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Yuval Noah Harari



[Note: Since I couldn’t find an appropriate book whose title starts with the letter Y for this A2Z series, I have chosen an author for this chapter. Harari’s name is more popular than the names of his books anyway.]

Today there is only one species of humans left on the earth: homo sapiens. The sapiens are a deadly species, according to Yuval Noah Harari’s acclaimed book, Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind. It is a book of consequential reflections rather than academic history. It can jolt us out of our complacencies. And we need all those jolts.

Humans evolved in East Africa some 2.5 million years ago. That is a rather short period of time compared to the lifespan of the universe: 13.5 billion years. There were many species of human beings up to about 10,000 years ago. But the one species of homo sapiens exterminated all the others slowly over many centuries. We, the homo sapiens, are a terrible breed. We have caused the extinction of thousands and thousands of species of animals and plants. We have now brought the planet itself to a terrible condition. Harari’s book tells the tale of how we managed to do that in just a few thousand years.

Whenever the homo sapiens arrived at a new location the native population of humans became extinct, says Harari. This process of extermination started around 70,000 years ago from today, when the cognitive revolution took place. Earlier the human beings did not differ much from the other animals. With the cognitive revolution, the sapiens acquired language and with language came a whole range of imagined things like myths and gods.

The sapiens were hunter-gatherers then. They moved from place to place in search of food. Their arrival in any new place was like the landing of a meteor. For example, the human arrival in Australia made 90% of the megafauna there extinct. The same happened in New Zealand when the Maoris landed there 800 years ago: in a couple of centuries majority of megafauna there and 60% of all bird species there were driven to extinction. The mammoths of Wrangel Island disappeared 4000 years ago when the sapiens colonised the island.

The sapiens were ruthless marauders, in other words. From their place of origin in Africa, they roamed far and wide, even to highly inhospitable terrains such as Siberia and Alaska. By around 10,000 BCE they inhabited the entire Americas, leaving behind a long trail of victims. The Americas had greater variety of fauna than Africa before the arrival of the sapiens. Many of these animals became man’s food, clothes and footwear. The others which were really enormous in size just couldn’t rival the gigantic human ego.

After the cognitive revolution, the next big thing that happened was the agricultural revolution. It happened around 10,000 BCE. Harari calls it the biggest fraud in human history. Instead of man domesticating the grains, the grains domesticated man. Cultivation of anything made enormous demands on man: irrigation, weeding, pests, birds and animals, and natural calamities such as droughts and floods. Moreover, the early cultivators just burned acres and acres of forests killing of the flora and fauna there.

In the end, just about 2% of the earth’s surface is used for agriculture, the rest being unsuitable. Obviously there would be fights for those lands. The farmers needed security. That is how “rulers and elites sprang up, living off peasants’ surplus food and leaving them with only a bare subsistence.”

Perhaps the most interesting observation of Harari is that the governments and the religious leaders were clever parasites right from the early days of human civilisation. 90% worked and 10% ate, that is how Harari summarises it. “History is something that very few people have been doing while everyone else was ploughing fields and carrying water buckets.”

The elites who constituted the governments and religious hierarchy forged myths and gods in order to wield power over the majority. Even today the majority of human beings are subordinated by the tiny minority who know how to forge appropriate myths like gods, motherland, racial purity, and so on. Even our concepts such as justice, equality, human rights and a lot many others are nothing more than myths. Even currency is a myth, argues Harari.

The third revolution (the first two being cognitive and agricultural) took place some 500 years ago: scientific. The industrial revolution made big changes to the human world. The information revolution that started about 50 years ago has taken us to the present biotechnology revolution which may signal the end of the species of sapiens. The future seems to belong to bio-engineered post-humans, according to Harari.

In the last section of the book, there is a lot of philosophical discussion and some conjectures too. One of the intriguing discussions is on happiness. What makes people happy? In the year 2000, the number of people killed in wars was 310,000 while crimes killed 520,000. In that same year, a whopping number of 815,000 people committed suicide! Harari mentions the corresponding figures for 2002 too: 172,000 in war, 569,000 in crimes, and 873,000 by suicide. Was Neil Armstrong happier than the nameless hunter-gatherer who left her handprint on a wall in the Chauvet Cave 30,000 years ago? Harari raises a lot of other stimulating questions like: Did Islam make the Egyptians happier? Has globalisation made a happier world today?

Will Hindu Rashtra make India a happier place? Well, Harari doesn’t ask that, of course. Not directly, I mean.

Originally published in 2011, the book has got a lot of attention so far. Harari wrote a sequel too: Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow. He deserves to be read: he pokes us to think deeply and differently. That depth and difference are much needed today.
A page from the book: all these periods and more are covered in the book

PS. This is part of a series being written for the #BlogchatterA2Z Challenge. The previous parts are:
14. No Exit
17Quixote
18. The Rebel
24. X, Malcolm             
Tomorrow and the last: Zorba, the Greek


Comments

  1. While trying to grow as the most civilized and powerful genre, this species of homosepiens has been creating a dreadful imbalance in nature. The book looks like an amazing read. The so called evolution of the current species of humans through all the revolutions and then ending up in bio-engineered humans .....sigh!!

