Sapiens: The Jury's Still Out on Us

2:55 PM

Mature, public conversation about issues that matter is foundational for democratic society. I am delighted that Mark Zuckerberg's "A Year of Books" offers such an opportunity. To contribute to that dialog, I will offer commentary on each of the readings proposed by Zuckerberg. 


Mark Zuckerberg's12th selection in his "A Year of Books" is Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind by historian Yuval Noah Harari of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. With just over 400 pages of text, Harari's well-written text is a delight to read. None extraneous, the 48 images selected for the work also drive the narrative forward. The Washington Post describes him as "an emerging rock-star lecturer at the nexus of history and science."

Harari's work builds upon previous readings in Zuckerberg's list, especially Thomas Kuhn's The Structure of Scientific Revolutions and Steven Pinker's The Better Angels of Our Nature (cited explicitly by Harari). First published in 2014, Sapiens has already been translated into more than 30 languages.

I have been privileged to travel. I have seen archaeologists at work. I lived in the Holy Land for a semester. I have pondered historic places like the Giza Pyramid, Petra, and Machu Picchu, to name a few places. I have been especially fascinated by the ancient Egyptians and the Inca people. I have read a number of serious scholarly works on both of these peoples, and both the ancient Egyptians and the Incans have fascinated greater minds than mine. Harari weaves together an account from pre-history to our present, explaining what is known about our past and pondering questions about our future.

Yuval Noah Harari
Harari posits three revolutions and largely structures his book around them: the Cognitive Revolution, the Agrarian Revolution, and the Scientific Revolution. The Cognitive Revolution refers to the appearance of new ways of thinking and communicating between 70,000 and 30,000 years ago as Homo sapiens evolved unique cognitive abilities. The sapiens, in fact, derives its roots from Latin for "wisdom." The Agrarian Revolution refers to a period about 11,000 years ago when humans convert in increasing numbers from foraging (hunting and gathering) to farming. The Scientific Revolution, beginning about 500 years ago, unleashes the industrial revolution and further waves of technology. Harari's concluding chapters describe how the Scientific Revolution now poises humans upon possible technological advances with enormous impacts upon the well-being of our planet and our species.

Throughout Sapiens, Harari surprises and enchants conceptually and linguistically. In a number of instances, I found myself with eye-brow raised, acknowledging a truth that I had not heard before. For instance:
It's a common fallacy to envision these species as arranged in a straight line of descent, with Ergaster begetting Erectus, Erectus begetting the Neanderthals, and the Neanderthals evolving into us. This linear model gives the mistaken impression that at any particular moment only one type of human inhabited the earth, and that all the earlier species were merely older models of ourselves. The truth is that from about 2 million years ago until around 10,000 years ago the world was home, at one and the same time, to several human species. And why not? Today there are many species of foxes, bears, and pigs. (8)
Harari bears no romantic myth about our pre-historic brethren:
Don't believe tree-huggers who claim that our ancestors lived in harmony with nature. Long before the Industrial Revolution, Homo sapiens held the record among all organisms for driving the most plant and animal species to their extinction. We have the dubious distinction of being the deadliest species in the annals of biology. (74)
Calling the Agrarian Revolution "History's Biggest Fraud," Harari reinterprets our relationship with farming:
We did not domesticate wheat. It domesticated us. The word 'domesticate' comes from the Latin domus, which means 'house'. Who's the one living in a house? Not the wheat. It's the Sapiens. (81)
Harari calls into question certain myths about "authentic culture," like 'ethnic' cuisine as well as our image of Plains Indians as brave horsemen, given that no horses were in America before 1492 (170-171).

When Professor Harari describes how empires built "hybrid civilisations" (198-199), I found myself recalling those who built the Pyramids and Machu Picchu. In particular, I recalled being on a small boat on Lake Titicaca in 1995 with an Aymaran mother and her small boy. She was making yarn from the alpaca as her ancestors had for centuries while her boy played with a plastic jeep. At the time here village did not have electricity, and, yet, her world and her son's world would see enormous change in the coming years.

Professor Harari peppers the text occasionally with questions about whether our "progress" has increased human happiness. He also brings awareness of how our happiness, such as it is, comes at great costs to factory farmed animals like cows and chickens. In the latter portion of the book, the teleological questions take the fore, questions about where we are going and why. Systems of belief, Christianity, Islam, capitalism, communism, democracy, human rights, to name a few, are "imagined orders" for Harari. He explains:
We believe in a particular order not because it is objectively true, but because it enables us to cooperate effectively and forge a better society. Imagined orders are not evil conspiracies or useless mirages. Rather, they are the only way large numbers of people can cooperate effectively. (110)
These imagined orders, then, are exceptionally important for taking decisions about the future: "The only thing we can try to do is to influence the direction scientists are taking" (414).

Professor Harari gives a pretty low grade for human history: "Unfortuantely, the Sapiens regime on earth has so far produced little that we can be proud of" (415). His final paragraph hearken back to seeing humans like the Greek and Roman gods: "Is there anything more dangerous than dissatisfied and irresponsible gods who don't know what they want?" (416).

Our final history is not yet written.The jury is still out on us. Whether we find a more peaceable way to care for creation or not rests inour hands and minds. I enjoyed reading Profesor Harari, both in style and content. I highly recommend Sapiens as a book that will make the reader look anew at the direction of human history and seek to be more responsible with our present.

In addition to reading Zuckerberg's list, including Professor Harari's book, lately I have been reading Laudato Si' by Pope Francis, as well as writings from Wendell Berry and Wes Jackson. While each have different points of emphasis, as well as significant points of divergence, they make excellent companions in reflecting on what we have done to creation and where we hope to go from here. In the near future, I will post some commentaries about these readings. 

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