In a world racked by conflicts, disruption and polarization, the book that I have just finished reading couldn’t have been more timely.
Sapiens by Yuval Noah Harari is a magisterial work that takes in not decades, not centuries, but millennia in its grand sweep of history. To say that it is simply the history of mankind, would not be doing the book full justice, though that is indeed the subtitle of the book. A Brief History of Humankind, it declares on the cover. How very modest of the author.
Like you would expect from such a book, it does begin with the evolution of life and of man on earth. Starting with the various species of Homo, he takes us on this fantastic journey from East Africa where our species Homo Sapiens was first found. Travelling with the Sapiens through different parts of the world, we learn how early man lived, worked and communicated.
Sapiens tries to tell the story of humankind through the ages which Harari has divided into epochs, defined by three major revolutions: the cognitive revolution, the agricultural revolution and the scientific revolution.
But that alone doesn’t make the book remarkable. Yuval Noah Harari opens our eyes to new ways of looking back at our past and how we reached where we are. For example, he introduces us to the concept of “imagined realities” and how important they were to the survival of man. These were essentially myths and beliefs that man invented to make life orderly and liveable.
Of course, it’s no surprise that religion was one of them. It’s also true that religion has been a source of conflict. And while mythology helped create order and cooperation in society, it was contradictions that gave birth to culture. Because the social order that man created was an imagined order too:
“Myths, it transpired, are stronger than anyone could have imagined. When the Agricultural Revolution opened opportunities for the creation of crowded cities and mighty empires, people invented stories about great gods, motherlands and joint stock companies to provide the needed social links. While human evolution was crawling at its usual snail’s pace, the human imagination was building astounding networks of mass cooperation, unlike any other on earth.”
So how is it that men who had spent centuries, indeed even millennia, communing with, and cooperating with each other reach an impasse where conflict and hostilities rule the day? It was the confluence of several factors at different points in time, one would have to imagine. Harari points us in the direction of the Enlightenment and the rise of liberalism which emphasized the importance of the individual and his/her will over the community or society. This was quickly followed by the Scientific and the Industrial Revolutions as well as Empire building.
Reading Sapiens, it is hard to believe that just a few centuries – two to three to be precise – changed the world beyond recognition. In a history that spans millennia, it is a scintilla that we are talking about and yet, what an epochal few centuries they have been. What’s more, the changes were wrought by man, through his free will, his imagination and power.
Yuval Noah Harari narrates all this in an eminently readable style, punctuated with several examples from today that we can all easily recognize for what he intends to convey. He manages to draw connections effortlessly in order to convey his precise meaning. When he talks of imagined realities, for example, he draws a comparison between the Stadel Cave lion-man (from about 32,000 years ago) and the Peugeot car company which makes vehicles adorned with a similar lion-man icon. Coincidentally, Peugeot began as a family business in Valentigney, which happens to be just 300 kms from the Stadel Cave.
In what way is the Stadel Cave lion-man different from Peugeot? In what sense can we say that the company Peugeot exists, he asks? He then proceeds to explain the similarity by asking us to take off our “imagined realities” lens and put on a new “legal fictions” lens. They’re essentially the same: a concept that man reinvented to suit the changed times.
Going back to the era of mercantilism, enlightenment, and leading up to the Scientific and the Industrial Revolutions, we also meet the ascent of money and wealth in our society. How it didn’t just help man pay for goods and services, it encouraged greater trust among men. It played an important role in creating greater cooperation and trust in society and also helped people plan for their own futures and for the generations to follow. With greater growth and better health, man had moved from survival and subsistence living to seeking a secure future. Taken to its logical conclusion, that would mean trust in the future which, according to Harari, is the capitalist creed.
When it comes to science and industry, especially in its current avatar, Harari is more circumspect. And understandably so, I think. Man’s capacity for invention must never be confused with his capacity for doing good. Of course, he cites the example of the invention of the atom bomb and the Manhattan Project when Robert Oppenheimer is believed to have quoted lines from the Bhagavad Gita on seeing the nuclear explosion: “Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.”
Today, as we live in an interconnected world like never before, where technology provides the underlying linkages, we also must be mindful not to let it rule our lives. With the spate of recent security breaches and the loss of jobs due to ever-increasing automation as well as new technologies such as AI, man as super-inventor is perhaps also trying to play god. There will also be man who plays the devil, as we can already tell from the incidents of cyber attacks and meddling in democratic processes even by state actors.
Imagine the risks in an IoT world. For every firewall that man builds, there will be another inventive mind in another part of the world thinking of ways that it can be breached.
Harari tells us a few cautionary tales towards the end of his book. But I think he might have saved the best for his next book, Homo Deus, which deals with the future of mankind. As the name suggests, it probably deals with man trying to play god.
I simply can’t wait to buy and read it.