This is the rarest of books for me. I bought it in hardcover, before it came out in paperback. I am in no mad rush to read the latest books. And even after a lifetime of reading, there’re still constellations of great books I’ve yet to read. Practically all of which can be purchased in convenient and inexpensive paperback form. I actually prefer paperback books for reading. They don’t look as good on the bookshelf, but I buy books to read, not to impress people with what I have displayed in my bookshelf, and the physical act of reading is easier with a paperback. So it was quite unusual that I bought this book in hardback. But then, I used a Christmas gift card, so I didn’t feel so bad about the extra money. And from everything I could tell before purchase, the book would make a really good read of just the sort that I enjoy. So the hardback version of Sapiens was a holiday gift from me to me.
Turns out, I was pretty good to myself with this one. The binding is quite luxurious, with that heavy-stock shiny paper with which coffee table books are bound. But that is the only resemblance to a coffee table book it bears. Unlike the average coffee table tome, and more important than the binding, this is a quite profitable read. It has a few pictures and illustrations interspersed throughout, but not enough that its gist might be discerned by flipping through it like a catalog.
It is not an academically challenging book. The writing is crisp and clear and free of jargon. And while it seems there is no subject too arcane or erudite for Harari to explore regarding the history of H. sapiens, the intellectual byways he travels are readily accessible to the layman. The aptly named chapter titles run the gamut from “A Day in the Life of Adam and Eve” to “The Law of History” to “The Law of Religion”, etc. There are few stones left unturned so far as the saga of mankind’s history and development is concerned.
Harari lumps development into three eras he calls revolutions—the Cognitive Revolution, which he claims kick-started history 70,000 years ago; the Agricultural Revolution which sped it up about 12,000 years ago, and the Scientific Revolution which started about 500 years ago.
What Harari calls the Cognitive Revolution is the time period that started with mankind leaving its East African Eden to disperse, in less than 50,000 years in most cases, throughout the globe. It was during this era that mankind learned to make and use sophisticated tools and became artistic and more linguistically inclined. Harari believes that during this period man learned to think abstractly—as he puts it, to conjure fictitious entities like gods and devils, and to fabricate stories about his and their origins and histories. Like so many others, Harari thinks that the use of the mind to imagine things that don’t exist, and the use of language for communicating ideas both abstract and concrete is what makes H. sapiens who he is. He acknowledges the similarities that H. sapiens has with all the other homo species, but believes language usage and mental capacity distinguishes them.
But Harari’s claims beg a few questions. Why 70,000 years ago? What changed that yielded this explosion in cognitive power 70,000 years ago while modern H. sapiens had been quiescently living in East Africa for at least that long without a historical murmur? It had somehow to be genetic because we know the environment didn’t significantly change. Was it a chance mutation that quickly swept through the small H. sapiens population like an Ebola virus that was opposite in its effect, enhancing their survival and propagation prospects by some mechanism? Nobody really knows. But the notion that a Cognitive Revolution occurred, without even trying to attribute causes to it is something like knowing that Napoleon lost at Waterloo but not knowing why. It’s history’s version of kissing your sister (something which Napoleon might have actually enjoyed, as he was suspiciously close to his sister, if the darker aspects of his history are to be believed).
The idea of an Agricultural Revolution is much more widely embraced because the reason for its development is readily understood—through the domestication of plants and animals, mankind figured out how to make food come to him instead of having to chase after or forage for it. As he gained skill in domestication and cultivation, he was able to produce many more calories than he alone could eat, thus freeing up others of the community to spend time in activities that didn’t involve food production. Thus was society stratified and specialized. There arose ruling classes and intellectual classes (mostly shamans, medicine men and fortune tellers at first) and soldierly classes, etc. Always near the bottom were the producers, the class upon which all the others depended. Thus has society been illogically stratified ever since the first field of wheat was sown.
The Agricultural Revolution is with us yet today, and is directly responsible for what came next, the Scientific Revolution. How so? It took a secure, well-fed, critical mass of thinkers to begin the train of questions that would finally lay bare the myths and lies and superstitions cluttering the human psyche about the nature of the universe during the late Middle Ages. Without agricultural surpluses, the Agricultural Revolution would have not have been a Revolution and the Scientific Revolution would not have been possible.
Harari justifiably points out that the Scientific Revolution was European in origin. It wasn’t in Asia or Africa or the Americas where gods were cast aside for the clarity of reason in explaining the nature of nature. It was driven by European thinkers, which is one reason why Europe came to rule the world within a few hundred years of it’s the revolution’s inception, which is generally today called the Renaissance or Early Enlightenment (the other reason being that Europe wanted to rule the world, whereas, for instance, China and India had little interest in what lie beyond their naturally-bounded empires).
