In order to understand human struggles right now is to understand human struggles that date 1.5 million years.
This book is simply about the history of the human race, from the Australopitheci of East Africa to the modern Man. It progresses through the book in chronological fashion until it inevitably slows down at focuses on topical organization, by having chapters focused on empires and religion. What makes this book different is that it seeks to capture what it means to be human. As such, it addresses a lot of the difficult questions when it comes to the very fabric of society.
Yuval Noah Harari
He is an Oxford-educated history professor in the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. As such, his credentials are evident throughout this book.
Socialization is a major theme in human evolution, since it was how cohesion was developed among tribes of humans during their earliest days during the Cognitive Revolution. This included gossiping, since it helped to define roles in societies and to forecast when there was an animal that lurked nearby. Another part is by establishing abstractions, such as myths and laws, in order to maintain order among the tribes in what Harari called inter-subjectivity.
The ability to create fiction is also what enabled human ingenuity, since it helped them develop complex social structures. In the case of politics and economics, trade and ownership are abstract and not material, though it helped to provide sustenance and order. Another way that early humans used fiction is the use of mythologies and perceived common ancestry in order to develop cohesion and comradery among the rest of the tribe. As for the comradery outside of the tribes, the issue of money becomes a part of the imagined constructs. It is really dependent on the value of the items, necessities, and services that humans have brought or produced. Even sworn enemy-nations, such as the Christian and Islamic kingdoms and empires, relied on gold coins for any common ground.
Another theme that one would notice about Harari’s analysis is that he constantly makes the point that there are controversies as to what exactly happened at various points of early human history. He wanted to reader to be more focused on what the evidence showed.
The relationship between humans and animals is also a major theme in the book, especially as humans started to become more of a predatorial threat to entire ecosystems. Either animals are domesticated like dogs or they are food. As far as the earliest days of humans as Australopitheci, humans at that point were not any different from any other animal.
Another theme is diet, since it ultimately determines the evolution of the human species. Harari argued that the innovation of cooking food was important for human brain development. Since diet was never consistent, since it involved both hunting animals and foraging fruits and nuts, there was a wide variety of nutrients that early humans ate that made them even more healthier than modern humans, who rely on monocultural diets like those made from wheat, rice, and potato.
Implements, such as tools and currency, are also a frequent feature in human history. Tools have been used mostly from wood in order to extract the marrow from the carcasses of animals, while shells and beads were used before or in place of coins as currency.
Another theme that Harari himself makes note of is the endless contradictions that can come with being human. He highlights this when talking about how a society will adopt a religion, but will culturally go against the religion’s precepts. However, this frequently plays out throughout the span of human history, with the notable example of looking retrogressively back at the Agricultural Revolution. On the one hand, it helped produce enough food to feed starving populations at a more accessible rate, but on the other hand it required grueling work that humans were not adapted to as a species and the creation of an upper class that would exploit the lower class of peasants.
The empire-building of the European nations was one of those many human paradoxes, since it was started by a desire for new trading routes (in the case of the Americas) and new destinations to observe Venus in the sky (in the case of Australia as one of the “four corners of the world”). What eventually led to an international, diverse marketplace of innovation was also the site of many atrocities against indigenous and diasporic populations. Colonized peoples were victims of the empires, yet they were also eventually assimilated into it as equals.
The ecosystem is another theme throughout the human journey, since it was a major component of human survival. Though, it was also a victim of human violence, whether it would be the megafauna who have gone extinct to the endless numbers of cattle and chickens in industrial agriculture. Harari is also quite concerned about climate change and the endangered species throughout the world.
As expected in a book like this, historical context is the prime component, especially when taking into account the entirety of the human condition briefly compacted in a 400-page book. He will include the history of the migrations throughout early human history and eventually gets into detail about the various empires that lived and died throughout the years.
Harari also discusses the exception of the exception to the rule of evolution as it applied to humans. Not only have humans defied their natural instincts throughout the Cognitive and Agricultural Revolutions, but also through the Industrial Revolution, as the innovations of steam and steel managed to make life accessible. Since traditionally the family unit has been the center of the individual’s life, it increasingly became the market and the state that ultimately determined it. The individual can choose a marriage partner, a job, and a home without the family’s consent.
Eventually, he talks about the advent of genetic engineering and how it would ultimately impact the identity of the Homo Sapien. If it proceeds into cyborg engineering, then it would result in collective consciousness, which would directly challenge the concept of being human.
