I recently completed Yuval Noah Harari’s Sapiens, a book that tells the story of modern humans, from our inception in nature among other species, to present day. Three “revolutions” in human history (the Cognitive, Agricultural and Scientific revolutions) provide the organizing framework for this book, through which Harari weaves in topics ranging from biology, to faith, to psychology, economics, technology, and more in between.
With so much information packed into this tome of a book — recounted through great storytelling no less — to try and capture the main points of Sapiens would entail writing a short book of my own. Instead, here’s how reading this book has contributed to my understanding of the world around me.
Reading Sapiens has helped me to…
…develop an appreciation for our animal nature. From 2.5 million years ago — when modern humans appeared — to 70,000 years ago — when our species began to stand out through the development of “cultures” — there was very little to distinguish us from other animals on the planet. While with the advent of the Cognitive Revolution (more on that in a sec) we began to develop some tricks that eventually brought us to where we are today, in many ways and for many years our species existed as a profoundly unimportant mammal, competing for food somewhere in the middle of the food chain. There’s a certain humility to appreciating how “un-special” we were relative to the rest of nature, and also a wonderment to looking around and noting just how much this species we’re a part of has shaped the world in its image (a real-life “Planet of the Apes”).
…understand the power of myth. According to Harari, research has shown that human groups naturally top off in size at about 150 people. Beyond that, groups tend to fall apart as that many folks cannot intimately know one-another. Our ability to adopt “myths” — or imagined realities that exist only in our collective imagination — hacked this upper limit and allowed us to achieve the (previously) unimaginable: be it stand up corporations that build products with parts sourced from all over the world (e.g. a commercial airliner), or organize millions of people to live in and contribute to a single nation-state. That said these myths, powerful as they are, also drive us to create systems that are much larger than us, with consequences that seem proportionately overwhelming. What powerful myths are emerging today? And how has our myth-making raised the stakes on our ability to thrive and survive?
…appreciate the origins of modern religions. According to Harari, as we went from living among animals and plants, to breeding them for our benefit, our relationship to them went from one of equals (who communicated with one-another), to one of master and property (who did not). As such, a new form of religion emerged, in which a third party (God) mediated between us and our possessions, helping to ensure (or so we hoped) healthy livestock and a bountiful harvest. We see echoes of this in modern day, in offerings of money, gifts, and devotion to a higher being in exchange for personal blessings. We also see the way in which popular practices in older religions continue to play a role in modern ones. When Catholicism came to Ireland, for example, rather than dispensing of the existing pagan Godess “Brigit,” the Church instead Christianized her as “St. Brigit,” the form through which she continues to be revered to this day.
…grasp the cosmic significance of our genetic engineering. For four billion years, or as long as life existed on our planet, evolution has been driven by nature. 10,000 years ago, during the Agricultural Revolution, we began stepping into nature’s shoes through selectively breeding better livestock for the cull. That said, it’s only in the last few years that we have witnessed something entirely different: humans delving into the “source code” of another, and creating something that nature likely wouldn’t have produced on its own (i.e. a bio-fluorescent rabbit, or a mouse that grows a human ear on its back). For the first time, a creature has stepped into the seat of “creator,” and is beginning to design how life unfolds as we know it. A milestone on a truly cosmic scale.
…and to have some humility for how we will be perceived by future humans. It’s so easy for me to label as ignorant the millennia of human beings that have come before us; to cast aspersions on their unsophisticated ways — be it believing that the Sun revolves around the Earth, or trying a neighbor for witchcraft. And yet as Harari describes how we might evolve in the future — increasingly augmented by technology, designed for feeling a specific range of emotions, able to instantly access a collective consciousness — it’s hard not to ask: what will future Homo Sapiens, if we can still call them that — think of us? It’s easy to imagine them poo-pooing our limitations in the same way we might someone living in the 16th century (Worried about mortality? Dealing with depression? Need to physically move between places to experience them? Ha!). If, that is, they stop to think about us at all.
I think it’s noteworthy that Harari ends his vast recounting of the story of our species with ominous words. He writes (spoiler alert): “We are consequently wreaking havoc on our fellow animals and on the surrounding ecosystem, seeking little more than our own comfort and amusement, yet never finding satisfaction. Is there anything more dangerous than dissatisfied and irresponsible gods who don’t know what they want?”
For me, this book was a reckoning with the improbability of our story, and the degree to which, with all of our accomplishments, we seem to be hurtling towards an unknown that is bigger than any one of us. What does this mean for how I live the present day? I’m thankful to this book for leaving me with this question. If you have a chance to read it, I hope you’ll enjoy it as much as I did.