How We Arrived Here, Stories that Shaped the Journey – Dr. Abhijit Sengupta

Jan 22, 2021 | Bookworm | 1 comment



Sapiens: A Brief History of Mankind

by Yuval Noah Harari

2014, Signal Books

How did a puny species of humans come to dominate this world? How is it that we, the Homo Sapiens variety of humans, develop a complex multicultural, science and technology-driven society, with profound implications for planet Earth? Where are we likely to go from here in the centuries to come? Such questions are commonly asked in the realms of science, philosophy, and religion. But is it often that we take a step back and ask how these realms themselves originate in human minds in the first place?

Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind is one remarkably concise attempt at exploring such basic existential questions and describing the broad forces influencing humanity in the past 500,000 years. But be warned, Sapiens is no serialized account from the time we were no more than stone wielding hunter-gatherers many millennia ago to the more recent age of empires, conquests, and nations.

This book goes far beyond the descriptions of what took place over millennia to make humans the dominant species on this planet. It takes a deeper dive into how, and if possible why, various social processes emerged as multiple sequences of events, in the form of interlinked historical antecedents and chance occurrences. Examining possible answers to such questions encompassing the whole of human history, in a finite set of pages, is no mean feat but Harari goes a long way in achieving this, through lucid explanations, numerous examples combined with an interdisciplinary approach.

His answers span not just history, and anthropology, but also in subjects such as sociology, economics, politics, and even lightly touch upon mathematical advances in game theory and complex systems. The result is a brilliant and engrossing tour of humanity’s origins, the pathways it took to reach its present state, and a brief look into its possible futures.

This book certainly makes the reader think about who we are as a species. In a world dominated by political, religious and nationalistic strife, and divisions, Harari argues that the thread uniting humankind is not just genetics and biology. It is also the remarkable story of social evolution that the human species went through – right from the beginning when our own Homo Sapiens species trumped all other competing human species such as Neanderthals and Denisovans, to the subsequent emergence of language, agriculture, societies, science, and empires.

Sapiens is organized into four sections, each focusing on one of the four pivotal points in human evolution according to Harari – the growth of cognitive abilities and brain development in Homo Sapiens, the agricultural revolution, the rise of the original globalizing influences of religions, money, and empires, and finally, the rise of the modern capitalistic global society driven by the marriage of science, industry, and politics. From the very first page, the reader embarks on a fascinating journey, watching the gradual unfolding of human social order, gradually at first and then accelerating at fantastic speeds over the last 500 years.

The opening chapters discuss pre-history, the dawn of the modern human race, one among several human species who inhabited this earth around 500,000 years ago. Hariri asks the pertinent question, why us? What was distinctive about our species which, after around 450,000 years of marginal existence, led to a truly exponential growth of mental, physical, and technological abilities in the last fifty millennia of human history? Here we discover the key role played by the Cognitive Revolution, an individual human brain’s ability to not just acquire, synthesize and convey a large volume of information with other individuals, but also our ability to tell stories. Storytelling is a unique ability that our species possess, not just in the creation of fiction and fictitious worlds, but also be able to paint pictures of reality through the use of language. It leads us to imagine the world not just individually but also collectively, to recreate the world in our minds, to think in terms of universal concepts and symbols, to gossip and pass on such ideas to others and future generations. This ability to imagine led us a species to take the first step in bypassing the dictates of our genetic code and overcome biological evolution, by creating tangible collectives (like societies and religions) and intangible constructs (like capitalism and brands), leading to new types of behaviors unseen in any other species.

In this part of the story, we also dive deep into the possible lifestyles of ancient hunting-gathering societies. While we modern-day humans may marvel at our technological and social accomplishments, we get to ask whether ancient ancestors led happier, more fulfilling, even if much shorter, lives? After all, as individuals, they were far more accomplished in their raw mental and physical abilities than most modern humans, had far better awareness of their surroundings, enjoyed healthier diets, faced lower chances of catching infectious diseases on average, and had far more intimate social lives within their tribes tied together by common bonds of language, practices, and myths. With due caution about the sparsity of archaeological evidence, the author also speculates on the nature of culture and lives of our foraging ancestors, their beliefs, and their proclivity towards everyday violence. Even though our lives do not resemble our ancestors at all, Harari agrees that much of our genetically ingrained habits come from our ancestors. We stuff ourselves with high-calorie foods whenever we can, we gorge on luxuries and over insure ourselves for calamities, even when the need for such things are not really there. And even the most cosmopolitan amongst us still retain a tribal mentality, a primal “us” vs “them” identity-driven mindset, very much in common with hunter-gatherer societies.

