Sapiens, the book that took Yuval Noah Harari from an eccentric history professor at Hebrew University of Jerusalem to a superstar scholar with worldwide fandom and movement called “Sapienship.”
I’ve seen Sapiens on bestsellers and friend’s recommended reads, but I never picked it up. Actually, I rarely pick up new bestsellers or top reads of the year—I tend to privilege dead authors, or maybe I have some complex against new bestsellers. It wasn’t until I read this New Yorker Profiles on Yuval Noah Harari that more than piqued my interest. Harari is a fascinating and very particular person—like most scholars. What caught my eye, though, was not his superstar status (I would rather dine with Saint Anselm than, say, Justin Bieber or Beyoncé) but his insistent need to research carefully (Harari welcomes corrections to his ongoing list of mistakes on Sapiens in his site) and to nuance discussions. So, I picked it up, opened the Kindle file, and read. I was hooked.
Originally scripted as college lectures for his introduction to world history, Harari focuses on “an animal of no significance”: Homo Sapiens (henceforth Sapiens). He breaks down Sapiens history into three revolutions with an imminent fourth on the horizon: the Cognitive Revolution 70,000 years ago, the Agricultural Revolution 12,000 years ago, the Scientific Revolution 500 years, and possibly some deification revolution in the next century or so. Each revolution wrought tremendous change within Sapiens and their surroundings. The Cognitive Revolution separated Sapiens from other species in the homo genus such as Neanderthal and Erectus. This is not to say that Neanderthal (predominate in Europe) and Erectus (predominate in Asia) were thick-headed, stupid creatures; they were survival experts (nearly 2 million years), a record that Sapiens might not beat. The novelty of these Sapiens is their cognitive ability to use imagination or fiction (Harari’s choice word) to create communal meaning of the world. Instead of bland description, “Careful! A lion!” Sapiens might say, “that lion is our guardian spirit.” Arguably the most popular and enduring collective fiction today is the US Dollar, which backs the world’s stock exchange. With these collective fictions Sapiens cooperated, planned, and dominated their environment leaving very little for those outside their species.
For nearly 60,000 years Sapiens ran with the wild, foraged berries, and hunted game. Their diet was rich and varied; they exercised regularly; after 3-4 hours of foraging they had plenty of time for leisure, playing with kids and telling stories, real or fictional. They also faced danger: hordes of large animals, raiders, or unknown poisonous berries, mushrooms, or plants. Then came the Agricultural Revolution that probably looked awfully silly to hunters and gatherers: Why are you digging tiny holes and dropping seeds you can eat? Why stay in one place when the mammals are migrating? But farmers eventually triumphed: a moderately reliable source of food, save famine, floods, locust, or vengeful neighbors with a torch. And their triumph paved the way to civilization. With a surplus of food, tribes coalesced and organized social order and military protection. But Harari labels such big step forward as “History’s Biggest Fraud.” Sapiens became dependent on a few crops like wheat, severely limiting their previously rich diet; they work much longer hours; they became especially prone to famine and raids; societies created oppressive class-structure to bring order (rulers over soldiers over peasants). More evils and unhappiness came because of the Agricultural Revolution, so claims Harari, but there’s nothing we can do to go back.
One of the richest things that flowered from the Agricultural Revolution was religion. Since religions are imagined realities, or fictions tied to material things such as the goddess of fertility, the animism of hunters and gathers (lion as guardian spirit) grew into something more grand and earthy of farmers and civilizations (just think of all the harvest festivals). These more expansive religions localized and signified a people: Ra of Egypt, Marduk of Babylon, Baal and Asherah of Canaan, Yhwh of Israel. These religions led people to morals, compassion, and war. They are messy, but they are one of the strongest imagined forces to form people together or divided.
Even after the advent of agriculture, Sapiens were woefully dependent on favorable conditions and limited man-power. A full harvest needed months of suitable rain and shine, many hands and feet, and back-breaking labor. Then came machines that replaced hundreds of thousands of hand and feet. The Scientific Revolution has and continues to break through what were once thought impervious barriers: mountains are leveled for trains; raging waves rock but cannot topple large shipping boats; gravity itself cannot contain airplanes to Seoul and rockets to the moon. Our foraging and farming ancestors would drool in our supermarkets, gawk at our unashamed exploitation of nature, and quiver at our weapons of unimaginable destruction: nuclear warheads. Indeed, this most recent revolution might be Sapiens undoing—or remaking.
While Harari suspects Sapiens might blow themselves back to the Middle Ages with nuclear force, he’s more convinced Sapiens will be replaced, or more specifically remade, into a new species. Current science is at the cusp of breaking the chemical and biological law of the past 6.5 billion years: natural selection. For the first time in earth’s history, one species is capable of being their own intelligent designers by changing genetic code, integrating with bionics (organic + robotics), or engineering inorganic material. Humanity might become their own gods. And Harari wonders: will these gods be benevolent, wrathful, or petty? One thing he is sure about is that once these gods come, Sapiens won’t last.
Harari seems part-unimpressed and part-anxious by Sapiens. Yes, we’ve done some wonderful things—beauty in song, story, and acts of compassion. But we’ve also done some horrible things, to which Harari offers frank explanations: we kill because we feel scared or think much less of others. Some might perceive Harari as anti-Sapiens, but I don’t think that’s quite on the mark. In my opinion, Harari just thinks Sapiens as the species who won nature’s lottery ticket: the Cognitive Revolution and dexterous hands gave Sapiens an edge to oust others in the homo genus and gradually every other species in the world. Sapiens are not God’s image; they merely think and act as such.
I wouldn’t say Harari’s attitude is refreshing, as if it’s unheard of, but it certainly is interesting. As a Christian theologian, who believes that humans are created in God’s image, I’m fascinated by the human story told from a perspective quite different from mine. Instead of divine providence, Harari explores how luck and opportunity led Sapiens through the ages (his chapters on empire, capitalism, and industrialism were some of my favorites). But Harari takes a step further by claiming that some of Sapiens’ most ground-breaking moments were frauds. Take the Agricultural Revolution: Harari is not convinced it made Sapiens happier, though it did pave the way civilizations and scientific advances. Harari is also not convinced Sapiens gradually progressed upward since the Cognitive Revolution or the Scientific Revolution. Sapiens, like its history, is a very mixed bag, full of up-downs and forward-backwards. Sapiens avoids easy labels such as “best species” or “progressive” or “happiest” or “most successful.”
Is Harari too polemical? Perhaps, but I think that shows more of his urgency than his anger. In his New Yorker interview he shared how he fears ecological doom, nuclear annihilation, and technological disruption more than terrorism, migration, inequality, and poverty (which he says, to my dismay, are distractions). The former three have the potential to undo Sapiens that the latter four cannot—I figure because Sapiens always had these problems. Also with the imminent fourth revolution—humans becoming their own intelligent designers—Harari fears the future will more Huxleyan than Orwellian, more Brave New World than 1984.
This is the budding theologian in me, but I get excited about books that tell compelling stories that I never or would have thought to entertain. It’s challenging, but also so fun.