Human beings (members of the genus Homo) have existed for about 2.4m years. Homo sapiens, our own wildly egregious species of great apes, has only existed for 6% of that time – about 150,000 years. So a book whose main title is Sapiens shouldn’t be subtitled “A Brief History of Humankind”. It’s easy to see why Yuval Noah Harari devotes 95% of his book to us as a species: self-ignorant as we are, we still know far more about ourselves than about other species of human beings, including several that have become extinct since we first walked the Earth. The fact remains that the history of sapiens – Harari’s name for us – is only a very small part of the history of humankind.
Can its full sweep be conveyed in one fell swoop – 400 pages? Not really; it’s easier to write a brief history of time – all 14bn years – and Harari also spends many pages on our present and possible future rather than our past. But the deep lines of the story of sapiens are fairly uncontentious, and he sets them out with verve.
For the first half of our existence we potter along unremarkably; then we undergo a series of revolutions. First, the “cognitive” revolution: about 70,000 years ago, we start to behave in far more ingenious ways than before, for reasons that are still obscure, and we spread rapidly across the planet. About 11,000 years ago we enter on the agricultural revolution, converting in increasing numbers from foraging (hunting and gathering) to farming. The “scientific revolution” begins about 500 years ago. It triggers the industrial revolution, about 250 years ago, which triggers in turn the information revolution, about 50 years ago, which triggers the biotechnological revolution, which is still wet behind the ears. Harari suspects that the biotechnological revolution signals the end of sapiens: we will be replaced by bioengineered post-humans, “amortal” cyborgs, capable of living forever.
This is one way to lay things out. Harari embeds many other momentous events, most notably the development of language: we become able to think sharply about abstract matters, cooperate in ever larger numbers, and, perhaps most crucially, gossip. There is the rise of religion and the slow overpowering of polytheisms by more or less toxic monotheisms. Then there is the evolution of money and, more importantly, credit. There is, connectedly, the spread of empires and trade as well as the rise of capitalism.
Harari swashbuckles through these vast and intricate matters in a way that is – at its best – engaging and informative. It’s a neat thought that “we did not domesticate wheat. It domesticated us.” There was, Harari says, “a Faustian bargain between humans and grains” in which our species “cast off its intimate symbiosis with nature and sprinted towards greed and alienation”. It was a bad bargain: “the agricultural revolution was history’s biggest fraud”. More often than not it brought a worse diet, longer hours of work, greater risk of starvation, crowded living conditions, greatly increased susceptibility to disease, new forms of insecurity and uglier forms of hierarchy. Harari thinks we may have been better off in the stone age, and he has powerful things to say about the wickedness of factory farming, concluding with one of his many superlatives: “modern industrial agriculture might well be the greatest crime in history”.
He accepts the common view that the fundamental structure of our emotions and desires hasn’t been touched by any of these revolutions: “our eating habits, our conflicts and our sexuality are all a result of the way our hunter-gatherer minds interact with our current post-industrial environment, with its mega-cities, airplanes, telephones and computers … Today we may be living in high-rise apartments with over-stuffed refrigerators, but our DNA still thinks we are in the savannah.” He gives a familiar illustration – our powerful desires for sugar and fat have led to the widespread availability of foods that are primary causes of unhealthiness and ugliness. The consumption of pornography is another good example. It’s just like overeating: if the minds of pornography addicts could be seen as bodies, they would look just like the grossly obese.
At one point Harari claims that “the leading project of the scientific revolution” is the Gilgamesh Project (named after the hero of the epic who set out to destroy death): “to give humankind eternal life” or “amortality”. He is sanguine about its eventual success. But amortality isn’t immortality, because it will always be possible for us to die by violence, and Harari is plausibly sceptical about how much good it will do us. As amortals, we may become hysterically and disablingly cautious (Larry Niven develops the point nicely in his description of the “Puppeteers” in the Ringworld science fiction novels). The deaths of those we love may become far more terrible. We may grow weary of all things under the sun – even in heaven (see the last chapter of Julian Barnes’s A History of the World in 10½ Chapters). We may come to agree with JRR Tolkien’s elves, who saw mortality as a gift to human beings that they themselves lacked. We may come to feel what Philip Larkin felt: “Beneath it all, desire of oblivion runs.”
Even if we put all these points aside, there’s no guarantee that amortality will bring greater happiness. Harari draws on well-known research that shows that a person’s happiness from day to day has remarkably little to do with their material circumstances. Certainly money can make a difference – but only when it lifts us out of poverty. After that, more money changes little or nothing. Certainly a lottery winner is lifted by her luck, but after about 18 months her average everyday happiness reverts to its old level. If we had an infallible “happyometer”, and toured Orange County and the streets of Kolkata, it’s not clear that we would get consistently higher readings in the first place than in the second.
This point about happiness is a persistent theme in Sapiens. When Arthur Brooks (head of the conservative American Enterprise Institute) made a related point in the New York Times in July, he was criticised for trying to favour the rich and justify income inequality. The criticism was confused, for although current inequalities of income are repellent, and harmful to all, the happiness research is well confirmed. This doesn’t, however, prevent Harari from suggesting that the lives lived by sapiens today may be worse overall than the lives they lived 15,000 years ago.
Much of Sapiens is extremely interesting, and it is often well expressed. As one reads on, however, the attractive features of the book are overwhelmed by carelessness, exaggeration and sensationalism. Never mind his standard and repeated misuse of the saying “the exception proves the rule” (it means that exceptional or rare cases test and confirm the rule, because the rule turns out to apply even in those cases). There’s a kind of vandalism in Harari’s sweeping judgments, his recklessness about causal connections, his hyper-Procrustean stretchings and loppings of the data. Take his account of the battle of Navarino. Starting from the fact that British investors stood to lose money if the Greeks lost their war of independence, Harari moves fast: “the bond holders’ interest was the national interest, so the British organised an international fleet that, in 1827, sank the main Ottoman flotilla in the battle of Navarino. After centuries of subjugation, Greece was finally free.” This is wildly distorted – and Greece was not then free. To see how bad it is, it’s enough to look at the wikipedia entry on Navarino.
Harari hates “modern liberal culture”, but his attack is a caricature and it boomerangs back at him. Liberal humanism, he says, “is a religion”. It “does not deny the existence of God”; “all humanists worship humanity”; “a huge gulf is opening between the tenets of liberal humanism and the latest findings of the life sciences”. This is silly. It’s also sad to see the great Adam Smith drafted in once again as the apostle of greed. Still, Harari is probably right that “only a criminal buys a house … by handing over a suitcase of banknotes” – a point that acquires piquancy when one considers that about 35% of all purchases at the high end of the London housing market are currently being paid in cash.