Sapiens: Book Review

May 15, 2019

Sapiens: A brief History of Humankind (2014), Yoval Noah Harari, something of a Big History perspective on the last 70,000 years or so of people. [I'll skip the first 14 billion of so years from the big bang.] Most of the book is compelling and thought provoking, although there are a few areas where I have issues (such as capitalism). The magic date seems to be 70,000 years ago, the Cognitive Revolution, when Homo sapiens apparently changed, perhaps including language and culture. Harari defines this as the point when history declared its independence from biology (p. 37). The other major revolutions Harari identifies are the Agricultural Revolution some 12,000 year ago and the Scientific Revolution following the Renaissance about 500 years ago (downplaying the Industrial Revolution). A key point is up to the Cognitive Revolution humans had little impact on the world, just a weak animal with a big brain. Presumably, the use of tools, superior learning ability and complex social structures were huge advantages. It wasn't fire; that came by 300,000 years ago along with cooking. The Interbreeding Theory suggests that sapiens mated with Neanderthals in and around Europe and Homo erectus further east. The Replacement Theory suggests something like genocide.  


Evidence of humans 70,000 years ago suggests differences from earlier sapiens, perhaps differences in internal brain structure. The result was greater cognitive abilities including learning and communicating. They started moving around the world and their arrival typically meant the extinction of large mammal species and other Homo species [thus, ecological serial killers]; social cooperation (plus brutality) seemed to be keys for survival. Inventions included bows and arrows, boats, oil lamps and needles, plus objects and cave paintings that can be called art. Harari introduces the "gossip theory" and the ability to speak about fictions ['social constructs" or "imagined realities"]; that is, imagine things and do it collectively. This increases flexibility in countless ways and allowed people to form larger groups (large numbers of strangers can cooperate by believing in common myths). In his telling, religion and legal systems developed this way: "There are no gods in the universe, no nations, no money, no human rights, no laws, and no justice outside the common imagination of human beings" (p. 28). The law for example is based on legal fictions, such as limited liability companies and corporations (with the rights of people, like property ownership). "How difficult it would have been to create states or churches, or legal systems if we could speak only about things that really exist" (p. 31). 


The key split is objective reality versus imagined reality (including gods, nations and corporations). "Since large-scale human cooperation is based on myths, the way people cooperate can be altered by changing the myths" (p. 32)--and people can change their behavior quickly. Archaeologists have evidence of trade 30,000 years ago. [Summarized on page 37.] A result of invented realities is "culture." Evolutionary biologists suggest looking into hunter-gatherer ancestors, including the "gorging gene theory," "ancient commune theory," and various psychological complexes like monogamous relationships and nuclear families. With a few million people before the Agricultural Revolution and thousands of separate tribes very different imagined realities could be created, "cultural choices." Animism, with various cults and beliefs were common (speculation based on artefacts and cave paintings). 


The first permanent settlements probably were fishing villages with abundant food sources. The Agricultural Revolution (AR) began about 9500 BC, with wheat and goats, then peas and lentils, olives, horses and grapes (p. 77). Early plants included wheat, rice, corn, potatoes, millet and barley (plants that  existed in particular places) and where AR began. [Problems: poor in vitamins and minerals, hard to digest and bad for teeth. Beer may have been a driving force for AR, but not emphasized by Harari.] Larger social frameworks like cities, kingdoms and states brought better protections. AR: ability to keep more people alive under worse conditions (p. 85). Natufian culture 12,500 to 9500 BC, hunter-gatherers living in permanent villages devoted to processing wild cereals; foragers became farmers. Temple near Gobekli Tepe suggests that cultivation could have started to support temple construction and operations. Lesson of evolutionary success to individual suffering (e.g., domestication of chickens and cattle): "Sapiens cast off its intimate symbiosis with nature and sprinted towards greed and alienation" (p. 98). The "house" as the psychological hallmark of a more self-centered creature. "Farmers must always keep the future in mind" ... "based on a seasonal cycle" (p. 100) Rulers and elites sprang up, living off the peasants surplus; "forfeited surpluses" fueled politics, wars, art and philosophy. 


With cities and empires came stories of great gods, motherlands, etc., encouraging mass cooperation. Jericho about 8500 BC had a few hundred people; Catalhoyuk had 5-10,000 in 7000 BC. First Egyptian by 3100 BC; Sargon the Great forged the first empire, Akkadian around 2250 BC; then Assyrian, Babylonian and Persian Empires. The Roman Empire had as many as 100 million people. Human cooperation networks geared toward oppression and exploitation: all "imagined orders." Best known myth of history the Code of Hammurabi around 1776 BC, laws to present Hammurabi as a just king with a uniform legal system. People divided into two genders and three classes, each with different restrictions and punishments. [Considerable detail on the Code; note that these principles have no objective validity, p. 107.] Belief is based on cooperation and forges a better society; a natural order is a stable order; an imagined order is in danger of collapse because it depends on myth. Police enforce imagined order. 


