10 things you didn’t know about the human race
I recently finished the fascinating book Sapiens by Yuval Noah Harai which calls itself ‘A Brief History Of Humankind’.
It covers three main areas of human development — the Cognitive Revolution, the Agricultural Revolution and the Industrial Revolution — and how they’ve shaped where we are today.
1. Language evolved as a way of gossiping
Social cooperation is our key for survival and reproduction. It is not enough for individual men and women to know the whereabouts of lions and bison.
It’s much more important to know who in their band hates whom, who is sleeping with whom, who is honest and who is a cheat.
It sounds like a joke, but there’s quite a bit of research that supports it. Even today most communication is gossip.
2. The ‘gorging gene’ has been around for millennia
The plague of obesity in affluent societies has confused many, but to understand it you only need to look at the eating habits of the foragers thousands of years ago.
A typical forager 30,000 years ago had access to only one type of sweet food — ripe fruit.
If a Stone Age woman came across a tree groaning with figs, the most sensible thing to do was to eat as many of them as she could on the spot, before the local baboon band picked the tree bare.
3. Ancient foragers were far more skilful than modern man
At the individual level, ancient foragers were the most knowledgeable and skilful people in history. There is some evidence that the size of the average Sapiens brain has actually decreased since the age of foraging.
Because their everyday lives were about understanding their entire environment, ancient foragers had to learn so much. For example, the average man could turn a flint stone into a spear point in minutes.
Nowadays we only need to know a very small amount to get by. We rely heavily on others who have expertise in another specialist field.
4. Man committed one of the biggest ecological disasters ever to befall the animal kingdom.
We have the dubious distinction of being the deadliest species in the annals of history.
When man first arrived in America around 14,000 years ago, they were met by a variety of giant mammals, such as rodents the size of bears.
Within two millennia, man had wiped most of them out. South America lost 50 out of 60 varieties of large mammals, while North America lost 34 out of 47.
Sabre-toothed tigers had survived 30m years before the arrival of man.
And it wasn’t just the Americas. Madagascar, Samoa, Tonga, Australia, Hawaii and New Zealand all lost unique mammals and birds following the arrival of man.
5. Technology has made us less relaxed
Back in the snail-mail era people usually only wrote letters when they had something important to relate. Rather than writing the first thing that came into their heads, they considered carefully what they wanted to say and how to phrase it. They expected to receive a similarly considered answer… Today I receive dozens of emails each day all from people who expect a prompt reply. We thought we were saving time; instead we revved up time to ten times its former speed and made our days more anxious and agitated.
Time-saving devices — such as the washing machine or mobile phones — were invented to make our lives easier, when the opposite is often true.
Attempting to make our lives easier often backfires. We take high-powered jobs that will enable us to give everything up at an earlier age and pursue real interests, but mortgages, kids and the upkeep of a luxury lifestyle means it doesn’t really work like that.
6. ‘Unnatural’ derives from Christian theology
The phrase, ‘that’s not natural’ is used fairly often — usually to describe something that we’ve never seen or experienced before.
It’s our culture that makes us react in the way we do. ‘Biology enables, culture forbids’, in other words.
Culture tends to argue that it forbids only that which is unnatural. But from a biological perspective, nothing is unnatural. Whatever is possible is by definition natural. A truly unnatural behaviour, one that goes against the laws of nature, simply cannot exist, so it would need no prohibition.
Christian teaching says that God created the human body and thus each limb and organ is for a specific activity. Therefore if we do something different, it’s ‘unnatural’.
Which do you believe?
7. Human culture could not exist without contradictions
Had people been unable to hold contradictory beliefs and values, it would probably have been impossible to establish and maintain any human culture.
Here’s an example. Do you believe in equality? Millions of us do. It seems a bit of a no-brainer, right?
Now, here’s your follow up. Do you believe in individual freedom? Again, this seems like a no-brainer. Why wouldn’t you believe in that?
The problem is that those two values are ultimately contradictory. To achieve equality, you have to curb the individual freedoms of those who have more. Freedom short-changes equality.
Consistency is the playground of dull minds.
8. Authentic cultures don’t really exist
If you go out for Italian tonight, we all picture pasta and tomato sauce. Argentinian is all about steak — an image of gauchos roaming the plains, while an Indian restaurant is all about the heat of chilli.
But this ethnic cuisine has only come about by other global influences arriving to change things.
Tomatoes and chilli peppers and cocoa are all Mexican in origin… Julius Caesar never twirled tomato-drenched spaghetti on forks, William Tell never tasted chocolate, and Buddha never spiced up his food with chilli… the only steak you could obtain in Argentina in 1492 was from a llama.
9. Money is all about trust
Money is the most universal and most efficient system of mutual trust ever devised.
Hunter-gatherers had no money. Their world was all about reciprocity. Meat was given away, knowing that medical assistance would be given back at a later date.
But as people began to travel and visit different kingdoms, something new needed to be invented.
Money is essentially anything that can be used to represent the value of something else for the purpose of exchanging goods and services.
Cowry shells were used for thousands of years in Africa, Asia and Australasia, while cigarettes are the currency in modern prisons.
Thanks to money, even people who don’t know each other and don’t trust each other can nevertheless cooperate effectively.
10. Physical power is not the reason we dominate the globe
If all that counted were raw physical abilities, Homo sapiens would have found themselves on a middle rung of the ladder. But their mental and social skills placed them at the top.
We often assume being physically powerful is important, but actually that’s less of an asset. It’s about creating alliances and having good social skills.
People in their 60s usually exercise power over people in their 20s, even though twentysomethings are much stronger than their elders.
Sapiens is a fascinating book and covers way more than I’ve alluded to here. It’s one of the most intellectually-stimulating books I’ve read in years.