Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, by Yuval Noah Harari

In the post I did on Homo Deus I mentioned that I was going to take on Sapiens. I finished it today in between catching up on posts from reading I did when I had the flu.

This book was published a couple of years ago. It’s a look backwards on what makes Homo Sapiens unique: how we arrived where we are and why we act the way we do. There are some hints of what Harari takes on in Homo Deus, with its uncomfortable predictions about humankind and its possible demise.

Had I read the books in order I think I would have been irritated at the amount of duplication there is in the two books. (I’m kind of irritated anyway but, hey, I’m the one who decided to read them out of order.) Some of the examples, anecdotes, and experiments Harari brings forward to make his arguments are absolutely identical in both books. Had there been a two or three year gap between reading the books it might not have been noticeable or perhaps even perceived as helpful in refreshing memory. As it stands I found myself thinking “okay, you told me that already, haven’t there been any new studies?”

It’s not that this book didn’t cover some fresh ground. It’s a more reflective (rather than prospective) book and there were interesting stories, for example on the first translation of cuneiform writing, the management of Imperial India, and how our changing position in the food chain had an impact on our social structure and eating habits. Even though some of these had been read or heard in other areas Harari is a good enough writer to make the telling fresh and interesting.

Something new here that stood out was the contention that some change in Homo Sapiens happened that created an exponential change in our ability to change or induce change. He points out that Homo Erectus used essentially the same tools for nearly two million years. Even in the changes within Sapiens societies a person transported from the year 1000 CE to 1500 CE would perceive minimal change while a person making the same 500 year jump from 1500 to 2000 would be completely lost. As a species we made fundamental changes in how we live over a 70,000 year span from hunter-gatherers to the present day. We have not evolved at the same rate, however, and he says this is the root cause of many challenges we now face.

Consider our shift from small groups to large societies. Harari says we’re genetically prepared to deal effectively with a maximum of 150 fellow creatures. How do we deal with a society where we are expected to interact with multiple hundreds? (I think he missed a point here in that we do live in a stratified society of a small number of very wealthy people each running a small society of managers, etc.)

Our ability to strategize and improve our tools also moved us from a mid-level predator waiting for lions to take their fill to a top-level predator. This, in turn, changed our own diets while making us the driving forces in hundreds of extinction events.

In both books Harari spends quite a lot of time on human belief systems, which he extends beyond theism into our faith in the value of money, our growing belief in the sanctity of the individual and individual choices, and the many assumptions we make that ripple through a whole society. Regarding the individual he calls this the religion of liberal humanism (differing from evolutionary humanism of the Nazis) in which we put humans at the center of the universe. This may be the major area in which Homo Deus moves his ideas forward with its predictions of amortal humans and artificial intelligences. Science, he says, is not a belief system because it’s rational and evidence-based. This may be in conflict with Max Planck’s contention: “A new scientific truth does not triumph by convincing its opponents and making them see the light, but rather because its opponents eventually die, and a new generation grows up that is familiar with it.”

What I wish Harani would deal with in either book is the notion of whether these belief systems may have some sort of value to humanity whether disproven or not. Say, for example, we come to the firm conclusion that we’re a mess of cells that act in completely programmed ways, that there is no such thing as a “self” or “free will”. Do we need to take a philosophical look at whether it’s worthwhile to pretend as if they did exist? Have these collective ideas had a positive impact on human existence or do we need to rewrite our assumptions drastically? It’s clear the story has been mixed for the world and our fellow creatures. Does the concept of the value of the individual help or hinder the collective world, us included?

It’s a book filled with information, from the mating practices of Bonobos to the changes in world caloric production and intake to the Spanish conquest of the Americas.When you run into duplicate concepts between Sapiens and Homo Deus I suppose a person should just page through a little faster. Despite the things in common both books have a unique thesis with some unavoidable overlap.