AN ANTHOLOGY OF THOUGHT & EMOTION... Un'antologia di pensieri & emozioni

Thursday, 4 February 2016


Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind by Yuval Noah Harari

a review by  Galen Strawson (2014)

A swash-buckling account that begins with the origin of the species and ends with post-humans 

uman beings (members of the genus Homo) have existed for about 2.4m years. Homo sapiens, our own wildly egregious species of great apes, has only existed for 6% of that time – about 150,000 years. So a book whose main title is Sapiens shouldn't be subtitled "A Brief History of Humankind". It's easy to see why Yuval Noah Harari devotes 95% of his book to us as a species: self-ignorant as we are, we still know far more about ourselves than about other species of human beings, including several that have become extinct since we first walked the Earth. The fact remains that the history of sapiens – Harari's name for us – is only a very small part of the history of humankind.

Can its full sweep be conveyed in one fell swoop – 400 pages? Not really; it's easier to write a brief history of time – all 14bn years – and Harari also spends many pages on our present and possible future rather than our past. But the deep lines of the story of sapiens are fairly uncontentious, and he sets them out with verve.

For the first half of our existence we potter along unremarkably; then we undergo a series of revolutions. First, the "cognitive" revolution: about 70,000 years ago, we start to behave in far more ingenious ways than before, for reasons that are still obscure, and we spread rapidly across the planet. About 11,000 years ago we enter on the agricultural revolution, converting in increasing numbers from foraging (hunting and gathering) to farming. The "scientific revolution" begins about 500 years ago. It triggers the industrial revolution, about 250 years ago, which triggers in turn the information revolution, about 50 years ago, which triggers the biotechnological revolution, which is still wet behind the ears. Harari suspects that the biotechnological revolution signals the end of sapiens: we will be replaced by bioengineered post-humans, "amortal" cyborgs, capable of living forever.

This is one way to lay things out. Harari embeds many other momentous events, most notably the development of language: we become able to think sharply about abstract matters, cooperate in ever larger numbers, and, perhaps most crucially, gossip. There is the rise of religion and the slow overpowering of polytheisms by more or less toxic monotheisms. Then there is the evolution of money and, more importantly, credit. There is, connectedly, the spread of empires and trade as well as the rise of capitalism.

Harari swashbuckles through these vast and intricate matters in a way that is – at its best – engaging and informative. It's a neat thought that "we did not domesticate wheat. It domesticated us." There was, Harari says, "a Faustian bargain between humans and grains" in which our species "cast off its intimate symbiosis with nature and sprinted towards greed and alienation". It was a bad bargain: "the agricultural revolution was history's biggest fraud". More often than not it brought a worse diet, longer hours of work, greater risk of starvation, crowded living conditions, greatly increased susceptibility to disease, new forms of insecurity and uglier forms of hierarchy. Harari thinks we may have been better off in the stone age, and he has powerful things to say about the wickedness of factory farming, concluding with one of his many superlatives: "modern industrial agriculture might well be the greatest crime in history".

He accepts the common view that the fundamental structure of our emotions and desires hasn't been touched by any of these revolutions: "our eating habits, our conflicts and our sexuality are all a result of the way our hunter-gatherer minds interact with our current post-industrial environment, with its mega-cities, airplanes, telephones and computers … Today we may be living in high-rise apartments with over-stuffed refrigerators, but our DNA still thinks we are in the savannah." He gives a familiar illustration – our powerful desires for sugar and fat have led to the widespread availability of foods that are primary causes of unhealthiness and ugliness. The consumption of pornography is another good example. It's just like overeating: if the minds of pornography addicts could be seen as bodies, they would look just like the grossly obese.

At one point Harari claims that "the leading project of the scientific revolution" is the Gilgamesh Project (named after the hero of the epic who set out to destroy death): "to give humankind eternal life" or "amortality". He is sanguine about its eventual success. But amortality isn't immortality, because it will always be possible for us to die by violence, and Harari is plausibly sceptical about how much good it will do us. As amortals, we may become hysterically and disablingly cautious (Larry Niven develops the point nicely in his description of the "Puppeteers" in the Ringworld science fiction novels). The deaths of those we love may become far more terrible. We may grow weary of all things under the sun – even in heaven (see the last chapter of Julian Barnes's A History of the World in 10½ Chapters). We may come to agree with JRR Tolkien's elves, who saw mortality as a gift to human beings that they themselves lacked. We may come to feel what Philip Larkin felt: "Beneath it all, desire of oblivion runs."

Even if we put all these points aside, there's no guarantee that amortality will bring greater happiness. Harari draws on well-known research that shows that a person's happiness from day to day has remarkably little to do with their material circumstances. Certainly money can make a difference – but only when it lifts us out of poverty. After that, more money changes little or nothing. Certainly a lottery winner is lifted by her luck, but after about 18 months her average everyday happiness reverts to its old level. If we had an infallible "happyometer", and toured Orange County and the streets of Kolkata, it's not clear that we would get consistently higher readings in the first place than in the second.

This point about happiness is a persistent theme in Sapiens. When Arthur Brooks (head of the conservative American Enterprise Institute) made a related point in the New York Times in July, he was criticised for trying to favour the rich and justify income inequality. The criticism was confused, for although current inequalities of income are repellent, and harmful to all, the happiness research is well confirmed. This doesn't, however, prevent Harari from suggesting that the lives lived by sapiens today may be worse overall than the lives they lived 15,000 years ago.

