I feel like I’ve grown up my entire life not really sure about humans. Where did we come from? How did we get to this place? What about other kinds of humans; did they ever exist? Because they were such complex questions, I never really took the time to explore them and find my answers. But lucky for me, the first book selection in my work’s new book club for “millennials” was Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind by Yuval Noah Harari.
After investing in a hard copy of the book (I didn’t want to wait 2-3 weeks for a paperback version), I was immediately transported thousands of years into the past. While the book focuses on us, homo sapiens (Latin for “wise man”), Harari begins even further back, more than 100,000 years ago, to when we were one of a handful of species in the homo genus that roamed different parts of the earth. The species of humans all had similarities, but what made homo sapiens especially different? Why didn’t the other species of humans make it to this day?
Harari’s answer: Homo sapiens experienced a “cognitive revolution” about 70,000 years ago that allowed us to collaborate with a large number of people. And while other animals and humans could do this too, homo sapiens developed the ability to come together over shared myths and stories, what we often like to call “higher purposes”. Ideas like freedom, religion, capitalism, human rights, gods, cities, currency, democracy, and more are all possible because homo sapiens developed the cognitive power to envision and articulate concepts that don’t physically exist. These kinds of ideas all exist in our imaginations; yet we’ve created ways of conceptualizing them, communicating them to others, and building consensus for their acceptance among large groups of people. It’s this idea that separated us about 70,000 years ago and it’s at the core of every significant shift in human history since then.
Jumping off from this idea, Harari carefully walks through the major shifts and creations of the last 70,000 years and its impact on the world. Here are just some of the many topics and questions Harari tackles as important parts of human history:
- The cultivation of wheat during the Agricultural Revolution (30,000 years ago) led to great collective success and more humans, but individual pain and suffering
- People created “imagined orders” that helped to build empires, states, and religions on the basis of shared norms and values
- The first system of writing came about because human brains were not equipped to store large amounts of numerical data
- There has always been injustice and oppression of certain groups of people because we are the creators of our societal systems
- For all the destruction and doom they’ve brought on people, empires have a fascinating legacy and possible future in the world
- About 500 years ago, humans admitted their enormous ignorance and created the Scientific Revolution and the pursuit of progress
- There are deep, intrinsic connections between the development of science, industry, capitalism, and empires
- In comparison to other time periods, we are in an enormous time of peace
The last couple chapters of the book are as harrowing as they are fascinating. After all of these topics, Harari poses a devastating question: for all of these advances, are we, homo sapiens, any happier than we were 70,000 years ago? There’s not a clear answer, but it really made me think about my own purposes in work and life. Additionally, Harari challenges us to think about the future of our species in the age of incredible scientific advances that may push us beyond the category of actual humans.
I’m grateful for Harari’s bold endeavor to stuff 70,000 years of human history into about 400 pages of fascinating text. The topics and questions presented in Sapiens may be the most important to discuss as our species and world continue our journeys to the future.