A Brief History of Humankind
by Yuval Noah Harari
‘We have the dubious distinction of being the deadliest species in the annals of biology.’
Around two-and-a-half million years ago in the course of evolutionary history, something remarkable happened, something with stupendous consequences for this planet on which we all live. A quite unremarkable ape-like creature made its appearance on the continent of Africa. The Homo genus wasn’t specially large; it wasn’t especially strong or fierce. In a one-to-one contest Homo could be taken down by any number of bigger, stronger and more ferocious creatures. However, the one thing Homo had going for it was its bigger brain, which enabled it to survive and eventually dominate.
This is the point at which Yuval Noah Harari begins his not so brief history of ‘man’. Stephen Hawking managed to squeeze time into around two hundred pages. Sapiens, the story of the last tiny moment of cosmic history, requires nearly five hundred. But those five hundred pages give such a fresh and fascinating perspective on where we came from and how Homo evolved to form the complex societies that exist today.
‘The earth of a hundred millennia ago was walked by at least six different species of man. It’s our current exclusivity, not that multi-species past, that is peculiar – and perhaps incriminating.’
Only one of the six or more species of Homo – Homo sapiens – survives. What happened to the others? What unique characteristic enabled our species to overcome and eventually exterminate (if indeed that was what happened) the others? What were the historical milestones – the revolutions – that led to the political, scientific and religious structures that underpin human society of the early twenty-first century?
Sapiens is divided into sections, each revealing something of the uniqueness of humanity. For more than two million years after the first appearance of ‘man’ in Africa, nothing much happened. Evolution was slow. Then came what Harari calls the Cognitive Revolution, the beginning of fictive language. What distinguished us from the other human species, he argues, was our ability to invent. Most of the entities we regard as objective realities, for example, the state, money, religion, are not. They are inter-subjective. Collectively, humans believe in them, and when we stop believing they cease to exist. We get revolutions, new rulers, new gods, and so on.
‘Homo sapiens acquired the ability to say “This lion is the guardian spirit of the tribe.” This ability to speak about fictions is the most unique feature of Sapiens language.’
With the Agricultural Revolution, the original hunter-gatherers became farmers and this development facilitated the growth of larger communities, leading ultimately to empires. Homo sapiens became a conqueror, heading out into the world to spread its fictions among peoples with less imagination and inferior technology. The Industrial and Scientific Revolutions followed, and capitalism, communism and a whole menagerie of other ‘isms’, some successful, others failed. We can circle our planet in a few hours, we travel into space, and we can communicate almost instantaneously with any of our fellow creatures (so long as they have a mobile phone or an internet connection. Where will it all end?
‘Withing a century of [Cortés’] landing at Vera Cruz, the native population of the Americas had shrunk by about 90 per cent, due mainly to unfamiliar diseases that reached America with the invaders.’
Sapiens concludes with a brief look towards the future. Where is mankind heading, Harari asks?
Despite the countless problems our societies face today at national and local level, the last century on the world stage has seen stupendous improvements. Fewer people are killed by war, fewer die of malnutrition, and most of us live longer, healthier lives than ever before. Fewer are influenced by the myths of nationhood, race, culture and religion than was once the case. Deprived of those inter-subjective entities, what will become of us, we might well ask?
‘There is no justice in history.’
Sapiens contains no new science, no new history. Harari’s technique is to encourage us to ‘question the basic narratives of our world’, and it is that approach which makes his book so appealing. If once we banish war, famine, sickness and gods, will we put something else in their place – or will we become gods ourselves? Harari can be provocative, even outrageous at times, but the pace of his writing never flags.
Harari’s own take on the next century is only hinted at here. This future will be the subject of discussion and analysis in his companion volume, Homo Deus, published only last year.
‘We seek comfort in the fantasy that Dr Frankenstein can create only terrible monsters, whom we would have to destroy in order to save the world. We like to tell the story that way because it implies we are the best of all beings.’
This is a non-fiction work that many people will find an uncomfortable read. I recommend reading it with a completely open mind.