Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind

This is the final post in a series about or inspired by Yuval Noah Harari’s book, Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind.  This final post is a brief summary of the overall book and some final comments.

Harari’s subject matter, as the title suggests, is the history of the Homo sapiens species.  He breaks that history into four broad stages:

  1. The Cognitive Revolution, 70,000 BCE
  2. The Agricultural Revolution, 10,000 BCE
  3. The Unification of Humankind, 3500 BCE – present
  4. The Scientific Revolution, 1500 CE

Depending on what you accept as evidence, Homo sapiens as a species goes back to 200,000 to 300,000 years ago, although sapiens prior to about 100,000 years ago are often referred to as archaic Homo sapiens.  (Not to be confused with other archaic human species such as Neanderthals, Homo erectus, etc).  No one knows for sure when symbolic thought, such as full language, art, religion, and overall abstractions, began.  But evidence for it becomes much more prevalent in the last 100,000 years, particularly after about 70,000 BCE.

This is what Harari refrers to as the Cognitive Revolution.  It’s probably what led to the rapid spread of Homo sapiens throughout the world, as well as the disappearance of other human species, not to mention the ecological consequences I mentioned in an earlier post.

The Agricultural Revolution was the transition from hunter-gatherer culture to sedentary agricultural culture.  It enabled population growth far beyond anything possible during the foraging period.  Harari argues that there were drawbacks to this change, but the fact is that most humans since then would never have existed without it.

The Unification of Humankind is a process of humans working together in ever larger groups.  Harari describes it as being enabled by three broad concepts: money, empire, and religion.

Money is an abstract concept (what Harari refers to as a “fiction”) that, although many see it as the root of all evil, everyone believes in.  Why do we believe in it?  Because we know everyone else believes in it.  It’s a collective social credit system that frees us from the limitations of a barter economy, and enables the size of the resource pie to constantly grow.  It all works due to our collective trust that the money will continue to be useful in the future.  This is why when trust falters, we have recessions and depressions, what in the 19th century were called “panics”.

Whether empires are good or evil depends on when in their history you live.  They often start out as brutal regimes exploiting subjugated peoples.  But if successful over a long enough period, they become culturally unifying forces, consolidating everyone within their reach into one culture.  Usually only limited aspects of the original subjugated cultures survive.

The Akkadian Empire of Sargon the Great is usually noted as the first in history.  (Which is strange since Egypt obviously predated it.  I think the only reason we don’t think of ancient Egypt as an empire is it’s pre-unification stage was in prehistory.)  The Akkadian Empire had cultural effects in the Middle East long after it disappeared.  The Akkadian language was a classical language for subsequent civilizations for centuries afterward, with a role similar to Latin in medieval Europe.

When Rome was first building its empire, there were numerous small cultures throughout the Mediterranean and southern Europe, all subjugated and exploited by Rome.  But within a few centuries, within varying degrees, there were only Romans.  By the early third century CE, all free males within the empire were citizens.  Later Roman emperors came from regions throughout the empire.

In a cultural sense, Harari sees the modern world as a global empire.  During its “Age of Discovery”, Europe conquered the world, although not being united themselves, they did so with multiple competing empires.  But the European colonial empires were all of western culture.  In the mid-20th century, the original empires were largely dismantled.  Countries became free of colonial control, but they did so with western modes of dress and organizing concepts.  Similar to the later stages of the Roman Empire, control is now spreading beyond the original center of the empire.

I discussed Harari’s broad definition of religion, as a system of human norms and values founded on a belief in a superhuman order, a superhuman order that might involve deities or natural law.   It includes the large scale movements we normally think of as world religions, such as Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, and Buddhism.  But he labels many other things as religions, including capitalism, Communism, Humanism (including many notions of human rights), and a variety of other ideologies.  While these latter ideologies have had clashes (Communism vs capitalism), they have generally been unifying forces.

The world is, to some extent, unified with many common concepts and is increasingly economically integrated.  While this has its drawbacks, one plus that Harari points to is that it’s making war between states increasingly rare.  (Unfortunately civil wars are another matter.)  Old wars were often about seizing another country’s economic assets, which used to be land and natural resources.  But Harari notes that assets are increasingly tied up in intellectual capabilities, often involving the knowledge of its citizens, the best and brightest of which would flee an invading force, making the idea of such an invasion increasingly pointless.

This last development is related to the final stage Harari discusses, the Scientific Revolution, which began the scientific age we still live in.  No one knows where this age will eventually bring us.  But at the end of the book, Harari speculates that it will likely soon spell the end of Homo sapiens, not necessarily as in extinction, although that remains a stark possibility, but with the rise of genetic engineering, cyborg technologies, and artificial intelligence, the likelihood that we will modify ourselves into something else (or numerous something else’s) is very high.

Harari argues that this may be far stranger than what we normally see in science fiction.  Often science fiction, even explicitly posthuman fiction, puts forth characters still mostly like us in future and exotic scenarios.  But with the ability to modify ourselves, including our most primal desires, all bets are off.  Our descendants may be unimaginably different.

Or not.  Harari notes that we may yet encounter unforeseen obstacles that limit the degree of transformation.  The future is a fog.  (It’s also worth noting that, writing a few years ago, Harari shows little awareness of the growing anti-globalist nationalist backlash that has arisen in several countries.)