The Agricultural Revolution was not an unmitigated good. Mankind had to fit its hunting and foraging genes into the straitjacket of domesticity in a period of time that was far too short for its genetic code to substantially change to accommodate the new way of life. When mankind domesticated corn and wheat and sunflowers and dogs and goats and sheep, what he really got in the bargain was that he domesticated himself, a fact of which I am constantly reminded anytime I see someone being led around by their dog, at the ready for scooping up the dog’s excrements when it decides to go, wherever, of course, it wants. But it was not only detrimental to man. The Agricultural Revolution devastated biodiversity, killing off vast numbers of species in favor of only those that were useful to H. sapiens. What species extermination the Cognitive Revolution failed to complete as mankind sprawled to every corner of the globe, killing off other human species and large mammals along the way, the Agricultural Revolution often finished.
My main quibble with the insights and prognostications offered by Harari arise from his linear, progressive view of history. A great many people, professional historians and lay people alike, view history as a story about the fulfillment of some purposeful or meaningful aspect of mankind’s journey through time. But so far as we know, this is not a journey and mankind has no purpose beyond simply being, a truth which Harari admits late in the book, even after having spent most of the book pandering to a popular audience who he knows is reading for the purpose of trying to find meaning and purpose in the confusion of existence through the sort of knowledge that reading a book about mankind’s history imparts.
Harari predicts that mankind might one day conquer the biochemical frontiers of the body so effectively that we become what he calls “a-mortal”, not immortal, because stepping in front of a bus will still kill us, but a-mortal, because old age and disease won’t. He thinks this might happen in his own lifetime (He’s about 40). I seriously doubt any such thing happens, mainly because it’s not clear that being a-mortal would be offer any great improvement to the human condition. In fact, as the angst and ennui wrought by the surpluses of the Agricultural Revolution attest, the further removed we become from our core existence as mammalian animals of the homo genus, the less content with our lives we seem to become.
People in the developed world already have little worry over from where their next meal will come. The ease with which food is acquired is as much bane as benefit. Obesity and boredom abound. There is little point to life when its continuation is more or less assured, which is how it has come to pass that the most valuable commodities these days are ways to infuse meaningless moments with purpose and passion. It is no accident that iPhones and football-playing skills are highly-desirable items in the wake of the Agricultural/Scientific Revolutions. When acquiring food is no problem, what other way is there for filling up the meaningless hours of a day except through personal and collective entertainments?
With a-mortal life providing a new layer of existential certainty and thereby meaninglessness, it’s not hard to imagine how utterly despondent life could become. E.O. Wilson pointed out that the central problem of collective human activity is that there is no point to it beyond the immediate continuation of the individual gene-carrying vessel—the body—through time and space. The point of being is being, and a too-easy-to-assure being robs being of its purpose. When the continuation of being is difficult and fraught with uncertainty, every moment is purposeful and full. Ask a soldier in combat, or a mother whose child is dying of starvation, whether their moments are meaningful.
If what Harari predicts comes to pass, and individual human beings are afforded the opportunity live an a-mortal life, it may well signal the end of civilization as it is now known. To be sure, civilization was not designed to accommodate hunter/gatherer genes but has nonetheless managed to survive. But how much less was it designed to accommodate a-mortal human beings? Imagine the severe mismatch between modern life and our ancient -history-besotted genes that would obtain. There is no way the human genome could have prepared for such a contingency. The body is designed to assume that time is always limited, thus the mind knows things no other way. What if it weren’t? The results might not be pretty. Alas, I don’t expect to be losing any sleep over it. Harari seems a bit overly enamored, sort of like the financial markets about now, with the potential of biochemistry to change the essence of the H. sapiens condition.
Harari ends with a poignant observation that if the newly discovered biochemical powers humans now possess are unleashed, never mind a-mortality, humans could be designed from the ground up for genetic superiority. Which implies a genetic-perfection arms race could ensue, not unlike the nuclear arms race of the just-ended era. If genetic perfectionism becomes acceptable, H. sapiens could ultimately go extinct through evolving to a different form. But that’s not so radical an idea. In fact, unless H. sapiens is the lone difference of all the living creatures, it is guaranteed that he will go extinct, either by dying out or by evolving to a new and different species.
Take away a few quibbles like those just explained, and Sapiens is an outstanding book. For the reader who is generally unfamiliar with the history of H. sapiens, from its humble beginnings to its world-altering present, the book should enlighten and entertain. For people with a good foundational knowledge of the basic contours of anthropology, sociology, economics, history, biology, philosophy, etc. (as I believe myself to be), the book offers a good refresher course while simultaneously presenting original insights and perspectives in those fields. As I was reading, I couldn’t help thinking that this is the book I have always wanted to write. Perhaps one day. For the expert in the various fields, Harari does a good job of presenting all the extant and viable theories of how things were or why.
In short, it is a very, very good book. Maybe even a masterpiece. Harari is brilliant and witty and insightful, and it shows on practically every page. Everyone should read it. Don’t wait for the paperback.