The other day I finished reading the book Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, by Israeli historian Yuval Noah Harari: an accessible and at times blunt and cynically portrayed history of mankind. It starts with the appearance of our biological species, its spread across the world, its complex journey through all kinds of pan-human revolutions (cognitive, agrarian, and various technological ones), and ends in the current era. At first the book appears to be a solid popular-science work on a par with Guns, Germs, and Steel or The Journey of Man: A Genetic Odyssey. However, as you progress through the pages, nagging doubts start to form in your mind; then at times comes amazement at some of the inconsistencies; then it gets like… totally… WHAT? But I’ll get to that in due course…
Actually, a lot of the facts given in the book have been known for ages. Some we learned in school, others in books we’ve read, yet others in anthropological documentaries or news from archeological digs. However, for me, up until now all that seemed to be stored in my brain in separate bits. Only after reading this book has it all come together as one. So respect is at least due there.
Now, everyone’s heard of Neanderthal man and Cro-Magnon man (our ancient ancestors), and that they lived around the same time and often on neighboring territories. But there were also other Homo species. For example, the Denisova hominins, and the hobbit-like Homo floresiensis (Flores Man) from the Indonesian island of Flores. And there will have been many more, no doubt, which have yet to be discovered. Curiously, many of them disappeared relatively recently: Flores Man, for example, lived around 12,000–13,000 years ago; Neanderthals – between 30,000 and 40,000 years ago.
This means that the definition of homo, or ‘human’, in actual fact doesn’t refer to just folks like you and me. It turns out there are a dozen other biological species that add to that full definition, all of which died out; and Wikipedia agrees with this. We (Homo sapiens) lived together with these other human species at the same time and in the same geographical areas on the planet, and we even crossbred with them (as confirmed by genetic research). Then those other species disappeared, while we stayed. That is, Homo sapiens overcame all its ‘competitor-relatives’ – completely destroying them at the very roots, all to free up for itself an ecological niche to provide for its own sustenance, propagation and further expansion.
But it wasn’t just other human species Homo sapiens wiped out.
It also brought on what can only be described as (as is indeed done in the book) an ecological catastrophe by its spreading out across the globe into uncharted continents – Australasia and the Americas: Not long after Homo sapiens turned up there, all sorts of different animals started to disappear, the food chain was altered forever for the worse, and the previously-existing overall ecological balance was fairly wrecked.
That, sadly, all sounds familiar and true. One thing that did surprise me however was there being no mention whatsoever of the Toba volcano eruption in what is now Indonesia. According to the Toba catastrophe theory, the gargantuan eruption caused a volcanic winter lasting a full six–ten years, consequently reducing the population of Homo sapiens to a couple thousand or even just a few hundred (population bottleneck). That is, it can’t be ruled out that in Asia and Europe the variety and numbers of types of sapiens at first were vastly diminished by the volcanic eruption, and then finished off by migration of the African population of Homo sapiens.
// Btw: the crater left behind after the Toba mega-eruption is now filled with a beautiful lake, in which we took a dip about a year ago.
Aaanyway, to hell with the details; overall this is still a thoroughly enjoyable and un-put-down-able read.
Now let me move on to the modern-day section of the book…
The daringly provocative author tackles religions, history, and different universal human values in a most original way. I quote:
“The modern age has witnessed the rise of a number of new natural-law religions, such as liberalism, Communism, capitalism, nationalism and Nazism. These creeds do not like to be called religions, and refer to themselves as ideologies. But this is just a semantic exercise. If a religion is a system of human norms and values that is founded on belief in a superhuman order, then Soviet Communism was no less a religion than Islam.
“History cannot be explained deterministically and it cannot be predicted because it is chaotic. So many forces are at work and their interactions are so complex that extremely small variations in the strength of the forces and the way they interact produce huge differences in outcomes. Not only that, but history is what is called a ‘level two’ chaotic system. Chaotic systems come in two shapes. Level one chaos is chaos that does not react to predictions about it. The weather, for example, is a level one chaotic system. Though it is influenced by myriad factors, we can build computer models that take more and more of them into consideration, and produce better and better weather forecasts.
Level two chaos is chaos that reacts to predictions about it, and therefore can never be predicted accurately. Markets, for example, are a level two chaotic system…. Politics, too, is a second-order chaotic system. Many people criticise Sovietologists for failing to predict the 1989 revolutions and castigate Middle East experts for not anticipating the Arab Spring revolutions of 2011. This is unfair. Revolutions are, by definition, unpredictable. A predictable revolution never erupts.
