10 May 2016

Sapiens, by Yuval Noah Harari

Posted by Callan Bentley

Sapiens Sapiens is one of the most fascinating books I’ve read in a long time. It was a best-seller, and the adjectives in the many reviews you can find online are all equally accurate: “highly intellectual and compulsively readable,” “encyclopedic … concise but eloquent, both skeptical and opinionated.” The book takes as its mission a survey of the origins and successes of our species, the side effects of those successes, and why Homo sapiens the species as we know it isn’t likely to last for too much longer. It is one of those books that makes you look at the world in a new way, with a narrative that is as multidisciplinary as it is compelling. In brief, the author, Yuval Noah Harari, examines (1) the cognitive revolution, (2) the agricultural revolution, and (3) the scientific revolution as turning points in the history of our species, and by extension, the world. He suggests our unparalleled efficacy is due to our ability to cooperate, which is based on shared fictions – intangible imaginings that work when everyone believes in them, such as gods, money, and even human rights. His take on the pros and cons of the agricultural revolution were enlightening – he presents an ‘Ackbarian’ perspective on that critical juncture in our history – that it was ‘a trap’ which made things better for the natural selection of the species while it simultaneously diminished quality of life for individuals. Similarly illuminating was a digression into the deepest roots of human happiness, and how natural selection could work on such a quantity. In spite of our technological and medical advances and our large numbers, we are almost certainly no happier than people in previous eras of our species’ history. He also lays out a compelling argument that we are probably causing more misery than has ever existed on Earth in the treatment of animals within our system of industrial agriculture. Harari’s perspective is deeply rooted in evolutionary understanding, and he uses it to present a compelling new take on everything our fore-bearers have achieved. His language and “take” on everything just struck me as very fresh and well coordinated. He also looks at our present experimentation (for the first time in Earth’s history) with intelligent design, and what the genetically-modified, cyborg-enhanced, machine intelligence beings of the future may look like, act like, and feel like. But the more you look into that, the more alien it all becomes – not science fiction, but definitely non-human. It becomes very hard to imagine or articulate the essence of our potential successor species – maybe they will be sexless beings that share minds and cannot die of natural causes. Hence, Harari sees our species’ days as numbered – but only the typical gloomy “we’re wrecking the ecosystem that makes our lives possible” (though that gets articulated too), because we are so clever as to have set in motion the replacement to ourselves. In other words, the end of our species is as much a part of the story of H. sapiens as the cognitive advances that distinguished our ancestors from the other animals on the African savanna and got the ball rolling a few million years ago. In Harari’s perspective, we are ‘the animal that became a god.’ Overall: top notch recommended!