http://www.theguardian.com/books/2014/sep/11/sapiens-brief-history-humankind-yuval-noah-harari-review Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind by Yuval Noah Harari -- review A swash-buckling account that begins with the origin of the species and ends with post-humans
by Galen Strawson The Guardian, Thursday 11 September 2014 07.30 BST Human beings (members of the genus Homo) have existed for about 2.4m years. Homo sapiens, our own wildly egregious species of great apes, has only existed for 6% of that time -- about 150,000 years. So a book whose main title is Sapiens shouldn't be subtitled "A Brief History of Humankind". It's easy to see why Yuval Noah Harari devotes 95% of his book to us as a species: self-ignorant as we are, we still know far more about ourselves than about other species of human beings, including several that have become extinct since we first walked the Earth. The fact remains that the history of sapiens -- Harari's name for us -- is only a very small part of the history of humankind. Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind by Yuval Noah Harari Can its full sweep be conveyed in one fell swoop – 400 pages? Not really; it's easier to write a brief history of time -- all 14bn years -- and Harari also spends many pages on our present and possible future rather than our past. But the deep lines of the story of sapiens are fairly uncontentious, and he sets them out with verve. For the first half of our existence we potter along unremarkably; then we undergo a series of revolutions. First, the "cognitive" revolution: about 70,000 years ago, we start to behave in far more ingenious ways than before, for reasons that are still obscure, and we spread rapidly across the planet. About 11,000 years ago we enter on the agricultural revolution, converting in increasing numbers from foraging (hunting and gathering) to farming. The "scientific revolution" begins about 500 years ago. It triggers the industrial revolution, about 250 years ago, which triggers in turn the information revolution, about 50 years ago, which triggers the biotechnological revolution, which is still wet behind the ears. Harari suspects that the biotechnological revolution signals the end of sapiens: we will be replaced by bioengineered post-humans, "amortal" cyborgs, capable of living forever. This is one way to lay things out. Harari embeds many other momentous events, most notably the development of language: we become able to think sharply about abstract matters, cooperate in ever larger numbers, and, perhaps most crucially, gossip. There is the rise of religion and the slow overpowering of polytheisms by more or less toxic monotheisms. Then there is the evolution of money and, more importantly, credit. There is, connectedly, the spread of empires and trade as well as the rise of capitalism. Harari swashbuckles through these vast and intricate matters in a way that is -- at its best -- engaging and informative. It's a neat thought that "we did not domesticate wheat. It domesticated us." There was, Harari says, "a Faustian bargain between humans and grains" in which our species "cast off its intimate symbiosis with nature and sprinted towards greed and alienation". It was a bad bargain: "the agricultural revolution was history's biggest fraud". More often than not it brought a worse diet, longer hours of work, greater risk of starvation, crowded living conditions, greatly increased susceptibility to disease, new forms of insecurity and uglier forms of hierarchy. Harari thinks we may have been better off in the stone age, and he has powerful things to say about the wickedness of factory farming, concluding with one of his many superlatives: "modern industrial agriculture might well be the greatest crime in history". He accepts the common view that the fundamental structure of our emotions and desires hasn't been touched by any of these revolutions: "our eating habits, our conflicts and our sexuality are all a result of the way our hunter-gatherer minds interact with our current post-industrial environment, with its mega-cities, airplanes, telephones and computers … Today we may be living in high-rise apartments with over-stuffed refrigerators, but our DNA still thinks we are in the savannah." He gives a familiar illustration – our powerful desires for sugar and fat have led to the widespread availability of foods that are primary causes of unhealthiness and ugliness. The consumption of pornography is another good example. It's just like overeating: if the minds of pornography addicts could be seen as bodies, they would look just like the grossly obese. At one point Harari claims that "the leading project of the scientific revolution" is the Gilgamesh Project (named after the hero of the epic who set out to destroy death): "to give humankind eternal life" or "amortality". He is sanguine about its eventual success. But amortality isn't immortality, because it will always be possible for us to die by violence, and Harari is plausibly sceptical about how much good it will do us. As amortals, we may become hysterically and disablingly cautious (Larry Niven develops the point nicely in his description of the "Puppeteers" in the Ringworld science fiction novels). The deaths of those we love may become far more terrible. We may grow weary of all things under the sun -- even