Take Home Message: We are here by chance and we are adapting to our changing environment.
Bear with me, this review is a little longer than normal as it’s our entire 70,000 years. This book is for anyone who wants to know who we are and where we have come from.
Harari starts off the book beautifully by stating that 13.5 billion years ago, matter, energy, time and space came into being (AKA the big bang) which is the story of physics. 300,000 years later complex structures called atoms, molecules happened and their interactions which is the story of chemistry. Then 3.8 billion years ago a planet called earth, certain molecules combined to form particular organisms which is the story of biology. 70,000 years ago, organisms belonging to the species called Homo Sapiens started to form elaborate structures called cultures. The development of these cultures is called history. Our history has had the Cognitive Revolution (70,000 years ago), the Agricultural Revolution (12,000 years ago) and the Scientific Revolution (500 years ago). This book tells the story of the constant evolutions of man.
Compared with other animals’, humans are born prematurely as their vital systems are still underdeveloped. A kitten forages on its own a few weeks after birth. A colt can trot shortly after birth. Humans babies are helpless, dependent for many years on their elders for sustenance, protection and education.
This fact means humans have had to form an extraordinary social ability. Lone mothers could hardly gather enough food for their offspring hence consequently rely on other family members and neighbors to raise their children. As you have heard before, it takes a tribe to raise a human. Evolution has favored those forming strong social ties for survival.
Human are easily molded. Harari described humans like molten glass from a furnace. They can be spun, stretched and shaped with a surprising degree of freedom. This is why today we can educate our children to become Christian or Buddhist, capitalist or socialist, career focused or family orientated.
Tools were used in early years for food. You never approached a pride of lions eating its prey. When they were done you would dare not go near the hyenas and jackals as the scavenge for leftovers. Only then would you approach the carcass, look carefully left and right and eat the edible remains. You're also left with the bones. Using tools like stones to break open the bones and eat the marrow, a highly nutritious part of the carcass. Num num num.
Homo's position on the food chain was generally in the middle. They hunted for smaller creatures and were hunted by larger predators. There were 6 types of Homo’s, Homo Sapiens (that’s us) outplayed, outsmarted and outlasted the others 400,000 years ago as some species of man started to hunt larger game using strategies like team work to out maneuver them. Thus, hunting larger game on a regular basis. Only in the last 100,000 years with the rise of Homo Sapiens that man has jumped to the top of the food chain.
Before the Cognitive revolution there was the Foraging Revolution. The size of the average Sapiens brain has decreased since the age of foraging. Survival in that era required superb mental abilities from everyone. When agriculture and industry came along people could increasingly rely on the skills of others for survival, and new niches were opened up. Yes, our brain become smaller to adapt.
Foragers mastered not only the surrounding world of animals, plants and objects of their outer world but their inner world of their own bodies and senses for survival. They had to remember which of the 10,000 types of berries, plants, root and much more foods to eat and which to avoid. They were in tune with their surroundings, listened to the slighted movement in the grass and hear a snake in the bush.
Forgers secret to success and a longer life expectancy which protected them from malnutrition and starvation was their varied diet. During the Agricultural Revolution, farmers tend to eat the crop they grew. So, if they harvest rice, potato or wheat the family would live off that one and only food source which lacked essential nutrition. Ancient foragers ate dozens of different foodstuffs, maybe berries and mushroom in the morning and rabbit and wild onion in the evening. Tomorrow’s menu would be different.
The appearance of new ways of thinking and communicating between 70,000 and 300,00 years ago constituted the Cognitive Revolution. What caused it? They are not sure. Perhaps an accidental genetic mutation changed the inner wiring of the Sapiens brain enabling them to think in unpredictable ways and communicate using an altogether new type of language.
I love that; this mutation could have happened in Homo Neanderthals or Homo Erectus, but it didn’t. It was by pure chance. We are here by pure evolutionary chance. It’s more important to understand the importance of the genetic mutation than the cause. What was most surprising about the special language was it enabled us to conquer the world.
In conquering the world, we invented stories to tell one another. There are no gods in the universe, no nations, no money, no human rights, no laws and justice outside of the human imagination. So, if this is all created by our imagination and actions, what could you create in your own life? Imagine the possibilities.
Since the Cognitive Revolution, Sapiens have been living in a dual reality. One the one hand, the objective reality of rivers, trees and lions; and on the other hand, the imagined reality of gods, nations and corporations. As time went by the imagined reality become even more powerful, so that today the very survival of rivers, trees and lions depend on the grace of imagined entities such as the United States, Starbucks and Google. This shows we have evolved to create greater levels of influence and awareness to govern.
Now, most people know we are much like chimpanzees. And we are embarrassingly similar to chimpanzees on a one to one or ten to ten level. Significant difference occurs past 150 and when we reach 1000 – 2000 levels of Sapiens/Chimpanzees. If you tried to bunch 2000 chimpanzees into Time Square, there would be pandemonium. Imagine it. There would be fighting, power struggles, disorder. Bunch humans together in this same space and we are order seeking, creating patterns such as trade networks, mass celebrations and political institutions that never could be created in isolation. So, we are constantly looking for order in our own life and life around us. Maybe that’s why we rose above all other animals as the people or people with the most order rules. Then the person with the most order, rules too.
Now let’s move onto the Agricultural Revolution. Mortality was high. Babies weaned at an early age and were fed wheat because of the Agricultural age. Children lived more on porridge than mothers milk. There was competition for the porridge among siblings. Mortality levels rose. In the Agricultural societies, at least one in every three children died before the age of 20. Yet the increase in births still outpaced the increase in deaths.
