A quick review of “Sapiens — A Brief History of Humankind” by Yuval Noah Harari
Frankly, it is one of those rare books that I completely read even while feeling a bit disenchanted by the way the author has covered the Indian history and its mark on the world of science and mathematics. I read the book because, at least, when it comes to the world, his coverage is quite vast, especially the philosophical ruminations in the end of the book.
I was so moved by the way he has described the Indian or the Hindu history that I even left him a message on Twitter, eliciting no response.
I had forgotten about the Medium post that I had written on this topic.
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Back to the book…
Homo sapiens is the only surviving human species. There are 10 -human species that are known to have inhabited the planet, including Neanderthals, Homo sapiens, Homo florensiensis, and Denisovans. New human species are being found even right now.
The author says that there are vague ideas on why just the Homo Sapiens survived but it could be the way they adapted to the new environments and the way they learned to live in large groups and coordinate with each other very early on. The brain structure of apes and humans is not quite different. In fact, recently it has been discovered that apes can speak, they just choose not to.
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But the human brain is quite active and industrious. In terms of volume, the brain constitutes of just 2–3% of the total body weight and yet, it consumes 25% of the body’s energy when the body is at rest. This was one of the biggest reasons the human species took a different turn from the other living inhabitants of Earth and we reached where we are right now, wherever we are.
The ability to talk and “gossip” and say words also contributed towards the survival and progress of Homo sapiens. It became easier to warn the others when a lion approached. They could socialize. They could strategize for killing big game. They could coordinate better. They could form relationships. The groups became more incoherent because humans could share feelings among themselves.
Coming back to the chronology…
Weirdly, scientist and atheists think that everything began with the Big Bang, about 14 billion years ago. Matter, energy, time and space suddenly came into being out of nothingness. They really believe that. How can something of such a massive scale come out of nothingness? Even for nothingness to exist, there needs to be something. For example, there is nothing in an empty vessel, but the vessel is there. And the vessel is either resting on a surface or it is hanging somewhere. Where is it hanging? Whether you have a clock with you or not, time exists. And so on.
The author begins with how our cosmos unfolded, how the matter was formed and how, just after 300,000 years of the Big Bang, matter and energy began to come together as atoms and the formation of atoms led to molecules. It took 10 billion years for molecules to combine together and turn into organisms.
Since it is mostly the history of human beings, the author quickly jumps to our species within the first page of the book. Animals like human beings began to appear on the planet around 2.5 million years ago. Up till 2 million years ago, all the human beings were confined to East Africa.
400,000 years ago the various human species began to hunt together, especially the large game and within the next 300,000 years ago, Homo sapiens was at the top of the food chain. Many animal species went extinct within a span of a few thousand years.
What was the big difference? The author explains quite nicely. It took lions and sharks millions of years of evolution to reach at the top of the food chain. Humans took just a few thousand years. Consequently, the animals that lions and sharks hunted had enough time to evolve and develop defense mechanisms against such predators. With humans, they didn’t get enough time and hence, there were mass extinctions of animals like mammoths and the megafauna of Australia.
Around 800,000 years ago, the author explains, most of the human species had started using fire occasionally, and by 300,000 years ago, ancestors of Homo erectus, Neanderthals and the forefathers of Homo sapiens were using fire on daily basis. It completely changed the game. They could remain warm. They could burn grasslands and forests to create more space. They could scare away big animals like lions and sabretooth. They could soften the food before eating. Cooking the food killed germs.
For a few pages, the author explains in detail how the DNA of the extinct human species are still present in the people of the Middle East, among the Eskimo tribes in many Eastern countries like Indonesia and Malaysia. The last Neanderthal to walk on earth was 10,000 years ago.
The big migration out of Africa started 100,000 years ago. Very soon they reached Europe and Asia. 45,000 years ago, they could even cross the sea and reached Australia. Between 70,000 to 30,000 years, they invented boats, oil lamps, bows and arrows, and even needles for sewing clothes.
