.

Three important revolutions shaped the course of history: the Cognitive Revolution kick-started history about 70,000 years ago. The Agricultural Revolution sped it up about 12,000 years ago. The Scientific Revolution, which got under way only 500 years ago, may well end history and start something completely different. This book tells the story of how these three revolutions have affected humans and their fellow organisms.

Some thought-provoking passages to whet your appetite for this book:

It’s our current exclusivity, not that multi-species past, that is peculiar – and perhaps incriminating.

Evolution thus favoured those capable of forming strong social ties. In addition, since humans are born underdeveloped, they can be educated and socialised to a far greater extent than any other animal. Most mammals emerge from the womb like glazed earthenware emerging from a kiln – any attempt at remoulding will only scratch or break them. Humans emerge from the womb like molten glass from a furnace. They can be spun, stretched and shaped with a surprising degree of freedom. This is why today we can educate our children to become Christian or Buddhist, capitalist or socialist, warlike or peace-loving.

Ever since the Cognitive Revolution, Sapiens have thus been living in a dual reality. On the one hand, the objective reality of rivers, trees and lions; and on the other hand, the imagined reality of gods, nations and corporations. As time went by, the imagined reality became ever more powerful, so that today the very survival of rivers, trees and lions depends on the grace of imagined entities such as the United States and Google.

This is the essence of the Agricultural Revolution: the ability to keep more people alive under worse conditions.

The pursuit of an easier life resulted in much hardship, and not for the last time. It happens to us today. How many young college graduates have taken demanding jobs in high-powered firms, vowing that they will work hard to earn money that will enable them to retire and pursue their real interests when they are thirty-five? But by the time they reach that age, they have large mortgages, children to school, houses in the suburbs that necessitate at least two cars per family, and a sense that life is not worth living without really good wine and expensive holidays abroad. What are they supposed to do, go back to digging up roots? No, they double their efforts and keep slaving away.

One of history’s few iron laws is that luxuries tend to become necessities and to spawn new obligations. Once people get used to a certain luxury, they take it for granted. Then they begin to count on it. Finally they reach a point where they can’t live without it.

According to Buddhist tradition…suffering arises from craving; the only way to be fully liberated from suffering is to be fully liberated from craving; and the only way to be liberated from craving is to train the mind to experience reality as it is.

This is one of the distinguishing marks of history as an academic discipline – the better you know a particular historical period, the harder it becomes to explain why things happened one way and not another. Those who have only a superficial knowledge of a certain period tend to focus only on the possibility that was eventually realised. They offer a just-so story to explain with hindsight why that outcome was inevitable. Those more deeply informed about the period are much more cognisant of the roads not taken. In fact, the people who knew the period best – those alive at the time – were the most clueless of all. For the average Roman in Constantine’s time, the future was a fog. It is an iron rule of history that what looks inevitable in hindsight was far from obvious at the time.

History is what is called a ‘level two’ chaotic system. Chaotic systems come in two shapes. Level one chaos is chaos that does not react to predictions about it. The weather, for example, is a level one chaotic system. Though it is influenced by myriad factors, we can build computer models that take more and more of them into consideration, and produce better and better weather forecasts. Level two chaos is chaos that reacts to predictions about it, and therefore can never be predicted accurately. Markets, for example, are a level two chaotic system. What will happen if we develop a computer program that forecasts with 100 percent accuracy the price of oil tomorrow? The price of oil will immediately react to the forecast, which would consequently fail to materialise. If the current price of oil is $90 a barrel, and the infallible computer program predicts that tomorrow it will be $100, traders will rush to buy oil so that they can profit from the predicted price rise. As a result, the price will shoot up to $100 a barrel today rather than tomorrow. Then what will happen tomorrow? Nobody knows.

So why study history? Unlike physics or economics, history is not a means for making accurate predictions. We study history not to know the future but to widen our horizons, to understand that our present situation is neither natural nor inevitable, and that we consequently have many more possibilities before us than we imagine. For example, studying how Europeans came to dominate Africans enables us to realise that there is nothing natural or inevitable about the racial hierarchy, and that the world might well be arranged differently.

Was my weekend well spent? I think so.

Now, if you would excuse me, I have a broad set of topics to prepare for the coming week, such as bio-inspired robotics, autonomous systems, nano-photonics, quantum memory and so on.

Reading this book does not help me to address the design challenges of classical or quantum systems, but it enables to me think much more broadly and critically.

At the very least, I do not feel like being an alien when I do not give it a damn about things that are important in the conventional sense but pretty meaningless to me, because a great deal of the assigned importance is constructed by people’s imagination.

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