I’m doing a doubly whammy of a review this time – two HUGE books by the same author, Yuval Noah Harari.
I first heard this amazing author (who’s also a historian) speaking on the radio about the future and how there will be two groups of human beings – the super elite and the useless class. According to Harari, this is due to our evolution from when we were just hunter gatherers to modern times when the emerging religion is dataism – the worship of data. There is a lot on these two books and some of the things he’s discussed are truthful, revealing and may be uncomfortable to some readers. I also like his sense of humour and non-academic style of writing.
Sapiens: A brief history of humankind
Here Harari takes us to the evolution and history of us – Homo Sapiens – the only surviving species of the genus Homo. According to Harari, there are three important revolutions that shaped the history of humankind:
1. The Cognitive Revolution
- 70, 000 years ago – language started and history began
- 45, 000 years ago – Sapiens settle Australia resulting in the extinction of the Australian megafauna
- 30, 000 years ago – Neanderthals became extinct
- 16, 000 years ago – Sapiens settle America resulting in the extinction of the American megafauna
- 13, 000 years ago – Homo floresiensis became extinct and Homo sapiens survives
It was an interesting revelation to me that whatever nostalgia modern people have about the first Australians being the custodian and caretakers of this land, it was they who wiped out the Australian megafauna through the domestication of fire, foraging and hunter gathering. According to Harari, if Homo sapiens never went down under, Australia would still be home to marsupial lions, diprotodons and giant kangaroos.
2. The Agricultural Revolution
This happened 12, 000 years ago when Homo sapiens started domesticating animals and plants and settled permanently in designated places. In other words, it was the end of hunter gathering activities.
OMG! As a modern Homo sapiens, I was taken aback to find out how humans domesticated animals. For example, if you were a sheep and you showed some kind of intelligence, individualism or resistance to humans you would be slaughtered first! The other sheep would see this and would know not to do this next time. In time, this became the norm. Humans are such manipulators – argh!
I’ve always thought that the agricultural revolution was a great leap for humankind. But apparently and according to Harari, there is no evidence that Homo sapiens became more intelligent through the domestication of animals and plants. In fact, it was the hunter gatherers and foragers who knew more about the nature of plants and animals as their survival depended on them.
The agricultural revolution also saw the emergence of writing, money and religion, which combined with fantastical story and fiction are pivotal in manipulating all humans into thinking and creating big monument infrastructures and societies. When I was in high school I did a project on the Egyptian pyramids and fantasised that there might have been aliens that helped the ancient Egyptians build these wonderful monuments. But realistically it was more to do with the massive cooperation from hundreds (if not thousands) of humans with sophisticated religions or ideological system driving and sustaining such efforts.
3. The Scientific Revolution
This happened 500 years ago when Homo sapiens admitted its ignorance – no concept, idea or theory was sacred and beyond challenge – and therefore it wanted to obtain new knowledge. The revolution of ignorance led the Europeans to conquer America and the oceans.
I made my own discovery on how America was named. It was named after an Italian sailor and explorer Amerigo Vespucci, who was thought to have discovered America. But of course we all know that it was Christopher Columbus who discovered the American continent.
…In the future…Harari concludes that Homo sapiens will be replaced by technology and super humans. Hence, here I will summarise his second book, Homo Deus, which means God Man.
Homo deus: A brief history of tomorrow
In this book, Harari discusses further about us as a species – how we conquered the world and gave meaning to it. In the last section he asks three important questions:
- Can humans go on running the world and give it meaning?
- How do biotechnology and artificial intelligence threaten humanism?
- Who might inherit humankind, and what new religion might replace humanism?
Again, there is a lot in this book and instead of me summarising each section, I will instead give you some of the things I learned and found interesting (I am quoting a lot from Harari of course!). Harari emphasises that what he discusses here are not prophecies but possibilities of the future.
People die due to a technical glitch. There could be scenarios of humans living up to 150 years old (yes please!) which might change the parent-child relationship. In order for us to live up to 150 years old, medicines have to re-engineer the structures of the human body. Death happening will be longer.
Science says happiness is determined by our biochemical system – so in order to have long lasting contentment just rig the system! Manipulate human biochemistry. To attain real happiness, humans need to to slow down the pursuit of pleasant sensation – not accelerate it. Sounds similar to what Buddha said eons ago.
Did you know that there is a Swedish startup called Epicenter, whose employees have been implanted with a microchip (size of rice grain but it looks bigger than that) in their hands? This will enable staff to open security doors, operate printers, buy smoothies with a wave of a hand. Cyborgs are becoming a reality!
Some possibilities that humans with super powers could do (won’t happen overnight though):
- design and create living things
- transform their own bodies
- control weather and environment
- read minds and communicate in distance
- travel high speeds
- escape death
Our current economy which is built on everlasting growth needs endless projects – just like projects for the quest for immortality, bliss and divinity.
Aaah and I learnt something about lawns! The idea of lawns came from the castles of France and England and aristocrats in the late Middle ages. Lawns are a trademark of nobility, symbol of authority and status – shows you have a lot of land! We need to free ourselves from lawns and shake off the cultural cargo passed on to us by European dukes and capitalist moguls says Harari!
He also argues that the crucial factor in our conquest of the world was our ability to connect many humans to one another. it is this concrete ability rather than an eternal soul or some unique kind of consciousness which explains our mastery of planet earth. We’re all working for an imagined order, a myth, a story and brand. We believe in it and we worship it.
When text (a story, myth, imagination) and reality collide – reality sometimes have to give way. For example, when European diplomat bureaucracy created imaginary lines/borders in the African continent without knowing the geography and tribal way of the people, reality was forced to surrender. Same with the borders that the French and English created in the Middle East – namely Syria, Lebanon and Iran/Iraq.
I could go on and on and on about all the wonderful things I’ve learnt in these two books but I won’t because I want you read them both. They’re really fascinating, thorough and widely researched. I highly recommend them – not only for your own knowledge but to free yourself from the past and according to Harari, this is what history teaches us!