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A Brief History of Humankind
Yuval Noah Harari
The subtitle of this book is, A Brief History of Humankind. All of it, apparently. In 400 pages. Which sounds convenient; it also sounds like nonsense. After all, it took Diarmaid MacCulloch over a thousand pages just to write a history of Christianity, and the print was tiny.
Still, this book, by Yuval Noah Harari, a professor of world history at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, seems to have convinced many; it's already an international bestseller. And indeed it begins unarguably enough. On the opening page the author tells us that 'About 13.5 billion years ago, matter . . . came into being in what as known as the Big Bang.'
Physics, he continues, is the study of this stuff. Chemistry, he adds, is the study of atoms; biology the study of organisms. So far so good, you feel. Evidently this will be a Reduced History Company version of humankind; the stories you know, recycled, but quicker, for the time-poor modern man. That, though is where this feeling ends. Because from the end of that first page, Harari begins to dismantle many of your assumptions; starting with that point of being short of time. This, says Harari, has its first roots in the agricultural revolution, a movement that most history books call A Good Thing and that he says instead is history's biggest fraud.
After the invention of agriculture , man - who had lived perfectly happily by foraging - found himself working longer hours, doing backbreaking work (literally - slipped discs start to appear in the archaeological record). More people could, admittedly, be supported by farming than foraging, and the world's population leapt from around 5 million foragers in around 10,000 BC to 250 million by the first century AD. But quality of life went down: the diet of the average peasant narrowed and worsened and, reliant on a single crop, he became vulnerable to famine. So who did benefit? Well, says Harari, wheat: this once-insignificant grass now covers 2.25 million square km of the world, with armies of servile humans protecting it, watering it, even ferrying animal faeces to it. 'These plants domesticated Homo sapiens, rather than vice versa.'
Harari goes on, uprooting theories that have been carefully cultivated and propagated for tens, even hundreds of years. Think you're superior to the Neanderthals? Well, if you're of European descent, you're likely to be partly one yourself: the DNA of modern Europeans is up to 4 per cent Neanderthal. One in the eye for white supremacists. Nor were these Neanderthals as, well, Neanderthal as their reputation would have us believe. They had larger brains than us, were better adapted to cold and took care of their sick. Then, around 30,000 years ago, they disappeared; quite possibly because we wiped them out. 'Tolerance,' he notes, 'is not a Sapiens trademark'. If we did indeed do this, then this was, he writes, 'the first and most significant ethnic-cleansing campaign in history'.
Sometimes he doesn't entirely overturn a theory, simply tilts it slightly. Take Adam Smith, these days famous (or possibly infamous) for the idea of the 'invisible hand'. But, says Harari, Smith had a far more important point to make. Because it was Adam Smith who first said that profit was not a moral wrong. 'This may not strike you as very original, because we all live in a capitalist world that takes Smith's argument for granted.' Harari argues that in its time it was revolutionary.
Hitherto, the global pie of wealth had been seen as being of static size, so if a cobbler made more money, people will have less money left over for buns, so his baker neighbour must make less. Profit-making was therefore tantamount to theft. Smith overturned this by saying that if the cobbler reinvests this profit, he can employ more people, who will then buy more buns, and so on. Smith repeated this idea 'like a mantra'; greed was now good. Particularly pleasing in this section is the diagram entitled, 'The Economic History of the World in a Nutshell.' If you have been struggling with Thomas Piketty this summer, read this, and breathe out.
He goes on into the modern world. Take peace; where this does exist it is partly, as is generally thought, because atom bombs have made the cost of war so high. But it's also because the profits are now so low. The wealth of developed nations no longer consists of land, or cattle, but knowledge, so invading a country is largely pointless. If the Chinese were to invade Silicon Valley, they'd gain little because its wealth resides in the mind of Google engineers . . . who would be on the first plane to Bangalore. It is not a coincidence, he argues, that wars now happen in places, like the Middle East, 'where wealth is old-fashioned material wealth'.
What seems at the start to be this book's shortcoming - its huge scope - becomes its greatest strength. You suddenly feel that historians have been mistaken in peering in such close detail at individual pieces of history because when you step back you suddenly can see so clearly the image made by the whole mosaic.
Moreover, he does all of this in the most breathtakingly lovely prose. Because Harari can write. Not in the sense that most authors can - ie, put words on a page and go on till the book comes to its natural end (or, as is the case with most current authors, 150 pages beyond that). But really, really write, with wit, clarity elegance and a wonderful eye for metaphor. Words sing for him.
Towards the end of the book he looks at the modern world and asks, simply, 'are we happier?' Probably not, is the somewhat dispiriting answer. His reasoning comes from biology, which tells us that our brains seem to be programmed to keep our happiness levels relatively constant. So a Parisian banker may move into a chic Champs-Elysees penthouse, while a medieval French peasant moves into a hut, but each can only secrete a similar amount of serotonin in pleasure at their new homes. So the banker, for all his superior gadgets, carpets and heating, is no more happy than the peasant. Tant pis.
