One of the most important books I’ve ever read

At the Hamilton Gazette we will do book recommendations from time to time, whenever we come across a book worth reading.

Books have long been the lifeblood of human achievement, and the basis on which we build our education systems, our society and our inventions.

Arguably, Guthenberg’s printing press is one of the most important inventions in modern history, because it laid the foundation of everything that subsequently arrived, such as the steam engine, the battery and the internet. I doubt that would have been able to develop the World Wide Web, if he had not had books to read.

In short, books – or to be more specific, the written word – contain the cumulative knowledge of mankind, and we wouldn’t be where we were today if it wasn’t for books.

However, not all books are created equal, and some books are definitely better than others. One of the best books I’ve ever read, and one which is – in my humble opinion – one of the most important books ever written, the book Sapiens by Yuval Noah Harari.

Harari is an Israeli professor of history from the University of Jerusalem, and his book Sapiens is – in short – a history of the entire human species.

Origin of our species

The book starts by laying out our earliest ancestry – the point at which we developed from Neanderthals – or at which point the human light of consciousness switched on.

This is what Harari terms the cognitive revolution and argues that this is the point in time, which essentially separates us from earlier human species, such as e.g. Homo erectus.

In fact, it’s not only consciousness, but also the ability to tell ourselves and each other stories, which turn into collective fictions. Religion, nationalism, capitalism and idealism are all based on these collective fictions that we tell each other. But the reason they are so powerful is because we all tend to believe in these fictions in one form or another, which is one of the defining characteristics of our species.

It’s not so much the argument itself that is astonishing, but more the way he deconstructs the idea and manages to look at it from several different angles, and use it as a basis for all of the subsequent arguments in the book.

The foundational idea is that we took a long time to evolve into Homo Sapiens, and we still have the same basic brain-chemistry as was evolved 100.000 years ago on the plains of Africa.

This means that a lot of the basic human condition is explainable by what we know of evolutionary psychology.

Harari does an amazing job of laying out everything we know about the beginning of the Human species from a historical, biological and psychological standpoint.

One of the most striking examples of this is the way he uses this argument to explain the current global obesity epidemic spreading across the globe.

The argument he makes goes as follows: On the plains of Africa, resources were scarce, and we had to fight to feed ourselves and our tribe. Because of this, the best thing we could do when we found a calorie-dense resource was to consume as much of it as we possibly could. It didn’t make sense to balance or control our calorie intake, simply because we should eat whatever we could whenever we could.

Nothing in our basic bio-chemical make-up has changed since then, and so we carry this subconscious system of thought into our present day society, when food is no longer a scarce resource. This means that many people do not adapt their ingrained behaviours to modern day conditions, and because of this fact, they run amok on high-calorie foods, which explains why obesity and lifestyle related diseases are so prevalent.

The elegance and clarity of this argument is overwhelming, and it’s hard not to be seduced by how easily and clearly Harari explains such a major individual and societal issue.

Laying the foundation for our evolution as a species, he then turns to another field of interest, namely the evolution of our society.

The agricultural revolution

After having mastered living in small bands of hunter-gatherers, we figured we’d be better off if we used domesticated animals to do much of the hard work for us, so that we’d be able to consume more food with less resources, and thus increase the odds of our survival and reproduction.

Interestingly however, Harari argues that the agricultural revolution was not caused by the newfound human intelligence, but rather in the desire for a better life, and a better outcome for Homo Sapiens.

It’s not hard to see why this is preferable to the species, insofar as we are more likely to survive, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that it is better for the individual.

What Harari argues, is that people worked more than before, and were subjugated to more vicissitudes of life than ever before. Fields are notoriously difficult to tend to, bad weather could ruin the harvest and thus all the hard work you put in during the year. Even worse, another person – perhaps a king or local ruler – could completely fuck you up, because you were dependant on your crops, and thus your fields as your livelihood.

Ironically, even though the cultural revolution increased the amount of food, it did not lead to a better diet, and it did not make life easier. Instead it increased the amount of kings and nobility who hoarded the food, but it made life worse for the average peasant.

That’s why Harari refers to the agricultural revolution as the biggest fraud in history.