Harari definitely likes to pun a lot in his writing, which did make the reading less tedious. What also makes the writing easy to understand is how he links sentences together. He will often have sentences that connect to each other based on the preceding points. For example, his sentences would be formed like “A is B. B is C. C is D.”
I also notice how he constantly uses the term Afro-Asia in order to describe the entire landmass that compose of Asia, Africa, and Europe. This is done in order to differentiate it from the Americas and Oceania. This is done so in order to illustrate the walking migrations that the tribes would have had to undertake every 40 years to forage food and would eventually result in the peopling of the entire planet.
Real World Application
This was recommended in a video done by YouTube Renaissance Man R. C. Waldun. He said that it would be tedious and a bummer, though from what I can understand from what Harari was coming from is that it helps to understand the human condition a little better. It also decentralizes the individual, since it makes it clear that no one is as autonomous or as individual as they think they are. Rather, we are all simply the respondents of our own genetics, social environment, and biosphere. Although we are confined by our limits, we do have the ability to adapt to any area, so our condition need not be a deterministic horror. It is for that reason why I avoid words and phrases like self-help and improving oneself, because they are aimless when to comes to the rationales people would have for using them to begin with.
The only solace that can come with reading Harari’s book is:
If there were to be any closure that I can impart to any reader who has been bummed out after reading this book, then I can only say that you should not limit human potential to only the recorded human history that dates back only to the Sumerians. That is only a small portion of the million-year journey from the East Africa to the every other landmass on Earth (and possibly beyond). I can assure you that every behavior and mannerism, however minor it is, can be explainable to an extent. It can be traced back to our ancestors. And the fact that we do have behavior and mannerisms that are not consistent with our genetic limitations is evidence enough that the million-year journey is a million-year story that is constantly being inscribed in the annals of time.
I am normally a pessimist, though strangely enough this book has given me hope. It is strange indeed, since Harari mentioned how some people are genetically wired to be happy in the worst cirumstances, while some people tend to be sad and depressed in the best circumstances.
The reality is that we are not as worldly or as smart as we think we are. Perhaps ignorance itself is what gives individual human lives meaning, since not knowing paradoxically gives us limitations but unlimited directions. As a result, it results in the imaginations that Harari writes about frequently. For it was that sense of ignorance that compelled Europeans to explore the Americas and Australia.
What also Harari anticipates is that the entire world would see itself as part of the same global community and not as warring tribes. Like imagined constructs and weapons, technology definitely does play a role in how human beings were able to spread, whether as a migrating tribe or as an empire. Amidst the numerous paradoxes throughout human history, what is important is what the past has left behind for the present, which would continue to be used in the future. If railroads were left behind by the European empires, then transportation was greatly affected throughout the world. As such, the future would have to look forward to the technologies made in the present in order to handle its own problems.
Basically, anything can be explainable. It may not be so in the first time encountering it, but with detailed scrutiny, it will completely make sense. As such, there is yet more to discover about the early human migrations, just as much as there is about the future of human migrations to different planets.
However, Harari does forewarn that while humans have enough renewable energy to survive, what will pose a risk is the continuing destruction of the environment. This is especially the case since he mentions how humans had been causing extinctions going all the way back to the megafauna. As such, the biosphere should not act as one giant industrial farm where only the animals useful to be eaten live by the billions whereas the ones that aren’t are in the thousands.
I will say that I would like to live long enough to be able to witness the first mammoth being cloned. I don’t even need to pet it, I just want to see if it is possible.
Recommend This To…
- The smartest person that you personally know. It could either make or break him, but it would still be interesting to provide him with a challenge.
- Anyone interested in pursuing evolutionary biology, environmentalism, or anthropology, because Harari gets into detail about these fields in this book. It may already be assigned reading anyway, but even so, I would recommend this book for outside the standard curriculum.
- Anyone who has pondered the difficult questions about the human species or even noticed the numerous paradoxes as Harari has. He will affirm everything you thought and add some extra thoughts for you to consider.
- Anyone interested in transhumanism or the idea of humans transcending their corporeal forms, since Harari discusses a lot about human potential in the future sciences in the final parts of his book–as though to develop all of his points to that point.
- Anyone who is interested in traveling. This book can teach a lot about the migrations of humans and how they adapted to differing landscapes. This was especially true with the crossing of the Bering Strait.
Harari, Juval Noah. “Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind.” 1st Edition. Harper-Perennial. 2018.