Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, by Yuval Noah Harari

Chris Knight on the history of humanity and the myths that shape our civilisations

October 2, 2014

This book is “the thrilling account of our extraordinary history – from insignificant apes to rulers of the world”. Since the book is about everything, it begins at the beginning. With the Big Bang came time and space, matter and energy. Then came atoms and molecules. Then life on Earth. Then Homo sapiens – the beginning of history.

Racing along at breakneck speed, we get from hunting with spears to nuclear weapons and the internet – before entering the “last days”. Drunk with power, Sapiens thrusts aside Darwinian natural selection and switches to the “intelligent design” of genetic engineering. Historian Yuval Noah Harari complains that virtually any experiment can be justified if it will supposedly cure some disease or prolong human life. Meanwhile, as planet Earth races towards ecological catastrophe, we face probable extinction. Our best hope, suggests Harari, may be to upload our brains on to hard drives. If we are lucky, these will be maintained far into the future by a new race of super-intelligent cyborgs.

While reading all this I had a nagging sense of research by Wikipedia. That’s probably unfair, but Sapiens is one of those books about everything in general, nothing in particular. A concoction of fascinating facts, plausible theories and bizarre speculations, all pasted into a 400-odd-page breathless narrative.

The hero is a rather unpleasant species whose secret is “cooperation between strangers”. The first modern humans, Harari argues, were like other apes in possessing instincts for cooperating with close kin. They could also do “tit-for-tat”. But cooperation between strangers is a quite different phenomenon. Our instincts won’t achieve that. So how was it done?

“Despite the lack of such biological instincts,” Harari explains, “during the foraging era, hundreds of strangers were able to cooperate thanks to their shared myths.” Myths can be strong or weak. “Stories about ancestral spirits and tribal totems were strong enough to enable 500 people to trade seashells, celebrate the odd festival, and join forces to wipe out a Neanderthal band, but no more than that.” But then came myths about all-powerful gods, leading to complex civilisations and eventually empires. “Myths, it transpires, are stronger than anyone could have imagined.”

This, then, is the secret of our success. We owe our god-like power to our extraordinary gullibility – our willingness to accept fictional entities on faith. Capitalism is a myth, communism is a myth, money is a myth. Future growth and profits are a myth. But if we all believe in such things, they are true.

One powerful myth concerns Gilgamesh, who resolved to live for ever. The Gilgamesh Project, according to Harari, is the foundational myth of our time. Prolonging human life justifies innovations and experiments whose long-term effects accumulate in unexpected and often disastrous ways. Harari takes a dim view of the agricultural revolution, describing it as detrimental to the happiness not only of most humans but also of countless tortured and imprisoned cows, pigs, chickens and other animals. His survey of modern factory farming methods is a glimpse into animal hell.

We’re told what happens when an embryonic rabbit has a certain jellyfish gene spliced into its DNA: you get a new kind of rabbit, glowing fluorescent green. Scientists want to breed pigs whose harmful fat will be replaced entirely by heart-friendly omega-3. We learn of a human ear growing nicely on a mouse’s back, and of remote-controlled houseflies that the CIA hopes to deploy as undetectable spies.

Don’t turn to Sapiens for inspiration, solid scientific enlightenment or a renewed sense of anti-capitalist purpose. There’s too much salesmanship and sensationalism in this book. But it does ring alarm bells that we should not ignore. Accelerating climate change, genetic engineering gone mad…there’s plenty to disturb your sleep.

Harari appears not to have heard of horizontal direct action, picket lines or class struggle. The nearest he gets to a political solution is the idea of empire. The Roman Empire, he explains, wasn’t all bad. But now humanity needs a “truly global” empire whose colour “may well be green”.

The idea of a bunch of green intellectuals running a new global empire seems to be the political vision of this book. But how are we to make this work? The one theoretical point we are offered throughout is that we need a sufficiently strong myth. This book is not it.

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