Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind/ by Yuval Noah Harari, aims to “..explore[s] the ways in which biology and history have defined us and enhanced our understanding of what it means to be ‘human.'” A rather ambitious goal to fit in less than 500 pages.
The book is divided into four parts or four revolutions that have shaped humanity into what it is today. It starts with the Cognitive revolution, where humans first developed language and were able to communicate complex ideas. Followed by the Agricultural Revolution when humans started settling down into small tribes and villages. Here the author argues that once into the Agricultural Revolution, humans couldn’t go back and were permanently trapped in this new paradigm. Part three discusses the “unification of humankind,” where the author presents money, imperialism, and religion to be the fundamental elements the brought humankind together, forming larger groups. Finally, in part four, the focus is turned to the modern society which is built upon science, capitalism, and industries. Through these four parts, the author wishes to fulfill the aim of briefly presenting the history of humankind.
The book was easy to read and engaging too. I picked it up hoping for it to be at least a popular science book that introduces the different facets of study in anthropology, providing a reference list for further more in-depth studies. However, it felt like a reductionism of specifically chosen concepts to create a somewhat fictional storyline.
While discussing the rise of monotheism and debunking historians who provide deterministic explanations of events such as the rise of Christianity, the author says the following:
Yet most historians tend to be skeptical of such deterministic theories. This is one of the distinguishing marks of history as an academic discipline – the better you know a particular historical period, the harder it becomes to explain why things happened one way and not another. Those who have only a superficial knowledge of a certain period tend to focus only on the possibility that was eventually realized. They offer a just-so story to explain with hindsight why that outcome was inevitable
This, I think, can be applied to this book. This book generalizes so many historical events that one can use the same line of reasoning to establish any conclusion one wants. Selection bias, a commonly known term in the statistical literature, is to choose samples in a particular way that confirms your own hypothesis. This book does something very similar, but instead of selecting specific events, the author seems to omit facts rather easily.
A major complaint I have is the general and generous use of the word “fiction.” According to the book, a significant transformation in human history is the creation of fiction. Here the author places ideas such as liberalism and humanism at par with all religions. All these, according to the author, are fictions. By definition, yes, we can call all of these fictions. But this cannot be done without getting into detailed distinctions between these ideas and how they impact the world.
Justification to understand the use of fiction in the world is done is a strange manner. To explain how human societies would form a social construct or a shared belief, the author takes the example of a company created today.
How exactly did Armand Peugeot, the man, create Peugeot, the company? In much the same way that priests and sorcerers have created gods and demons throughout history, and in which thousands of French curés were still creating Christ’s body every Sunday in the parish churches. […] Over the years, people have woven an incredibly complex network of stories. Within this network, fictions such as Peugeot not only exist, but also accumulate immense power. The kinds of things that people create through this network of stories are known in academic circles as ‘fictions’, ‘social constructs’, or ‘imagined realities’. An imagined reality is not a lie.
While technically this isn’t false, it simplifies complex ideas. We start to understand history using our understanding of how the world works today. But that should not be the case for history.
Human history cannot be understood in isolation. One aspect, in my view, that is of absolute importance, is the evolution of philosophy. Philosophy, in many ways, represents the ways human ideas developed. There is absolutely nothing about philosophy and its impact on humans in the book. The closest we get is a short discussion of modern ideas such as liberalism, capitalism, a passing reference to socialism, some comments on major religions. The discussion, in this book, on religions is also, in many ways, written with a Christian understanding of God. That again is an oversimplification of ideas. The idea of God varies from society to society, and history must account for it.
Religion(s) play a crucial role in the history of humankind. Whatever be our personal approach to religion, we cannot deny the contributions of religion in shaping human society. Be it the massacres that killed thousands of people or the burning of books that did not adhere to the religious sentiments or the furthering of human knowledge by religiously minded scholars. All of these are realities in every religion.
In the book, the author takes the approach that religions evolved over time due to social and environmental circumstances. However, I think most historians of religion would disagree with this point. There exist diverse opinions on this matter, several theories have been suggested, but nothing conclusive can be said about the evolution of religions. Similar to the Agricultural Revolution they occurred in different parts of the world, certain religious philosophies turned up around the same time at different parts of the world. The scholars still do not have an accepted theory that explains the emergence of such a religion. An interested reader will benefit from Karen Armstrong’s Case for God.
