Why do species like ants or bees – which have been found to have orderly societies just like humans - don’t have lawyers?
That’s a bizarre question to ask, certainly not something you would have ever even thought of before. But if Yuval Noah Harari is to be believed, there’s a reason.
Of course, this book is neither about ants or bees, nor about lawyers.
"Sapiens", as the name suggests, is the story of origin of our species - the Homo Sapiens on planet Earth, and its journey to the present.
It’s a gripping story - racy and fast paced, at times shocking and controversial - narrated in brilliant style as Harari takes his readers on a tour that starts in the heavily infested forests of East Africa some 70,000 years ago and ends in the modern day laboratories where scientists are busy creating fluorescent rabbits and synthetic humans. In the process, Harari covers most of the important milestones in the history of mankind, such as the birth of language and “culture”, domestication of animals, the origins of God and religion, the spread of Empires, the origin and spread of money and the rise of agriculture, industry, science, wars and conquests.
The book is divided into 4 main parts, arranged chronologically. The first part - “The Cognitive Revolution” is the period starting roughly from 70,000 years ago when humans came out of the barbaric age and began to live like humans (so to speak!). This is the period when language was born, humans spread out of Africa and “history began”. The second part starts around 10,000 BC, when humans began to domesticate plants & animals, and formed permanent settlements. The first kingdoms began to emerge, as also written scripts and some form of money. The author calls this “The Agricultural Revolution”. The third part – “The Unification of Mankind” – is the period starting around the first millennium B.C. when large changes swept mankind. Universal money such as Gold coins were born, several large Empires established and Religion originated.
The last chapter, the longest of all – called “The Scientific Revolution” is the history of the last 500 years of the World. It’s a fascinating story – of European conquests to their East and West, of the rise of Capitalism, the Industrial Revolution, giant strides in Science and Technology, and how all of it has impacted the life on earth. This is the part I enjoyed the most.
But Harari’s book is more than just history.
In the present day world, we have become hostage to a particular way of thinking. We view our world as a logical outcome of the progress and prosperity we have achieved over the generations. Our views and opinions are shaped by the prevalent notions of what is right and what is wrong, and we all view history with the same perspective. For example, our faith in principles of justice, peace, freedom, equality, environment, democracy and several such ideologies has become unshakable. We believe in them because we think that is how things are supposed to be, that is how nature has created the world. And anything that is in conflict with our notions is an aberration - a result of a deviant upbringing, lack of education or other such deficiencies. But is that how the world was meant to be? Are we really the homo sapiens (“Wise Man”) that we call ourselves or are we just fooling ourselves into delusion?
In Sapeins, Harari shakes up the very foundations of our thinking, busting the myths of what we think of ourselves and the way we see the world. He finds a discrepancy between our evolutionary success and individual suffering. Mankind has made progress, but has that made us happy, asks Harari. As he says, “Most history books focus on the ideas of great thinkers, the bravery of warriors, the charity of saints and the creativity of artists. They have much to tell about the weaving and unravelling of social structures, about the rise and fall of empires, about the discovery and spread of technologies. Yet, they say nothing about how all this influenced the happiness and suffering of individuals. This is the biggest lacuna in our understanding of history. We had better start filling it.”
And that is what the book does, raising more questions than it answers. Did we really benefit out of the growth of agriculture, or was it – as Harari calls it – History’s Biggest Fraud? Have the modern day luxuries made us happy, or have they left us craving for more? Are all humans really equal, or is it a myth we propagate because it makes us more politically correct? Is history working for the benefit of mankind, or had we been better off had the dice rolled differently at some point in the past? Harari leaves us with many provocative questions that we will be at pains to answer.
One may not agree with everything he says, but Harari certainly makes one think. For that reason alone, this book is worth a read.