Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Book Review: Sapiens

A contemporary, scientific view of life on earth differs dramatically from the biblical perspective. To begin with the earth is not at the center of the universe. Nor, is it even at the center of our peripheral solar system. All right fine, you may say, we know all of that. But then, what if we were to stretch this new scientific perspective into an entirely consistent world view from the vantage point of the singular event 14 billion years ago (the Big Bang) that we now consider the beginning? The result of such a Cartesian discourse is a serious stretch for most. Yet, this is the journey that Yuval Noah Harari takes us on in his book, Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind.

The journey and the revelations will be disconcerting to many. Harari though is an excellent guide and his style, that of a non-confrontational story teller, palliates the bitter truth. That  at least is my view of his work. But then I am a fellow traveler. I wrote a book some years ago (2008), The Bridge, where I developed these same ideas and perspectives. To me it is most rewarding to see an historian of Harari's stature embrace such insights. I should confess here that I found myself speculating on how Wallace might have felt upon reading Darwin's publication. 

    And memories of the ebb and flow of ideas. (From The Story of Our People, a poetic drama by David Hillstrom)

Perhaps I should continue by simply stating the case: What are these common ideas? To start with the Big Bang was an absolute beginning. It is meaningless to ask what came before, since time and even space began with the singularity. Following the Big Bang billions of years passed before the earth was even formed. Billions of stars were formed before our own sun was born. The conditions on our planet earth happened to be favorable for the emergence of life (although we still have difficulty even in defining what life is precisely). Life forms then evolved for a few billion years more before we Sapiens appeared. There is no direction to evolution or purpose underlying natural events or human history. Nature has no discernible purpose. Step by step Harari guides the reader through this chronology of events. In fact he includes a timeline of the story as an introduction.

Harari goes on to explain that Sapiens then underwent a cognitive revolution through the development of speech and a greatly expanded consciousness. This cognitive revolution facilitated the growth of common myths that enriched the ability of communities to cooperate. For thousands of years though this cooperation remained at a local level. Once agriculture was invented further growth in the capacity for cooperation arose allowing a dramatic increase in social complexity. From that point on we enter the period of human history. Harari estimates that this cognitive revolution occurred about 70,000 years before the present, nearly 14 billion years after the Big Bang. The cognitive revolution has proven to be quite significant of course. Its impact has already reshaped life on earth (to the detriment of most other species). But, the inception of the revolution is inseparably bound together with the proliferation of myths.

Many authors have dealt with questions of mythology and contemporary religions  often with the intent of debunking unfounded beliefs. Harari examines this issue of social belief structures from a rather different perspective. First he expands the discussion to include much broader elements of social organization. All communities he says are fictive; they are imagined realities. Again, many will be comfortable with such arguments as a critique of religion. But how about race, or nation states or empires? Harari even offers the example of business corporations as fictive social structures. So, all social structures are ultimately based in fiction. Yet these fictions, these shared beliefs, allow groups to identify themselves as ‘we’ and to thus establish rules of engagement and cooperation. These fictions, therefore, permit the emergence of ever increasing degrees of complex interaction.

Harari pursues the human story up to the present and beyond. However, he deals with history at a macro level considering major trends. His book is not about the twists and turns of history or the details of specific periods or regions. Rather he observes trends from a satellite perspective, as though an alien observer, and points out the turning points, the paradigm shifts. Quite correctly, I think, he suggests that history has been a progression of empires. Then, with the industrial revolution and the colonial period about five hundred years ago "The entire planet becomes a single historical arena." The trend since then is toward a single empire or some form of international governance. Despite hiccup-examples such as 'Brexit' this looks like a reasonable deduction. But, at this juncture Harari and I part ways.

My personal inclination is to reflect upon how humanity might move from our current state toward a peaceful and just form of international governance. Harari observes that we may be incapable of reaching a consensus on the sort of future we want. Instead he looks for new discoveries or trajectories that will define our future, such as technology and genetic design. Humans themselves are today becoming gods capable of 'intelligent' design. But is rather impossible for us to predict how such new technology will impact the future. Regrettably he is probably right.