Vivek Menezes puts the question:
- In 1974, a grey-haired indigenous leader of Papua New Guinea asked a visiting American ornithologist something like, “How come you people dominate the world, while we have so little?”
Jared Diamond has been answering that question ever since. Israeli historian Yuval Noah Harari has moved into the space opened up by Diamond, essentially asking why a seemingly inconsequential ape that divided from chimpanzees some six million years ago ended up with a species of Homo, namely Sapiens, which has come to dominate the planet. Harari’s book Sapiens: A Brief History Of Humankind concentrates on the last 70,000 years, which as Galen Strawson points out, is more than enough for a mere 400 pages.
Harari’s writing is exhilarating and stimulating, as Beb Shephard says:
- The book’s surface is brilliantly clear, witty and erudite but its underlying message is dark.
In a sense it is a philosophical meditation, by a historian who is not a philosopher. So in the end when he addresses the meaning of everything he ropes in Buddhism, whereas Joanna Bourke in similar circumstances in What it Means to be Human ends up wrestling with Derrida. That may be a mercy for some, but Harari perhaps doesn’t escape the charge of shallowness, which may be unfair. At all times he is aware of complexity, but tries to reveal the most critical events or ideas that contribute to the ‘progress’ of Sapiens.
It is not clear at all to Harari that Sapiens is now better off in any way that matters. It is very clear, however, that we have wrought great misery on the biosphere. Worse still we don’t even know what we want. He sees bioengineering of the human species as more or less inevitable, making us in a sense gods with the power to make ourselves into a species that supersedes Sapiens. Which brings us to his final question:
- Is there anything more dangerous than dissatisfied gods who don’t know what they want?
The book is organised into four parts:
- The Cognitive Revolution
- The Agricultural Revolution
- The Unification of Humankind, and
- The Scientific Revolution
I’ve linked to three reviews above. The best I’ve seen so far, and the most critical, is by Galen Strawson in The Guardian. As the introduction to this interview says, “It’s a book so full of new ideas and talking points that it could provide enough material to keep a reading group going indefinitely!”
In the remainder of this post I’d like to summarise the events and ideas that led to modern society as we know it. There are preconditions identified in the first three parts, such as the invention of the Arabic numbering system, writing and money, which he identifies as “a system of trust, and not just any system of trust: money is the most universal and most efficient system of mutual trust ever devised.” However, the real action starts in the fourth part, The Scientific Revolution.
Modern science, he says differs from previous traditions of knowledge in three critical ways.
Firstly, we admit ignorance. We know that we don’t know everything and that all knowledge is subject to challenge.
Secondly, there is the centrality of observation and mathematics. Mathematical tools are used to connect observations to theories.
Thirdly, we use new knowledge to create new powers by developing technologies.
Out of knowledge came power and the idea of progress, the notion that the future could be made better than the past. Knowledge was married to empire.
What made Europeans exceptional was “their unparalleled and insatiable ambition to explore and conquer.” The discovery and exploitation of America was particularly significant, he says.
Then came capitalism. To understand capitalism, Harari says you need to understand one word: growth. Knowledge, power, technology and conquest created growth. Harari points out that prior to the modern era there was negligible growth in per capita production. If you wanted more, you took it at someone else’s expense.
Underlying growth, he says, is the idea of progress and a trust in the future. Earlier societies used credit, but now it was used to produce consistent growth. In this context, the Dutch produced two powerful ideas.
The first was the limited liability joint-stock company which supercharged joint action and enhanced the availability of capital. Along with this went a financial system based on justice for the individual irrespective of position and private property rights.
The Dutch, he says, believed in paying interest on loans and respecting property rights. This contrasts with the Spanish aristocracy, for example, who did not.
In the end, though, capitalism did not usher in utopia. There were and are issues about equity and the limits to growth, which, logically, cannot go on forever. Profit can be used to justify just about anything, including at one point slavery.
The industrial revolution is fundamentally about energy sources and energy conversion. Throughout history solar energy produced plants which were then converted into muscle power by humans and animals. Other sources of power were static, such as the mill stream or the windmill. The breakthrough was the use of steam to create movement and then the use of coal to create the steam.
The biggest effects of the new technology were in agriculture. In most societies more than 90% of the population were peasants. Most food production fed farm animals and people who lived on farms. Only a small percentage was available to feed artisans, teachers, priests and bureaucrats. Now in the United States only 2% of people are engaged in agriculture, but they feed the rest with some left over to export.
But in the end, Harari says, from a scientific viewpoint, life has no meaning. The only thing that makes us happy is our biochemical system.
- Today, when we finally realise that the keys to happiness are in the hands of our biochemical system, we can stop wasting our time on politics and social reforms, putsches and ideologies, and focus on the only thing that can make us truly happy: manipulating our biochemistry.
Brain chemistry is where it’s at. Happiness begins within.
- Money, social status, plastic surgery, beautiful houses, powerful positions – none of these will bring you happiness. Lasting happiness comes only from serotonin, dopamine and oxytocin.
Told you he was dark!