Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind

Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind is a book bound to appear on a large number of coffee tables and favorite lists, and be picked up even by those who normally would not find the time for reading. It will certainly not be the next A Brief History of Time, which is often named as the world’s top unfinished popular bestseller.

Both A Brief History of Time and Sapiens share a similar, worthy goal – to explain complex issues in a way which can actually be understood and comprehended by most people

Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind is a book bound to appear on a large number of coffee tables and favorite lists, and be picked up even by those who normally would not find the time for reading. It will certainly not be the next A Brief History of Time, which is often named as the world’s top unfinished popular bestseller.

Both A Brief History of Time and Sapiens share a similar, worthy goal – to explain complex issues in a way which can actually be understood and comprehended by most people. Just as A Brief History… aimed at explaining cosmology to a lay audience, Sapiens aims to provide a readable and concise historical summary of the progress of human evolution – all in under 500 pages.

Is this possible? Of course not – histories of individual countries often take up several volumes, and histories of entire civilizations and ultimately an entire specie would take up hundreds if not thousands of volumes. Because Harari’s book is limited to just a single volume (and a relatively short one at that), he has to severely limit his scope to what he considers to be the biggest life-changing developments of our species, which essentially reduces it to a collection of trivia about these events.

But that’s not the true flaw of the book. Sapiens begins strong enough with a very interesting presentation of early human history and development of early human species, which culminated in the rise and eventual dominance of our own – the Homo Sapiens. However, the rest of the book consists largely of author’s own musings and thoughts about the human condition and character – while some of these thoughts I find interesting and agreeable (such as our collective belief in the value of money), one thesis he that he put forward struck me as truly bizarre.

Basically, Harari considers the agricultural revolution to be “history’s biggest fraud”, which instead of improvement left humans who settled down to farm worse off and more miserable than their nomadic, foraging ancestors. To prove his point, Harari waxes poetics about hunter-gatherers and their daily existence: they lived in egalitarian communes where property and love was freely shared, and were much more adept at survival in the wilderness than their descendants who plowed the fields. Hunter-gatherers had to have a much larger knowledge of their surroundings, and possessed vastly superior mental reflexes and physical dexterity which put future generations to shame. Although we have since gained vast knowledge as a collective, Harari argues that on the individual level ancient foragers were “the most knowledgeable and skillful people in history”.

For Harari, our foraging ancestors were not only mental and physical supermen, but also enjoyed a much more comfortable and rewarding lifestyle than all the subsequent peasants, workers and office clerks. They worked fewer hours and since they had no homes, they also had no household chores; this allowed for plenty of free time to play with one another, tell stories and just hang out. Since foraging necessitated exploration, it also provided plenty of adventure: what better thing to do than explore new places to look for cool plants and other edible things? Because they were always on the move and therefore not dependent on a single source of food, hunter-gatherers enjoyed a superior, multi-nutrient diet and were less likely to suffer from hunger and starvation than subsequent agricultural societies, which often depended on a single crop, and not only were receiving much less nutrients but also suffered heavily from famines when their food source failed. Farming? Bah! Humbug.

True, there were some drawbacks, Harari reluctantly agrees. Although some lucky souls made it longer, life expectancy averaged only 30 to 40 years. Children dropped dead like flies, and sometimes wild tigers came out of the bushes and ate you and your whole family and tribe. Not to mention that sometimes you and your band wandered and wandered, and the food simply wasn’t there. Or even worse – the food was there, but so was another tribe which was not exactly keen on sharing their already limited supply. What about this? “It would be a mistake to idealize the lives of these ancients”, says the author, though I do not really understand why, since this is exactly what he appeared to be doing, “though they lived better lives than most people in agricultural and industrial societies, their world could still be harsh and unforgiving.” Ain’t that the truth. Sometimes, life is just hard. Rocks fall, everyone dies.