Ever more scholars see cultures as a kind of mental infection or parasite, with humans as its unwitting host. Organic parasites, such as viruses, live inside the body of their hosts. They multiply and spread from one host to the other, feeding off their hosts, weakening them, and sometimes even killing them. As long as the hosts live long enough to pass along the parasite, it cares little about the condition of its host. In just this fashion, cultural ideas live inside the minds of humans. They multiply and spread from one host to another, occasionally weakening the hosts and sometimes even killing them. A cultural idea – such as belief in Christian heaven above the clouds or Communist paradise here on earth – can compel a human to dedicate his or her life to spreading that idea, even at the price of death. The human dies, but the idea spreads. According to this approach, cultures are not conspiracies concocted by some people in order to take advantage of others (as Marxists tend to think). Rather, cultures are mental parasites that emerge accidentally, and thereafter take advantage of all people infected by them. This approach is sometimes called memetics. It assumes that, just as organic evolution is based on the replication of organic information units called ‘genes’, so cultural evolution is based on the replication of cultural information units called ‘memes’. Successful cultures are those that excel in reproducing their memes, irrespective of the costs and benefits to their human hosts.”
See, like I say – eyebrow-raising, fascinating stuff.
There’s more. There’s even something on… happiness!
“So perhaps happiness is synchronizing one’s personal delusions of meaning with the prevailing collective delusions As long as my personal narrative is in line with the narratives of the people around me, I can convince myself that my life is meaningful, and find happiness in that conviction. This is quite a depressing conclusion. Does happiness really depend on self-delusion?”
Woah. Deep stuff ).
“So our medieval ancestors were happy because they found meaning to life in collective delusions about the afterlife? Yes. As long as nobody punctured their fantasies, why shouldn’t they? As far as we can tell, from a purely scientific viewpoint, human life has absolutely no meaning. Humans are the outcome of blind evolutionary processes that operate without goal or purpose. Our actions are not part of some divine cosmic plan, and if planet Earth were to blow up tomorrow morning, the universe would probably keep going about its business as usual. As far as we can tell at this point, human subjectivity would not be missed. Hence any meaning that people ascribe to their lives is just a delusion.”
Ok, ok. That’s enough for one day. And people wonder why watching TV serials is more popular than philosophy?!
Animals that became gods
“Seventy thousand years ago, sapiens was still an insignificant animal minding its own business in a corner of Africa. In the following millennia it transformed itself into the master of the entire planet and the terror of the ecosystem. Today it stands on the verge of becoming a god, poised to acquire not only eternal youth, but also the divine abilities of creation and destruction.”
“Is there anything more dangerous than dissatisfied and irresponsible gods who don’t know what they want?”
Thought-provoking, complex, controversial, and at times depressing themes written by a sharp intellect.
Though it is bleak and disheartening at times, I can report that there is, true to Western storytelling tradition, a happy ending! Phew!
One of the last paragraphs:
“As it [ a computer virus] spreads through the Internet, the virus replicates itself millions upon millions of times, all the while being chased by predatory antivirus programs and competing with other viruses for a place in cyberspace. One day when the virus replicates itself a mistake occurs – a computerized mutation. Perhaps the mutation occurs because the human engineer programmed the virus to make occasional random replication mistakes. Perhaps the mutation was due to a random error. If, by chance, the modified virus is better at evading antivirus programs without losing its ability to invade other computers, it will spread through cyberspace. If so, the mutants will survive and reproduce. As time goes by, cyberspace would be full of new viruses that nobody engineered, and that undergo non-organic evolution.”
Er, sorry, Mr. Harari, but that, sir, is complete rot. Where on earth did you get that from?
Animals have too much DNA and accidental mutation either makes them stronger or weaker – or it doesn’t affect them at all. If accidental changes are made to the code of a computer virus (or, in fact, any computer program), then, most probably, that part of the code will simply become inactive, and probably also lethal for the virus (or program). The program (its part) won’t work properly, while a virus will stop propagating. There’s no ‘successful mutation’ here possible in principle (given today’s level of digital technologies). It’s like saying: ‘As a result of road accidents, cars can unwittingly become better – to go faster on the roads’.
So, though mostly a logical, well-organized popular-science book that’s a real good read, it does still contain this absurd paragraph. Therefore, I’ll finish on an optimistic note: all the rest of the assumptions and takeaways contained in the book my also not be taken seriously ).