In an impressive book, the author takes us from the first humans to inhabit Earth, 2.5 million years ago, to the point in which we are redefining our own species through deliberate genetic manipulation. Our journey is very non-obvious and poorly understood by most of us. Understanding better how we humans came to be what we are and where we are has certainly changed what I understand it means to be human. This is not a book for (simply) knowing more of history. It’s a book for understanding it.
Sapiens is a book full of powerful ideas and insights, written in a very vivid language. It was one of the books Bill Gates recommended this year, and I will certainly do the same henceforth. Most of us are used to associating history with a bunch of linear facts, dates and important people. Sapiens is definitely not about those. It’s not about knowing human history: it’s about understanding it, and that makes for a completely different reading. It divides the history of humankind in four parts.
First, unlike what we usually consider, humanity comes to life about 2.5 million years ago, when the first “Homo”, “Homo Habilis”, set foot on the planet. Sapiens appeared about 200 thousand years ago. For most of Sapien’s history, it was simply yet another animal in nature’s realm, and quite an unimportant one. What turned Sapiens into the most powerful species in nature was what is known as the Cognitive Revolution. This is where what we call history begins. The first part of the book delves into it.
For many more tens of thousands of years, Sapiens had to constantly wander seeking for food and shelter. At some point around 10,000 years ago, we developed the techniques that allowed us to settle down. This was the Agricultural Revolution, into which Part II dives. A very important insight is that we usually regard our evolution as a sequence of facts which took our species from a worse position to a better one. The Agriculture Revolution is a significant and counter-intuitive proof that that is not always the case. There were several drawbacks in settling down: violence increased (people fighting over lands when their own lands suffered from seasonal changes), nutrition got worse (the diversity of food an average human consumed was incomparably larger in the jungle), and there’s even evidence that the average human brain size has decreased in agricultural societies (survival in the jungle was much harder, whereas agriculture allowed less prepared individuals to live longer).
However, agriculture allowed people to form larger and larger groups, which turned into villages, cities and, finally, empires. Today, we approach the pinnacle of such process, in which even “Western Culture” is regarded as a single thing, and globalization pushes shared values, ideas to the whole world, in a grand unification of our culture. We came from living all in small bands to having the whole world be a single, ever more uniform, society. This was reflected in our way of thinking in a variety of ways. For instance, primitive animist religions believed in very local deities: a tree’s, river’s or rock’s spirit. These deities had nothing to do with the rest of the world. Monotheist religions, on the other hand, brought the idea of a single god for all humans, whether they care and know about it or not. This is the Unification of Humankind, Part III.
Finally, the igniting engine such unification needed to reach the proportions we today know is what forms the third revolution in human history, and fourth part of the book. It was the Scientific Revolution, which, if looked from a broader perspective, is better understood as a conjunction of three intimately linked processes: the developments of capitalism, imperialism, and science. The author shows it is actually a huge mistake to look at any of the three separately, for their interaction and collaboration helped shape all and each of them (yes, science included).
Where are we headed? Given the exponentially fast pace of change we are experiencing in the current era, it’s very likely that the end of Homo Sapiens is near. This does not imply an upcoming devastating war that will wipe humans from Earth, even though that is one possible ending to our history. Rather, we are transforming ourselves into a new species that natural selection alone would never produce: cyborgs and genetically designed humans that are stronger, healthier, live longer and what not. Some futurist speculate that we’ll have the first amortal human being still in this century (i.e. someone who is immune to diseases and aging, and is unlikely to die unless by means of an accident). Such being cannot be called Homo Sapiens anymore. How we choose to name it is of course of no importance whatsoever.
This is a book that has challenged and changed many of my beliefs about humans and our society, and has intrigued me enough to be looking for books for exploring more of some parts. I’m eager to read Yuval Noah’s follow-up book: Homo Deus.