We have usually been taught that humanity’s decision to abandon its hunter-gathering ways and settle down as farmers was a master-stroke: the tap root of all subsequent civilisation. Harari recognises that it was a development of the greatest significance, but he wonders if it was a terribly good idea. Societies could now produce a lot more food and this resulted in an exponential growth in population, but were those lives better or happier? Harari has his doubts.
He suggests that hunter-gatherers enjoyed more varied existences, had more leisure time, and ran a smaller risk of disease and starvation. The agricultural revolution ‘left farmers with lives generally more difficult and less satisfying than those of foragers.’ Their diet did not improve, their bodies had to perform tasks unsuited to human anatomy, and being in thrall to wheat, rice or potatoes meant that a single bad harvest could signal disaster. Harari sums up the whole process in another of his bold phrases: ‘the ability to keep more people alive under worse conditions.’
Such analysis is typical of this courageous, thought-provoking, and occasionally reductive book. Harari offers a panoramic survey of human history and challenges many preconceptions. The results are frequently magnificent, though they sometimes involve conspicuously broad brush strokes. What, for example, has been the key to human cooperation and our ability to establish efficient, stable societies? We have the cognitive revolution to thank. 70,000 years ago something very strange happened to the human brain, most likely the result of a random genetic mutation. We could think in more abstract, long-term ways. Language arrived on the scene and, just as importantly, we could cultivate what Harari regards as shared societal fictions. Apparently, we have been doing this ever since: dreaming up principles that bind us together and legitimise our actions.
By Harari’s account these include everything from religion to nationalism to the processes and totemic symbols of modern capitalism. The ‘only place such universal principles exist is in the fertile imagination of Sapiens, and in the myths they invent and tell one another,’ though this has not dented their utility. Maybe, but it’s unsettling grouping every human faith, philosophy and ideology into the same, narrow hermeneutic category.
Harari’s adjudication of humanity’s overall impact on the planet is equally challenging. He offers a devastating and accurate account of the harm we have done. When we arrived in Australia 45,000 years ago, we managed to wipe out all the megafauna and, when we made it to the Americas, a similar ‘human blitzkrieg’ ensued. The trend continued, not least over the past two hundred years, so it is not unreasonable to describe us as ‘the most important and most destructive force the animal kingdom has ever produced’ or as an ‘ecological serial killer.’ Then again, it seems a little strong to say that we have ‘little that we can be proud of.’ I don’t suppose Bach’s fugues make up for all the carnage, but I’m still pleased we managed to produce them.
All told, this book will enchant, surprise and annoy you in roughly equal measure. Harari writes beautifully and his basic point is sound: any glib notion of human progress is dubious. This is a very modern idea and most of our predecessors had the good sense to look to the past for inspiration rather than assuming that every passing year marked an advance in human civilisation.
As Harari concludes, this perception is hard to sustain in 2014. On the one hand, we have the potential to transform the very meaning of being human and have, remarkably, cast off the shackles of evolutionary imperatives: we’ll soon be living for longer than any gene could reasonably expect. On the other hand, we could blow up the planet in the blink of an eye. If that’s progress, I’m a Martian.
‘Know thyself’ is always good advice and Harari’s book provides a compelling account of the human past, present and possible future.
SAPIENS: A Brief History of Humankind by Yuval Noah Harari, Harvill Secker, £25
This review was published in the November 2014 edition of Geographical Magazine