Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind by Yuval Noah Harari, 2011, Penguin Random House: London, RRP £9.99, 498 pp.
The creator of the Peanuts comic strip, Charles Schulz, is reported to have once said, “I love mankind; its people I can’t stand.” If one was to restructure this theme, incorporate facts from every subject under the sun and conceptualise these thoughts into figures; one could hit on the plot of this highly intelligent book which is highly recommended by Bill Gates and found by Obama to be provocative.
Trump on the other hand may have difficulty going past the fifth page which talks of our ‘uncivilised cousins’ (the apes) and our brothers and sisters (Australopithecus, Homo neanderthalensis, Homo Erectus, Homo Soloensis, Homo Floresiensis and Homo Denisova). His brand of faux Christianity would be a hindrance to the open-minded inquisitiveness that are prerequisites for the full enjoyment of this book.
Harari takes jabs at everyone; Christians, Buddhists, Nazis, carnivores, capitalists, socialists, The English, the Spanish, Jews, Napoleon …he holds a mirror up to our face and shows us our weaknesses in human form. I felt intelligent reading this book, identifying subjects I had studied in my school years, recalling world events that I had encountered and finding strands of me in each human shortcoming that he so meticulously highlighted.
Even Fiji is not spared from his scrutiny. In page 81 he talks of the first wave of extinction in the Pacific Ocean at around 1500 BC. Where Polynesian farmers, ‘…. killed off, directly or indirectly, hundreds of species of birds, insects, snails, and other local inhabitants”. From here they gradually moved towards the heart of the Pacific, obliterating unique fauna on islands including Marquis Island, Easter Island and finally New Zealand.
Harari is an accomplished historian and his ability to condense the history of the homo sapiens in less than 500 pages is testament to this, however not all subject matters in our history spend an equal amount of time under the microscope. Buddhism and Christianity are well dissected so are the Spaniard, Roman and English Imperialist, while passing references are given to Judaism, the French and Belgian colonisation while the ravages of apartheid was not mentioned at all.
The book is compelling and makes a case for us sapiens to carefully consider our impact on other species around us. The agricultural revolution has commonly been established as one of the pivotal points in our move towards civilisation however the author argues that man did not domesticate wheat, instead wheat domesticated us. Where previously we had a free roam of the earth foraging and hunting for food, when we devised the farming process, it tied us down to the land requiring us to stay for years ploughing, sowing and cultivating one species of grain. As a result, our lifestyles changed, our diets became worse and we became sedentary dwellers putting up boundaries and establishing imagined orders which had previously not existed.
The book ends with an evaluation of the idea of happiness and that that there will a different species after us, one that we highly likely would have engineered ourselves. The signs are here already, bionic appendages, super sensitive hearing aids and devices placed in the eye socket to enable better visions. The Human Brain Project was awarded €1billion in 2013 to recreate a complete human brain on a computer screen which could behave the same way the human brain does. To think that only 10 years before we were excitedly celebrating the news of the completion of the Human genome project which took 15 years to complete, the chances are highly likely that the Brain project is not as far fetched as it currently sounds.
Exoskeleton and artificial intelligence increases a soldier’s capacity 27 times (Source: The Times)
As mentioned at the start, people who share the same perspective as Trump will have trouble enjoying this book, but as Francis Collins said, “I believe God did intend to give us intelligence, to give us the opportunity to investigate and appreciate the wonders of his creation. He is not threatened by our scientific adventures”. These words from a once atheist who sent on to lead a team that mapped out around three million base pairs that make up a human genome.
It is this intelligence and the opportunity given to us Homo Sapiens to carry out our scientific adventures that sadly also makes us small. We’ve advanced our race but wiped out others, we’ve created huge kingdoms and states but only a few are at the top of power and we’ve plodded through our history books with savagery and wantonness, each taking on a different form at each stage of our Sapien invasion. This book reveals us in all our glory; growing intellectuals with shrinking consciences finding sources and meanings of happiness all the while potentially making way for a new brand of humans.