Thursday, August 13, 2015

Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind

Few books cover such a vast sweep of time. Harari in his book Sapiens begins at the very beginning, the coming into being of our universe, and moves along at a brisk pace all the way to the future, that is, approximately 200 years into our future.

Harari comes from the Jared Diamond school of big history (for example, see Diamond’s book Guns, Germs and Steel). Harari doesn’t shy away from the truly large, meaningful questions that non-specialist and popular readers of history and philosophy often criticize academic professionals for ignoring, question such as does history have any overall meaning? What is so special about human beings? What is the same and what is different about us compared to other biological organisms? Are we humans becoming happier with the passage of historical time? Any one of these questions could easily fill several monster thick volumes of deep and erudite analysis. Harari addresses all of them in a mere 400 pages.

And there are heaps of topics addressed—many with refreshing novelty.  For example, most people think the agricultural revolution that turned our ancestors from hunter gatherers into farmers was a great boon for civilization. Harari argues otherwise suggesting that people became less happy when they exchanged the bow and arrow for the plow; in fact he calls this transformation history’s biggest fraud. Harari makes equally compelling observations about the forces at work unifying sapiens around the world: money, imperialism, and religion. Sociology aside, Harari hits his stride in shocking the reader with his take on how evolutionary processes shape history. He very startlingly and accurately reminds us that if you turn the clocks back 100,000 years (give or take a year) you would encounter not one but many different species of humans. That’s right, homo sapiens were just one of several humanoid creatures (the Neanderthals being another famous example—but there were others!). We eventually squeezed out our cousins and became the only remaining sapiens. The distant past is not the only place full of surprises. When Harari turns to the future things get really weird. Homo sapiens have only another 200 years left of existence. Yep, 200 short years. What is going to happen to us? Well, in a word, evolution. Science and technology are advancing so rapidly that within a few centuries we will have the power to essentially design the universe. It turns out that religious types were right about the universe being designed—only they thought it happened in the past and by the hand of God. In fact the designing of the universe is something our descendants will do in the future. Let that thought sink in. What it means is the end of evolution because we will take hold of the process rather than allow blind genetic/quantum processes to rule.

I find this book totally fascinating even though I disagree with many of the premises advanced. Let me explain.

Sapiens is a grand narrative of the universe looked at through the lens of science. When the analysis turns to our species the lens comes from the evolutionary biology tool kit. I read the book cover to cover and when I was done I reread certain sections of it, and all the while I felt something was missing. That something, I realized later, was ethics or perhaps a better way to describe it is the moral paint that colours all of our experiences. How do you write a book about sapiens (us) and mention, only in passing, a facet of life that every person who has ever lived has grappled with and confronted at every turn? No one to my knowledge has ever escaped the all-embracing nature of ethical demands. The answer, of course, is that from the standpoint of evolutionary biology morality equals brain chemistry. Homo Sapiens it turns out are not special in any way from anything else in the universe and chemistry (not to mention physics and mathematics) can prove it. So it must be asked, is morality simply a human brain quirk? Is it something we can alter at our whim? Can we—indeed should we—create a pill to become better people? Whether you answer yes or no to these questions, think about what it suggests about the objective (i.e. independent of biology and brain chemistry) nature of ethics. 

The book, which you can surmise from this brief critique, is packed with lots of thought provoking ideas. This observation extends all the way to the final few paragraphs of the book. I have read few works with a more harrowing end than the one presented there. I’ll let you judge for yourself.

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