If you’ve ever been in a conversation with me that has lasted over 15 minutes — about any topic: politics, relationships, gossip, whatever — I probably at some point injected: “Have you ever read Sapiens?” And I’d like to think this is the reason why the library copies of the book are constantly checked out.
In “Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind,” author and history professor Yuval Noah Harari asks why is Homo sapiens the only extant species of the genus Homo, while most other living genera (orangutans, elephants, salmon,) have many surviving species? He clarifies that it is a mistake to believe that Homo sapiens linearly evolved from apes to Neanderthals to Homo erectus to Homo sapiens, when in actuality many human species inhabited the earth at the same time for thousands of years. Harari theorizes that Homo sapiens was able to dominate and wipe out the other human species not because we were stronger, had better tools or because we had language (all the other human species had some form of language as well), but because Homo sapiens developed the ability to create myths and fictions. Homo sapiens tell stories about things that don’t actually exist in the biological world. What these myths and fictions allowed us to do was to cooperate toward a common goal in a large group of strangers.
Harari writes with humor, “It’s relatively easy to agree that only Homo sapiens can speak about things that don’t really exist, and believe six impossible things before breakfast. You could never convince a monkey to give you a banana by promising him limitless bananas after death in monkey heaven. But why is this important?... fiction has enabled us not merely to imagine things, but to do so collectively.”
Examples of these myths and fictions, according to Harari, include nation states, government, religion, equal rights, product brands and money.
He writes, “Judicial systems are rooted in common legal myths. Two lawyers who have never met can nevertheless combine efforts to defend a complete stranger because they both believe in the existence of laws, justice, human rights — and the money paid out in fees.” He clarifies that imagined realities are not lies because they are things that “everyone believes in, and as long as this communal belief persists, the imagined reality exerts force in the world.”
To frame his theory, Harari traces eras in human history: the cognitive revolution, the agricultural revolution and the scientific revolution. He walks us through how we evolved from hunter-gatherers to farmers (with an exciting chapter theorizing how the wheat plant tricked Homo sapiens into cultivating it), how the concept of money was created (Harari writes, “money is the most universal and most efficient system of mutual trust ever devised,” and “money asks us to believe that other people believe in something.”), and how the pursuit of scientific discoveries is entwined with imperialism and capitalism.
The book is based on a world-history class he taught at the University of Jerusalem in 2008. Throughout the book, Harari incorporates photographs, maps, charts, graphs and artwork to tell his story. He writes with wit and humor embedded into clear and easy to understand language. He is a good storyteller.
As Homo sapiens and its storytelling skills evolve, and its populations and communities grow in size, their stories become more and more complex. Harari explains, “Ever since the cognitive revolution, Sapiens have thus been living in a dual reality. On the one hand the objective reality of rivers, trees and lions; on the other hand the imagined reality of gods, nations and corporations. As time went by the imagined reality became ever more powerful, so that today the survival of the rivers, trees and lions depends on the grace of imagined entities such as the United States or Google.”
Harari ends the book suggesting that Homo sapiens could be entering a new era in which we are not the only human species on the planet. He proposes that as biotechnologies develop we will follow the laws not of natural selection but of intelligent design. These technologies could open the door to reviving extinct species (like the Neanderthals) or creating cyborgs — humans that are part machine and part human. We might eventually be able to replace all of our body parts with synthetic parts, which could increase the human lifespan, and in turn change the rules of society. All this leads into his second book, “Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow.” ￼