Third Book review of IDEA Bangladesh held on 18th December, 2019 at TSC, Jahangirnagar University.
Book Name: Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind
Author: Yuval Noah Harari
Reviewed by: Ahnaf Tahmid Arnob
Summery at a glance:
Time, at least perceptible time, and matter as we know it, began about 13.72 billion years ago through an outward explosion from an ‘initial singularity’ which contained all of the mass and spacetime of the universe- otherwise called the ‘Big Bang’. About 4.5 billion years ago, planet Earth came into being and around 3.2 million years ago, a primate that we now call the ‘missing-link’ between apes and humans, Lucy (Australopithecus afarensis), fell out of a tree and died. We found her bones in 2016, and along with fossilized records of other primates, we are now sure that we are not the only humans to have walked around on planet Earth. Although it is utterly impossible to render a complete account of the 200,000 years of our (Homo sapiens) history, yet in his ‘Sapiens: A Brief history of Humankind’, Dr Harari has tried to put forward a concise and holistic view of our past, present and future as a species. He has depicted a vivid image of the history of the Homo sapiens (wise humans)- which is literally ‘brief’ as the title suggests (6% of the 2.4m years throughout the existence of Humankind i.e. primates and us), compared to the cosmological timeframe. Hence, throughout the 500-page book, he has termed our species as ‘Sapiens’ and the other primates as ‘Humans’, for obvious biological reasons. As a master storyteller, Dr Harari gradually unravels the marvelous revolutions of our species starting with the ‘cognitive revolution’ (70,000 years earlier), where we start to behave in far more ingenious ways than before, through the emergence of fiction, and we spread rapidly across the planet. About 12,000 years ago, we enter the ‘agricultural revolution’. The ‘scientific revolution’ begins roughly 500 years ago, which triggers the ‘industrial revolution’, 250 years later. This in turn triggers the ‘information revolution’, about 50 years ago, which finally triggers the ‘biotechnological revolution’, which Harari suspects as the ending song for our species. Harari predicts bio-engineered humans, ‘amortal’ cyborgs, and an end-purpose, supposedly similar to the ‘Gilgamesh Project’ (named after the hero of the epic who set out to destroy death): ‘to give humankind eternal life’ or ‘amortality’. Amortality is not the same as ‘immortality’, since we would still be able to die by violence: our instinctive feature.
Harari indulges in many other momentous events, most notably the development of language and our ability to create orderly ‘fiction’. These fictitious orders include: the rise of religion and the slow overpowering of polytheisms by monotheisms, the evolution of money and credit, the spread of empires and trade as well as the rise of capitalism. They have toppled our sense of ‘objective reality’ by a superior sense of ‘fictional reality’.
Dr Harari flips off the agricultural revolution by saying: ‘modern industrial agriculture might well be the greatest crime in history’. ‘We did not domesticate wheat. It domesticated us.’, he adds. There was, Dr Harari says, ‘a Faustian bargain between humans and grains’ in which our species ‘cast off its intimate symbiosis with nature and sprinted towards greed and alienation’. It brought a worse diet, longer hours of work, greater risk of starvation, crowded living conditions, greatly increased susceptibility to disease, new forms of insecurity and uglier forms of hierarchy. However, he accepts the common view that the fundamental structure of our emotions and desires hasn’t been touched by any of these revolutions: ‘our eating habits, our conflicts and our sexuality are all a result of the way our hunter-gatherer minds interact with our current post-industrial environment, with its mega-cities, airplanes, telephones and computers’.
Dr Harari, pushing ‘Sapiens’ through the subtle delicacies, and often hyper-Procrustean judgements, poetically ends with an afterword titled: ‘The Animal that Became a God’. As Harari ends: ‘Self-made gods…seeking little more than our own comfort and amusement, yet never finding satisfaction. Is there anything more dangerous than dissatisfied and irresponsible gods who don’t know what they want?’ No wonder why the book has been honored as one of the greatest in the twenty-first century!