The Busy Reader

 

Pages in Motion. Passion for Stories.

Sapiens

February 1, 2019

Video Length 2:19

Who Should Read It

Anyone interested in an engaging discussion about Homo sapiens and how this species came to dominate and reshape this planet in its image.

 

Why Should We Read It

More than any other book, we will come to understand why our species evolved the way it did, and how it singularly changed the ecological history of our planet.  

 

What Will We Learn

We will also begin to appreciate how and why humans remain an inherently social species, and why that trait is critical to our continued success.

 

Book Reflections

"...a perspective so fresh that it cannot be described as anything other than revolutionary."

 

My wife recently bought a copy of Yuval Noah Harari's Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, and she felt that I would really enjoy what this book had to offer. By casually flipping through the book, I excitedly assumed that Mr. Harari would be discussing human history so old that it would include human species like the Neanderthals and catastrophes like the extinction of the megafauna. To my initial dismay, Mr. Harari spent very little time on this part of our past. Rather, it seemed like he would rather discuss "a brief history of human philosophy", disguised as what he termed the "cognitive revolution." I was too quick to judge- Mr. Harari indeed discusses our entire human history, but in a perspective so fresh that it cannot be described as anything other than revolutionary.

 

"As it turns out, fairy tales (and fire, to a lesser extent) tipped the scales in our favor."

 

It sounds counter-intuitive now, but developing a self-aware brain was akin to a making a high-risk, low-reward evolutionary gamble. To this day, Homo sapiens remain neither the largest nor the strongest animals, and our newborns are extremely vulnerable for years after birth. Instead of developing faster reflexes or sharper nails, we evolutionarily invested in the ability to create fire and fairy tales. How could we possibly compete with lions? Mr. Harari answers, "You could never convince a monkey to give you a banana by promising him limitless bananas after death in monkey heaven." As it turns out, fairy tales (and fire, to a lesser extent) tipped the scales in our favor. Imagining an unseen reality enabled us to organize intelligently in numbers previously unseen in the natural world- leading to ecological domination and then empire building.

 

"...human history has always hinged on how new ideas supplant old ones."

 

Mr. Harari also answers a nagging question leftover from my undergraduate days: why did the European principalities of the Middle Ages become the dominant political and military forces of twentieth century? Any high school student could answer the "how": European scientific discoveries were rapidly translated to military applications that explicitly enforced crushing colonial policies. But "why" Europe? Why wasn't it China that discovered the Americas, or the Middle East that started the Industrial Revolution? I had studied several competing theories in college, all of them dissatisfying: theories of climate, geography, and the number of domesticated species somehow giving an inherent advantage to an otherwise provincial land far from the epicenters of trade and power in the Mediterranean Sea. Sapiens offers a different theory: Europeans radically shifted their world mindset, and human history has always hinged on how new ideas supplant old ones.

 

"'...[we] began to acknowledge, and celebrate, [our] own ignorance..."

 

Empires through all time followed the same script: An all-knowing, all-powerful entity has decreed their rule to be divine, natural, and just. To rebel against the script (whether it the Hammurabi Code, Mandate of Heaven, Magna Carta, or something else) was punishable both in this life and in the next. One byproduct of this script was the belief that all we ever wanted to know has been known, and written down in scripture- we need only to study these ancient texts. This mindset changed forever when Christopher Columbus discovered the Americas, something never referenced in any previous map or bible. Like a black curtain suddenly yanked aside, humans began to acknowledge, and celebrate, their own ignorance. From 1492 onward, European conquest became increasingly about confronting the unknown, for new knowledge (no longer religion) became the new corridor to power and wealth. It explains "why" science and math reign supreme today.

 

"...we have perfected the ability to think and to imagine...fairy tales are already true."

 

Our species remains a singular anomaly in all of natural history because we have perfected the ability to think and to imagine. From any other animal's perspective, the history of Earth in the last ten thousand years is nothing more than a story of receding icebergs, growing trees, and now growing concrete- interspersed with mysterious mega-explosions since 1945. To humans, such simplification is grotesquely preposterous; there is so much more to history than what a monkey and his banana might see, and what our own extremely vulnerable newborn child is seeing. My wife and I tell our baby every day that fairy tales might come true. For Mr. Harari, fairy tales are already true.

 

 

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