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    1. It is an amazing read. You can savour it page by page, taking time to absorb the shocking things that it offers.

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  2. It took me one and a half years to finish this book because it is not an easy read. It is a brilliant book.

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    1. I read it during the ten days I lay on a hospital bed with a fractured ankle. And continued to read it after I reached home and was on bed-rest.

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  3. This is an excellent book.. I have read and reread it.. Dont be in a hurry to finish it .. Great choice for the Y Post!

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  4. Though most of humanity is chasing happiness, we measure our advancement in terms of economy and scientific developments. The happiness factor is not in consideration. Those statistics of deaths are alarming. Being labelled the superior species, we have detached ourselves from nature as well, although we are a part of it. Looks like an interesting read about our history.

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    1. Interesting as well as enlightening. The book has sold millions of copies. Harari is a brand name now.

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  5. This is superb! We are the most dangerous species on the planet and we have been proving it time and again. This book is intriguing. Thank you for timelining the history of humanity so interestingly through the book-synopsis. Would love to read it.

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  6. This is the second recommendation for Harari's book today. But the other one is Homo Deus. I haven't read either. I must now!
    Thank you sir. Visiting you during A to Z has been very rewarding.

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    1. Indeed A2Z has brought many of us closer. That's one of the best things about the exercise.

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  7. Nice to see a review about the book contents of which I quote often.

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  8. Yet to read his books but I have heard good things.
    www.nooranandchawla.com

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  9. I have heard so much about this book.... And I have been wanting to buy a hard copy of it and read it... But I guess better I satisfy myself with just the kindle copy and start with it... Without wasting any more time!!

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    1. It deserves to be read. Since Covid is going to befriend us for quite a while you may have to opt for the ebook.

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  10. I've already read three reviews before reading this one on your blog. It's really intriguing as every review had different perspective. Need to read this interesting and much hype book to know more about it.

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    1. The book is sure to touch you one way or another.

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  11. I wonder what will be written about 2020 in the future.Interesting synpsis

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    1. Let us wait for Covid to withdraw. Who knows what science will say after that?

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  12. Thank you for the wonderful summary. I've heard praises for this book here and there, but had never known what it exactly was about.

    The Homo Sapiens species has proven to be disastrous for many other species. Hopefully this lockdown and coronavirus will spur us to do better, for once.

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    1. My pleasure, Ajit. Yes, let us hope for better days.

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  13. I have been meaning to pick up this book but have shied away till now because of the hype to be honest. But philosophy is something I can definitely get into. Thanks - will give this a go!

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    1. Glad i poked you into reading it. You won't regret.

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  14. I read most of Sapiens a few years ago, and just saw a talk on it by Harari at a Scandanavian publication posted in 2017. As a scholar with a degree in Bio Anthro and International Relations, I note a basic problem now with more clarity and engaging on it. The term Harari used for human rights and similar things is "Fictions." I recall that he attributed the phrase to the academic scholarly usage. However, that is a problematic phrase, and corresponds to your own use here of "myths."

    Those terms are skewed, and require the more objective term "abstract symbol" or "abstraction" to avoid a number of confusions. They are based on scientific materialism, and the mistaken assumptions that spiritual-religious experience, knowledge, and phenomena are not real.

    I hope you take these points into account, perhaps in the spirit of recognizing the importance of no one less than Gandhi and his outlook. Harari´s view is overly intellectualized, and underinformed about the signficance of social movements like Gandhi´s momentous one. Was "satyagraha" mere "fiction"? That can be analyzed more realistically and vigorously by stating that non-violent action was an abstraction in Gandhi´s mind until he began implementing it with others. The context in which he introduced the term and the practice with others began in South Africa, it seems. That begins to provide a clear context of the meaning of activism. He would have begun to learn about such ideas and practices as a British law student encountering the history of the end of slavery in the British Empire, not least of all. Clearly, he was in a time frame in which modern social movements were actually only starting to develop. Workers´ rights, the rights of men without property, women´s rights among them. It is the end of slavery that is credited as the pioneer modern social movement that would frame Gandhi´s context. He is known to have referenced America´s Thoreau, the UK´s John Ruskin, and Tolstoy. Ruskin would have been there as English workers were attempting to gain legal recognition for Labor Unions. Workers there had already founded the first modern co-owned co-op model of business in the 1840s. That happened after the fifty year campaign of organizing to end slavery had succeeded. Hardly "fiction." As an "abstraction or abstract symbol," that would clarify that "human rights" and "satyagraha" can be analyzed psychosocially. Another level includes Max Weber´s, Georg Simmel´s, B. Malinowski´s, and others´ elaborations for social studies disciplines against the pretenses of the "natural and physical sciences." "Positivism" was and is a view that understanding can lead to predictions. Weber, Simmel, Malinowski, et al, formulated or employed approaches related to "antipositivism" and "interpretivism" to address the need in studying human beings for understanding and values, as well as an observer´s own assumptions.

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