The narrative of the book then moves from hunters, gatherers and scavengers to farmers. Surprisingly, Homo sapiens have been farmers for just 10,000 years.
There are some trains of thought that the author has covered that are normally not covered by historians –what was the impact of the changes the humans went through, on the quality of life? Was their quality of life better when they became farmers compared to when they were hunters and gatherers?
Surprisingly, when humans began farming, collectively, their quality of life may have deteriorated.
The concepts like farming and epidemics begin to manifest when Homo sapiens became farmers and began to settle in larger groups like villages, towns and cities. When they were hunters and gatherers they consumed a variety of foods. Their nutrition was better. They were healthier. They were also happier. Why so?
If a community of farmers grew wheat and potatoes, it mostly ate wheat and potato. Since the entire harvest couldn’t be consumed, it needed to be stored somewhere. The stored harvest needed to be protected from the inclement weather, rodents, insects and birds, and even other tribes who hadn’t yet started farming but would have liked to get their hands on some easier food source.
Due to changes in the seasons if the harvest was not good, there was famine. A famine could also be triggered by a locust attack or a rodent attack.
Since a greater number of people began to live in communities, if there was a disease, it spread fast.
As hunter gatherers, Homo sapiens lived a fairly carefree life. They worked only when they needed food and after that, they had plenty of time for recreation, entertainment, socializing and exploration. There was also greater choice of food. If one form of food was not available, they could easily look for another food item. They could also move from place to place (that’s how they spread) in search for food. When they started settling in villages, they couldn’t move easily.
In fact, the author hypothesizes, as the Homo sapiens advanced to other stages — from hunting gathering to farming, from farming to industrialisation and from industrialisation to the modern world that is mostly a digital world — the quality of life kept deteriorating.
When he talks about quality of life the author doesn’t talk about individual cases. For example, I can easily argue that forget about quality of life, a person like me (cerebral palsy, with more than 80% physical disability) wouldn’t even have had a life. Even as recent as a few decades ago, making a living for me would have been very difficult. Right now, my livelihood depends on the Internet and various other digital technologies. Personally, my quality of life is far better than it used to be even in the 1990s.
Yuval Noah Harari is talking about the overall quality of life. In terms of big data, the computers can easily draw a pattern to point out that the overall happiness and sense of fulfilment of human beings have gone down rather than going up.
Sapiens covers the entire spectrum of the human evolution, right from existential to cultural, social, economical and of course, religious.
You will read about how currencies came to exist in different cultures. He explains how science flourished in Europe and not in other parts of the world. You will read how religion became the biggest force that would launch wars and give rise to civilisations.
This is quite an engrossing book. My only gripe is that since I’m reading a lot about scientific, mathematical and a philosophical evolution in the Indian subcontinent, especially in Hinduism, the author doesn’t seem to have much knowledge of this field or he has mostly relied upon the hackneyed literature created by the likes of our Leftist historians who are more interested in propaganda and creating a narrative and less interested about factual history and empirical evidence.
For example, he is more impressed by the native South American civilisation that couldn’t build a wheel even till the 16th century than the Indian civilisation (Hindu, to be precise) that was writing epics and mapping constellations 3000 years ago.
I’m reading “From the Beginning of Time: Modern Science and the Puranic Universe” in which the author explains that the ancient Hindus new how the sun goes through the different stages, from a young star to the red giant to the white golf, during its life cycle and how this affects life on Earth. And how they have been using a universal time reference based on stars and other celestial objects for more than 2000 years. Not a single scientist or mathematician was burnt alive or executed in ancient India just because he or she presented a different perspective, contrary to how scientists were executed in the West.
Other than that, for world history and some philosophical take on what life really means and where it is leading, it is a good read. As an Indian reader, if you can surpass the way he has touched upon Hinduism and the Indian history, reading this book wouldn’t be a waste. In fact, I highly recommend it.