in heaven (see the last chapter of Julian Barnes's A History of the World in 10½ Chapters). We may come to agree with JRR Tolkien's elves, who saw mortality as a gift to human beings that they themselves lacked. We may come to feel what Philip Larkin felt: "Beneath it all, desire of oblivion runs." Even if we put all these points aside, there's no guarantee that amortality will bring greater happiness. Harari draws on well-known research that shows that a person's happiness from day to day has remarkably little to do with their material circumstances. Certainly money can make a difference --- but only when it lifts us out of poverty. After that, more money changes little or nothing. Certainly a lottery winner is lifted by her luck, but after about 18 months her average everyday happiness reverts to its old level. If we had an infallible "happyometer", and toured Orange County and the streets of Kolkata, it's not clear that we would get consistently higher readings in the first place than in the second. This point about happiness is a persistent theme in Sapiens. When Arthur Brooks (head of the conservative American Enterprise Institute) made a related point in the New York Times in July, he was criticised for trying to favour the rich and justify income inequality. The criticism was confused, for although current inequalities of income are repellent, and harmful to all, the happiness research is well confirmed. This doesn't, however, prevent Harari from suggesting that the lives lived by sapiens today may be worse overall than the lives they lived 15,000 years ago. Much of Sapiens is extremely interesting, and it is often well expressed. As one reads on, however, the attractive features of the book are overwhelmed by carelessness, exaggeration and sensationalism. Never mind his standard and repeated misuse of the saying "the exception proves the rule" (it means that exceptional or rare cases test and confirm the rule, because the rule turns out to apply even in those cases). There's a kind of vandalism in Harari's sweeping judgments, his recklessness about causal connections, his hyper-Procrustean stretchings and loppings of the data. Take his account of the battle of Navarino. Starting from the fact that British investors stood to lose money if the Greeks lost their war of independence, Harari moves fast: "the bond holders' interest was the national interest, so the British organised an international fleet that, in 1827, sank the main Ottoman flotilla in the battle of Navarino. After centuries of subjugation, Greece was finally free." This is wildly distorted -- and Greece was not then free. To see how bad it is, it's enough to look at the wikipedia entry on Navarino. Harari hates "modern liberal culture", but his attack is a caricature and it boomerangs back at him. Liberal humanism, he says, "is a religion". It "does not deny the existence of God"; "all humanists worship humanity"; "a huge gulf is opening between the tenets of liberal humanism and the latest findings of the life sciences". This is silly. It's also sad to see the great Adam Smith drafted in once again as the apostle of greed. Still, Harari is probably right that "only a criminal buys a house … by handing over a suitcase of banknotes" -- a point that acquires piquancy when one considers that about 35% of all purchases at the high end of the London housing market are currently being paid in cash. http://www.theguardian.com/books/2014/sep/11/sapiens-brief- history-humankind-yuval-noah-harari-review http://www.theguardian.com/books/2014/sep/11/sapiens-brief-history-humankind-yuval-noah-harari-review Illusions of Sapiens by Tomichan Matheikal How did man come to dominate the earth though there were many other more powerful animals on the earth? As I gather from an article which introduced me to Harari's book, man created stories which in turn created an immense sense of cooperation among people. Let us understand that better. The other animals don't create stories. Man creates stories about many things like gods, nations, money, human rights, etc. These are all imaginary entities given reality to by man's stories. What does the thousand rupee note actually mean without the support of the story created by people about it -- stories about the equivalent gold in the Reserve Bank and so on. What do human rights mean, for example? One group's rights are another group's nuisance. Who decides the veracity of any of these? The stories we create attract followers. People love stories. Stories unite people. Stories are imaginative and emotive. Soon the stories create their own rules. Those who believe any story follow the rules dictated by the story. Gods begin to dictate their own rules now. Money dictates its rules. A group of people begin to draw a line somewhere and call it the national boundary. Nationalism is as very charming a story as religious beliefs. The other animals who don't create stories don’t also cooperate the way humans do to get followers for the story and to impose the story on others as the ultimate truth(s). Moreover, the human brain is far more complex than the brains of the other animals and hence can make the cooperation to seem more necessary, meaningful and purposeful. Illusions become absolute truths. We live for them, fight for them, and may die for them. That is the human being, a unique