What Makes Us Sapiens?

Did plants enslave humans in the agricultural revolution? Yuval Noah Harari uses such contrary theses to undermine the traditional account of human history.

Written by Pratik Kanjilal | Published:February 14, 2015 4:47 am
chauvet cave Replica of the Chauvet cave painting in the Anthropos museum, Brno, Czech Republic.

Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind
Yuval Noah Harari
Harvill Secker
Pages: 440
Price: Rs 2,395

A decade ago, Yuval Noah Harari began to teach a course at the University of Jerusalem, the city “with too much history”, on the history of the human race. He took his students back 13.5 billion years to the Big Bang, the beginning of everything, fast-forwarded to about 70,000 years ago, when the species sapiens split away from the rest of the genus Homo to discover culture, and anticipated an imminent post-human, post-progressive future, when the essential human question may cease to be, “What do we want to become?” Since a species which has taken technical command of the world and its contents can presumably engineer its own desires, the really fundamental question could be: “What do we want to want?”

Last year, Coursera took Harari online with a series of 64 video lectures, which are also in the Internet Archive, and this book evolved from it. Blurbed by Jared Diamond, who blazed the trail that Harari has followed to international superstardom, Sapiens is a nonfiction phenomenon: it was a bestseller while still in press.

Harari does, in fact, what James A Michener did in fiction. He tells a tale with a dramatic sweep that begins at the beginning of time and proceeds, guided by meticulous research, to the present day. This is the original detective story of the human race, pursuing spoors from the Olduvai Gorge to Silicon Valley to explore the fundamental question at the heart of all of human enquiry, from epistemology to string theory: “Who am I?” But, as another illustrious son of Jerusalem had observed in the 3rd century BCE, “there is [almost] nothing new under the sun.” (Ecclesiastes 1:9). The academic literature is strewn with competing tellings of the threads that Harari brings together in Sapiens.

Harari holds that the maltreatment of animals in modern, mechanised farming is the greatest crime in history. Not news: PETA, Bite Back and others have been addressing the matter with some success. He suggests that the agricultural revolution was a fraud, in which plants enslaved humans by offering nutritional guarantees. Strikingly put, but the argument is a splinter of the eternal debate on happiness: is material progress making us unhappier? Its latest and most celebrated manifestation is the notion of gross national happiness, which Bhutan developed into an alternative marker to GDP. But happiness is as uncomputable as belief in the Mother Goddess or the World Bank, and theories based on a calculus of joy are necessarily speculative. Was a farmer in Celtic Glastonbury happier than a Bradford millionaire? The farmer and the moneybags could discuss the matter, time permitting, but resolution would be elusive for want of a common frame of reference.

History is sometimes more opinion than fact and the chapters covering recent times, when there have been a lot of historical opinion-makers competing for attention, may seem like more of the same. Harari could have reflected the diversity of opinion, but he takes polemical positions (which he might undermine himself elsewhere in the book). For instance, he suggests that money has created the most universal system of trust. Try to buy something in London with Indian rupees. Just try. Harari suggests that empire has been the most successful political system, and capitalism its most successful religion. This claim would perplex a wide spectrum of people, not just Occupy.

Harari excels in his analysis of human expansionism in prehistoric times. He correlates it with waves of extinction, suggesting that mass murder is a basic human instinct. His most significant contribution is a caution against dogmatism. The essence of humanity is mass culture, the force multiplier which has propelled us to world domination, bypassing the speed restrictions of biology. But few markers persist in the material culture of the most remote antiquity. The Denisovan culture is inferred from a finger-bone of a girl who lived 41,000 years ago in Siberia. Not much to go by, but lab analysis reveals that her species ranged from Southeast Asia to Europe and interbred with Neanderthals and sapiens — which interbred among themselves, too. However, nothing is known about how the young lady who owned the finger spent her days, whether she painted or sang, or if her in-laws were beastly to her.

When art or artisanship is found in material culture, the historical record is radically altered. After its release in September, Sapiens was overtaken by dating of the cave art of Sulawesi in Indonesia to 30,000-39,000 years ago, which is contemporary with the celebrated Chauvet cave in France and overturns the notion that visual art was innovated in Europe. Both cultures left behind beautiful stencils of the artists’ hands, in ochre, which may suggest a common artistic ancestor. The recommended word is “may”, rather than “would” or “must”, a useful distinction in an age marked by imagined pasts and political atavism. Harari recommends academic caution, too, and his otherwise fascinating book would have been even better if he had taken his own advice. Of course, he could be doing that now. Sapiens opens with a picture of a hand stencil from Chauvet. In the second edition, perhaps Harari will acknowledge the hand of yet another long-dead artist — from Indonesia rather than France.

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