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:
- The Cognitive Revolution, 70,000 BCE
- The Agricultural Revolution, 10,000 BCE
- The Unification of Humankind, 3500 BCE – present
- 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.