What needs to be pointed out however is that the agricultural didn’t happen overnight. Many small steps led to a time when we were definitively no longer hunter-gatherers, but instead full-fledged farmers. By the time this happened, society was suffering from child-mortality, poor hygiene, diseases and poor diets.

And this is where things get interesting, because as Harari puts it: “It is one of the iron laws of history: Luxuries tend to become necessities”. Now think about that statement for a minute. Instead of becoming happier, and better fed, we got used to having a roof over our head, and this became a necessity, thus making life worse for most individuals, instead of setting us free.

What’s even more interesting is that by the time we got to this point, it was too late to go back, because no one could remember how to live in any other way.

One global humankind

Subsequent to the agricultural revolution, humans started thinking more in terms of diversity, and created many different and highly complex cultures and societies. This was in no small part due to the abovementioned fictions of society – such as e.g. religion and nationalism, which facilitated the ability for a society to think as a coherent unit, and have the same set of beliefs on which to draw upon. Something that is incredibly valuable when it comes to collaboration between two seemingly unrelated parties. Due to the complexity of cultures and differences between societies, conflicts arose en masse. Not only due to inherent differences in beliefs, but also due to the quest for more territory.

Interestingly though, Harari argues that almost none of the empires that we equate with great dominance today – such as e.g. the Roman Empire – were forged out of a need for more landmass – instead these types of empires typically arose as a function of defending ones current territory. In vanquishing the enemy, the small empire took over a bit of land and thus became a slightly bigger empire. This effect snowballed until the Roman Empire became one of the largest ever in human history.

However, empire building – intentional or otherwise – as well as religion, nationalism and other fictions all took a backseat when it came to trade. People of different religions, states, cultures and societies were all willing to trade with each other, and thus were united by money – the biggest mechanism of trust ever devised.

It didn’t matter who you were, what you believed in or where you came from.

If you were willing to exchange your money for my goods or services that you needed, which I could in turn exchange for the goods and services that I needed, then we could make a deal no matter how big our differences might otherwise have been.

The appearance of trade started nudging humans towards a global empire.

Just as with the agricultural revolution however, this wasn’t something that happened overnight, but once we started moving in this direction, there was no going back.

Humanity’s golden age: science and industry

Something that has propelled humanity forward like no other force we’ve ever seen is science and technology. The admission that there are things that we don’t know, and which we refuse to explain by referring to superhuman beings or gods, has led us to know more than we ever dreamed possible.

We have explained the laws of motion, we have mapped the human genome, we have made computers, which can enable us to do pretty much anything we wish, and which so astonishingly powerful, that a human with has a computer at hand is almost an entirely different species from a human who does not.

The scientific method – establishing a hypothesis and testing whether it holds up under scrutiny, and testing whether or not your hypothesis allows you to make accurate predictions – has propelled us into an age where almost anything is possible.

Science coupled with the profit-motive, i.e. capitalism has led to discovery upon discovery, and one more fascinating piece of technology after the next one.

This is of course best exemplified by the invention of the steam engine and the advent of the industrial revolution. However, the industrial revolution and what we now refer to as modern life is not without consequences. We are very far removed from the environment in which our brain and physiology was shaped, and as a consequence it is not uncommon to feel disconnected from our true selves. This situation has a lot of consequences across fields as diverse as economics, biology and psychology.

In essence everything we are and do today, can be traced back to our ancestors on the savannah of the African plains, because evolution is such a slow moving phenomenon.

In its purest sense the speed of evolution in society as a whole has by far usurped the biological evolution inherent in the human species. This is the basis for a lot of the challenges we encounter in our daily lives, because the two are sometimes diametrically opposed, as in the case of obesity.

One solution – Harari argues is that we might take the evolution of biology into our own hands, which science will allow us to do in the very near future. A future which might spell the end of Homo Sapiens as we know them, and might usher in an era of upgraded Homo Sapiens – or Homo Technologicus.

Final thoughts

As you’ve probably guessed from the title, this is one of the books which has really touched me deeply and altered the way I think about things. Yuval Noah Harari is one of the clearest thinkers I’ve ever encountered, and his book touches on the very foundation of the way I view the world.

This book is a true testament to the power of the written word, and I cannot recommend this book highly enough.

If you only read one book this year, let it be this one.

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