October 18, 2019
Thanks to Jennifer Taylor, a 2019 Harrison Middleton University Fellow in Ideas recipient, for today’s post.
Harari, Yuval N. Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind. [Toronto]: Signal, 2014.
I have often heard that if we choose not to learn from the mistakes of history, we will inevitably end up repeating them. Though it is undeniably very practical advice to be aware of the perils and pitfalls to which we as human beings are susceptible, in spite of my best intentions to be a well-informed member of the species, history has never been a subject that has thrilled me. I took the requisite courses in high school, of course – but names and dates blurred together and important concepts failed to stick with me. More than a decade later, I obtained Sapiens at the recommendation of a family member.
It took less than two pages to realize that this history book is unique. Beginning approximately 2 million years ago with the plethora of human species that failed to survive past 12,000 BCE and spanning into predictions for the future, Harari’s Sapiens focuses on broad concepts and questions that have influenced the behaviours and movements of Homo sapiens as a species, rather than the individuals who may have made culturally significant impacts on a smaller scale. Harari presents the vast and complex history of our species chronologically, organized largely by the Revolutions that set human beings apart from their non-world-dominating counterparts, extinct and otherwise: Cognitive, Agricultural and Scientific.
The Cognitive Revolution represents the transition of sapiens from one of many human species struggling for survival into the dominant species on the planet – but the explanation for that transition is not as simple as large brains and opposable thumbs. Human species possessed those traits for millions of years and remained in the middle of the food chain. Gaining control of fire and developing language are also not unique to Homo sapiens. So how did they, in a relatively short span of time, become the only surviving species of humans? And how did they then develop from bands of 50 citizens cooperating together into cities of millions?
The Agricultural Revolution, which Harari refers to as “history’s biggest fraud”, describes the progression of modern humans from a population of hunter-gatherers into communities of farmers. How and why did this change take place? And was the domestication of grain the benefit to the species we believe it to be? How do we define evolutionary success and whether or not we, as humans, have been successful?
Beginning about 500 or so years ago, the goals of education transitioned from preservation and validation of existing rules to discovery and acquisition of new ones in a process called the Scientific Revolution. By accepting that modern culture was ignorant, it opened the door to scientific discoveries and real progress. This change led to the discovery of medications, the invention of new weapons, and the stimulation of economic resources that led to men on the moon and the invention of the atomic bomb. But do technological advancements necessarily mean that quality of life – rather than lifespan – has improved? Is Capitalism the key to progress, or a cult that holds the hardest-working members of its population back? What will continued technological advancements mean for the future of Homo sapiens, who are, biologically, little different than we were 200,000 years ago?
Enormous questions such as these have no simple answers, but Harari tackles them with a level of knowledge and insight that allows him to lay out the myriad facets of each topic with eloquence and clarity. Sapiens is written in language accessible to laypeople with a degree of humour, but uses it to set forth complex concepts and theories about the history of human beings. And as promised, that history is repeating itself. According to Harari, Homo sapiens are no stranger to causing mass extinction on a global scale. Nor is the current post-truth climate the first time our species has been willing to justify behaviour based on common myths. Even being ensnared in the “luxury trap”, an endless cycle of working harder in pursuit of luxuries we aren’t able to enjoy, is part of the history of humankind. Though understanding our history may not allow us to accurately predict the future, it does allow us to “widen our horizons, to understand that our present situation is neither natural or inevitable, and that we consequently have many more possibilities before us than we imagine.”
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