Unearthing the genesis

Ambi Parameswaran on how homo sapiens won the battle for dominance in this review of Yuval Noah Harari’s 'Sapiens'  

Published 7 years ago on Mar 18, 2017 4 minutes Read

Yuval Noah Harari’s book Sapiens appeared in his mother tongue Hebrew in 2011 and appeared in English almost five years later. It is a fascinating read about the evolution of homo sapiens and their dominance over earth.

As I was reading it, I was reminded of a client of mine who, when he spotted that I was carrying a popular fiction novel, questioned me on why I read fiction. I explained that fiction often packaged factual data in a more understandable manner, if you remove all the other character details. To which he explained that he never read fiction because he felt non-fiction is often stranger and more entertaining than fiction. It was later that while listening to Amitav Ghosh that I realised that many so-called fiction classics started as non-fiction, including Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace.

The book Sapiens is not a heavy history book, and is so much easier to read than a typical history book. And, be aware! Some of the facts presented by Harari are stranger than fiction, while some are fascinating and many are indeed paradoxical.

Harari is reported to have mentioned that he took inspiration from Jared Diamond’s book Guns Germs and Steel. The reference becomes evident as you read through the 500 pages of Sapiens.

The book traces the origin of human species and the rise of homo sapiens, who may have in fact pushed other species like Neanderthals towards extinction, by their ability to collaborate and build communities.

Harari explains, “We study history not to know the future but to widen our horizons, to understand that our present situation is neither natural nor inevitable, and that we consequently have many more possibilities before us than we imagine.”

The book is presented in four sections. The first section ‘The Cognitive Revolution’ looks at the evolution of the first known human-like species and Harari presents his theory of how homo sapiens developed a way of communicating, sharing ideas and building groups. This set them apart from the other human-like species. For example, they could create and transmit information about real and imaginary things like gods and spirits. Many other authors too, have mentioned that humans have the ability to weave stories and share them, maybe around a campfire for the first time. The storytelling tradition may have been born many millennia ago and helped homo sapiens survive famines and floods.

The second section, ‘The Agricultural Revolution’ looks at the rise of agriculture and the way it converted the hunting gathering tribes into settlements. The oldest code of behavior recorded, the Hammurabi Code [circa 1776 BCE], explained in Sapiens, to me echoed of India’s own Manusmriti, created around 200 BCE, with its elaborate judgements.

The third section, ‘The Unification of Humankind’ looks at how humans developed ways of behaviour and standards, so that strangers could collaborate more effectively. This network of artificial instincts, the author calls ‘culture.’ The first universal order to emerge was money, the second was the political system and the third was religion. Harari even singles out money as the most universal and most efficient system of mutual trust ever devised.

This section is fascinating because the author looks at the evolution of religion from the earliest to the newest. Harari mentions given that all religions today have a combination of rituals and practices taken from various sources, they could all be called ‘syncretic’ and so syncretism may in fact be the biggest religion in the world.

It has been reported that in the US, a large number of Christians believe in life after death and like the Hindus, believe in rebirth and karma.

The fourth part looks at ‘The Scientific Revolution’ and its impact on the development of homo sapiens. Starting with Newton’s Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy, the author explores the trajectory taken by science in the evolution of our species. The section contains many interesting nuggets including this one — Did you know that Scottish Widows, one of the largest pension and insurance companies can trace its origins to Webster and Wallace Funds setup in 1765 based on the first statistical analysis of age distribution and actuarial science?

Harari explores new areas of development including genetics to present some theories on how we will evolve as a species [I suppose that led him to write his next book, Homo Deus – A Brief History of Tomorrow.]

As we read the book, the author manages to mix facts with his own interpretations and theories, which have been criticised in learned journals. But for someone who wants to dip into some history, Sapiens is a good read. It may want you to go back to Jared Diamond or to Bill Bryson and his wonderful book on history, and that is not necessarily a bad thing.