So has it all - agriculture, science, industrialisation, nice flats, publishing - been a mistake? Perhaps. But, however persuasive he is, I can't help feeling that had all of history not happened then the forager me would have been sorry not to have a Yuval Noah Harari explaining my world to me as beautifully as this.
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SAPIENS IS the sort of book that sweeps the cobwebs out of your brain. Its author, Yuval Noah Harari, is a young Israeli academic and an intellectual acrobat whose logical leaps have you gasping with admiration. That said, the joy of reading him is not matched by any uplift in his message, which is relentlessly accusatory and dismaying. His book presents a brief history of life on earth, starting with the big bang and ending 1,000 years in the future, by which time, he predicts, homo sapiens will be extinct, because science will have replaced us with genetically engineered immortals and 'super-cyborgs', part human, part machine, with faculties we can't even imagine.
The disappearance of old-style humans is not, it is clear, a prospect he much regrets, for on his reckoning we have proved the most destructive species ever to plague the planet. Almost all the facts in the human story are contested, but, as Harari tells it, our remote ancestors lived peacefully among the other animals for many millenniums until about 70,000 years ago when homo sapiens developed superior cognitive powers and, crucially, invented language.
No one knows how we alone managed this, rather than the other human species, such as Neanderthals, that archeology has discovered. But it was language that enabled us to co-operate, organise, and become the dominant animal. From their African homeland prehistoric humans spread across the globe, colon-ising Australia 45,000 years ago, where they became the Aborigines, then north and south America, where they became the Paleo-Indians. Wherever they went they spread destruction, hunting the larger mammals to extinction. All this happened while we were still primitive foragers. As Harari vividly puts it, we obliterated half the planet's large-mammal species even before we got round to inventing the wheel.
A second wave of devastation came with the invention of agriculture around 10,000 years ago. Clearing land for the cultivation of cereals meant destroying the habitats of countless animal, bird and plant species, and reinforced humanity's claim to be the deadliest organism ever. In Harari's view, agriculture was also a tragedy for humans. With agriculture came private property, social and sexual inequal-ity, greed and exploitation. What had been close-knit, self-helping hunter-gatherer groups were replaced by a social system in which the majority were serfs or slaves, ruled by despots who owned the land. Worse still, agriculture supported far greater numbers of humans than foraging had, so it led eventually to the global population that is now spiralling out of control and can be sustained only by the obscenities of factory farming, described in this book with justified horror.
Harari does not claim to be original in identifying the invention of agriculture as a world-changing disaster, and, in fact, the credit for this idea seems to belong to Jean-Jacques Rousseau, whose Discourse on the Origin of Inequality put forward almost exactly the same argument in 1754. Since then, research has tended to confirm the disaster scenario. Quite apart from introducing social inequalities, agriculture, it seems, led to a steep decline in the standard of living, because it required full-time labour whereas hunter-gatherers, it is estimated, spent less than 20 hours a week getting food. They also had a healthier diet than farming communities, were less prone to vitamin deficiency, and lived longer.
Harari would like to believe that, in addition to their other advantages, hunter-gatherers were happier than we are. You can see why the thought attracts him. It would be a fitting payoff for our ecological mayhem. However, for once his argument stalls, and peters out in metaphysical niceties. Quantifying happiness seems a patently daft idea, which is no doubt why historians have steered clear of it, as Harari complains they have. Knowing whether those nearest and dearest to you are happy is difficult enough, without imagining that you can get inside the mind of some anonymous bushman who roamed the earth centuries ago.
Mostly, though, Harari's writing radiates power and clarity, making the world strange and new. His central argument is that language has not just made us top animal, it has also enmeshed us in fictions. Myths, gods and religions appeared with the advent of language, and though they do not really exist outside the stories that we make up, they are enormously strong. Fictions such as Christianity and nationalism can bind millions together in a common cause, and people die for them. Humans, Harari observes, are the only animals that believe in vastly powerful entities that they have never seen, touched or smelt, and that is language's fault.
Laws, justice and human rights are all myths or fictions from Harari's perspective, having no objective reality outside our imagination. Nothing resembling justice exists in the universe. There are no rights in biology. In a bravura passage he deconstructs the most famous lines in the American Declaration of Independence ('We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights...') to show that they are a mishmash of fictions, from the creation myth to the absurd claim that humans are equal. Not that Harari dismisses such fictions as evil conspiracies or useless mirages. We believe in them, he argues, because they bind society together and allow us to co-operate effectively.
At the same time, because we half know that they are fictions, believing in them requires a degree of self-deception, for which Harari adopts the term cognitive dissonance, meaning the ability to hold contradictory beliefs and values. This is often considered a failure of the human psyche, but Harari applauds it. Had people been unable to hold contradictory beliefs and values, he suggests, it would have been impossible to establish human culture. However, since his book shows that the effect of human culture has been to devastate the world, perhaps the failure to establish it would have been no bad thing.
Harari has his own contradictions. He makes predictions while declaring that prediction is impossible. He argues that history is a chaos while treating it as a system of cause and effect. But such blips should not deter readers from treating themselves to this mind-stirring book.
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