Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind (2014)

Yuval Noah Harari


Is there anything more dangerous than dissatisfied and irresponsible gods who don’t know what they want?

Sapiens was first published in English in 2014 and has since become a best-seller of sorts, garnering many awards from prestigious institutions. It has also attracted much scholarly criticism, the main thrust of which is that the book overly generalises, makes too many speculative leaps and is not accurately referenced. Whatever the validity of both praise and censure, Sapiens is valuable and insightful for its broad sweep across ‘human history’ and also for its insights into the human predicament, historical and contemporary. The ideas in the book are not particularly new (multiple human species co-existed on the planet at one point in time, the agricultural revolution was not conducive to human health, we are surrounded by social constructs that we mistake as fundamentally real). What makes it fascinating is the manner of the telling and, more importantly, the abiding interest in the possibility of having an insight into our collective conditioning. This makes Sapiens of special interest to educators within a Krishnamurti context.

To begin with, Sapiens is a tremendous resource for a social science teacher. The author points to many areas that students and teachers can explore and research together—the origins of writing, of money, the structures of monotheistic religions:

[Writing] was limited to facts and figures. The great Sumerian novel, if there ever was one, was never committed to clay tablets...If we look for the first words of wisdom reaching us from our ancestors, 5,000 years ago, we’re in for a big disappointment. The earliest messages our ancestors have left us read, for example, ‘29,086 measures barley 37 months Kushim’. The most probable reading of this sentence is: ‘A total of 29,086 measures of barley were received over the course of 37 months. Signed, Kushim.’ Alas, the first texts of history contain no philosophical insights, no poetry, legends, laws, or even royal triumphs. They are humdrum economic documents, recording the payment of taxes, the accumulation of debts and the ownership of property.

This is a great springboard into an exploration of various writing systems in the world (many of which are referenced in Sapiens) and also into the role of writing in daily life today (emails, sms, Facebook postings). Harari similarly explores a whole range of human social practices in an engaging and subtle style, with much for an educator to ponder. However, this is only one aspect of the book’s depths. There are many other works that could serve as sources for our middle-school projects. The beauty of Sapiens lies mostly in its interest in our psychological worlds and our capacity to learn about them.

Near the end of Sapiens, looking back on the sweep of human progress, the author considers the nature of human happiness:

But are we happier? Did the wealth humankind accumulated over ...centuries translate into a new-found contentment? Did the discovery of inexhaustible energy resources open before us inexhaustible stores of bliss? ...Was the late Neil Armstrong, whose footprint remains intact on the windless moon, happier than the nameless hunter-gatherer who 30,000 years ago left her handprint on a wall in Chauvet Cave? If not, what was the point of developing agriculture, cities, writing, coinage, empires, science and industry?

Hardly a new question in the annals of human thought. But the question acquires a poignancy in the reader’s mind through its position in the book, which has by now explored the vastness of the human experience—the hunter gatherer’s life, the agricultural revolution, the scientific revolution. Though seemingly naïve, it is the fundamental question that all seven billion members of the species are now grappling with in one way or another, and it comes as a cognitive and visceral shock to the reader to be confronted with it in the face of the collective human experience as laid out in Sapiens.

Harari considers various answers to the happiness problem, the most provocative of which is the chemical solution. No one responds to “life events”; all we respond to is the flow of various chemicals throughout our organism and to neural events in the brain (“Nobody is ever made happy by winning the lottery, buying a house, getting a promotion...People are made happy by one thing and one thing only—pleasant sensations in their bodies.”) Why not therefore simply pop a pill to keep us permanently happy (Huxley’s solution in Brave New World)? One of the nicest aspects of Sapiens is its refreshingly non-moralistic tone; Harari takes apart this argument clinically and sceptically without ever preaching to his audience. Happiness is not, obviously, merely chemical; it is also about, “seeing one’s life in its entirety as meaningful and worthwhile.” Even this rather neat package, however, is held up to scrutiny by the author. A medieval peasant believed in the “promise of everlasting bliss in the afterlife,” and this is what gave his life meaning and made it worthwhile. Is happiness then just a matter of “synchronising one’s personal delusions of meaning with the prevailing collective delusions”? It is a tough pill to swallow, but we must all certainly ask of ourselves, and particularly in our educational contexts, whether our pet notions of the meanings of life, whatever they may be, are not merely personal and collective delusions. This is the kind of invitation to a risky exploration that makes Sapiens such an exhilarating read.