For many millennia, our ancestors lived on the edge of social complexity, not as complex interweaved societies that came after, but at the same time far more complicated and accomplished than any other species on earth. But this gradual progression towards a more complex society took its toll. While we rue the impact modern societies and their activities have on the climate and ecology today, Harari reminds us of the ecological impact humanity had throughout pre-history. Our need to explore new lands and new frontiers had a dramatic impact on ecology right from the dawn of civilization. The same Cognitive Revolution which empowered us to reach new geographic frontiers, also took a high toll on local flora and fauna, wherever our search for new homes and adventures took us. Mass extinctions took place within very short periods of modern humans reaching and settling a new geographic frontier. And all this, even before the Agricultural Revolution had even begun.

The story now moves into the realm of human history’s next giant leap, the practice of agriculture, which Harari labels as “History’s Biggest Fraud”. A surprise would be the most natural reaction to this label. But Harari calls the frequent eulogizing of the onset of agriculture societies, a fantasy. He goes onto explain how the impact of agriculture on humanity has often been interpreted the wrong way around. He emphasizes that we did not domesticate crops and animals, they domesticated us. The truth is, Harari is not the first to present this dystopian view of agriculture – others have made similar points as him. But Harari makes the point brilliantly. Transition to agricultural societies from hunter-gatherer ones enslaved us to a highly restrictive way of life. It brought massive changes in typical individual lifestyles and consequently let loose a plethora of ills such as ailments, droughts, malnutrition, and overdependence on material luxuries. Curiously enough, while individuals witnessed a decline in the overall quality of life, populations thrived due to increased availability of food and specialization of labour – a hallmark of the “complexity” that agrarian life introduced in humanity. It also brought about massive changes in societies where agriculture became the norm. The typical change was the rise of social orders and hierarchies – political, legal, religious – were all consequences of humanity coming together to form much larger aggregations than what foraging could sustain.

But Harari’s book takes the radical step in labelling all such social orders as purely imaginary – where concepts such as equality, liberty, justice, democracy, religions only exist in the collective imagination of populations, which he labels as “myths”, each of which has no objective reality. As a result, the meaning attributed to these concepts has always been subjective, contextualized to the population in a given space and time. For instance, the meaning of “equality” in slavery ridden U.S. of the 18th century is quite different from the same concept in early 20th century Britain free of slavery, but where women were yet to receive voting rights or even more so in the modern caste dominated Indian society or in the liberal European democracies in the modern world. A whole chapter is devoted specifically to the concept of equality, as it evolved in different regions of the world at different times. The imaginary hierarchies that human societies have constructed over millennia are self-reinforcing vicious cycles, and their effects are felt even today, whether in gender, race, religion, or ethnicity.

The next great stage in historical evolution is the rise of grand unifying social orders, which brought an otherwise highly fragmented humanity under common sets of overlapping norms and myths. The primary ones, according to Harari, are: the economic order brought about by the invention of money and the rise of trade; the political order brought about by imperial conquests; and finally, the religious orders such as Buddhism, Christianity, and Islam. Each of these is dealt with some level of detail, but once again from the perspective of collective myths surrounding each. These were interconnected forces, which have repeatedly combined over the last few millennia to bring about the well-known historical episodes in the form of kingdoms, empires, revolutions, and governments. Harari’s analysis helps to distil the influence of broad forces that brought specific elements of these three orders together at certain moments in time, in certain regions of the inhabited world.