There’s obviously a lot here, and my posts really only skim the surface.  Much of what Harari discusses are well known facts, but he adds a unique philosophical perspective.  As we found in the previous posts, many of his views are provocative, but nonetheless thought provoking.

4 thoughts on “Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind

  1. Harari argues that this may be far stranger than what we normally see in science fiction. Often science fiction, even explicitly posthuman fiction, puts forth characters still mostly like us in future and exotic scenarios. But with the ability to modify ourselves, including our most primal desires, all bets are off. Our descendants may be unimaginably different.

    This, on steroids.

    Evolution gave us the desires we have because they were the best “possible” fit to our environment of hundreds of thousands of years ago. (I’ll explain the scare-quotes on “possible” shortly.) But that environment is already largely gone. Survival and reproduction are much easier for human beings to achieve now. You don’t need so much intelligence and situational awareness to survive. In fact, from Mother Nature’s point of view (let’s anthropomorphize the Darwinian imperative just for fun), intelligence might be a drawback now. Intelligent people think ahead and use birth control. Intelligent people make lots of money and thus are the leading edge of the demographic transition of lower birth rates.

    Evolution finds local optima. It finds the “best possible” adaptations only in the nearly tautological sense that if an adaptive mutation would require many genes to serendipitously change at once, it’s “not possible”. (See, I explained the scare quotes.) Thus evolution proceeds very slowly, compared to a single lifetime. But with genetic engineering and cyborg technologies, random DNA/RNA mutation will no longer be the only game in town. It seems to me not only possible but likely that these new avenues of evolution will lead to faster change, faster adaptation (where adaptation is defined as reproductive success). And our descendants’ desires will be on the table, or chopping block if you want a violent metaphor. Which I find appropriate, because it is a deeply scary thought that our descendants’ values will be shaped by reproduction uber alles.

    This short note won’t leave you as scared as you should be. Read the best essay on the internet for the beginning of a perspective on the underlying problem.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. You might find the end of the book’s last chapter interesting. (“The Gilgamesh Project” is his name for the quest for immortality.)

      Ask scientists why they study the genome, or try to connect a brain to a computer, or try to create a mind inside a computer. Nine out of ten times you’ll get the same standard answer: we are doing it to cure diseases and save human lives. Even though the implications of creating a mind inside a computer are far more dramatic than curing psychiatric illnesses, this is the standard justification given, because nobody can argue with it. This is why the Gilgamesh Project is the flagship of science. It serves to justify everything science does. Dr Frankenstein piggybacks on the shoulders of Gilgamesh. Since it is impossible to stop Gilgamesh, it is also impossible to stop Dr Frankenstein.

      The only thing we can try to do is to influence the direction scientists are taking. But since we might soon be able to engineer our desires too, the real question facing us is not ‘What do we want to become?’, but ‘What do we want to want?’ Those who are not spooked by this question probably haven’t given it enough thought.

      Harari, Yuval Noah. Sapiens (p. 414). Harper. Kindle Edition.

      I actually think there is plenty of science not necessarily about immortality. But on that final point, I did a blog post a while back on it.
      https://selfawarepatterns.com/2019/01/07/changing-what-makes-us-happy/

      Liked by 1 person

  2. “In this paper we afford a quantitative analysis of the sustainability of current world population growth in relation to the parallel deforestation process adopting a statistical point of view. We consider a simplified model based on a stochastic growth process driven by a continuous time random walk, which depicts the technological evolution of human kind, in conjunction with a deterministic generalised logistic model for humans-forest interaction and we evaluate the probability of avoiding the self-destruction of our civilisation. Based on the current resource consumption rates and best estimate of technological rate growth our study shows that we have very low probability, less than 10% in most optimistic estimate, to survive without facing a catastrophic collapse”.

    https://www.nature.com/articles/s41598-020-63657-6

    So many predictions have been wrong it’s best to take them all with some skepticism. The one thing that is likely is some sort of collapse, although how and when we are unlikely to know beforehand. I’m not sure we can find any example in history of a civilization that hasn’t collapsed so the possibility that our global , scientific one won’t collapse seems slim. If the transformation Harari sees comes about, I think it will be in the ashes of a collapse. It is also possible that the transformation could be the pinnacle phase of current civilization and sow the seeds of the collapse. What would then emerge might be some less technological civilization perhaps after a new dark ages period.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Some future collapse is a possibility, probably an inevitability if we look far enough down the road. Although historical collapses have always been in particular societies or regions rather than worldwide. One of the benefits of an integrated world is that it provides some resilience against many of the things that caused previous collapses. Jared Diamond in his book Collapse, points out that if Montana were an isolated civilization, it might have already collapsed, but being part of a broader society has protected it.

      Although admittedly an integrated world introduces new vulnerabilities, such as the possibility of a wordwide pandemic. But it’s noteworthy that the pandemic hasn’t caused the world to collapse into the Mad Max scenario many always assumed would come.

      That said, regional collapses still happen. Diamond sees things like the Rwandan genocide and other various failed state scenarios as collapses. Although even in these cases, an integrated world seems to limit the long term damage, preventing dark ages.

      The problem with most predictions of collapse, is that they seem to come attached to some agenda. If we don’t clean up our act and start leading more virtuous lives (morally, religiously, economically, ecologically, etc), then collapse will come and we’ll all be sorry. There’s a long history of such predictions. The number of times they’ve been accurate is obviously much smaller.

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