Saturday, August 26, 2017

Book Review: "Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind" by Yuval Noah Harari

Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind (2017)
Yuval Noah Harari (1976)










443 pages

The social and cultural traditions within which we grow up tend to become so deeply ingrained in our worldview as to seem to be a part of the natural order of things. According to author and historian Yuval Noah Harari however, all of these social and cultural traditions --- everything we think and do beyond our biological drives --- actually arise out of humankind’s unique ability to create shared myths and fictions. Early in his fascinating and thought-provoking book Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, Harari declares that:
There are no gods in the universe, no nations, no money, no human rights, no laws, and no justice outside the common imagination of human beings. (28)

For Harari, the ability to create shared myths and fictions not only gave Homo sapiens a decisive advantage over other human species, but also explains “why Sapiens rule the world, whereas ants eat our leftovers and chimps are locked up in zoos and research laboratories.” (25) The wide-ranging and dramatic implications of this seemingly simple but in reality remarkably powerful ability form the foundation of Harari’s examination of Homo sapiens’ long history. In Sapiens, he charts and examines humankind’s development from bands of foragers to the settled farming villages that grew out of the Agricultural Revolution, through the subsequent consolidation of individual communities into states and empires, and finally the dramatic transition to a globalized society that came with the Scientific Revolution.

Although Homo sapiens first appeared in East Africa some 200 thousand years ago, it was only 70 thousand years ago, according to Harari, that they developed the capability for fictive language. He refers to that transition as the Cognitive Revolution, and describes it as having given Homo sapiens the ability to transmit large amounts of information about the physical world and social relationships, and to create social constructs he refers to as imagined orders. While noting that Homo sapiens are not “exempt from biological laws [and] are still animals, and our physical, emotional and cognitive abilities are still shaped by our DNA” (38), Harari makes clear that this ability to create imagined orders underlies nearly everything about our history and our modern lives.

In particular, imagined orders enabled the successful cooperation between strangers that allowed the formation of large, cohesive groups with rapidly evolving social structures. This gave Homo sapiens a critical advantage over the other, remaining species of humankind. As becomes clear in Harari’s telling, however, the true impact of the Cognitive Revolution only became fully realized once the development of farming allowed the size of human communities to grow nearly without bound.

Though he presents several theories on the origins of the Agricultural Revolution, Harari seems to find settling that history of less interest than the disconcerting question of whether it was actually such a good thing for humankind. Though the pervasive view has been that “the agricultural revolution was a great leap forward for humanity” (78), he argues that it was perhaps instead “history’s biggest fraud” (79), a “luxury trap” (84) that humans unwittingly fell into.

He notes for example that, at an individual level, foragers lived lives that involved doing less work than farmers, and work more attuned to the evolutionary development of the human mind and body. Being mobile and living from a wide variety of food sources also meant that foragers were at much less risk of starvation from bad weather or diseases than farmers, who were tied to their land and reliant on a few crops and livestock.

In an intriguing twist, Harari turns the tables on the consequences of the Agricultural Revolution, looking at it from the purely biological sense of evolutionary processes focused on the spread of DNA. For humankind, in that sense, it has been a mixed blessing, providing “the ability to keep more people alive [albeit] under worse conditions.” (83) For cultivated crops such as wheat, on the other hand, it has been an unqualified success, allowing them to spread far beyond their range as a wild plant. For livestock animals, however, he finds the implications perhaps the most ambivalent: their DNA has been remarkably successful in proliferating itself, but only in exchange for the brutal living conditions inherent in factory farming.

For better or worse, however, the rapid increase in population enabled by the Agricultural Revolution led to ever larger settlements, and in time cities, kingdoms and empires, and eventually our modern world. Harari's review and analysis of this expansion makes evident the decisive role played in it by Homo sapiens’ ability to create imagined orders.  His detailed look at several of them --- social hierarchies, money, empires and universal religions --- also helps crystallize for readers the all-encompassing nature of this ability on our thinking and our lives.

The codification of social hierarchies enabled the growth of increasingly large communities of people; each such hierarchy represented an imagined order --- a purely invented, biologically arbitrary construct, generally arising in each society due to an accidental circumstance of history in that part of the world.

The construct of money eliminated the inherent limitations of bartering, by defining a relative worth for products based on an arbitrary unit of measure, which dramatically expanded economic possibilities. Harari points out that the imagined order of money has been by far the most successful conqueror of variation between cultures: even people who have no connection of language, religion or state will trust in money as having value.

