SAPIENS: THE THREE REVOLUTIONS THAT DEFINE HUMANS
*SPOILER ALERT* “I would recommend Sapiens to anyone who’s interested in the history and future of our species”, Bill Gates...
“I would recommend Sapiens to anyone who’s interested in the history and future of our species”, Bill Gates discussed the book Sapiens: A brief history of humankind by Yuval Noah Harari.
Sapiens: A brief history of humankind by Yuval Noah Harari is a non-fiction book aiming to interpret such a complex topic in a way that can be understood by the majority of people. The author’s viewpoints blended with historical facts and fascinating anecdotes have brought about tremendous controversy around this book.
Covering briefly the history of humankind from 2.5 million years ago until today, Sapiens starts by explaining that there used to be several types of Human or Homo, just like there are different types of cats; but we, Homo sapiens, which literally means “intelligent human”, is the only kind of human that survives and thrive until today. The book, therefore, deals with the ultimate question: “How did we conquer the world?”. According to the book, there are 3 main revolutions through which Homo Sapiens have grown from insignificant apes to the rulers of the world.
The first revolution happening 70,000 years ago is the cognitive revolution. In this revolution, humans began to use something currently called “language”, which turns out to be the most potent weapon. Language means the ability to transfer an immense amount of information about the physical and social world around, the ability to transfer information about abstract things that do not really exist. Thanks to these abilities, we can corporate in such large groups to complete more and more complex tasks. These abilities are unique to us; and the impacts of these abilities are so far-reaching that ever since the cognitive revolution, we “Homo Sapiens” have been living in a dual reality. On the one hand, there are concrete things: the sun, the trees, the houses, the clothes. On the other hand, there are imagined realities: gods, families, corporations. Laws, limited companies, nations, cultures are all abstract things, figments of our collective imagination. As time went by, the imagined reality became such powerful that the existence of ourselves, of the forests,... relies heavily on the existence of gods, of Google, of Vietnam, of the UN.
The second revolution is the agricultural revolution, taking place 12,000 years ago. Considered one of the most controversial parts in this book, the agricultural revolution is, under Harari’s view, a luxury trap, history’s biggest fraud. We thought that we domesticated the wheat; but on the contrary, the wheat domesticated us. To prove his point, Harari went on to explain that an average hunter-gatherer had got a more diverse, healthier diet compared to an average farmers’ diet which consists mostly of cereals. He also argues that while farmers in the past relied heavily on only a few different domesticated plants, foragers could enjoy a wide range of species to survive and move to another location with a more diverse food supply. On the other hand, because of “being domesticated” by the wheat, farmers were forced to permanently settle down beside it.
Nevertheless, above all of its drawbacks, the agricultural revolution had given us an immense surplus of food, resulting in an incredible increase in population. But to Harari, this just means “the ability to keep more people alive under worse conditions”. This is a trap, a fraud. But was food the only driving force behind the agricultural revolution? Jared Diamond in his non-fiction book Guns, Germs, and Steel has emphasized the great importance of the agricultural revolution: agriculture means the surplus of food and the permanent establishment of village. The surplus of food means for the first time in history, humans could stop worrying about food for a second and have different occupations like teachers, shoe-makers, or king. The establishment of village means the appearance of tribe, and then kingdom, and then nations. Without the agricultural revolution, can the hunter-gatherers become technologically advanced like today as they continuously worried about finding food? This chapter provokes such controversy as it includes too much of a personal opinion for a non-fiction book.
The latest milestone is the scientific revolution. Within only 500 years, we have witnessed tremendous and unprecedented advances. Compared with the history of more than 200,000 years of Homo Sapiens, in just this recent 500-year period, humans have reached the moon, defeated those deadliest and contagious diseases, and wiped out a city with just a bomb. Of course, our ancestors had made plenty of efforts into exploring the world, but according to Harari, there is one uttermost factor that contributes to this phenomenal advance: the scientific revolution is a revolution of ignorance. The greatest discovery above all else was the discovery that humans do not know all the answers to their questions about the world. To people in the past, it was of no importance to understand how spiders weave their webs, how their language came to this place. On the other hand, the fact that governments, organizations donate a huge amount of money for scientific research also helps boost the growth of science than ever before. Of course, they did this with the belief that these scientific discoveries can help them achieve some kind of political, economical goals.
The knowledge incorporated in this book is not only immense but also provocative. It should be well-noted that Harari encourages all of us to “question the basis of narratives of our world,... not to be afraid of controversial issues”. As a reader, we have the responsibility to fact-check the information which we are uncertain of and to raise the questions on the unsolved mysteries of humankind. The book, on the other hand, answers but also raises lots of questions: What is the boundary for genetic experiments? Did all the scientific discoveries for the last century actually make us happier? If not, what is the point of developing cities, transportation, and industry?
I would recommend this book for those who take an interest in understanding history, anthropology, archeology, psychology, and even economy. I also believe that readers should consider this book as the author’s personal viewpoints, not as an exact, thorough account of humankind’s history. Therefore, readers should not only read but also think and query any points that seem insufficient and prejudiced.
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