Much of Sapiens is extremely interesting, and it is often well expressed. As one reads on, however, the attractive features of the book are overwhelmed by carelessness, exaggeration and sensationalism. Never mind his standard and repeated misuse of the saying "the exception proves the rule" (it means that exceptional or rare cases test and confirm the rule, because the rule turns out to apply even in those cases). There's a kind of vandalism in Harari's sweeping judgments, his recklessness about causal connections, his hyper-Procrustean stretchings and loppings of the data. Take his account of the battle of Navarino. Starting from the fact that British investors stood to lose money if the Greeks lost their war of independence, Harari moves fast: "the bond holders' interest was the national interest, so the British organised an international fleet that, in 1827, sank the main Ottoman flotilla in the battle of Navarino. After centuries of subjugation, Greece was finally free." This is wildly distorted – and Greece was not then free. To see how bad it is, it's enough to look at the wikipedia entry on Navarino.

Harari hates "modern liberal culture", but his attack is a caricature and it boomerangs back at him. Liberal humanism, he says, "is a religion". It "does not deny the existence of God"; "all humanists worship humanity"; "a huge gulf is opening between the tenets of liberal humanism and the latest findings of the life sciences". This is silly. It's also sad to see the great Adam Smith drafted in once again as the apostle of greed. Still, Harari is probably right that "only a criminal buys a house … by handing over a suitcase of banknotes" – a point that acquires piquancy when one considers that about 35% of all purchases at the high end of the London housing market are currently being paid in cash.

Homo sapiens: Here's the finished product, da-taaa!

Harari's new book (2016) is just as great and challenging:

Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow by Yuval Noah Harari

...and this is the review by THE GUARDIAN (11 September 2016)


by Tim Adams

Yuval Noah Harari began his academic career as a researcher of medieval warfare. His early publications had titles like “Inter-frontal Cooperation in the Fourteenth Century and Edward III’s 1346 Campaign” or “The Military Role of the Frankish Turcopoles”. Then, the story goes, having won tenure at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, he embarked on a crusade of his own. He was invited to teach a course that no one else in the faculty fancied – a broad-brush introduction to the whole of human activity on the planet. That course became a widely celebrated book, Sapiens, championed by Mark Zuckerberg, Bill Gates and Barack Obama, and translated into 40 languages. It satisfied perfectly an urgent desire for grand narrative in our fragmenting Buzz-fed world. The rest is macro-history.

On almost every page of Sapiens, a bible of mankind’s cultural and economic and philosophical evolution, our millennial battles with plague and war and famine, Harari announced himself a Zen-like student of historical paradox: “We did not domesticate wheat,” he wrote, “wheat domesticated us”; or “How do you cause people to believe in an imagined order such as Christianity, democracy or capitalism? First, you never admit that the order is imagined.” The most intriguing section of a wildly intriguing book was the last. Harari’s history of our 75,000 years wound up, as all bibles are apt to do, with apocalyptic prophesy, a sense of an ending.
Humanity, Harari predicted, would engineer one more epochal event to rival the agricultural and scientific revolutions. Having evolved to exercise a measure of mastery over our environment, having begun to shape not only our planet, for better and worse, but also our biology, we stand, he argued, at the point of creating networked intelligences with a far greater capacity for reason than our own. The result was likely to be a lose-lose scenario for the species. Sapiens would disappear in the foreseeable future either because they had appropriated such mind-making powers as to become unrecognisable or because they had destroyed themselves through environmental catastrophe. Either way, judgment day was approaching.

Like all great epics, Sapiens demanded a sequel. Homo Deus, in which that likely apocalyptic future is imagined in spooling detail, is that book. It is a highly seductive scenario planner for the numerous ways in which we might overreach ourselves. “Modernity is a deal,” Harari writes. “The entire contract can be summarised in a single phrase: humans agree to give up meaning in exchange for power.” That power, he suggests, may in the near term give us godlike attributes: the ability to extend lifespans and even cheat death, the agency to create new life forms, to become intelligent designers of our own Galapagos, the means to end war and famine and plague. There will be a price to pay for this power, however.
For a start, Harari suggests, it is destined, if current trends continue, to be vastly unequally distributed. The new longevity and super-human qualities are likely to be the preserve of the techno super-rich, the masters of the data universe. Meanwhile, the redundancy of labour, supplanted by efficient machines, will create an enormous “useless class”, without economic or military purpose. In the absence of religion, overarching fictions will be required to make sense of the world. Again, if nothing in our approach changes, Harari envisages that “Dataism”, a universal faith in the power of algorithms, will become sacrosanct. To utopians this will look a lot like the “singularity”: an all-knowing, omnipresent data-processing system, which is really indistinguishable from ideas of God, to which humans will be constantly connected. To dystopians it will look like that too.

Harari is mostly, thrillingly or chillingly, sanguine about this prospect. He has an ethicist’s sense of rough justice: what Homo sapiens (in its wisdom) has visited on the natural world through industrialised food production will perhaps one day be visited on Homo sapiens. Individuals will become a just a collection of “biochemical subsystems” monitored by global networks, which will inform us second by second how we feel…
Or perhaps, as Harari is stringent about reminding the reader, they will not. Like all rune-reading, this one comes with plenty of small print. From where we stand, he says, in the accelerating present, no long-term future is imaginable, still less predictable – and there is plenty of time for questions. Harari’s sometimes breathless, always compulsive inquiry leaves us with this one: “What’s more valuable – intelligence or consciousness?” Google will be no help in providing the answer.
Homo Deus is published by Harvill Secker
Harari & Sapiens