The appearance of the first empires followed within a few centuries the use of money, and became the most common form of political organization. Empires have generally been founded and grown up around invented narratives that underscore the benefits they bring to the variety of cultures they contain.

When discussing religions, Harari has a much broader definition than simply supernatural, theist faiths, such as Christianity or Islam.  For him, any belief system based on a superhuman order --- that is, one which "establishes norms and values that it considers binding ... [and with the] qualities [of being] universal and missionary" (210) --- is a religion.  Thus, along with theist faiths, he also considers non-theist, natural-law ideologies as religions, including capitalism, communism, nationalism and Nazism.

Through his detailed examination of economic and cultural phenomena such as social hierarchies, money, empires and religions, the development and critical impact of being capable of creating imagined orders become clear, as does their origin in the evolutionary appearance of the ability to use fictive language. A purely biologically driven species is unable to comprehend the idea of tying the relative worth of all things to a piece of paper or metal with particular marks on it.  As Harari commented in an interview with Sam Harris, (Waking Up with Sam Harris podcast, Reality and the Imagination, at 27’ 55’’):
My understanding is that a source of human power, but also the source of much human misery is … the human imagination, and the ability of humans to create fictional stories, and then to believe them, to such an extent that they can start entire wars just because they believe some religious or national or economic fiction. ... We control this planet not because as individuals we are much more intelligent than chimpanzees or pigs or dogs, but rather because we are the only mammal that can cooperate in very large numbers;  and we can do that because we believe in fictions. If we examine any large-scale human cooperation, you always find a fictional story at the basis, whether it’s about god, or the nation, or money, or even human rights. Human rights, like god in heaven, they are just a story invented by humans, they are not a biological reality.

A key point for Harari is that imagined orders are in some sense ephemeral, having force only so long as we agree to them: “an imagined reality is something that everyone believes in, and as long as this communal belief persists, the imagined reality exerts force on the world.” (32) Given the growing divide in our political and social structures, Americans need only look inward to see how fragile the common imagined orders of a nation can be, and how easily they could be allowed to splinter into competing social constructs and beliefs.

In a though-provoking sidestep into the study and understanding of history, Harari examines the idea that there is a “secret of success” of particular imagined orders over others --- for example, Christianity becoming the official religion of the Roman Empire and so eventually a universal religion. He notes that having only a superficial knowledge of a historical period can easily lead one into “hindsight fallacy,” the belief when looking back that certain decisions and outcomes were inevitable, when in reality they were not. Another common trap, he argues, is to believe that history’s choices are necessarily to the benefit of humans.

On the contrary, he argues that the more deeply one studies a historical period the harder it often becomes to explain why things happened one way and not the other, and also that no objective scale of the preferential “goodness” of a particular result exists. In a statement with implications for how we should view our own future, he points out that in fact possibilities in the past which seemed very unlikely to contemporaries (such as the eventual dominance of Christianity in the Roman Empire) have often been realized.

While the first part of the book introduces the idea of imagined orders as growing out of the Cognitive Revolution, and the second part describes key imagined orders that enabled the increasing population density made possible by the Agricultural Revolution, it is in the final part of the book --- on the Scientific Revolution --- that Harari demonstrates how some imagined orders can be more successful than others.

Harari links the beginnings of the Scientific Revolution to the point, some 500 years ago, when humankind began to acknowledge its own ignorance, and so ceased to divide knowledge between that which was ordained by religious belief and that which was simply unimportant to know. He notes that along with this change came a shift to making observation and mathematics central to improving our understanding, and a focus on turning scientific discoveries into technical advances.

This revolution occurred first in Western Europe, and, critically according to Harari, was matched there by a burning desire to fill in the gaps, a “mentality of conquest” (283) that set off a frenzied search for new discoveries both in a scientific sense, and also in the searching out of news lands in parts of the globe unknown to Europeans: “As time went by, the conquest of knowledge and the conquest of territory became ever more tightly intertwined.” (284)

This combination of interest in science and desire for conquest resulted in a decisive edge for nations in Western Europe, Harari argues, as they reached outward. Although empires in Asia and the Western Hemisphere produced scientific discoveries on par with Western Europe, and were more powerful than countries in Western Europe as the Scientific Revolution began, “they lacked the values, myths, judicial apparatus and sociopolitical structures that took centuries to form in the West and which could not be copied and internalized rapidly.” (282)

Thus, as Western Europeans began exploring the globe, these more powerful empires stayed close to home, and found themselves unprepared to counter Europe’s expansion onto the world scene. Harari’s analysis highlights how a society’s set of imagined orders can have dramatic, if unpredictable, impacts on its future: the same imagined orders that lead to a powerful social order locally --- for example for the Chinese or Inca empires --- can potentially become a point of weakness when a society butts up against another that grew up with a different set of imagined orders.

