Historical books are not normally on my non-fiction reading list; mugging up endless lists such as ‘What were the causes of the second world war?’ for A Level history was more than sufficient to kill any lingering interest I had in the subject. So when Yuval Noah Harari’s Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind was discussed and recommended, as it has been often and variously over the last year or two, I never really intended to read the thing. Sapiens though as it turns out is unlike most history books.
For a start, unlike his more timid state-the-fact and then retreat colleagues, once Harari has all the research and information at his finger tips he isn’t scared of joining the dots as he sees them and offering at times invigorating new perspectives. Our indifference towards the animals that become the meat on our plate for instance is presented as the same indifference civilised nations had for those abducted from Africa for the slave trade. We need our bacon and eggs just as people then needed their sugar; and the businessmen in the middle both needed their profits. It’s not cruelty but disregard. Not that that makes any difference to the victims.
Harari does make some bold and often questionable assertions. While his description of animism changing into polytheism changing into monotheism is convincing, his assertion that intelligent design is a modern invention of man (think genetic engineering and cyborgs) and that up until this point everything has been driven by evolution alone is less so. And not all will agree with him that humans are on the verge of becoming “a-mortal”, that nothing but a few years’ more research and a fat cheque book are all that stand between us and the defeat of death. On the whole though he talks a lot of sense and is fairly even-handed. Money is, he argues, “the most universal and most efficient system of mutual trust ever devised”, and a wonderful unifier of mankind. On the other hand, “as money brings down the dams of community, religion and state, the world is in danger of becoming one big and rather heartless marketplace.” Similarly he sees the history of mankind neither as a path to “inevitable progress” nor as a banishment from the utopia of our original nature-dwelling forebears, but rather something in the middle.
This is the bigger (though not the whole) picture writ large, and Harari succeeds in challenging many of our long-held and unquestioned perspectives on humankind as we know it. For instance, Homo sapiens as a species is not a natural food chain topper. For most of our existence, we were firmly in the middle, and our niche as Harari puts it to use tools to break open the bones left by scavengers such as hyenas after a big cat kill. Our big brains seem to have given us very little evolutionary advantage for a good millenia or two, taking up a lot of energy and giving us precious little in return. It was our use of fire which helped us move up the food chain. It also allowed us to cook our food, thus reducing the time and energy needed for digestion and freeing us up for other things. What really set and sets us apart though from our animal brethren though is our ability to think and communicate things beyond empirical reality (many other animals have languages but as far as we know use them only to state facts, such as ‘Lion coming. Run!’), and then collectively believe in these “common myths” as Harari calls them. Thus a heterogenous group of Homo sapiens living on a rather rainy, grey island collectively believed in the idea of Britain as a nation to which the all belonged and thus came together to fight Hitler in the second world war. No other animal has or can ever cooperate in such numbers. Our closest relative the chimpanzee forms groups of 20-50, and almost never more than 100. This is our forte: large scale cooperation. And indeed as Harari sees it these collectively held fictions – which include money, religions, nations, ideologies, the economy, the law and institutions such as companies, universities and governments – have over centuries and millennia helped to unify all of our species. From local and diverse we are becoming global and homogenous, and there ain’t nothing we can do about it.
Infatuated as I currently am with hunter-gatherers and their lifestyle, the first half of the book demanded my special attention. It is perhaps no longer headline stuff to acknowledge that Homo sapiens has been a hunter-gathering species for almost the entirety of its existence and that consequently we are physically, mentally and socially designed for such a lifestyle, hence our inability to resist eating the entire tub of Ben and Jerry’s ice cream (carpe calories or die). Even within this though there is much new stuff to digest, such as our innate terror of maths – our brains evolved to acquire and process vast amounts of incredibly complex information about the flora, fauna and landscape we live with and in, not to do algebra. In fact many modern hunter gatherer communities have no words for numbers beyond one and two.
For several years now rewilders, paeleo dieters and other slightly fanatic mainstream-bailers including myself have been debating how we as hunter gatherers used to live. If we could just figure this out, we could perhaps fix our own broken existence and live happily ever after. The problem though as Harari explains is that we have almost no idea how they lived. Ancient hunter gatherers neither built things nor acquired things, so left no trace. And modern hunter gatherers are probably unrepresentative, living as they do either in complete isolation due to inhospitable terrain or influenced by nearby agricultural societies. All that we can tell from modern hunter gatherers is that they are so varied that it’s difficult to see any general truths. (Although Jared Diamond’s The World Until Yesterday does find some significant commonalities.)
What we do know is that they were far healthier physically than the farmers who came after them. This fact it seems is fairly simple to explain: their diet was wonderfully varied rather than being dependent on the grain crop(s); their daily life demanded a variety of often skilled movement rather than the repetitive and brute force required by agriculture (think balancing on branches to get a honeycomb vs hacking away at hard soil to plant next year’s crop); their children were breastfed until around the age of four, which also thus became the minimum age gap between siblings, giving mothers a break from childbirth and small children lots of care and nutrition without a rival; and they were not prey to the infectious diseases such as measles and small pox which were introduced to humankind by the animals we domesticated. In addition, we can imagine that hunter gatherers led much more interesting and varied lives, and worked much less than the vast majority of their descendants. Foragers even in a place as challenging to live as the Kalahari Desert still only ‘work’ about 40 hours a week. (Jean Liedloff said that the Yequana didn’t even have a word for the concept of ‘work’; there was no work/pleasure distinction). As a hunter gatherer you have no home to build, maintain and protect; no crops and livestock to nurture. harvest and store;and almost no clothes and possessions to make or buy, look after and guard.
Perhaps the biggest news though in Harari’s discussion of this period is that our brains may have actually shrunk since the agricultural revolution. Unlike the typical representation of our cave-man ancestors, to survive and pass on your genes in the pre-agricultural world you had to be physically and mentally extremely sharp and skilled. To be a farmer requires much less skill. To be an office-goer, even less.
So why did we as a species switch from foraging to farming? Well it wasn’t intentional of course, and even if we could convince people with hindsight that the agricultural revolution really was “history’s biggest fraud”, there is no going back because we are far too many now to survive except by intensive farming or by massively reducing our numbers. And this brings us to the other perspective. The agricultural revolution was a huge biological triumph for us as a species. We increased in number from an insignificant few to our current world-dominating 8 billion, as indeed did the chickens and pigs and cows we domesticated. On an individual level, our lot, and that of the battery chicken, is far worse than our ancestors; on the collective level we are the success story of the universe.
Harari doesn’t idealise – well at least not too much – the life of hunter gatherers. They were prey literally to a lot, and if someone were injured, or a twin, or ill, he or she might well be thrown out of the group and left to die. What for me though was a major revelation is the impact hunter gatherers had on their surroundings. For a start, there were many different species of humans and it’s not clear why the others, such as Homo erectus and Homo neanderthalensis, died out but Homo sapiens looks like a likely culprit. Secondly, the blitzkreig we are unleashing on the world’s fauna and flora right now is not the first nor the second but the third wave extinction. The second came with the agricultural revolution. The first with hunter gatherer groups as they moved out of the Afro-Asian landmass in which they had originated. Within a thousand years of Homo sapiens’ first footprint in Australia, the local mega fauna, including a marsupial lion, a 200kg kangaroo and the diprotodon (a 2.5 ton wombat for those that didn’t know), was wiped out. As a species we thankfully didn’t leave our incredibly destructive mark on the ocean’s creatures, until now that is.
If only we could have read this kind of history book in school.