animal that sent thousands and thousands of other animals, animals without illusions, into extinction. http://matheikal.blogspot.in/2014/09/illusions-of-sapiens. html http://matheikal.blogspot.in/2014/09/illusions-of-sapiens.html Here, Srinath Perur https://webcache.googleusercontent.com/search?q=cache:EkRFYF6gK4sJ:https://www.tumblr.com/search/Yuval%2BNoah%2BHarari+&cd=2&hl=en&ct=clnk interviews Harari over email on a range of preoccupations and ideas, including the problem of individual happiness, the future of humanity and, of course, in which historical period would Harari like to be born again. Your earlier work was on military history, but you've since shifted your attention to a much broader arena. What are a few 'big questions' of history that caught your curiosity and made you change? Were there other historians who inspired you in this regard? The main question that interests me is the relation between power and happiness through history. Humankind has been very good at obtaining more power, so that today we are a thousand times more powerful than our ancestors. But are we also happier? That’s far less clear. It seems that humans are not very good at utilizing power to overcome suffering and to increase happiness. Why? This relates to other big questions that I explore in the book, such as why men have dominated women in most human societies, for example. How did people come to believe in gods, in individualism, and in human rights? How did we all come to live in nation-states? How did capitalism become the dominant religion of the whole world? How is it, for example, that all the people in the world -- despite disagreeing about gods and political leaders – nevertheless believe in the same money? How come even Osama bin Laden, who hated American religion, American culture and the American political system, was quite fond of American dollars? When I began studying at university, I thought this would be the ideal place to try and answer such big questions. But I was disappointed. The academic world encouraged me to focus on narrower and narrower questions, and gave me the impression that one could not approach the big questions in a scientific way. And then I read Jared Diamond’s book, Guns, Germs and Steel, and it was a revelation. It showed me that it is possible to tackle the biggest questions of history and of human existence in a scientific way. A central idea of your book is that it is homo sapiens' ability to cooperate on a large scale and in a variety of ways that has made the species dominant. You attribute this to our ability to imagine, to create and come under the umbrella of powerful shared myths such as laws, religions, money, country, etc. This is very plausible, but is there any way this can be shown conclusively? There is ample evidence humans rule the world thanks to our ability to cooperate flexibly in large numbers. On the individual level, humans are not superior to other animals. If you put me and a chimpanzee together on a lone island and we had to struggle for survival, I would place my bets on the chimp. However, if you place 1,000 humans and 1,000 chimps on a lone island, the humans will easily win, because 1,000 chimps can never cooperate effectively. Almost all the achievements of humankind -- from building pyramids to flying to the Moon -- were the result of large-scale cooperation rather than individual abilities. When we come to the question of what enables humans to cooperate flexibly in large numbers, things are a bit more complicated. The glue that connects many people together is made not from genes, but from stories. People don’t have innate instincts for mass-cooperation with strangers. But as long as many people believe in the same stories about gods, nations, money or human rights – they follow the same laws and rules. If you examine any large-scale human cooperation, you will always find some imaginary story at its base. Two chimps from different groups who meet in the middle of the forest cannot start trading, because they don’t trust each other. If I offer you a coconut in exchange for a banana, how can I be certain that you will not cheat me? Humans solved this problem by inventing money. Money is just a fictional story. You take a piece of worthless paper, and you tell everyone that it is worth a banana. As long as everyone believes this story, complete strangers can easily trust one another and trade with one another. Are humans really the only ones who can create and spread such stories? It seems so. We have no evidence for money or gods among chimpanzees or wolves or elephants. You can never convince a chimpanzee to give you a banana by promising him that after he dies, he will go to Chimpanzee Heaven and there receive limitless bananas for his good deeds. Only humans can believe such stories. This is why we rule the world, and chimpanzees are locked up in zoos and research laboratories. But who knows. Perhaps further research will discover that chimps too have gods and money. One of the striking things about your book is your willingness to see outside conventional boundaries of historical narrative. For instance, you've distinguished the condition of individual humans from that of humankind – one can thrive while the other suffers. History has conventionally been about kings, presidents, wars. You argue that not