In Western Europe, a deep belief and faith in progress and the future accompanied the Scientific Revolution, setting the stage for the development of capitalism. Harari points out that capitalism and the Scientific Revolution worked hand in hand in the West, becoming a combination of imagined orders that strengthened one another in a powerful feedback loop as investments in science led to new discoveries that led to new technologies that gave governments the power to gain control of more resources, and so provide yet more funding for further scientific advancement.

Harari goes on to examine a number of implications that the rise and dominance of the capitalist imagined order --- with its deeply embedded requirements for continued growth and expansion --- have had on modern society.

The first has been an ever increasing use of energy and raw materials; he notes that despite constantly re-emerging fears over limits on the availability of sufficient resources, new exploitable sources have so far always been found, motivated through the feedback loop of capitalism and science. That same synergy of imagined orders has also rapidly increased productivity through the industrial revolution, of which one consequence has been what he calls a second Agricultural Revolution, as industrialization dramatically increased output of farms.

His discussion of capitalism and industrialization recalls Colin Tudge’s comment in The Time Before History: 5 Million Years of Human Impact: “the agricultural systems of the [modern] world are not actually designed to feed people” (325). The popular fiction (imagined order of a kind) of farming as meant first and foremost to feed people may perhaps apply to particular farmers pursuing their passion to produce food, and looking simply to make enough to live on, but as an industry agriculture in fact constitutes a capitalist enterprise --- intent on making profit for their owners, just as any other business.

Harari also discusses the rise of consumerism: to sustain the capitalist model of investments returning profits it has been necessary to add to the imagined order of capitalism a belief that consumerism is good and right and natural. President Bush, for example, made direct reference to this critical feature of the capitalist order during a 2006 news conference when he concluded a summary of the economic situation with the exhortation to Americans: “I encourage you all to go shopping more.”

Finally, a consequence of capitalism and consumerism, according to Harari, has been to weaken our connections to family and local community, replacing them with new imagined communities, such as the nation and, increasingly, consumer tribes, which he describes as large groups of people “who do not know one another intimately but share the same consumption habits and interests, and therefore feel part of the same consumer tribe --- and define themselves as such.” (364) He finds a silver lining in the spread of consumerism however: in the unprecedented peace since 1945, globalization has made international wars seemingly unthinkable, with each additional peaceful year allowing the development of further global connections, and so further reasons to avoid war, in a positive feedback loop.

Looking back over the arc of the history he has described, Harari introduces the question of whether humankind could be concluded to have found happiness at any particular period of its history. He qualifies this discussion by outlining the difficulties in defining happiness, concluding that there is still much to be understood about how to answer the question.  At an individual level, Harari considers whether Buddhism and other similar philosophies that claim that "the key to happiness is to know the truth about yourself --- to understand who, or what, you really are" (396), may perhaps come closest to the mark in identifying what could be considered happiness.

Throughout the text, Harari brings a balanced approach to his analysis of humankind’s history, and in particular the impacts of the constructed imagined orders that underlay it. Regarding social hierarchies, for example, he notes that they were approximate descriptions of the world, and contained inherent inconsistencies and inequalities, leaving them open in retrospect to condemnation and opprobrium. He points out, however, that they were critical structures for allowing humankind to gather in large communities, and that precisely because of their shortcomings they were in constant flux and adaptation, both due to internal tensions, and as societies with differing hierarchical orders bumped up against one another.

Similarly, in his analysis of empires, he notes that although they are currently often considered as evil, throughout history their cultural impacts have tended to remain embedded in societies that have overthrown or replaced them. He argues, in fact, that in order to deal with problems that are increasingly global in nature, the current direction is toward a single, global empire.

