Sapiens – Yuval Noah Harari

[I intend to write about this ‘brief history’ in sections, mostly as I finish reading each of the four parts. So far, I have read Part 1.]

2 July 2017
Part 1 – The Cognitive Revolution
This is sobering. It’s supposed to be – Harari has set himself the task of demonstrating not only that the position of Homo Sapiens at the top of the tree came about as the result of an inexplicable cognitive change some tens of thousands of years ago, but that along the way we became ‘the deadliest species in the annals of biology.’ ‘Long before the Industrial Revolution, [we] held the record… for driving the most plant and animal species to extinction.’ He shows how, once ‘Sapiens’ moved beyond the Eurasian continent over 45,000 years ago, terrible things happened to every eco-system this clever, well-organised species encountered. Australia? All but one of the large species was extinct within a few millennia of our arrival; the twenty-odd other species, which had survived in some form for millions of years, no longer existed. Something similar, according to the archaeological record, happened everywhere else. We arrive, we need to eat, and have the brains to kill even the biggest of the other animals.

These dark thoughts come at the end of Part 1. In the pages leading up to it, in four chapters, Harari makes it his business to undermine any belief we might have in the intrinsic superiority of our species. We learn that before the cognitive shift, the five or six species of Homo that were around at the time had to take their places well down the food-chain. The simple tools used by the first humans were probably used to break the bones of carcases that had already been largely picked clean by predators and stronger scavengers than our ancestors. Sure, over the course of two million years or so, developments took place. Brains got bigger, and a species like the Neanderthals, starting about 200,000 years ago (I think), could do pretty well for itself. But – and Harari makes a big thing of this at one point – no species of Homo had the mental wherewithal to think beyond the concrete and, therefore, to plan and combine into large communities. When the Sapiens branch of the species found itself able to think things through far better than non-Sapiens communities… well, it can’t be proved how we took over, but it wasn’t long before the other five branches of Homo were gone. All of them. Harari isn’t saying for certain that we killed them all off – there even seems to be evidence in some parts of the world that there was a little interbreeding – but nobody seems to have lasted very long when we were in the neighbourhood.

The gruesome implications of the mass extinctions both of animal and human species are amongst the main selling-points of this book. Here is someone writing in easily digestible language about how we didn’t get to where we are now by being Mr Nice Guy. We can’t help reaching the conclusion Harari wants us to reach: we are Homo red in tooth and claw. It doesn’t mean that he particularly blames us. In fact, he keeps to a slyly neutral tone, for instance by examining other explanations for mass extinctions that coincided with Sapiens’s appearance. We understand fairly quickly that he only does this in order to discount all other theories. The only sensible conclusion is that these mass extinctions (and other irreversible ecological changes like the clearance of ancient forests) were a direct, step-by-step outcome of the sudden, inexplicable phenomenon he calls the cognitive revolution. We were suddenly able to do stuff that none of the other species were able to do and, if the fight for survival was suddenly skewed in our favour and other species couldn’t keep up, was that our fault?

As I mentioned, this takes place over four chapters. There’s a clue to Harari’s satirical tone in the title of Chapter 1, An Animal of No Significance. This is where we find out about our lowly place amongst the other scavengers doing their best to survive. But, only a few pages in, he’s moving on to territory he knows will be even more controversial for most readers. The swift rise of Sapiens brought about by the cognitive shift led to migrations that took us, as early as 45,000 years ago, as far as Australia. Only the Americas were protected from us by huge oceans – until climate changes enabled Sapiens to reach northern Canada 16,000 years ago, and all the way to the southern tip of South America four thousand years later. That’s a lot of distance covered in a couple of hundred generations.

