Sapiens, A Brief History of Humankind

The book focuses on the development of human society. If we want to rebalance our impact on the earth it would probably help to understand how we have come to design the systems - society, the economy - that interact with it.

Book cover of Sapiens
Book by Yuval Noah Harari

Published by Vintage, 2011

This book might seem a strange choice for a Green Read, as its central theme is the Homo sapiens of the title rather than the environment, but it could also be argued that it is precisely this that makes it an ideal Green Read for the Anthropocene. The book focuses on the development of human society through the millennia, rather than what we might think of as traditionally “green” topics, but in the Anthropocene how humans decide to organise themselves has implications for the whole planet. If we want to rebalance our impact on the earth it would probably help to understand how we have come to design the systems - society, the economy - that interact with it.

Harari examines how humans have imposed their will (and themselves) on their environment, and on each other, through a series of “revolutions”: the Cognitive Revolution, the Agricultural Revolution, and the Scientific Revolution. Each of these has contributed to what is generally regarded as human progress, but has also created a number of negative effects on the planet, on other living things, and on humans themselves. In Harari’s view humans have been singularly unequal to the responsibilities these advances have bestowed on them, starting from the Cognitive Revolution:

“Many historical calamities, from deadly wars to ecological catastrophes, have resulted from this over-hasty jump.” (p. 13)

The Cognitive Revolution, says Harari, resulted in part from humans’ use of fire to cook food, which meant less time and energy needed to be devoted to chewing and digestion, resulting in better nutrition. So more time was available to Homo sapiens for other things, like the development of language and, crucially, myths. Other species may use a form of language to communicate information about things that actually exist, such as dangers or the presence and location of food. But only humans, according to Harari, have developed the ability to construct elaborate myths - such as religions, the law, or the nation state - that could unite impossibly large groups behind a single cause: “Just try to imagine how difficult it would have been to create states, or churches, or legal systems if we could speak only about things that really exist, such as rivers, trees and lions.” (p. 35) This gives us the power to decide the fate of our environment: “... today the very survival of rivers, trees and lions depends on the grace of imagined entities such as the United States and Google.” Faced with the climate emergency today, it is the power of myths that make us believe that profit and economic growth take precedence over the real world around us.

Homo sapiens’ ability to unite and co-operate in larger numbers than any other species enabled our ancestors to spread across the planet - to the detriment of other living things, as fossil records show: “... no sooner had they arrived at a new location than the native population became extinct.” (p. 20) “... the inevitable conclusion is that the first wave of sapiens” colonisation was one of the biggest and swiftest ecological disasters to befall the animal kingdom.” (p. 80) In contrast to conventional science, which describes five previous waves of ‘natural’ mass extinctions and sees the current planetary emergency as the sixth, Harari says there were two earlier extinctions, both caused by humans, and we are rapidly heading towards the third. In his view the first was caused by the spread of the foragers, and the second by farmers following the Agricultural Revolution. Sadly we have learned from neither of these extinctions, and so are heading blindly towards the third: “Perhaps if more people were aware of the First Wave and Second Wave extinctions, they’d be less nonchalant about the Third Wave they are part of.” (p. 82). It is odd that Harari, who has clearly done significant research into prehistory, completely ignores pre-human extinctions. But as one of his key themes is the destruction that Homo sapiens have wrought on the planet, perhaps he did not want to muddy the waters by highlighting the fact that catastrophic events can have other causes since this is an argument much loved by climate change deniers.

Harari presents an unorthodox view of the agricultural revolution. Rather than depicting it as the first step towards an easier, more comfortable life, he argues that it left farmers with more difficult, less satisfying lives than those of foragers. Admittedly it was possible to produce more food per unit of territory, which allowed Homo sapiens to multiply in number, but more people meant even more food needed to be produced, concentrated populations allowed diseases to spread more easily, and dependence on a single food source meant the food supply was more vulnerable to drought and pests. A more settled lifestyle and the investment of time and energy into clearing land and cultivating crops, breeding and caring for animals, meant the accumulation of ‘stuff’ (seeds, grain stores, tools, buildings, furniture and household objects), the need to develop property law, and the belief that we actually ‘own’ things rather than that we are just borrowing them from nature. This meant that not only did we have the right to use and transform any and every inanimate thing around us according to our will - creating machines to help us do this better, faster, more efficiently - but that we also had the right to use animals as machines - either as sources of power to pull ploughs and haul carts, or as simple units of production for meat and other animal products, maiming them and engineering them through selective breeding to make them more ‘productive’. As Harari points out,

“... for the vast majority of domesticated animals, the Agricultural Revolution was a terrible catastrophe.” (p. 109)

Harari’s third revolution, the Scientific Revolution, is described as a revolution of ignorance, rather than a revolution of knowledge: “The great discovery that launched the Scientific Revolution was the discovery that humans do not know the answers to the most important questions.” (p. 278) Whilst scientific advances have clearly created very real benefits for humanity in alleviating poverty and preventing or treating diseases, these advances have been capable of facilitating some rather dubious avenues of research, such as the fluorescent green rabbit and the possibility of extracting Neanderthal DNA in an attempt to create a Neanderthal child. Harari argues that science is unable to set its own priorities and is “... incapable of determining what to do with its discoveries … scientific research can flourish only in allegiance with some religion or ideology.” (p. 305) Whether its discoveries are ultimately used for good or ill is therefore a question of which religious or ideological view prevails at the time. Harari is not the first to make this point, but it is one that bears regular repetition at a time when we are frequently told that technology holds the answer to the climate emergency.

The question of religion, and the power it has exercised over human life and thought throughout millennia, is one that clearly preoccupies Harari a great deal, but provides arguably little insight for anyone reading the book as a Green Read. However his examination of happiness - and the question as to whether, after all these advances, humans have become any happier - does have some insights to offer. In particular: “Happiness… depends on the correlation between objective conditions and subjective expectations… When things improve, expectations balloon, and consequently even dramatic improvements in objective conditions can leave us dissatisfied.” (p. 428) So a society constantly chasing economic growth and an advertising industry whose sole reason for existence is to make us dissatisfied with what we have in order to persuade us to buy new, buy more, is fuelling those expectations at a time when we should be considering how to conserve resources and reduce energy use; when we should be considering how to use less, not more.

In summary, Sapiens is a book about hundreds of thousands of years of human history; how we have interacted destructively with our environment, and why we have behaved the way we have. It is a damning verdict on human progress: “Self-made gods with only the laws of physics to keep us company, we are accountable to no one. We are consequently wreaking havoc on our fellow animals and on the surrounding ecosystem, seeking little more than our own comfort and amusement, yet never finding satisfaction.” (p. 466) Perhaps if we can understand our innate flaws and why we behave as we do, we will at least have a better chance of understanding whether or not we can change, and how to bring that change about. Harari’s description of how humans are using science warns us against reliance on technological solutions, and (spoiler alert) if anyone is tempted to search for hope in his sequel Homo Deus they will be sorely disappointed. Sapiens is not a short read, nor a comfortable one, but it does offer some clear and detailed arguments as to how we arrived at our current precarious and uncomfortable position, even if it has little to offer by way of actual solutions.

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