recognizing individual happiness is "the biggest lacuna in our understanding of history". How can this be rectified? What sources would we tap? Could you give examples where this has been achieved and changed our understanding of history? There are ample sources for the study of individual well-being, and in some cases this approach has already changed our understanding of history. The most notable example is the Agricultural Revolution. It is often said that the Agricultural Revolution was a great leap forward for humanity. And it is certainly true that the collective power of humans greatly increased thanks to agriculture. But recent studies have shown that the life of the average person actually became much harder. For millions of year, humans have been adapted to hunting and gathering. Our bodies and minds were adapted to running after gazelles, climbing trees to pick apples, and sniffing around forests in search of mushrooms. Peasant life, in contrast, included long hours of plowing fields, sowing seeds, carrying water-buckets from the river, and harvesting cornstalks under a blazing sun. Such a lifestyle was harmful to human backs, knees and joints, and numbing to the human mind. In return for all this hard work, peasants usually received a worse diet than hunter-gatherers. Humans are omnivores, adapted to feeding themselves from dozens of species of fruit, nuts, tubers, herbs, mushrooms, mammals, fish, birds, reptiles, insects and worms. Peasants often kept themselves alive by relying almost exclusively on a single source of food, such as rice. They were consequently far more exposed than foragers to malnutrition and possibly even to starvation. In addition to malnutrition, peasants were also far more exposed to infectious diseases. Most human infectious diseases originated in animals such as cows and pigs, and began to plague people only after these animals were domesticated. In addition, whereas foragers lived in small mobile bands and enjoyed ideal hygienic conditions, peasants and townspeople lived in crowded permanent settlements, which were parasite hotbeds. The agricultural list of wows did not end there. Archaeological and anthropological evidence indicates that forager bands were more egalitarian, and offered fewer opportunities for one group of people to lord it over others. Agriculture opened the way for social stratification, exploitation, and possibly patriarchy. The bottom line is that even though the Indus Valley Civilization or the Mughal Empire were far more powerful than the ancient hunter-gatherer bands, the average peasant woman in Mughal India probably had a harder and less satisfying life than her ancient ancestor who lived in the Ganges Valley 20,000 years previously. Indeed, even today there are hundreds of millions of people who live harder and less satisfying lives than ancient hunter-gatherers. What would you rather do: work for 12 hours a day, 7 days a week, in a noisy, polluted and crowded factory, operating a machine that produces toys for European children -- or to go out to the forest to look for mushrooms? You've presented very convincing arguments for the overall well-being of foragers compared to peasants. Elsewhere, you’ve talked about our expectations always increasing, and thus it being possible that we're not any happier now than at other points in history. Would you prefer to have been born 20,000 years ago to live the intense, relatively uncomplicated life of an ancient forager? If you had the choice to be born again in any historical period, which would you pick? As I am now 38 years old, I think it is too late for me to learn how to be a hunter-gatherer. I would probably die within a week from eating a poisonous mushroom or falling off a tree. I am a product of 21st-century civilization, and I would not feel at home anywhere else. But if I were to be born again in any historical period, without being able to choose my social status in advance, the age of the hunter-gatherers sounds like a good time to be born. Though being reborn in the 21st-century in a well-to-do family in the affluent West is perhaps a safer option, being reborn in a poor working-class family in Bangladesh or Brazil sounds far less attractive. Another chance I would have liked to take was to be reborn in India of the 5th century BC, the era of Buddha. Of all the people in history, he strikes me as the one person who might really have understood what life is all about. I would really have liked the opportunity to meet him. While many of us may lead rushed, unfulfilled, isolated lives thanks to the march of our species, we also have the means to question it. For instance, here you are pointing out that some of our most cherished institutions and beliefs are imagined. You also say that "true believers" are necessary for such ideas to retain their power. Here's a thought experiment: your book becomes so popular that a significant number of people question their true beliefs and weaken them. Nationalism is diluted; religion ceases to be a matter of life and death and no one is really afraid of god or hell; people come to see laws and money as mere conventions; and so on. Does this result in chaos, societal collapse and widespread uncertainty and unhappiness? Or would it be a John Lennon utopia? (Sorry if this is a silly question, but imagination is one of our