But agricultural revolution? It sucked, Harari argues. First, he has unnamed (and presumably fictitious) scholars proclaim the development of agriculture as “a great leap forward for humanity”, which “produced ever more intelligent people(…)able to decipher nature’s secrets”. But this is not true – “there is no evidence that people became more intelligent with time”, he says, as “foragers knew the secrets of nature long before the Agricultural Revolution, since their survival depended on an intimate knowledge of the animals they hunted and the plants they gathered”. As I mentioned above, Harari states that agricultural revolution made things worse for farmers – it robbed them from excitement of hunting and gathering by forcing them to settle down next to their fields and perform menial farm work, which strained our joints and spine. Although farming provided a surplus of food it did not provide the farmer with a better diet, robbing us of the diversity of meals experienced by a hunter-gatherer. Farming also failed to provide us with economic security – crops can always fail and lead to hunger, whereas hunter-gatherers can always move on and hunt for other types of food (unless, of course, they do not find any and starve to death). Farmers also had to stay and defend their land if attacked by a hostile group, whereas foragers could always escape to another area, look for food there, and survive (they could, of course, end up not being able to escape -who can fight or run on an empty stomach? – or…not find any food, and starve to death).

So, what exactly has agriculture ever done for us? Since it has taken so much not only from our fathers but also from from our fathers’ fathers, what has it ever given us in return? The aqueduct? Sanitation? Wine? And why have humans not returned to hunting and gathering but stubbornly toiled their fields and broke their miserable backs, while they could be climbing trees and camping in the wilderness? The answer is simple: more food allowed women to have children more often, and even though they still died fairly often this time births outpaced deaths several times. Village population increased, and soon entire generations of people no longer remembered the good old days of running in the forests and looking for berries. “The trap”, Harari writes, “was shut”.

He goes on to say: “Since our affluence and security are built on foundations laid by the Agricultural Revolution, we assume that the Agricultural Revolution was a wonderful improvement”.Yet, we are wrong in thinking this, because “it is wrong to judge thousands of years of history from the perspective of today” (though apparently not when it comes to foraging, which was a blast by all accounts – that is, the author’s). Harari neglects to mention the exact reason why the agricultural revolution took place – farming first arose in places where hunting and gathering was no longer possible, and in the long run prevailed as the better option. Hunter-gatherers simply did not choose to one day walk out of the woods and start domesticating animals and plants; they were forced to do that because the environment they were living no longer allowed for foraging to remain a viable option. The Younger Dryas interval in ancient Levant is often linked to the adoption of agriculture in the region, as an example of the first deliberate cultivation of plants. People understood that seeds developed into plants at the time when they desperately needed to increase their food supply in order to survive, and linked one with the other.

It is interesting that Harari does not only romanticize hunting and gathering, but actually looks at the agricultural revolution and its impact from a perspective of a hunter and gatherer – that is, focusing on the thing that mattered most to our foraging ancient ancestors: food. Hunter-gatherers spend their lives pursuing food; as Harari admits, because of their nomadic lifestyle they had very few possessions, as they were constantly moving around in search for food to sustain them. Food was their driving force; their lives centered around food, as they never had a steady supply of it and always had to hunt and look for more if they were to survive.

In contrast, agricultural revolution provided humans with a steady and regular supply of food, and or the first time in our history allowed humans to take our minds off food and constant travel. The impact of this is monumental and cannot be stressed enough. Basically, without agricultural revolution, our knowledge would be stagnant – as we would simply not have the luxury of time to develop it. Food surplus and settling down allowed humans to think more and develop new ideas and technologies, allowing for more efficient farming – which in turn allowed for more time to think and develop even more ideas and technologies. In contrast to general knowledge of our forager ancestors, surplus of food and settler lifestyle allowed for skill specialization, which in turn allowed us to do things beyond their wildest dreams, and become technologically advanced. Basically, I would argue that societies comprised of hunter-gatherers cannot advance and live up to the full human potential – it is impossible to have a truly technologically advanced nomadic society, while it is possible to have a technologically advanced settler society which is able to send some of its members into the world as hunter-gatherers. To put it very simply: hunter-gatherers live in the wilderness, living day to day on what they find or hunt down, while agriculturists discover penicillin, split the atom and fly into space.

Although the author later brings up valid concerns about our treatment of animals and abuse of collective power, his rant against agriculture is truly bizarre considering that without it he would not be able to write this very book. It’s as if he disregarded the very Sapiens which he aimed to describe, and which has defied his thesis by abandoning hunting and gathering to settle down and farm. Still, there are good parts and certain valuable and interesting insights in this book – it’s just a shame that it’s tainted with such a weird and contrived chapter.


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