Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind

By Yuval Noah Harari, 2014

By Michel Duguay (reviewer)

The international best-selling book Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, by Yuval Harari, is a sweeping history of humankind starting about one million years ago. The book is a revealing description of humankind’s evolution and of its trend toward greater unity. From the beginning the author states that his goal is to better understand the behavior of Homo sapiens, i.e. the behaviour of the particular hominid species that we represent. The author at times worries about nuclear war but is generally optimistic about our future as we move toward greater unity.

About 70,000 years ago our Homo sapiens ancestors migrated from Africa into the Middle East, and then into Europe and Asia. At least two other hominid species already inhabited these continental areas, namely the Neanderthals in the West and the Denisovans in the East. Genetic studies of ancient DNA preserved in bones and teeth have shown that we interbred to a small extent with our hominid cousins. Apparently, people of European and Middle Eastern descent have inherited between one and four percent of their DNA from the Neanderthals; the Australian aborigines may have inherited as much as six percent of their DNA from the Denisovans. Like many other authors, Harari highlights the interplay between our genetic heritage and our cultures in the question of violent versus peaceful human behavior.

Harari considers how our hominid cousins disappeared. He notes that many large animal species also disappeared whenever Homo sapiens moved into their territories. The evidence is that overhunting was the culprit, one prominent example being the mammoths, who underwent extinction 10,000 years ago. About one-half of large animals in Australia, Asia and the Americas have become extinct. Harari criticizes how we have dealt with wild animals, and how we now deal with farm animals.

Three main revolutions highlight our history: about 70,000 years ago, the cognitive revolution, characterized by major advances in our language capabilities; about 12,000 years ago, the agricultural revolution; and 500 years ago the scientific revolution. Whereas our cousins the chimpanzees cannot organize groups larger than 150 individuals, humans can build communities on the scale of nations, and even of the planet, as in the United Nations. Harari explains that the construction of imagined realities and their adoption through language has allowed us to cooperate on a large scale. Examples of imagined realities are political ideologies, religions, financial constructions like credit, and mathematical tools used in the sciences. The invention of writing, especially of cuneiform in Mesopotamia 4,500 years ago, played a key role in the creation of imagined realities and social organization.

Harari looks at money as an imagined reality that has led to international commerce and has had a unifying effect on humankind. The author gives centre stage to the various empires, which brought together different ethnic groups speaking different languages and having different beliefs—that in the course of recorded history have led to the unification of mankind.

Ancient Mesopotamia, the Akkadian empire founded 2250 years before the modern era, is the first one for which we have precise written data. This empire was founded by Sargon the Great and expanded to cover most of the territory that is now Syria, Iraq, and parts of Iran and Turkey. Over the next 1,700 years, Assyrian, Babylonian, and Hittite kings built empires modeled on Sargon’s. Around 550 BC, the Persian Cyrus the Great built an empire that had an inclusive philosophy toward conquered nations. The same phenomenon happened later with the Roman Empire which at its apogee comprised 100 million people. Latin became widespread and was for 2000 years one of the most important means of international communication. Later the British Empire became the largest ever. One of its planetary contributions is the English language, which has had a profound unifying effect on humankind. Harari points out that almost every person has historical roots in various empires, and he predicts the emergence of a global empire.

In discussing the scientific revolution Harari will make many friends among scientists and technologists. He says that society now has a quasi-religious trust in science and technology. Harari displays a refined understanding of science. He points out that science has no dogma, that empirical observations are its foundation, and that the principal mission of any scientist is to go further than Albert Einstein, Heinrich Schliemann, and Max Weber. As regards the economy, Harari claims that its future depends primarily on inventions coming out of laboratories around the world.

Finally, in the fourth part of his book, historian Harari ventures into speculating about the future. Setting up the context on war and peace, Harari points out that between 1945 and now humankind has lived through the most peaceful period in its history. In analogy with the famous Pax Romana, he titles a section “Pax Atomica.” He points out that before 1914, many people expected that a new war was inevitable. But today, with the globalization of the economy, with the flourishing of the largest business on the planet—tourism, with the globalization of politics and newscasts, war options are no longer popular or even plausible. Harari essentially asserts that war has gone out of style in the minds of the world’s elites, for the first time in history.

As in the 2015 ground-breaking book Our Beleaguered Species, Beyond Tribalism by Elizabeth Zelman, Yuval Harari discusses our human history at the broad level that is required of a holistic approach to understanding ourselves and improving our lives. Authors like Zelman and Harari move the discussion of local and world politics to a level that includes the whole planet and that learns from millions of years of evolution.

Reviewed by Michel Duguay, a physicist and professor at Universit Laval.

Peace Magazine Apr-Jun 2016

Peace Magazine Apr-Jun 2016, page 28. Some rights reserved.

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