species' strong points…) Some conventional beliefs can be abandoned without descending into chaos. For example, for centuries many thinkers warned that if people stop believing in God and Hell, the result will be unbridled chaos, crime and violence. Yet contemporary Europe has largely abandoned these beliefs, and it is the most peaceful and orderly place in human history. Far more peaceful and orderly than the God-fearing and Hell-fearing Middle East. It is true, however, that without retaining some conventional beliefs -- such as money -- it is hard to see how large-scale human societies can function. So I think the aim should not be to completely abandon all our fictions. Rather, we should retain our more useful fictions, but at the same time be able to separate fiction from reality, and see reality very clearly. We should ask ourselves, "What is really real?" For most of history, people have been so obsessed with fictions such as nations, gods and money, that they lost touch with reality. A good way to separate fiction from reality is to ask, "Can it suffer?" A nation cannot suffer, even if it loses a war. A bank cannot suffer, even if it crashes. Humans, however, can suffer. Animals can suffer. The suffering may be caused by the belief in some fiction, but the suffering itself is real. I hope that we can retain the most useful fictions of humanity, but at the same time be in touch with reality, and thereby know how to make use of our power not to inflate some fictional entity like a nation, but in order to reduce real suffering in the world. I thought some ideas in the book had parallels with aspects of Hindu/Jain/Buddhist philosophy. The sense of compassion you show for animals being one, which makes some of your perspectives delightfully non-anthropocentric. The idea of shared myths being another. (I believe the word 'myth' has the same root as the Sanskrit ‘mithya’ or falsity, transcending which is the aim of many Eastern systems.) I later read an interview of yours in which you say you visit India every year for a Vipassana course. Could you say something about your connection to India and what meditation or Buddhism means to you? Are you conscious of how this part of your life may contribute to your work? My view of history has indeed been influenced by Hindu, Jain and Buddhist thinking, and by practicing Vipassana meditation. One of the central ideas of Hinduism, Jainism and Buddhism is that "the world is an illusion". This strikes many people as an absurd proposition. In the book I strive to show that this is in fact a very accurate description of the world most humans inhabit. Most of us live in a world of nations, gods, business corporations, human rights and money, without noticing that all these things are in fact just imaginary stories that exist only in our own minds. At home I practice meditation for two hours every day, and I come to India every year to take a long Vipassana course of 30, 45 or 60 days in the Dhamma Giri meditation center [in Maharashtra]. For me, a crucial question is "What is reality? What is really real, rather just fictions in our own mind?" The best scientific method I have found to answer this question is Vipassana meditation. So far Western science has had great difficulty in researching the mind, because it has no method for direct observation of the mind. You can study the brain by using microscopes and fMRI scanners, but the brain is not the mind. The problem is that the only mind accessible to you is your own mind. You can never observe directly the mind of another person. And when you try to observe your own mind, it is extremely difficult to do so in a systematic and objective manner. Anyone who ever tried to do so knows how difficult it is to observe even the simplest mental processes for more than a few seconds without becoming distracted or overwhelmed. Vipassana is a method for observing the mind in a systematic and objective manner. Without the clarity I gained from practicing this meditation, I would not have been able to write this book. There's evidence to show that for most of the last two millennia Indian kingdoms were prosperous, had skilled sailors and navigators, and had advanced metallurgy (Damascus steel, for instance). Yet, with the exception of small parts of South East Asia, Indian rulers didn’t attempt conquest. Would you say this was due to a lack of curiosity? This is not unique to Indian rulers. It is true of many of the Chinese dynasties, of the Japanese shoguns, and of most other kingdoms and states in history. Although they might have had the ability, the Romans never attempted to conquer Scandinavia, the Persians never attempted to conquer Madagascar, and the Chinese never attempted to conquer Indonesia. Most Chinese rulers -- with the exception of Kublai Khan -- left even nearby Japan to its own devices. The real question is why modern Europeans caught a fever that drove them to sail to distant and completely unknown lands full of alien cultures, take one step onto their beaches, and immediately declare "I claim all these territories for my king!" These European expeditions are so familiar to us that we tend to overlook just how extraordinary they were. Shortly after Columbus landed in America, news of his discovery reached the great empires of Asia -- the Ottoman, the Safavid, the Mughal and the Chinese