The typical premodern ruler gave money to priests, philosophers and poets in the hope that they would legitimise his rule and maintain the social order. He did not expect them to discover new medications, invent new weapons or stimulate economic growth.
Here is an example of what I mean by generalizations. It is hard to dispute the above quote, as it applies generally. But, if we use this general view to say that premodern folks were never interested in supporting science, it becomes a dangerous conclusion. And this is the line the book takes showing that modern science somehow came into existence only in 1500AD.
Take, for example, the Persian polymath Omar Khayyam, who lived in the 11Th century. The ruler of that time built an observatory for Khayyam where he, along with other scholars, calculated the length of the solar calendar quite accurately. Similarly, Ibn Sina known as Avicenna to the English speaking world wrote a manual on medical science which was used as a standard textbook well into the 16Th century. Did the patrons provide money to these scholars only to legitimize his/her rule? These are just two examples I can easily recall. Peter Adamson gives a brilliant podcast about the History of Philosophy.
One of the fundamental changes that brought about the scientific revolution, according to this book, was that humans were willing to accept ignorance. They were ready to say, “we do not know.” The author here assumes that the premodern people thought they knew everything. He says:
Premodern traditions of knowledge such as Islam, Christianity, Buddhism and Confucianism asserted that everything that is important to know about the world was already known. The great gods, or the one almighty God, or the wise people of the past possessed all-encompassing wisdom, which they revealed to us in scriptures and oral traditions. Ordinary mortals gained knowledge by delving into these ancient texts and traditions and understanding them properly. It was inconceivable that the Bible, the Qur’an or the Vedas were missing out on a crucial secret of the universe – a secret that might yet be discovered by flesh-and-blood creatures.
Ancient traditions of knowledge admitted only two kinds of ignorance. First, an individual might be ignorant of something important. To obtain the necessary knowledge, all he needed to do was ask somebody wiser. There was no need to discover something that nobody yet knew. For example, if a peasant in some thirteenth-century Yorkshire village wanted to know how the human race originated, he assumed that Christian tradition held the definitive answer. All he had to do was ask the local priest.
Second, an entire tradition might be ignorant of unimportant things. By definition, whatever the great gods or the wise people of the past did not bother to tell us was unimportant. For example, if our Yorkshire peasant wanted to know how spiders weave their webs, it was pointless to ask the priest, because there was no answer to this question in any of the Christian Scriptures. That did not mean, however, that Christianity was deficient. Rather, it meant that understanding how spiders weave their webs was unimportant. After all, God knew perfectly well how spiders do it. If this were a vital piece of information, necessary for human prosperity and salvation, God would have included a comprehensive explanation in the Bible.
But such an assumption is problematic. If the adherents of all religions assumed they knew everything, how come there was scientific progress in all these years? The ancient Greek schools of Mathematikoi were so fundamental all future mathematicians. The Indians who gave the world the number system, the zero, did not claim that it was knowledge they always knew. Jewish philosophers like Saadia Gaon, Maimonides, along with Muslim philosophers of their time set up the foundations of democracy as we know it today.
Magellan might have proved that the world is round. But before him in around 170BC, Eratosthenes had calculated the circumference of the earth. Much later in 11th century Ibn Hazm gave a logical proof for the earth being round, Al Biruni calculated the circumference which is closest to the modern values we have. When Christopher Columbus set off, he was not going on a whim that the earth was round, he had the numbers from Al-Farghani.
Had all these premodern scholars been bestowed with knowledge? No, they were inquisitive and were interested in finding a solution to the problems they had; they wanted to understand the world they lived in. Claiming that religion had stifled humankind from acquiring new knowledge is an error in how we understand history. Our assumption that the dark ages in Europe were really “dark” where there was no new knowledge produced is a way to make us feel better in the modern world.
