Departure lounge ramblings on music, places, climate change and stuff outdoors

Sapiens – A Brief History of Humankind

How do you write a 500 word review of a tome that surveys the entire history of the human race? It maybe holiday-induced laziness, but distracted by the early morning activity of fish plopping up for air, noisy geese swooping down to trim the grass in a farmer's field, and a showy kingfisher wooshing past looking for breakfast, I have concluded that this is a task beyond markontour's current capabilities. Thus follows sixteen interesting facts in chronological order gleaned from Yuval Noah Harari's highly thought provoking book, 'Sapiens – A Brief History of Humankind' (thanks to Anna for the loan). A short summation of a brief history, perhaps?

However, before I get to that, the opening three paragraphs of 'Sapiens' are so wonderful in their brevity and clarity, that they deserve conveying in full:

“About 13.5 billion years ago, matter, energy, time and space came into being in what is known as the Big Bang. The story of these fundamental features of our universe is called physics.

“About 300,000 years after their appearance, matter and energy started to coalesce into complex structures, called atoms, which then combined into molecules. The story of atoms, molecules and their interactions is called chemistry.

“About 3.8 billion years ago, on a planet called Earth, certain molecules combined to form particularly large and intricate structures called organisms. The story of organisms is called biology.”

Now for the shortcut summary:

1. From 2 million years ago to about 10,000 years ago, Earth was home at one and the same time to several human species.

2. Homo sapiens survived and thrived to such a great extent, despite not being either the strongest, fastest, or biggest animal in any given environment, because of their ability to co-operate.

3. Until bands of co-operating humans crossed a threshold of about 150 people they had no need for religions – all the knowledge they needed to survive concerned the physical world. But as society became more complex, we have utilised various myths to maintain organisation. Harari includes in this category everything from gods to laws, money, companies and ideologies, none of which actaully 'exist', but nevertheless can exert powerful influence over huge numbers of people, as long as they are widely accepted to be 'real'.

4. “The human collective knows far more today than did the ancient bands. But at the individual level, ancient foragers were the most knowledgeable and skilful people in history.” Indeed, there is some evidence that the average human's brain is now slightly smaller than it was when we needed to know every plant, animal and fungi in the forest in order to survive.

5. Meat really is murder. I'll let Harari say it: “Around the time that Homo sapiens was elevated to divine status by humanist religions, farm animals stopped being viewed as living creatures that could feel pain and distress, and instead came to be treated as machines. Today these animals are often mass-produced in factory-like facilities, their bodies shaped in accordance with industrial needs. They pass their lives as cogs in a giant production line.”

6. Christians have proved far more dangerous to fellow Christians than their original enemy, the Romans, who only ever killed a few thousand followers of Jesus. “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.”

7. In the last 500 years the human population has increased 14 fold, production has risen 240 fold, and energy consumption has grown 115 fold. This has been a highly atypical period of human advancement. Harari provides a deliberately uncomfortable example to prove the point: it took 600 years from the invention of gunpowder to its use in cannons, but only 40 years between Einstein revealing E=MC squared to the dropping of an atom bomb on Hiroshima (which Harari says was the single most significant event in human history – the day we developed the capacity to wipe ourselves out).

8. The great breakthrough of the scientific era has been the acceptance of ignorance – “the discovery that humans do not know the answers to the most important questions” – as opposed pre-modern belief systems that asserted that everything that is important to know about the world was already known (ie passed down from gods).

9. Harari's contention is that this is part of the reason why European countries and their culture came to dominate the world in the last 300 years. China and Persia were equally advanced in 1700, but governmentally still set up to maintain things as they had 'always' been, and thus were organisationally less able to adapt to rapid technological change.

10. Empires have been essential components of human organisation for thousands of years. The influence of the most successful ones long has long outlasted the demise of their originators – most of Europe still uses languages and roads that started with the Romans. However, that is not usually how it appears to the conquered. Harari repeats a fantastic anecdote to explain this, about the time that the then putative astronauts, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin, met a Native American elder while training in a remote desert environment in western USA. Having explained that they were part of a mission to land on the moon, the Native American fell silent for a while before explaining that his tribe believed that holy spirits live on Earth's satellite and would the astronauts mind passing on a message? They agreed and spent the next few minutes memorising a couple of sentences in the old man's language. He refused to tell them what it meant, saying it was a message only for the spirits. Back at base, however, the astronauts were able to get a translation: “Don't believe a single word these peole are telling you. They have come to steal your lands.”

11. Credit, which through its capacity to enable ever greater levels of investment in the productive capacity, Harari states is the driving force of capitalism, became possible because the scientific revolution allowed people to belive that things might get better in the future. For the preceding few thousand years most people observed that things generally stayed the same, even if they also believed that there had once been a golden age in the past.

12. The dollars spent by citizens of the USA on diet remedies each year would be enough to end world poverty at current food prices, if distributed differently.

13. Humanity has been phenomenally successful at wiping out or subjugating other speices. If you took all the world's 7 billion sapiens and put them on a large set of scales their combined mass would be about 300 million tonnes. All domesicated animals would weigh in at around 700 million tonnes. But the entire population of wild animals, from penguins, to elephants, to emus (one of which is standing in an English field watching me as I write this) would amount to less than 100 million tonnes.

14. Individual freedom depends on the market and the state – prior to their existence everyone was directly dependent on the collective for survival and so ''individual freedom” would have been a nonsensical aspiration.

15. Rapid expansion of productive capacity doesn't necessarily improve the total quantum of human happines. More importantly, as Nietzshe said, “if you have a why to live you can bear almost any how”.

16. “We are more powerful than ever before, but have very little idea what to do with all that power.”


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