Scholars once proclaimed that the Agricultural Revolution was a great leap forward in humanity. They told of a tale of progressed fueled by human brain power. Evolution gradually produced ever more intelligent humans. Eventually humans were so smart that they could decipher natures secret codes, enabling them to tame sheep and cultivate wheat. We moved from foraging to farming.
During the Agricultural Revolution, hunters may have caught and adopted a lamp, fattening it up for slaughter. At some stage, there become a greater number of lambs and they would slaughter the more aggressive lamps first. The more submissive, most appealing lamps were allowed to live longer and procreate. The result was a herd of domesticated and submissive sheep. Pigs had their snouts cut off so they could not smell or their eyes gauged out so they could not see where they were going to ensure they stayed with their owner.
As humans spread around the world, so did their domestic animals. Ten thousand years ago, not more
than a few million sheep, cattle, goats, boars or chickens live. Today there is over a billion sheep, a billion pigs, a billion cattle, and more than 25 billion chickens. I think there are more chicken on the earth than
other animals because no chicken is worshiped by any religion.
Agricultural Revolution made the future far more important. Humans started to think about life in seasons and crops, worrying about next year and the year after. Foragers discounted the future as they lived hand to mouth. A little like our factory workers today, working paycheck to paycheck, day to day, week to week.
They did not need to worry about what they could not control.
In the Agricultural Revolution future was more important than ever before. Famers must keep the future in mind. There were peaks in food availability at the end of harvest but famers were back planting within weeks. Concerns for the future was rooted not only in the seasonal cycle of production but also in the fundamental uncertainty of agriculture. Since most villages lived by cultivating a very limited variety of domesticated plants and animals, they were at the mercy of droughts, floods and pestilence. People began to worry about the future.
A natural order was a stable order. Believing in God created stability among the people. This was just an imagined order, and to keep this in place, continuous and strenuous efforts were imperative. The monetary system or Peugeot is a couple of examples of orders. You can see why the monetary system is, almost everyone believes in it.
Every level has something above governing it, the people have the local government, the local government have the state government, the state government have the federal government, they have other countries, the UN, the monetary system governing them. There is no way out of this imagined order.
Harari states that when we break down our prison walls and run towards freedom, we are in fact running into more spacious exercise yards of a bigger prison. Nothing is every missing, we always have freedom from that which we have power over and imprisonment or constraint from that which has power over us.
Let’s talk about the brain in relation to our evolution. It is limited to the amount of data it can store. Secondly, when a human dies, so does the information. Thirdly, we are wired to store and process only particular types of information. In our hunter and gather days we had to remember 1000’s of types of berries, shrubs, what made us well, and what made us ill. Also, we had to know social dynamics of the tribe. As we progressed, the Agricultural days saw us requiring, understanding, store and remember numbers. We didn’t need to know how many berries and roots we picked as a forager but we needed to know how many seeds we planted, how big our crop would grow, how much it would produce. Our brain adapted to understanding mathematics. Well, some of us are still trying to understand it now.
Then let’s think about today’s society. I wonder what computers, social media and texting are helping us to adapt to now?
As much as some things have evolved, some parts of our society are still evolving. In the past raping a
woman who did not belong to a man was no classed as rape, like picking up a coin from a busy street was not classed as stealing. Raping your wife was an oxymoron, the man had full control of the woman’s
sexuality. Saying a husband raped his wife was like saying a man stole from his own wallet. This thought
wasn’t confined to ancient Middle East. In 2006, there were still fifty-six countries where men could not be prosecuted for the rape of his wife. This is because women in many countries are the property of the men, often the fathers, husbands and brothers.
Now let’s explore empires. Empires do not work according to Harari. In the long run, it is not possible to rule effectively over a large number of conquered people as empires are self-destructive and exploratory. Everyone has the right to self-determination and shouldn’t be the rule of another. Empires have been in rule for the last 2500 years. This is an example of the empowerment-disempowerment model.
Then, the destruction of an empire didn’t mean independence for the people. Instead, a new empire stepped into the vacuum created when the old one collapsed or retreated This is the balance of powers, a conservation of powers, it is like a baton being passed from one empires hand to another.
And then we come to the Industrial Revolution which was new ways to convert energy and to produce goods. Today, the earth is home to 7 billion sapiens. Global warming, rising oceans and widespread pollution could make the earth less hospitable to us and the future might consequently see a spiraling race between human power and human induced natural disasters.
Many call this process ‘the destruction of nature’ however I love how Harari states that “but it’s not really destruction, its change.” Nothing can ever be gained or lost, only transformed. We will learn to be more adaptable. Or we all die off and like with the dinosaur’s era, maybe intelligent rats or maybe cockroaches will rule the earth. Today we can thank the dinosaur killing asteroid for our existence.
Harari goes on to talk about happiness levels in humanity. As we know you can’t have happiness without sadness and all traits are conserved in and through time. What was interesting was that community seems to have an impact on our life experience more than money or health. We have the ability to create wealth but it leaves us more alone, we have access to an arsenal of modern medicine but our expectations of ease and pleasure, and our intolerance for inconvenience and discomfort have increase to such an extent that we suffer. Maybe that’s because when we seek easy, you get difficult.
So, what does the future hold for us according to Harari? What he shares is this; we have split the atom, we have travelled into outer space, we have grown a human ear on a rat, we have bionic body parts which are controlled by thoughts, we can map a human genome and create medicine to suit your DNA. The future is yet to be decided with what we do now.
Hugs and heart, Tanya X