For me, two elements stood out in this discourse. First, particularly relevant for the imperial and religious orders, it is almost impossible to demarcate when one episode ended and when the next one started – like the one succeeding the previous episode always retained elements of the one it replaced, and where the seeds of change were already sowed long before it was replaced. This is not just true for new empires succeeding previous ones, with transitions between them being a diffusive gradual process, rather than a discrete one. It is also true for most of the world’s religions, whether monotheistic or polytheistic, which are more similar and overlapping than they are dissimilar. Second, it is not possible to pinpoint exact reasons behind why certain economic, political, and religious forces took hold at certain points in history, other than that they, and not others, that did so in a set of fortunate historical coincidences. History does not happen for the benefit of humans but just happens, while its participants, that is us, are taken along on a ride without really being aware of historical forces at work.

The final section of the book is dedicated to the scientific revolution, a very recent phenomenon over the last 500 years or so. Scientific progress certainly did happen in the centuries before this period, but more on individual initiatives, rather than as an organized social and political one. Harari views the dawn and evolution of the scientific age as primarily being driven by the political-industrial forces of the day. Whether it was the search for new resources and markets, new military might, or simply prestige, the way science is done today is fundamentally different from the way it has happened over millennia. This has changed human societies in ways far more radical than ever before in history, and at a rate never seen before. What are the consequences of this in terms of our own and our planet’s future? Whereas our ancestors’ lives virtually remained unchanged over millennia, ours is now changing fast not just over centuries, but even from decade to decade. Technology has permeated our lives so thoroughly, that we cannot imagine living in a world of a mere couple of hundred years ago – a blink of an eye in human history. We have gathered immense potential, immense power, but no sense of a goal where the whole human race is concerned. Harari asks whether we have become dangerous gods without a sense of purpose.

In a modern world that often makes little sense, Sapiens certainly provides an understanding of how we have arrived at this confusing juncture riddled with futile man-made divisions and hierarchies and leaves tantalizing clues about how, if ever, we can control our destiny as a species. The English version of Sapiens has been on the bookshelves since 2014 and has spawned further books by the same author, which focus more on the future than in the past. It has also received its fair share of criticism from historians and anthropologists, who may not have appreciated some of the more speculative elements of the story that Harari constructs. Many parts of the story will also not be an easy read for those who hold faith in one or more “myths” in their lives – myths not just limited to religions, but also to ideologies such as liberalism, humanism, socialism, Nazism, communism, or any other.

In particular, the book at times makes sweeping generalizations, whose foundations are either shaky in terms of evidence or simply speculative. The author often goes overboard on speculations without due notice to the uninitiated reader. He sweeps under one roof, both faith-based religions and ideological positions such as liberalism, communism, etc. At the same time, his own biases come out quite clearly, when he describes Buddhism as being a “new” kind of religion, where the central focus is not on the divine, but on an individual. I think a lot of Buddhists will take an exception of characterizing Buddha, not as a divine figure, but as a human who figured out the way to live a satisfying life by exiting the vicious cycle of material needs and wants. And finally, careful readers will also smell a whiff of Euro-centrism, particularly in the last section dealing with the role of science in the modern world.

Nevertheless, there is one reason why I hold this book in very high regard. It firmly shows Homo Sapiens its place in the grand scheme of this planet’s history and future, despite humanity’s achievements in a very short period of geological time. Our little comforts, our small differences matter very little to evolutionary pressures and directions, whether biological, social, or technological. Rarely have so much been condensed into so few pages, the breadth of Sapiens is mind-boggling. Reading this book has been both exhilarating and liberating at the same time, and his highly recommended, even if you indulge in it with a heavy dose of skepticism.

Dr. Abhijit Sengupta

Dr. Abhijit Sengupta

Dr Abhijit Sengupta is a Reader (Associate Professor) of Business Analytics in Surrey Business School, University of Surrey in the United Kingdom. His research focusses on economics of innovation, international business strategies, and on complex economic systems. He loves travelling, movies, photography and cricket in his spare time, but his real passion lies in reading. His reading interests are extremely broad, ranging from fiction (classic, contemporary, sci-fi) to history, politics, physics and cosmology. A bookworm since childhood, he ought to have followed his true calling, and opened a bookshop of his own. Sadly, that never happened as that thing called economics had already blocked the road not taken

1 Comment

  1. Satyaki

    Very well written professor..


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