How to get people to believe in imagined order (p. 113). First, never admit its imagined, perhaps a law of nature. Free markets as an immutable law of nature. The imagined order, which exists only in our minds, is woven into material reality--feudalism in the Middle Ages, individualism today. It shapes our desires (romantic, nationalistic, capitalistic, and humanitarian myths). Marketing is great at this, consumerism. An objective phenomenon exists independently of human consciousness. Subjective exists on consciousness and beliefs. Inter-subjective drives include law, money, gods and nations. Conscious effort is needed to maintain laws, customs and so on. With complexity came the need for numbers: data about incomes and possessions, taxes. [Harari talks about Sumerians and misses about 5,000 years of tokens.] Mentions partial versus full script which represent spoken languages. Sumerians transformed partial to full script by 2500 BC. Sumer, Egypt, etc. developed techniques archiving, cataloging and retrieving written records. Script changes the way humans think. People were divided into make-believe groups, arranged in a hierarchy. American order held up the hierarchy of wealth (the claim: difference in abilities, merit rewarded while indolence penalized). [Indian societies classified people by caste, Ottoman by religion and America by race.] Rule of thumb: "Biology enables, culture forbids" (p. 146).  


Unification of Humankind. "Myths and fictions accustomed people to think in certain ways, to behave in accordance with certain standards, to want certain things, and to observe certain rules. They thereby create artificial instincts that enabled millions of strangers to cooperate effectively. This network of artificial instincts is called culture" (p. 163). Social equality and individual freedom are fundamental values that contradict each other; modern world fails to square liberty with equality--cognitive dissonance. Today, almost all people share the same geopolitical system of states, capitalism, human rights and international law, same scientific system. Money (a psychological construct) today, $60 trillion, about $6 trillion in cash. First money: Sumerian barley money, a fixed amount of barley (3000 BC) about the same time as writing (p. 181). First coins, Lydia by King Alyattes 640 BC. Counterfeiting as cheating and a breach of sovereignty. Money principles: universal convertibility and universal trust. An empire, the most common form of political organization for the last 2,500 years, is a political order (and relatively stable) with flexible borders and appetite, plus cultural diversity (which it gradually eliminated). Sargon the Great (Akkadian Empire, 2250 BC) as first empire builder; the empire fell shortly after his death, but replaced by other empires for the next 1,700 years. Chinese political theory: Heaven chooses the most worthy person  and gives the the Mandate of Heaven. Ideas and technology spread more easily within an empire. "The benefits were sometimes salient--law enforcement, urban planning, standardization of weights and measures, and taxes, conscription emperor worship" (p. 198). The Romans claimed to endow barbarians with peace, justice, and refinement. The British spread liberalism and free trade. Hybrid cultures: Roman as Latin and Greek; Abbasid as Persian, Arab, and Greek. [Summarized on p. 203.]  


Religion the third unifier of humans along with money and empires. Religion: "a system of human norms and values that is founded on a belief in a superhuman order" (p. 210). Biggest religions are universal and missionary (ancient religions local and exclusive). AR turned animals into property. Polytheistic religions saw the world as a relationship between gods and humans. A single power or law governing the universe can exist. Greek: fate; Hindu: Atman, the eternal essence or soul of the universe,controls gods, humans and physical world. Supreme power governing the world devoid of interests and biases (and unconcerned with humans). Approach the supreme power to renounce desires and embrace both bad and good--enlightenment (p. 214). Religious tolerance common. Some peoples focused on one god, but viewed him as possessing interests and biases. Jews believed their God had interests and biases but chief interest in the Jewish nation--local monotheism. As possessing the message of the one true God, they are compelled to discredit other religions. Duelistic religions espouse two opposing powers, good and evil (solving the problem of evil but creating the problem of order). [No problem if God created the universe and was evil.] Free will allows people to choose evil, bringing divine punishment. Zoroaster was a duelist. Distinction between body and soul, matter and spirit; so, God created the spirit and bodies created by evil god (then heaven and hell). Monotheism as a combo of monotheism, dualism, polytheism, and animist legacies (p. 223).


New religions: Jainism, Buddhism, Daoism and Confucianism, philosophy, disregard of gods and focus on natural law. Gods still existed but subject to laws of nature. Buddhism, suffering caused by the mind. Should experience understanding rather than suffering; includes meditation and ethical rules, replacing desire with contentment and serenity. Understanding reality is known as dharma. "The first principle of monotheist religions is 'God exists. What does He want from me?' The first principle of Buddhism is 'suffering exists. How can I escape it?" Modern world has ideologies: nazism, capitalism, communism. "Religion is a system of human norms and values that is founded on belief in a superhuman order" (p. 229). Liberal humanism: "Humanity is a quality of individual humans, and tht the liberty of individuals is therefore sacrosanct. ...source for all ethical and political authority" (p. 230). Humanism does not deny the existence of God; otherwise, what's so special about individual humans? Socialist humanism as a collective rather than individual; focus is on equality. Nazi (evolutionary humanists) believe humans can evolve or degenerate [thus, extreme racism]. 