Harari’s imagined orders share interesting similarities with Pierre Teilhard de Chardin’s concept of the noosphere, a word Teilhard coined, and that appeared for example in his treatise The Phenomenon of Man (my review here). Teilhard argued that the evolutionary development in humans of thought and reflection provided the necessary advantage for humankind to spread throughout the world, creating a “thinking layer” --- the noosphere --- that spanned the earth. (Teilhard created this term as a compliment to the existing, commonly known spheres, such as the biosphere.) Eventually, only Homo sapiens remained, branching out into a variety of groups worldwide. These initially independent groups then took the next step in the evolution of the nooshpere, by organizing into increasingly complex social groups, and eventually political and cultural societies.

Teilhard’s noosphere parallels Harari’s description of the development of thought in humankind, followed by its enhancement in Homo sapiens into the ability to create myths and fictions, giving them a decisive advantage, and, in the wake of the Agricultural Revolution, enabling the creation of increasingly complex social groups, and eventually world-wide political and cultural societies. Harari points out that these created societies are fundamentally different from the natural biological aspects of human existence, representing a constructed mental reality on top of our biological drives -- a formulation thus not unlike the idea of Teilhard’s “thinking layer” superimposed on the biosphere.

In another parallel, Harari’s explanation for the domination of the West’s imagined orders over the past 500 years also has echoes in Teilhard’s analysis. Teilhard pointed out five particular “foci of [social] attraction and organization, [that served as the] prelude and presage of some new and superior state for the noosphere”: the Mayan, Polynesian, Chinese, Indian and Egyptian-Sumerian civilizations. (209) Of these, he argued, it was the Egyptian and Sumerian that eventually coalesced into Western Civilization, “to produce that happy blend, thanks to which reason could be harnessed to facts and religion to action.” (211) For Teilhard, social societies were the next stage in mankind’s biological progress up the Tree of Life, and Western civilization has represented the flowering of that socialization:
The proof of this lies in the fact that from one end of the world to the other, all the peoples, to remain human or to become more so, are inexorably led to formulate the hopes and problems of the modern earth in the very same terms in which the West has formulated them. (212)
This closely parallels Harari’s analysis of the advantages that the imagined orders of Western Europe proved decisive in its expansion onto the world stage in the wake of the Scientific Revolution.

It must be clearly pointed out, however, that these striking similarities arise out of wildly divergent premises for the two historians. Teilhard, a Jesuit priest who studied anthropology and other sciences, believed deeply in orthogenesis, the idea that evolution proceeds in a predestined direction toward an ever more advanced state. Thus, for him, the evolution in humankind of the ability to think or reflect, and the eventual development of the noosphere, represented predetermined steps in the development toward ever higher levels of consciousness, as did the eventual dominance of the West. Toward the end of his book The Phenomenon of Man, Teilhard makes clear that he views this development as a Christian phenomenon, with a “spiritual and transcendent pole” (298) as its end point.

On the other hand, although Harari does not state it in so many words, it seems evident that he views the evolutionary changes that led to the ability of Homo sapiens to create fictions and myths as having been utterly natural, if not yet understood, developments. Certainly he makes clear his belief that a belief in God is simply one of humankind’s vast variety of imagined orders.

In the final chapter of the book, Harari looks to our future. He foresees humankind transforming beyond Homo sapiens, and describes a variety of technological scenarios that may allow us to change ourselves in fundamental ways. Ultimately, however, he seems to blanch at the power that is coming into the hands of humankind, even as we show ourselves to be ever more irresponsible and destructive.

Sapiens provides a remarkable perspective of human history, looking at it not through the rise and fall of particular empires or cultures, but rather how Homo sapiens’ unique ability to create complex and quickly evolving social and cultural structures enabled our rapid spread throughout the world. Recognizing the implications and impacts of these imagined orders on our modern world not only forces us to acknowledge an inherent arbitrariness of all of our beliefs, but to then use that recognition to enable us to break free from the tyranny of blind belief in them when a better way may be possible.


Other reviews / information:

Regarding Harari's thoughts on whether there has been a time when mankind could be considered to have been happy: the performance artist Lauri Anderson has a rather pessimistic take on it in her song The Dream Before.

Read quotes from this book here.


Have you read this book, others by this author, or even similar ones by other authors? I’d enjoy hearing your thoughts.
Other of my book reviews: FICTION Bookshelf and NON-FICTION Bookshelf