Over the past few months, I have made a concerted attempt to read more history. We live in a time where it feels like there are a million newsworthy events occurring every single day. Reading history of course gives us the opportunity to take the long view on current events. More importantly, reading history helps us to understand change – especially the events that led to it – something that becomes more relevant with every passing every day.
Unfortunately in most education systems world wide, history is taught more as a collection of facts, figures and events and not as timelines or interconnected events. We are taught that Adolf Hitler came to power in 1933 and are made to read pages and pages with all the facts about the War but the sequence of events that led to him coming to power are summarized in a couple of paragraphs.
In Sapiens – A Brief History of Humankind, Yuvan Noah Harari – a professor in at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem who attempts to put together the sequence of events, ideas and forces that led to Homosapiens becoming the dominant species on the planet. It’s a very ambitious project with a scale that can only be captured by the fact that Harari starts at the very beginning – nearly 6 million years ago – when the first similarity between our ape – like ancestors and us starts to emerge.
The tale of hunter gatherers
Harari traces the evolution of the multiple human species – including Homo erectus, Denisovans, Homo Sapiens among others. I had always assumed that human history was a linear progression that ultimately led to the evolution to us – i.e. Homo Sapiens. And it was amazing to learn that in fact, for most of human history, the planet had multiple human species walking around! In fact, the Homo erectus species was around for close to 2 Million years (!), a record that will probably not be broken by Homo sapiens. Harari points out that our current exclusivity is an anomaly considering there are multiple species of animals such as foxes, dogs and pigs that exist.
He also points out that pre-historic humans had lesser impact on their surroundings than animals such as gorillas and lions. Harari’s tone is akin to a dispassionate librarian who is making meticulous notes on the planet without taking the side of his own speices. He talks about how early human societies spread across the planet and how the arrival of the human species resulted in the destruction of the entire ecosystem. He also calls (rather controversially) the evolution of agriculture as one of the worst things to happen to human beings – as homo sapiens went from living in egalitarian societies to one characterised by rigid hierarchical societies where a the elite (kings / priests) monopolised wealth, land and resources.
Wheat – Did it domesticate us?
Harari takes the example of wheat – the grain that really drove the agricultural revolution. Till the revolution, humans lived as hunter gatherers – foraging in forests and living in small tribes. Harari lists multiple data points to suggest that hunter gatherers lived peacefully and in equal societies before the revolution. From an evolutionary stand point – the grain gave sapiens a chance to propagate (and build ever increasing DNA copies) – it could be cultivated comparatively easily and it grew in many parts of the world. However, what it also did was trap millions of people into a lifetime of drudgery and ailments (the body of sapiens was not designed for the hard labor of agriculture). According to Harari, the agricultural revolution also led to more violence – as rival tribes and kingdoms fought over arable land, a trend that would not stop till World War II.
The currency of evolution is neither hunger nor pain, but rather copies of DNA helixes. If a species boasts many DNA copies, it is a success, and the species flourishes. From such a perspective, 1,000 copies are always better than a hundred copies. This is the essence of the Agricultural Revolution: the ability to keep more people alive under worse conditions.
Enter Myths – Monetary, Political and Religious
Without doubt, the most interesting (and most unsettling) part of the book is Harari’s concept of myths. Harari defines a myth as a shared fiction that allows large groups of to people to cooperate with each other. In Harari’s opinion anything that is not physical ( a box or a car or a mountain), or a scientific fact (like gravity) is a myth. This is hard to grasp at first – especially when Harari calls everything we value from political laws, human rights to democracy to large corporations as myths.
As far as we know, only Sapiens can talk about entire kinds of entities that they have never seen, touched, or smelled. Legends, myths, gods, and religions appeared for the first time with the Cognitive Revolution. Many animals and human species could previously say ‘Careful! A lion! Thanks to the Cognitive Revolution, Homo sapiens acquired the ability to say. ‘The lion is the guardian spirit of our tribe.’ This ability to speak about fictions is the most unique feature of Sapiens language…You could never convince a monkey to give you a banana by promising him limitless bananas after death in monkey heaven.
it’s essential to note that Harari does not use the word myth with a negative connotation, but as the perfect examples of the power and imagination of sapiens. According to Harari, the three most universal myths essentially emerged at the same time – money, politics and religion.
Political myths ranged from the belief that kings essentially descended from heaven to the concept of nationhood (a state for Romans or a state for the Germanic tribes). This helped a few individuals consolidate their land and increase their power of influence. Over the past thousand years, a more powerful political idea (or dare I say a myth) has emerged and that is that every individual in a society has the equal right to say who will have the power to govern that society. This replaced the earlier “myth” that kings had divine rights.
Religion emerged at the same time from a series of pagan gods to of course the biggest monotheistic religions such as Christianity and Islam. What these myths also did was “unite” people from different geographies – for instance the Haj brought together Muslims from the Middle East, Africa, and of course South Asia – all of whom would otherwise probably would not have met. Interestingly, the lines between politics and religion have blurred throughout history and right till the present day. For instance, Christianity really started to spread only when Constantine decided to “adopt” the religion as the official religion of the Roman empire.
Money – the most powerful myth of them all
If you had a dream to open a bakery, and had no ready cash, you could not realize your dream. Without a bakery, you could not bake cakes. Without cakes, you could not make money. Without money, you could not build a bakery. Humankind was trapped in this predicament for thousands of years. As a result, economies remained frozen. The way out of the trap was discovered only in the modern era, with the appearance of a new system based on trust in the future. In it, people agreed to represent imaginary goods—goods that do not exist in the present—with a special kind of money they called “credit.” Credit enables us to build the present at the expense of the future. It’s founded on the assumption that our future resources are sure to be far more abundant than our present resources. A host of new and wonderful opportunities open up if we can build things in the present using future income.
The most powerful myth to emerge was money and the section on money is probably my favourite part of the book. Harari traces how the evolution of money enabled people from across cultures and geographies to transact on the basis of a common denominator. Even people who have contrasting religious and political views believe in the power of money (for instance Osama Bin Laden had to fight his wars by funding people via American dollars). What’s also interesting is that so many of history’s pivotal political transformations primarily happened because of economic crises – from imperialism to the French Revolution to the rise of Hitler and even to the lack of world wars in the modern world. (It’s the economy stupid!)
Harari ends the book talking about the future of humankind including how the world needs to come together to solve truly global problems such as global warming, and the rise of artificial intelligence. Themes that he returns to in the sequel to Sapiens – Homo Deus. In summary, the book will make you uncomfortable in many parts but Harari’s attempt at framing a narrative will give you a lot to think about and certainly lead you on your own quest in understanding how we got here and where exactly we are headed.