Characteristics of history: hindsight fallacy: explain with hindsight why outcome was inevitable. Better informed aware of roads not taken. "Iron rule of history": what looks inevitable in hindsight was far from obvious at the time (p. 239). History not deterministic, coincidence and random events important; also history cannot be predicted because it is chaotic (p. 240). [Level two chaotic system, like markets, politics and revolutions, can never be predicted accurately (e.g., it reacts to predictions about it).] No proof history works for the benefit of humans, no objective scale (different cultures define the good differently). Memetics: cultural evolution based on replication of cultural information units called "memes" (p. 242). "Game theory explains how in multi-player systems, views and behavior patterns that harm all players nevertheless manage to take root and spread" (p. 243). 


Scientific Revolution. On a real per capita basis production increased 17 times that of 1500 (p. 247). Scientific revolution feedback loop as science, politics and economics reinforces each other. Key point was the willingness to admit ignorance; therefore the need to focus on observation and math. Old view was that everything important was already known--as a final and absolute truth. If something was unknown it must be unimportant. The Scientific Revolution was the first time people could believe in progress. [Before that, death often the Meaning of life."] Newton a general theory of movement and change, which was predictive; nature is written in mathematics. Life insurance fund story (p. 256) using Bernoulli's Law of Large Numbers and death statistics (some provided by Edmond Halley) to predict average with accuracy. Francis Bacon (New Instrument, 1620), knowledge is power, the test is utility; e.g., connecting science to technology. Now a "feedback loop" between science, empire and capital (p. 274). [From 1405 to 1433, Chinese Admiral Zheng He explored the Indian Ocean; then China withdrew from the outer world.] Captain Cook story as a science expedition (p. 275). In 1775 Asia was 80% of the world economy; by 1900 Europeans controlled the world economy, by 1950 Europeans and US had more than half global production--military, industrial, science complex and technology. Harari claims it was social/political structures and values myths that made the difference.


Capitalism played a key part: "science and capitalism form the most important legacy that European imperialism has bequeathed the post-European world" (p. 282). Europeans hoped to obtain new knowledge and new territories (scientists on board expeditions, like Darwin (Captain Fitzroy was drawing military maps). New World meant wealth and power, but also new knowledge. [Deciphering cuneiform script by the British, starting p. 298.] Conquest redefined not as exploitation but projects for the benefit of the local peoples, "the White Man's burden." Racist theories beginning with the "Aryans," leading to the idea of Western superiority. "Capitalism. Were it not for businessmen seeking to make money, Columbus would not have reached America, James Cook would not have reached Australia, and Neil Armstrong would never have taken that small step on the surface of the moon" (p. 304).


" [Adam] Smith's claim that the selfish human urge to increase private profits is the basis for collective wealth is one of the most revolutionary ideas in human history" (p. 311). Smith also denied the contradiction between wealth and morality. Also, profits should be reinvested in production. "Its principal tenet is that economic growth is the supreme good" (p 314). Most early empires were established by conquest. Mercantile thinking relied on credit rather than taxes and directed by capitalists. Europeans used joint-stock companies. Dutch judicial system protected private rights especially property. Rule of law and private property good for bankers (and capitalists). Dutch VOC chartered in 1602 and arrived in Indonesia and conquered it with mercenaries. Dutch West India Company founded New Amsterdam. British East India Company outperformed the VOC. The British mastered finance, mainly by paying their bills. Free market doctrine, but markets offer no protection against fraud, theft and violence, or most measures of fairness. The Atlantic slave market was an unrestrained market. Consider European sugar plantations and capitalist doctrine including entrepreneurs producing huge quantities of cakes, cookies and chocolate (p. 330). Slave trading companies sold shares on Amsterdam, London and Paris stock exchanges. "Capitalism has killed millions out of cold indifference coupled with greed" (p. 331).


The modern animal industry fueled by indifference. The Industrial Revolution turned the timetable and assembly line into a template for human activities. Think railroads, then radio and television. Traditional functions of families and communities handed over to states and markets. Market powers quote: "provided the state with new means of communication ... an army of clerks, teachers ..." (p. 358). "The states and the market disagree about their mutual rights and obligations ... both demand too much and provide too little" (p. 360). "Wealth consists mainly of human capital and organizational know-how" (p. 372). "Modern industrial agriculture might well be the greatest crime in history" (p. 379). "Our subjective well-being ... is determined by a complex system of nerves, neurons, synapse and various biochemical substances such as serotonin, dopamine, and oxytocin" (p. 386). System probably keeps happiness levels relatively constant. Based on the biological approach, history is of minor importance. Happiness means manipulating our biochemistry. Soma worked in Brave New World. Kehneman: raising a child rather unpleasant, but considered chief source of happiness; generally seeing one's life as meaningful and worthwhile. Synchronising personal delusions with collective delusions. Buddhists: understand the impermanent nature of feelings and stop craving them. Live in the present.












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