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Sapiens: My review of a book about humans

The cover of Harari’s book reads “Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind”. In fact, the book is more a philosophical meditation on the past, present and future of humans than a historical account. The author takes questions including: what is a human?, and, what makes humans happy?, and explores them through the lens of hunter-gatherer, agricultural, empire and modern/scientific societies. If there is an answer, it is perhaps that these questions will remain just as difficult, if not more difficult, for homo sapien societies of the future than those of the present or past.

1. Humankind has made incredible progress, but, progress in the name of what?

Just because we are technologically advanced doesn’t mean we are happier. People today may not be happy living in a hunter gatherer society, but that doesn’t mean that hunter gatherers were less happy or satisfied than we are today. Indeed, objective happiness – measured via surveys – seems to suggest that a state of happiness is driven by genetics and by environment, but a good environment doesn’t seem to require technology. Perhaps, Harari reluctantly suggests, “happiness is synchronising one’s personal delusions of meaning with the prevailing collective delusions”. Yes, sounds cynical, but interesting. Maybe this is why we don’t put the meaning of life into words…

Also interesting is Harari’s perspective on how societal or technical progress has not always been good for well being. Looking at the agricultural revolution where people moved from diverse hunter gatherer tasks to monotonous specialisation as peasants (where conditions were often worse), Harari argues the agriculturalisation of society is perhaps one of history’s greatest frauds. It is a lesson worth keeping in mind as we push for the vague notions of “science”, “technology” and “progress”. Today, our world has more technological capability and we have greater ability, through communications, to be aware of that capability. Today we benchmark ourselves not against our communities but against our world. We have greater visibility into inequality than ever before, and we have tools to create greater inequality than before. As society advances, forgetting that human happiness is relative, will perhaps be to our peril.

2. Are animal rights and human rights two sides of the same coin?

Harari begins the book highlighting how homo sapiens may well have established ourselves by eliminating neanderthals. The very question of who is considered to be human has been and will be tenuous. In the past, homo sapiens have eliminated one another on the basis of much smaller genetic differences (e.g. skin colour, gender, language etc.) than those between neanderthals and homo sapiens. In the future, genetic technology may bring us back to tensions between human species, perhaps homo-sapiens versus homo-futurus (that is made up, I can’t speak Latin, much less predict the future).

3. What is the future of mankind?

Harari finishes the book on a topic that is to the fore as of 2016, with much news around the development of artificial intelligence. Harari, at least in my opinion, breaks down, in a nice way, how humans might now evolve via technology: a) we modify our genes with biology b) we build robots that think for themselves, or c) we combine smart robots/computers with humans to increase our powers.

In some ways, as many (like Elon Musk) have pointed out, we already have AI – it’s in our mobile phones and computers. With our phones (notwithstanding the productivity sink of Candy Crush) we are already superhumans. Elon Musk seems to think that the best outcome is for some kind of option c) where humans are part of the AI rather than replaced by it. Seems like a good option to me (if this is a choice).

4. Some caveats

Covering the history of humankind in one book is definitely an endeavour that requires the sparing of some detail. That being said, I have to say my faith in the historical accuracy was occasionally shaken. One chapter recounts how St. Brigid is the most revered saint in Ireland, when it seems to me that would be St. Patrick. Along similar lines, Harari’s chapter “On the Scent of Money” recounts how money arose as a replacement for barter. I’m not an anthropologist, but I did read David Graeber’s book “Debt: The First 5,000 Years“, and it seems there is a strong case against barter having being the precursor of money [Graeber argues money (currency) arose as a means of kings to collect taxes or pay soldiers and civil servants]. These aren’t major points, but I am left wondering to what extent some other historical claims might need to be double checked.

Sapiens, it’s a good read. On a scale of yes or no, I would give it a yes.


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