[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:
3. The Castle
10. Jude the Obscure
14. No Exit
16. The Plague
18. The Rebel