Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind . By Y. N. Harari.

Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind . By Y. N. Harari. Harper-Collins Publishers. NY: 2012.

In 417 pages, we might expect a wide-ranging overview. However, this book’s perspective is how humanity developed, after evolving into the superior Homo Sapiens species, and its increasingly focused efforts to control the environment of the planet and the other life upon it. How Harari describes that can best be imagined after reading a few sentences in the “Afterword. The Animal That Became a God.” (p.416)
It begins “SEVENTY THOUSAND YEARS AGO, HOMO sapiens was still an insignificant animal minding its own business in a corner of Africa. In the following millennia it transformed itself into the master of the entire planet and the terror of the ecosystem.” There follow three paragraphs of summary, concluding with a single sentence. “Is there anything more dangerous than dissatisfied and irresponsible gods who don’t know what they want?” The question mark seems to be the only inkling we have of optimism for a positive outcome for Sapiens.

The dust cover provides more clues and insights. “…bold, wide-ranging and provocative,,,challenge(s) everything we thought we knew about humans…” Harari is a Lecturer in history at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. The book is already a best-seller in five countries. It has four Parts: The Cognitive Revolution (how Sapiens developed), The Agricultural Revolution (History’s Biggest Fraud), Unification of Mankind(..History…Money…Visions,,,Religion…Success), The Scientific Revolution (six Chapters and a final one—The End of Homo Sapiens).

More than a single reading is needed to get everything that is described from a perspective that is stripped of anything but the facts that support the main idea. I do intend to read it at least once again. My first impressions are that this would make a fine science-fiction novel. It would describe an alien ship finding the planet Earth after eons in space, containing survivors of a long-ago disaster on their home planet. Finding the dominant life form much like themselves, they interbred and evolved after 60,000 years into Homo Sapiens. About 10,000 years ago they developed numbers, language, agriculture, and, having brought with them a technology beyond even their own abilities to reproduce, their elders contrived to “leak” technology and science over the last 9 millenia until they reached the present day. Finally, the history of earth was becoming eerily like that of the doomed planet.
Here is where I return to reality; Harari, in his final Section, suggests that Sapiens has three choices over the next century: (1) use already-known gene and DNA science to develop a fully-living super human who will continue to develop; (2) create mechanical and cyber prosthetics for human organs—including parts of the brain—that will enhance human abilities far beyond their current capabilities, or failing those,(3) give up to a robot-supported society which will eventually result in the extinction of Sapiens.

I have not imagined an ending for my science-fiction novel. There are other possibilities; however, Harari’s seem to have covered the most plausible of them. We WILL continue to exploit DNA-based science to find cures for diseases and “revisions” of the limits of human development. {Harari describes an experiment in France in the year 2,000, in which an ordinary rabbit embryo was injected with a gene from a florescent squid. The result was a florescent rabbit.) We have gone well beyond that “trick” already.
This book does not address much that is not negative, or leads to negative historical events. Nevertheless, it ends with a question. My sense is that, though this book is a product of thinking (mostly) otherwise, it does end with a question. Perhaps even Harari finds some reason to hope.

PART 2–6-2-15

For most of us, survival of Sapiens is less important that our family’s and our own. On P. 18 Harari says, “Whether or not Sapiens are to blame or not, no sooner do they arrive at a new location then the native population become extinct.” “The last remains of Homo Solensis is dated to about 50,000 years ago. Homo Desinova disappeared shortly thereafter. Neanderthals… 30,000 years ago, Flores island dwarves 12,000 years.” He also says about why this happens, “The most likely answer is Sapiens’ unique language.” (My comment is–in light of the importance of communication and language in today’s world, perhaps that is what might save them.)

Harari’s history of the past 500 years emphasizes the economic and political. He begins by contrasting a European of 1,000 years ago who would find similarities in 1,500 AD, with someone from 1,500 AD, who would find the year 2014 AD almost impossible to comprehend. He then explains why.
The economic and political conflicts, the discovery of North and South America, the colonization of most of the world by Europeans, and the development, uses and abuses of science and technology are all events of the past five centuries. the change in governments from “the divine right of kings” to democracy in much of the world, transportation, communication, the growth of capitalism, the scope of wars, are difficult to contemplate for even those of us alive today.
He emphasizes the facts are that today most of the world is accessible and is in danger of becoming over-populated, that science has made it more dangerous than ever before, and that the earth’s resources are being depleted. And, political and economic structures seem unable to keep pace. A lull in the exploitation of human labor resources from the early 1900s to after WWII has now passed. The description reads like an indictment. He cites the appearance of the Communist threat to Capitalism, that has waned. And now, increasingly, Sapiens is struggling to maintain the appearance of progress.
In fact, there has been a great deal of progress in many areas. but Harari is not optimistic that it will continue. He sees the conflicts generated by capitalism, science, religion and the increases in population forcing the choice from among the three options: bio-enhancement, prosthetic enhancement, or succumbing to robotic domination and so extinction.
An insightful observation highlights the dilemma. He suggests that
Sapiens has in a real sense confounded both religionists and scientists on their concept of “intelligent design.” He points out that if Sapiens is to survive, science must accept the challenge to preserve it, meaning it must act intelligently, while religionists must also accept the “intelligent design” developed by science, if they can agree that their common goal over the next decades will have to be survival.

Finally, Harari asks, “How might things have turned out if the Neanderthals, or Denisovans had survived?” My own questions are different and focused on what appears to be the predictions about the future of humanity suggested here.

I will be surprised if there is not another book on the future of Sapiens in process. If not, there should be. Are there other possibilities than the three suggested in this book?
What would the alternatives suggested be like? Who would benefit, who would lose, what would the process be that humans will go through over the next 100 years to get to the point of survival, using each of the three alternatives as scenarios?
In priority of needing solution, what issues does the author see as essential to solution–economic, environmental, religious, cultural, etc.? Other than environment–what is the priority here? Economic stability (or some accommodation like drastic population control–)?
Can survival happen without total control, total cooperation, severe changes that determine choices, another world war, etc.?

This book is an intelligently focused description of how one might look at the world if they had not been subjected to the “conditioning” of being raised by a specific family in a specific part of the world, and educated day after day in being “sapiens,” of a specific kind–Oriental, Caucasian, African, Hispanic, American, etc. Leaving out nationality, ethnicity, etc. can help us use this book’s (ostensible) objectivity (not from all ethical but most other judgments) to gain a more enlightened perspective on the role of Sapiens, who now are the ONLY “humans” left.
A final question: When will most of those humans living on the planet be able to hear or read the word Sapiens and think “we,’ or “us,” rather than “those others?”

John H. Langer, JD, Ed.D. Retired Federal agency manger, former professor of education, public school administrator, and writer of a number of articles and publications on education, public affairs, substance abuse and social issues. In writing a book on attention and memory as it relates to education, this blog is helping to focus attention n current issues, and hopefully, add something useful as well.

One Comment

  1. Steve Sawmelle says:

    You quoted Y. N. Harari: <>

    And then you opined: “The question mark seems to be the only inkling we have of optimism for a positive outcome for Sapiens.”

    Herewith some further inklings pointing to grounds for hope:

    – Berlin Wall torn down
    – Slavery ended
    – Confederate flag lowered in numerous public places
    – Community policing sees reinforced urgency
    – Gay marriage recognized
    – Military deciding to soon allow transgender people
    – Affordable Care Act largely successful
    – Obama now addressing over-sentencing and mass incarceration

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