This panoramic view of human evolution is full of polemics and puzzling revelations
In 1974, a grey-haired indigenous leader of Papua New Guinea asked a visiting American ornithologist something like, “How come you people dominate the world, while we have so little?"
It was a consequential exchange. Jared Diamond, who was asked the question, had to shrug off the limitations of his original discipline in order to find an answer. The result was Guns, Germs And Steel: The Fates Of Human Societies where history was stripped bare of politics and individuals, encompassed research from the sciences and humanities, and backtracked all the way to the Ice Age to tease out why some societies developed to travel into outer space while others remained hunter-gatherers (the short answer is geography).
Diamond’s global best-seller kick-started an academic revolution. Microsoft founder Bill Gates is financing a “Big History Project" course slated for worldwide roll-out to teenagers. Many universities now offer multi-disciplinary courses in this vein, and several writers have emerged in this “big picture of history" genre. The latest, Yuval Noah Harari, is already a global celebrity. The online course accompanying his splendid new book, Sapiens: A Brief History Of Humankind, has already been taken by more than 100,000 people.
Harari’s “brief history of humankind" answers its own question in the Diamond vein: dizzying heights of knowledge summarized in a paragraph, deep insights delivered in zinging one-liners. But unlike his mentor—acknowledged with “special thanks" as the man “who taught me to see the big picture"—this 40-year-old professor at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Israel, is full of feisty, contrarian attitude.
For instance, Harari strongly disagrees that it was inevitable, or even desirable, for sapiens to rise to the top of the food chain. Instead, he writes “humankind ascended to the top so quickly that the ecosystem was not given time to adjust. Moreover, humans themselves failed to adjust. Most top predators of the planet are majestic creatures. Millions of years of dominion have filled them with self-confidence. Sapiens by contrast is more like a banana republic dictator. Having so recently been one of the underdogs of the savannah, we are full of fears and anxieties over our position, which makes us doubly cruel and dangerous. Many historical calamities, from deadly wars to ecological catastrophes, have resulted from this over-hasty jump."
The bulk of Sapiens is a tour-de-force explanation of the vagaries, accidents and inexplicable events that took “an insignificant ape" to “the verge of becoming a god."
First comes the Cognitive Revolution (approximately 30,000-70,000 years ago), when “accidental genetic mutations changed the inner wiring" of human brains to allow new ways of thinking and communication. Why this happened to us, rather than, say, to orangutans, or our even closer Neanderthal cousins, is according to Harari still a mystery.
Another paradigm shift happened 10,000 years ago: “Scholars once proclaimed that the agricultural revolution was a great leap forward for humanity," Harari says. But “that tale is a fantasy…. The Agricultural Revolution certainly enlarged the sum total of food at the disposal of humankind, but the extra food did not translate into a better diet or more leisure. Rather, it translated into population explosions and pampered elites. The average farmer worked harder than the average forager, and got a worse diet in return," Harari concludes scornfully.
Scaling rapidly through history, Sapiens pauses on other significant landmarks: the Scientific Revolution (500 years ago), the Industrial Revolution (250 years ago), and the Information Revolution (around 50 years ago). In these chapters, and especially when discussing the further step underway (the Biotechnological Revolution), Harari’s writing takes on an increasingly polemical aspect, with passionate argument alternating with characteristic mastery of his interdisciplinary research materials.
Thus, readers are told that liberalism makes “little sense" without belief in god, and that Communism, Humanism (and Evolutionary Humanism, aka Nazism) are all religions that are fundamentally the same as Islam or Buddhism. But “if it makes you feel better, you are free to go on calling Communism an ideology rather than a religion. It makes no difference."
Everything comes together for Harari in the last few pages of Sapiens, where he takes a superbly reasoned and deeply disturbing telescopic look ahead into the future of humankind. He believes “we stand poised on the brink of becoming true cyborgs, of having inorganic features that are inseparable from our bodies, features that modify our abilities, desires, personalities and identities".
But there’s no escape from our limitations nonetheless. Despite “the astonishing things that humans are capable of doing, we remain unsure of our goals and we seem as discontented as ever", writes Harari. “We are more powerful than ever before, but have very little idea of what to do with all that power... Self-made gods with only the laws of physics to keep us company, we are accountable to no one...Is there anything more dangerous than dissatisfied and irresponsible gods who don’t know what they want?"
Vivek Menezes is a writer, photographer, and the founder and co-curator of the Goa Arts and Literary Festival.
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