Even before these developments, before Sapiens, human beings were adapting the world to their needs. The use of fire became sophisticated enough for food to be cooked, and therefore chewed and digested more quickly and efficiently. Less energy was needed for both of these so, over generations, there was enough left over to power ever larger brains. Our brains use 25% of all our energy when we are at rest, compared to 8% in our earliest ancestors. Harari makes a distinction between ‘history’ and ‘biology’. Every new behavioural development, over two million years, could only be achieved through genetic mutations, so even the big-brained Neanderthals couldn’t make the necessary imaginative leap to move on from millennia of always doing things the same way. Thinking, and no doubt the conversations that went on, could never go beyond the here and now. Social groups of more than about 30 were not feasible because, basically, that’s as many as any primates, from chimpanzees to non-Sapiens humans, could hold in their heads.

History could only begin when human beings became capable of changing the world and not vice versa. Until then, it was a two-way process, as with the use of fire for cooking leading to the possibility of ever larger brains. But humans couldn’t yet think their way very much further up the food chain. They might have evolved sufficiently to be able kill bigger animals as long as 400,000 years ago, but existence was still precarious. We hadn’t come far enough to be able to imagine a world of possibilities beyond the here and now. Then we did, and it was an entirely social phenomenon. Harari loves the idea so much he italicises the new, all-important skill: we learned how to gossip. We became a species of story-tellers and could convey ideas beyond the factual, and this is how we could band together in ever larger groups – or, at least, to persuade other small bands or tribes that co-operation might be a good idea. After that, since 70,000 years ago, our biology hasn’t needed to change at all. An ancestor from that time transported to the present would have no physiological difference from ourselves.

And yet, and yet…. We carried on being hunter-gatherers until, relatively recently in our history – 10 to 12,000 years ago – there was another step-change. This time, it was the ‘agricultural revolution’ – and that forms the basis for Part 2. But for the rest of Part 1, Harari seeks to persuade us not only that a lot of the ground-work for the creation of modern society was done before this, but that life before agriculture was definitely not nasty, brutish and short. Quite the reverse: in Chapters 2 and 3, The Tree of Knowledge and A Day in the Life of Adam and Eve, he first makes the case for considering early Sapiens to be equal to ourselves, and then for the hunter-gatherer lifestyle.

Firstly, Sapiens developed that all-important ability to think beyond the concrete. There’s even a table demonstrating how three specific ‘new abilities’ arising from the cognitive revolution led to wider consequences. They are all about ‘transmitting larger quantities of information…’ about the world, which leads to carrying out complex actions, such as hunting bigger game; about social relationships, which leads to bigger and more cohesive groups of up to 150 people; and about things that have no foundation in concrete reality, ‘such as tribal spirits, nations, limited liability companies and human rights.’ This last one is the wild card, and Harari has already been having fun explaining why, today, it is feasible for the ‘alpha male’ at the head of a world religion to remain celibate – and why the Peugeot lion logo represents nothing more tangible than the sculpture of a lion-man carved 30-odd millennia ago.

As for the hunter-gatherer lifestyle…. It would not have taken every hour of the day to forage for food – there was likely to be much more gathering than hunting, he asserts – and then eat it. Which left time for other activities, like art and conversation. But Harari isn’t going to pretend that his ‘Adam and Eve’ inhabited a kind of Eden for 60,000 years. He points out how problematic it is to look to the few remaining hunter-gatherer communities left on Earth as though they represent an earlier, more idyllic world. It is almost certain that there were as many periods of shortage as of plenty, and an archaeological find in the Danube Valley points to a large number of deaths by war and other violence. Our ancestors were no doubt as suspicious of strangers and as territorial as we are, and relations with other bands of Sapiens – to say nothing of other, less versatile Homo species – were unlikely to be smooth. We have no way of knowing, of course, as Harari constantly reminds us…

…but Chapter 4 is the one in which the gloves really come off, as he lets us know just how terrible the arrival of Sapiens was for everyone else. Neanderthals and other humans? Predators living within finely-tuned eco-systems in which they had evolved alongside ever more alert and agile prey? On Harari’s evidence, it becomes impossible for us to deny that whatever we brought with us, it wasn’t good. And there are enough hints in Part 1 to make it pretty clear that he thinks we haven’t changed one bit.