Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Review: Sapiens - A Brief History

Knowing that I was heading off for Japan, I picked up a couple of books during an Amazon digital sale. Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind was one of them. It's an extremely readable book and covers human pre-history, the development of agriculture, and the rise of technological society.

The grand themes of the book are a lot of fun, and the book is written in a compellingly readable manner, such that even when it was covering material I'd already read elsewhere, I didn't feel put upon going over it again. For instance, on the idea of memes:
People easily understand that ‘primitives’ cement their social order by believing in ghosts and spirits, and gathering each full moon to dance together around the campfire. What we fail to appreciate is that our modern institutions function on exactly the same basis. Take for example the world of business corporations. Modern business-people and lawyers are, in fact, powerful sorcerers. The principal difference between them and tribal shamans is that modern lawyers tell far stranger tales. (Kindle Loc. 473-77)
 Along the way, Harari manages to dispel such myths about the agricultural revolution:
The body of Homo sapiens had not evolved for such tasks. It was adapted to climbing apple trees and running after gazelles, not to clearing rocks and carrying water buckets. Human spines, knees, necks and arches paid the price. Studies of ancient skeletons indicate that the transition to agriculture brought about a plethora of ailments, such as slipped discs, arthritis and hernias. Moreover, the new agricultural tasks demanded so much time that people were forced to settle permanently next to their wheat fields. This completely changed their way of life. We did not domesticate wheat. It domesticated us. The word ‘domesticate’ comes from the Latin domus, which means ‘house’. Who’s the one living in a house? Not the wheat. It’s the Sapiens.  (Kindle Loc. 1289-94)
The agricultural revolution was basically a trap: by making wheat, rice, or other staples more productive, the descendants of foragers were fooled into settling next to the fields, producing more children (a success for their genes) but dooming them into a life of toil and ill-health compared to the easy lives the foragers had.

Harari points out that mass extinctions are also not something recent:
Don’t believe tree-huggers who claim that our ancestors lived in harmony with nature. Long before the Industrial Revolution, Homo sapiens held the record among all organisms for driving the most plant and animal species to their extinctions. We have the dubious distinction of being the deadliest species in the annals of biology. (Kindle Loc. 1213)
Once Harari gets to civilization, the history is more serious but no less interesting. He points out that monotheism isn't necessarily more sophisticated than polytheism or dualism:
So, monotheism explains order, but is mystified by evil. Dualism explains evil, but is puzzled by order. There is one logical way of solving the riddle: to argue that there is a single omnipotent God who created the entire universe – and He’s evil. But nobody in history has had the stomach for such a belief. (Loc.3417-19)
He points out that the rise of science and enlightenment in recent centuries has been a break from the past in terms of the acknowledgement of ignorance. Prior to modern science, human cultures have always thought that all that was knowable or worth knowing was already known. You didn't ask how old the earth was by consulting empirical sources --- you read the bible carefully to try to figure it out. In traditional human cultures (much as is described in the Lord of the Rings), the past was always better, ancient traditions had all the answers, and questions that were not answered by tradition weren't worth asking. It is the breaking of this tradition that held the secret to scientific progress.

All in all, the book's very much worth reading and very entertaining. Recommended.

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