Friday, July 22, 2016

Review: Sapiens

From Sapiens, by Yuval Noah Harari:
Open quote 

Seventy thousand years ago, homo sapiens was still an insignificant animal minding its own business in a corner of Africa. In the following millennia it transformed itself into the master of the entire planet and the terror of the ecosystem. Today it stands on the verge of becoming a god, poised to acquire not only eternal youth, but also the divine abilities of creation and destruction. Unfortunately, the Sapiens regime on earth has so far produced little that we can be proud of."

"Sapiens" is another of Bill Gates's book recommendations for this summer. The paragraph above encapsulates the book's thesis, including the bias that, in the end, caused me not to like it as much as Bill Gates did.

After the jump, my review.

Grade: C+

The entire history of the human species in one book. An ambitious, even presumptuous, undertaking. For the most part, its author, Yuval Noah Harari, a professor of history at Hebrew University of Jerusalem, succeeds. Unfortunately, Harari is also a bit of a misanthrope. Harari not only lays out the history of homo sapiens, but his own condemnation of that history as well.

"Sapiens" is structured according to what Harari identifies as the three big revolutions in human evolution: the Cognitive (about 70,000 years ago), the Agricultural (12,000 years ago), and the Scientific (beginning 500 years ago and still underway).

The Cognitive Revolution kicked everything off about 70,000 years ago. Human brains got bigger. Humans got more intelligent. Human language appeared. Complex social structures arose. Abstract concepts like religion emerged.

Still, there were not many visible changes for human life for tens of thousands of years. Humans remained nomadic hunters and gatherers until about 12,000 years ago, when the Agricultural Revolution really got things going. Food surpluses enabled cities to arise and work to become ever more specialized. Population growth became geometric until humans numbered in the billions.

The last revolution, the Scientific Revolution, began about 1500. We're still in the middle of it, but things are changing more dramatically than ever. Harari ends his book by speculating on the possibilities of intelligent design, either of our own DNA or with cyborgs or maybe even with the replacement of homo sapiens by computer intelligence. Humans could even bring about the end of homo sapiens as a biological species.

Lots and lots of interesting topics here, if a little rushed. If you want a million of years of history compressed into a few hundred pages, this is your book. If you want to explore, say, how the development of language and large social organization influenced the emergence of religion, you will only get the shallowest examination here. "The secret was probably the appearance of fiction. Large numbers of strangers can cooperate successfully by believing in common myths."

And that leads me to what is my biggest frustration with this book. Harari treats ideologies (socialism, capitalism, humanism) as religions and treats all of the above as myths, the product of fertile imagination. Worse, Harari casually condemns them all equally. "Some religions, such as Christianity and Nazism, have killed millions out of burning hatred. Capitalism has killed millions out of cold indifference coupled with greed."

Harari comes across as a misanthrope. In Harari's telling, every revolution in sapiens evolution leads to bad things. The Cognitive Revolution led to humans overpopulating the globe and driving to extinction almost all of the large animals on every continent (as well as other human species like the Neanderthals). The Agricultural Revolution led to farmers working harder than their forager ancestors for a worse diet ("The Agricultural Revolution was history's biggest fraud.") The Scientific Revolution led to genocide of indigenous peoples, industrial sweatshops and nuclear war.

What about culture? Art, music, poetry? What about belief in universal human rights? Has human evolution done anything right? Reading Harari, you'd be hard-pressed to name anything. "Ever more scholars see cultures as a kind of mental infection or parasite." In Harari's view, science, capitalism, and religion go hand in hand in a downward spiral of the human condition.

Harari longs for a past without science, without agriculture, without religion, without human intelligence. According to Harari, "The most important thing to know about prehistoric humans is that they were insignificant animals with no more impact on their environment than gorillas, fireflies or jellyfish." That seems to suit Harari just fine.

Two million years of human evolution, from forager to cyborgs, in one book. With nothing good to say about humans in any of it.

"Sapiens" is available in Kindle format from the Richardson Public Library.

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