Updated: Jan 25, 2019
Sapiens, by Yuval Noah Harari
Buckle up, dear readers and friends. This is the most challenging, uncomfortable read that I have experienced in a long time. Quite honestly, this book should come with trigger warnings for anxiety and depression. If you want to read my guide to dealing with existential angst, scroll to the bottom.
Sapiens is a book about humanity. It is intelligent and well-written, a remarkably easy read for the subject matter that it delves into. This is pop science at its finest. It is witty, thoughtful and thought-provoking, and especially in the first part where it details how homo sapiens came about, it is thoroughly delightful. But as the full picture emerges of what homo sapiens are, and what humanity really means, well, I found it to be like rubber necking a car wreck – I couldn’t look away even though I wanted to. We are fascinating and horrifying animals, of that there is no doubt. If there ever was intelligent design, we humans are surely not the result because we are absolutely the worst. This book makes me want to go live in a cave in the woods.
Which is where we were about 70,000 years ago when our place in the food chain, and the universe, changed dramatically. Brought on by something near and dear to my heart: the first cognitive leap in homo sapiens was the ability to gossip, hah!
“The new linguistic skills that modern Sapiens acquired about seventy millennia ago enabled them to gossip for hours on end. Reliable information about who could be trusted meant that small bands could expand into larger bands, and Sapiens could develop tighter and more sophisticated types of cooperation.”
Basically, from this point on humans took over the world with such terrifying speed that our psyche is still feeling the sting from it. As opposed to the majestic lion or other confident animals that sit at the top of the food chain, we still think and feel like a species somewhere in the middle, looking nervously over our shoulders as we head out, clutching a rock in our hands in hopes of bringing home dinner before we are mauled by a leopard. The changes to our species since the cognitive revolution took place did not happen by evolution, over millenia. We discovered a way to change our behaviour dramatically, and to transmit this behaviour on to future generations, bypassing DNA.
The resulting clash between our natural biology and created culture is a part of what makes us so maddening and interesting.
“A good rule of thumb is ‘Biology enables, culture forbids.’ Biology is willing to tolerate a very wide spectrum of possibilities. It’s culture that obliges people to realise some possibilities while forbidding others … Culture tends to argue that is forbids only that which is unnatural. But from a biological perspective, nothing is unnatural. Whatever is possible is by definition also natural.”
Here he references both homosexuality and feminism (meaning equality between the sexes) – both of these things are natural because they are possible, but often culturally derided or forbidden.
This book is fascinating anthropology, but at its heart, it is about philosophy. While it does give us some of the what, it really comes down to the why of humanity.
Which brings me to Harari and his value system, which I could not help but try to pin down while reading this. Is he a cynic? I feel like I can’t understand the book unless I understand his values, as the two are so intertwined.
I can see many people not enjoying this book as it challenges virtually every way of thinking there is. He seems a little lenient of Buddhism, that’s about it. Be prepared to defend your very existence if you want to truly dive into this one. He might have been a little too easy on Nazism – he explained their brand of evolutionary humanism with little passion. However, he does condemn all European empires of racist science to justify their taking over and colonizing other races as “sinister.”
“But following the logic of Darwinian evolution, [Nazis] argued that natural selection must be allowed to weed out unfit individuals and leave only the fittest to survive and reproduce.”
Has extremely cutting views on Christianity: “If we combine all the victims of all these persecutions, it turns out that in these three centuries, the polytheistic Romans killed no more than a few thousand Christians. In contrast, over the course of the next 1,500 years, Christians slaughtered Christians by the millions to defend slightly different interpretations of the religion of love and compassion.” Ouch, that stings.
And there’s this little nugget to shake you if you're a questioner:
“[M]onotheism explains order, but is mystified by evil. Dualism explains evil, but is puzzled by order. There is one logical way of solving the riddle: to argue that there is a single omnipotent God who created the entire universe – and He’s evil. But nobody in history has had the stomach for such belief.”
And the questions he brings up will create a storm of anxiety in your deepest self:
“Are we out of the global economic crisis, or is the worst still to come? Will China continue growing until it becomes the leading superpower? Will the United States lose its hegemony? Is the upsurge of monotheistic fundamentalism the wave of the future or a local whirlpool of little long-term significance? Are we heading towards ecological disaster or technical paradise?”
Oh my goodness, guys, I think about this stuff all the bloody time and it keeps me up at night. I always wonder if we are sitting at the threshold of some significantly dark times, or perhaps we are in them, but we can’t see it because we are here and have no perspective on the situation, and yet in 50 years people will look back on us and point fingers and question how could we possibly have let things get so bad.
Harari offers many questions and nightmare scenarios, without any attempt at offering answers – on purpose I’m sure. If he is not a vegan Buddhist, then he must surely be uncomfortable, as these are the only value systems that he does not tear apart.
He does also fall into this mind trap to which scientists seem indelibly drawn – he goes through chapters discussing how the scientific revolution is based on admitting ignorance, then turns around and assumes atheism is correct. Wait, what? What happened to being open to all possibilities? No, only oblivion after death and meaninglessness in life, end of discussion. Okay …
Even Harari is no oracle. Published in 2014, the book is already outdated in predicting a global empire and the end of nationalism.
“The global empire being forged before our eyes is not governed by any particular state or ethnic group. Much like the Late Roman Empire, it is ruled by a multi-ethnic elite, and is held together by a common culture and common interests.” (Our current common interest is, of course, money).
Yet only four years later, we are as we speak living through a time where nationalism is running about unchained, a time where Brexits happen and people like Trump are given the ultimate soapbox. Are these events the dying gasp of nationalism, or a new worrying trend? Harari did not foresee Trump. Seriously, did any of us foresee Trump? Harari suggests that “In the last two centuries, the currency of politics is that it promises to destroy the old world and build a better one in its place … Everyone promises social reform, educational reform, economic reform – and they often fulfil those promises.” Oh really? Because a lot of people all of a sudden seem to think everything would be better if we just went back to the good old days.
This book leads to many worries and sleepless nights. And there is no way of knowing the answers – we just have to see it through and hope for the best. And this leads me to my conclusion, not drawn from the book, but maybe as a pill to take afterwards. I believe that the best part of humanity is hope.
So at the end of this, here is my offering of hope: 70,000 years ago, there was a cognitive leap that allowed Homo Sapiens to conquer the world. My question is what will be the next cognitive leap? I doesn't have to be too late. I hope it’s a mindfulness leap. And I'm not necessarily wrong, just because I'm hopeful. Veganism is on the rise around the globe, for example. Harari would be happy, I think. There are a lot of interesting signs that younger generations are conscientious consumers, demanding that the brands they invest in that environmental and moral stands. Can consumerism save the world? Or are we all just doomed ... until we become cyborgs, that is. So, this book is clever and interesting, but if you really dive in will probably give you some sleepness nights. I do recommend it, but with that warning in place. Once you're done, read my guide to dealing with existential angst, because you're probably going to need it.