The book goes further to give an example, “the prophet Muhammad began his religious career by condemning his fellow Arabs for living in ignorance of the divine truth. Yet Muhammad himself very quickly began to argue that he knew the full truth, and his followers began calling him ‘The Seal of the Prophets.’ Henceforth, there was no need of revelations beyond those given to Muhammad.” To show how modern scientists accept ignorance, he goes on to say, “Modern-day science is a unique tradition of knowledge, inasmuch as it openly admits collective ignorance regarding the most important questions. Darwin never argued that he was ‘The Seal of the Biologists’, and that he had solved the riddle of life once and for all.” I hope the author would have claimed ignorance at this point and asked a religious studies scholar for the meaning of the phrase. To say the least, this is like comparing apples and oranges. No knowledgeable person would claim that the prophet Muhammad ever claimed to know the full truth.
On discussing the scientific revolution the author claims that Europe, in the modern age, had something no other people had before. The will to obtain new knowledge. The book argues that
European imperialism was entirely unlike all other imperial projects in history. Previous seekers of empire tended to assume that they already understood the world. Conquest merely utilised and spread their view of the world. The Arabs, to name one example, did not conquer Egypt, Spain or India in order to discover something they did not know. The Romans, Mongols and Aztecs voraciously conquered new lands in search of power and wealth – not of knowledge. In contrast, European imperialists set out to distant shores in the hope of obtaining new knowledge along with new territories.
This statement is genuinely troubling. European powers set out with the idea of obtaining power and spreading Christianity. Had the “hope of obtaining new knowledge” been true, we would have had much more knowledge preserved from ancient Indians, the Incas, Australian Aborigine, to name a few.
Furthermore, the European imperialism project was successful not because it was something unique in itself, instead because the power dynamic in the countries they occupied was fragile at the time they got there. Take India, for example, the main reason for the British to succeed when other European powers failed was that they were present at the time when the Mughal empire was collapsing. They came in as traders to a country that had lost most of its fortunes and offered them military protection. Claiming that European imperialism was different and was concerned with seeking knowledge while conquest was a byproduct of their adventures is problematic, to say the least. This would imply that previous empires never had scholars. It would only take an interested soul to find the knowledge seekers of the past. From China, in 640AD, we have Hsuan Tsang who traveled to India and wrote about his travels. Ibn battuta from the middle east traveled across large parts of the Asian continent, writing about his travels. Ibn Fadlan whose accounts give us a 3rd person insight into the life of the Vikings.
Taking about the modern period, which we currently live in, the author argues that we are statistically better off than any of our ancestors. In doing so, he claims:
The independent states that came after these empires were remarkably uninterested in war. With very few exceptions, since 1945 states no longer invade other states in order to conquer and swallow them up. Such conquests had been the bread and butter of political history since time immemorial. It was how most great empires were established, and how most rulers and populations expected things to stay. But campaigns of conquest like those of the Romans, Mongols and Ottomans cannot take place today anywhere in the world. Since 1945, no independent country recognised by the UN has been conquered and wiped off the map. Limited international wars still occur from time to time, and millions still die in wars, but wars are no longer the norm.
This claim seems to be on the edge of truth. Several examples falsify this. The Israel-Palestinian conflict, Annexation of Crimea by Russia are two famous examples. The India-Pakistan dispute over Kashmir and China-Tibet conflict are still ongoing. Furthermore, the concept of “swallowing up states” is very different in the post-1945 world. Today, having financial control over the states is comparable to the rise of British colonialism. British East India Company was just a bunch of traders taking control of smaller regions by economic means. Today, the USA and China hand out large loans to smaller countries in return for military bases and trade benefits. In doing so, the states are not free from their benefactors. Hence, to argue that the imperial project has retired is not altogether true. It has just taken a different form.
Towards the end of the book, I felt the book was more about the history of Westerners than that of Human Kind. Is humankind only represented by those who make technology, create and operate within capitalistic industries? There are so many smaller movements and tribes all over the world that have shaped their society differently. That small percentage of humans who are responsible for the economic growth of the planet should not define the history of the world.
Further Reading :: https://thonyc.wordpress.com/2019/02/21/an-open-letter-to-an-author/ https://www.theguardian.com/books/2014/sep/11/sapiens-brief-history-humankind-yuval-noah-harari-review https://www.newenglishreview.org/C%5FR%5FHallpike/A%5FResponse%5Fto%5FYuval%5FHarari's%5F'Sapiens:%5FA%5FBrief%5FHistory%5Fof%5FHumankind'/