empires. Yet they displayed little interest in this discovery. None of them made any attempt to compete with the Europeans for control of America or of the new ocean lanes in the Atlantic and the Pacific. Even puny European kingdoms such as Scotland and Denmark sent a few expeditions to America, but not a single expedition was ever sent to America from the Islamic world, India, or China. The first non-European power that tried to send a military expedition to America was Japan. That happened in June 1942, when a Japanese expedition conquered Kiska and Attu, two small islands off the Alaskan coast, capturing in the process ten US soldiers and a dog. The Japanese never got any closer to the mainland. So the real mystery is not why Indian rulers supposedly lacked curiosity, but rather what drove the modern Europeans to such strange and unprecedented expeditions. You live in the Middle East, where a lot of human history has played out. How does your geography affect your view of the world and the past? My home country of Israel is on the one hand a technologically-advanced Western democracy, and on the other hand it is torn by religious and ethnic conflicts and surrounded by the greater chaos engulfing the entire Middle East. This gives me a double perspective on history. On the one hand, I have an insider's view of the Western world and of the current technological revolutions. On the other hand I am also highly conscious of the darker side of modernity, and of the powerful forces of traditional religions and national emotions. Will humanity exist a thousand years from now? That's a very easy question. A thousand years from now, humankind will not exist. This is very obvious. The more interesting and difficult question is whether humankind will exist 100 or 200 years from now. Given the pace of technological development, this too seems quite unlikely. In the next 200 years humankind will probably gain so much power, that if we do not destroy ourselves, then we will certainly have more than enough power to upgrade ourselves into completely different kinds of beings, which resemble gods more than humans. This is not science fiction. Most science fiction plots describe a world in which humans just like us enjoy superior technology such as light-speed spaceships and laser guns. The ethical and political dilemmas central to these plots are taken from our own world, and they merely recreate our emotional and social tensions against a futuristic backdrop. Yet the real potential of future technologies is to change humans themselves, including our emotional and cognitive abilities, and not merely our vehicles and weapons. You probably know that the first demo of human brain to brain communication through the Internet was announced last week. This is along the lines of your predication for our species’ future. How do you feel about this trajectory of humans becoming gods/super-men? What could happen to make your prediction not come true? The future is of course unknown, and it would be surprising if all the predictions made today are realized in full in the coming decades. History teaches us that what seems to be just around the corner may never materialize due to unforeseen barriers, and that other unimagined scenarios will in fact come to pass. When the nuclear age erupted in the 1940s, many forecasts were made about the future nuclear world of the year 2000. When Sputnik and Apollo 11 fired the imagination of the world, everyone began predicting that by the end of the century people would be living in space colonies on Mars and Pluto. Few of these forecasts came true. On the other hand, nobody foresaw the Internet. So all these predictions about the future should been seen not as accurate prophesies, but rather as stimulants for our imagination. What we should take very seriously is the idea that the next stage of history will include not only technological and organizational transformations, but also fundamental transformations in human consciousness and identity. And these could be transformations so fundamental that they will call the very term "human" into question. How long do we have? No one really knows. Some say that by 2050 there will already be superhumans possessing divines abilities. Less radical forecasts speak of 2100 or 2200. But given current technological advances, it seems unavoidable that in the not-too-distant future, humans will become gods. That is, humans will acquire abilities that were traditionally thought to be divine abilities. Humans will probably be able to live indefinitely, to design and create living beings at will, to re-design their own bodies and minds, and to link their minds directly to virtual worlds on the Internet. This will result in enormous new opportunities, as well as frightful new dangers. There is no point being optimistic or pessimistic about it. We need to be realists. We need to understand that this is really happening -- it is science rather than science fiction – and it is high time we start thinking about this very seriously. Most of the problems that worry governments and private citizens alike are insignificant by comparison. The global economic crisis, the Islamic State, the situation in the Ukraine -- these are all important problems, no doubt. But they are completely overshadowed by the question of upgrading humans into gods.