Sapiens

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Fascinating, despite claims of errors

I’ve listened to this book twice, now (it being the first in my library to get a second complete re-listen), and the stars I gave it a year and a half ago still stand. My thoughts, though, have matured a little. Harari covers mostly social aspects of the human species all the way from our cradle in Africa 200 000 years ago, up till 2014.

I am not learned in the field, and cannot immediately say anything about the accuracy of what Harari writes, and I note several more or less expert reviewers giving Harari flack for sensationalism and errors. As such, perhaps it is good not to take Sapiens as gospel as far as details go.

In a course I followed as part of my PhD in physics, we touched upon how the need for accurate time keeping came about, where my professor suggested the need arose not too long after the black death when scarcity of labour made it more important for skilled craftsmen to keep tabs on how long they actually worked on a given project. Harari suggests accurate time keeping came about in the newly railroaded Great Britain, where accurate scheduling suddenly became important. To be fair, Harari really discusses synchronisation, not accuracy, but the gist of the argument makes it seem like the need for train time tables gave rise to the industry of accurate time pieces. Whether the black death or the trains were more critical, I can’t say, but the Swiss began making their famous watches in the 15th century, which is a bit more in line with the black death than with the industrial revolution.

Be that as it may, a potential lack of exact facts seem to me not to detract from a slew of very interesting thoughts on the broader topic.

Three points stick with me;

1) The fraud of agriculture.

I feel Harari paints an unduly romantic picture of the life of a hunter gatherer, saying they had 40 hour work weeks and spent lots of time with their children and telling stories under the stars. It sounds a bit stylised. But, my gut tells me he is on the right track in his condemnation of the agricultural revolution. As humans, we have an incredible inability to look ahead, and Sapiens posits this inability trapped us in a dreadful spiral of growing population and diminishing freedom. At first, it seems like a good idea to spend an extra month in this here spot to tend to some plants that grew really well last year. Take a month and weed a bit, maybe chase off a herd of grazers or whatever, and then continue on the nomad trek. Next year, you will return to loads of tasty fruits/grains/some plant or other. Well, a month turns to two, then the band of foragers suddenly have a couple babies on their hands, and might not easily move for another few months. Now you need a hut, rather than just a lean-to. Before your grumpy grandfather knows it, you’re established, and you’re farming more than you forage and hunt. And your great grandchildren are two fields over clubbing another farmer to death to take his land. And women are suddenly just baby machines rather than root and berry pickers. And one third of your children die of starvation and diseases from close-quarters living. Oh, and you are about as likely to die of violence as of starvation. Great.

The story Harai weaves simply makes sense to me. We see it time and again; we start doing something that seems great in the moment, but three generations hence, we’ve no more oil, the atmosphere is turning toxic, and we’re hopped up on a cocktail of hormone mimicking chemicals. And the goddam bees are dying. So, for all of Harari’s romanticising of hunter gatherer societies, I think he’s onto something about how we accidentally fell into becoming farmers, paving the way for slums, kings, and feudal hierarchy.

2) How come European culture became so dominant?

This is an interesting topic that can easily turn into a trashy cultural masturbation contest, but on the whole, I feel Harari navigates it well. Now, I am of both Southern and Northern European descent, so I may just not be sufficiently tuned to pick up on major issues with his arguments. That said, he makes the case that in the 15th century, there were no major technological differences between the largest powers in the world; Europeans, the Ottomans, the Chinese, they were all pretty evenly matched as far as technology went, and it might seem like a surprise that only 200/300 years later, Europe would have such a choke hold around the globe. Harari’s suggestion for the key difference is social and philosophical: Europeans were unusually willing to accept ignorance, and unusually interested in filling these gaps in knowledge. European cultures were the first ones in which great swathes of individuals had personal interest in discovering stuff. Of course, in light of our global culture where these kinds of ideals are, well, ideals, this sounds uncomfortably like European cultures are “better”. But that isn’t what Harari drives at. It simply “is” like this. Meaning also that incredible damage and suffering, past and future, is at the hands of European cultures. Speaking of how things might have been better if some other culture had gained the upper hand the way Europe did is not part of Harari’s discussion, but that’s fine by me; he is describing history at this point, letting the listener draw any moral conclusions on their own.

3) Empire + Capitalism + Science

As a budding scientist with what I consider pure motivations, I’m no great fan of how science and imperialism has gone hand in hand since the scientific revolution. Yet, here we are. Harari draws a parallel between science and empire building in which he posits a philosophical equivalence; science is about dominion over nature, insofar as large amounts of science is done to bolster our ability to make use of nature for our purposes. And the parts of science not about conquest as such, are still all about us, and our desire to pad the list of things we understand. Perhaps it could not really be otherwise, or, perhaps, it is a consequence of European hegemony, and another culture’s approach might have led to science unmarred by ties to economic gains and imperial ambitions.

Some critics from the fields of anthropology and history say Harari lacks originality here, and says he goes a bit rogue in the parts where he provides his own thoughts. This is pretty scathing critique, but also a bit beside the point. I don’t think Sapiens is entirely accurate, and I don’t think it was meant to be used as the curriculum for a human history course. I think it lays out some sensible arguments about human history that I would not have seen were it not for Harari writing this book, and that is what I expect from a popular science work. I now have a little insight into a field that interests me, and have things to think about.

Well worth a listen!

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