As individuals, we often seek our place in society by comparing ourselves with other people. As religious or national groups, we may measure ourselves positively in relation to other groups. And as a species, we seek our place in nature by comparing ourselves with other animals. But these egocentric, ethnocentric and species-centric comparisons miss the big picture about humans as a species, as Homo sapiens. We miss the fact that from a historical point of view, we are but a blip in the history of the world, and a minor piece in the history of human species.
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Indeed, humans have been around for over 2 million years, while Homo sapiens, our type of human, evolved only in the past 200,000 years or so. It may be a bit disconcerting to have to face the fact that as early as 70,000 years ago, we humans were, as Yuval Noah Harari describes in “Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind,” an insignificant animal living quietly in a small part of East Africa.
Harari, 38, a senior lecturer in history at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, first published “Sapiens” in Hebrew in 2011, and it held its place on best-seller lists here for some two years. Since then, it has been published in more than two dozen languages, and spawned a wildly successful online course (MOOC) in which more than 100,000 students participated. The English-language edition, which was translated by the author, has just come out in Britain and the book will appear in the United States this coming February.
While sapiens were still a minor human species 70,000 years ago, several other types of humans had been thriving in the expanses of Europe, the Middle East and Asia for hundreds of thousands of years. Many of these species, including the Neanderthals (Homo neanderthalis) and Homo erectus, had mastered the use of tools and fire and hunting. But over the next 60,000 years all human species except Homo sapiens would go extinct, while sapiens multiplied and migrated to all corners of the world.
What is it about us as Homo sapiens that allowed us to literally take over the world in the past 12,000 years, while other human species faded away?
Pondering our own extinction
Harari tackles the question of what set our species apart from other human species, and explores the processes that have brought us to the brink of being the first species to instigate, and even ponder, its own extinction. Harari discusses this issue at the end of his book, and comes up with several surprising predictions. His answer to what sets us apart from other human species is a series of four revolutions, each of which was dependent on the previous one.
The first of these he terms the “cognitive revolution.” Around 70,000 years ago, our forefathers figuratively ate from the tree of knowledge and developed intellectual capabilities foreign to other human species. Sapiens quickly developed advanced tools such as lamps to light the night and needles to sew warm clothes, and invented modes of transportation such as boats. These tools enabled the species to migrate and thrive in diverse climates, even enabling our ancestors to cross seas and colonize Australia – and wipe out almost all the large animals there within a few thousand years.
Actually, mass animal extinctions accompanied human movements worldwide; whenever sapiens migrated to a new land – be it Australia, Asia or the Americas – the large fauna were quickly hunted into oblivion.
Most importantly, however, these new cognitive abilities enabled humans to do something truly novel – to imagine. These humans started making art – but not just crude renditions of reality: Sapiens 40,000 years ago could imagine the impossible. A human body with the head of a lion for example. A god. Humans could conceptualize that which does not exist.
This ability to conceptualize the abstract is still a major force for modern sapiens. Harari points out that this includes not only the ability of some modern sapiens to believe in God, but of all sapiens to believe in such bodiless concepts as “corporations” and “inalienable rights.” These constructs exist because at some point humans decided that they did – not because of some physical entity.
With the ability to conceptualize arose a new type of interaction between humans: trade. Although Neanderthals roamed Europe in small troupes for hundreds of thousands of years, there is no evidence of developed communication or trade between these groups. Sapiens, however, started to perceive themselves as members of a common species. Bands of sapiens traded with each other, interacted and developed new vocabularies and customs to enable this interaction.
The cognitive revolution eventually led to a series of three technology-based revolutions. First, about 12,000 years ago, was the agricultural revolution, which enabled the development of civilization as we know it today. The scientific revolution commenced about 500 years ago, when humans actively started seeking to understand their place in the universe, and that was followed by the industrial revolution, 300 years later. These latter two revolutions set the stage for modernity, and to the evolutionary success of Homo sapiens.
By “success,” I do not claim – and neither does Harari – that humans are better off now than we were 10,000 years ago. Well-being is a matter for philosophers to debate. Rather, I mean that more human DNA is present in the world today than ever before. At the time of the agricultural revolution, world population is estimated to have been about 15 million, or about the number of people living in metropolitan Moscow today. By the scientific revolution, the earth’s population had reached some 300 million, while at the dawn of the Industrial Revolution 1 billion humans inhabited the earth. In other words, it took 2 billion years, more or less, for Earth’s population of humans to reach 1 billion. But once science and industry were married, there was no stopping human progress, so that the second billion was added within 120 years, to be followed 30 years later by the third billion, and 40 years later by the seventh billion.
“Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind” spells out the foundations of these revolutions. Harari juxtaposes historical methodology with sociology, anthropology and a bit of biology, to examine how these developments influenced individuals, society and the world around us.
The strength of “Sapiens” – its scope and sweep – is also the source of its weakness: superficiality. If you naively anticipate an in-depth analysis of the entire history of humankind in 400-plus pages, then you are in for disappointment. Harari uses wide strokes to paint a canvas comprised of several major conceptual revolutions and stochastic events that have brought humans to dominate every part of the world as a connected collective. This is not a history book filled with dates and names, but rather a book of themes and concepts.
Harari does, of course, enhance his canvas with essential facts to back up his theses, but in general the book reads like a very entertaining novel, with tension building as our ancestors developed (some would say progressed, but that question remains open) from cavemen, essentially irrelevant to the Earth’s ecosystem, to being farmers, bureaucrats and scientists, who eventually took control even of evolution itself.
Harari succeeds masterfully in arranging this canvas for the first 16 or 17 chapters of the book. And for these alone, I highly recommend it. However, in his final few chapters, in which he deals with our present time, he partially abandons his historical perspective to embark on a philosophical analysis of our current state, which at times smacks of New Age philosophy books. This probably should not be a surprise, as Harari has never denied juxtaposing his own personal philosophy with historical analysis, and one could claim that modernity is not readily analyzed solely with the tools of a historian.
Thus Harari leaves the historical trail to ask: Have we, during the past 20,000 years, both as individuals and as a collective, grown more “happy”? While the author takes great pains to emphasize that he is not taking a “New Agey” approach – and it must be said that he has an excellent grasp of the diverse academic fields he employs in his analyses – there were moments when I became uncomfortable with the tone, which can border on self-righteous.
Harari is decidedly pessimistic in his diagnosis of our current situation. Between the threat of an impending environmental apocalypse and the increasing alienation of individuals from society, he exposes society’s weaknesses and laments the future of our race and planet.
Personally, I think he sells humanity short. The Ezekiels, St. Johns and Malthuses of the world have been predicting our downfall almost since the agricultural revolution. But the cognitive revolution, with its ability to imagine, has allowed us to dream of better futures, and to create them, in our own image.
When I was a child, for example, India, with a population of half a billion, was on the brink of famine. Few could have predicted that today, with a population of over 1 billion, India exports food. Indeed proportionally, there is less hunger in the world today than at any time in history. Surely this gives hope that a future historian, say 500 years from now, will have interesting comments to make about the historical times of the 21st century, and the advances that humans made to assure their successful survival. Harari, though, plays with the idea that this historian may not be a Homo sapien at all, but a member of a new human species that evolved from us. Time will tell.
Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, by Yuval Noah Harari
U.K.: Harvill Secker, 443 pages, 25 (hardcover), 15 (paperback); $30 (to be published by Harper in February 2015)
The author is dean of the George S. Wise Faculty of Life Sciences at Tel Aviv University, and author of “What a Plant Knows: A Field Guide to the Senses.”