The ‘solution’, in the author’s view, is to ‘know thyself ’, to begin to understand our inner nature. Taking a Buddhist approach, Harari meditates upon the futility of pursuing our impermanent feelings (“When the pursuit stops, the mind becomes very relaxed, clear and satisfied”.) When the entire book is considered in this light, it becomes possible to view the essence of the human experience, both historical and personal, as structured by our conditioning. The possibility of examining our conditioning and being free from it is presented as a real one:

The resulting serenity is so profound that those who spend their lives in the frenzied pursuit of pleasant feelings can hardly imagine it. It is like a man standing for decades on the seashore, embracing certain ‘good’ waves and trying to prevent them from disintegrating, while simultaneously pushing back ‘bad’ waves to prevent them from getting near him. Day in, day out, the man stands on the beach, driving himself crazy with this fruitless exercise. Eventually, he sits down on the sand and just allows the waves to come and go as they please. How peaceful!

Importantly, Harari does not confuse this possibility of attention with New Age movements that have recently flooded the markets and which use, superficially, the same language. Indeed, he suggests that liberal thinking has actually distorted the possibility of attention, interpreting it as “connecting with your inner feelings,” whereas we must actually consider the insight that true wellbeing “may be independent of inner feelings.”

Apart from the possibility of learning about ourselves, the other core insight of the book to me is that we live, at every level possible, in imagined realities. Whether we look at money, or the law, or social status differentiation, or nationhood, or gender, or indeed any of the multitude of the aspects of personal and social life that humans live, fight and die for, these are in a very real sense, human constructs. Others have made this point before, but it is presented in consistent and creative ways in Sapiens, to the point that it becomes difficult to walk in the street without being overwhelmed by the sense of the imagined order across many dimensions.

How do you cause people to believe in an imagined order such as Christianity, democracy or capitalism? First, you never admit that the order is imagined. You always insist that the order sustaining society is an objective reality created by the great gods or by the laws of nature. People are unequal, not because Hammurabi said so, but because Enlil and Marduk decreed it. People are equal, not because Thomas Jefferson said so, but because God created them that way. Free markets are the best economic system, not because Adam Smith said so, but because these are the immutable laws of nature.

Harari considers three important ways in which these imagined orders are maintained as fictions across societies. First, “the imagined order is embedded in the material world.” In other words, our houses, our classrooms and temples embody various aspects of this order. Second, “the imagined order shapes our desires”:

For instance, the most cherished desires of present-day Westerners are shaped by romantic, nationalist, capitalist and humanist myths that have been around for centuries. Friends giving advice often tell each other, ‘Follow your heart.’ But the heart is a double agent that usually takes its instructions from the dominant myths of the day, and the very recommendation to ‘Follow your heart’ was implanted in our minds by a combination of nineteenth-century Romantic myths and twentieth-century consumerist myths...

Finally, the imagined order is ‘inter-subjective’ meaning that it exists across human consciousness and not merely in the individual. Even if I can be ‘personally’ free, I still live in a society in which the imagined order prevails. Harari reaches the rather gloomy conclusion that we can never be free of the imagined order; when we break down the walls of one order, we merely move into a larger prison.

When the two core insights of the book are taken together and we read Sapiens in their light, a wholly different perspective on human history and the human psyche comes to view. We are massively conditioned; our conditioning is what has created human history and society as it exists today; it is possible to be attentive to our conditioning and to be free of craving. There is a global perspective in these insights, and the wealth of detail in Sapiens serves to illustrate them with sensitivity and humour, in an affectionate yet detached tone. In a way, Sapiens must be re-read rather than merely read, for it is only then that both the core insights and the supporting details stand out.

The quote at the beginning of this review is actually the final sentence of Sapiens. As much as he is concerned about our past, Harari is also concerned about our future as a species. As we become technologically enhanced beings, will we strive for immortality? What possibilities will genetic engineering open up in the human realm? He is not optimistic about our future as discontented gods.