A couple of years ago I became excited about an episode of BBC Radio 4’s Book of the Week “Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind” by Yuval Noah Harari. I have just read it and it’s fantastic! An insightful take on the complete history and pre-history of humanity. In short, Homo sapiens existed for around 70,000 years as hunter gatherers and then, around ten thousand years ago, transitioned to agriculture. Only in the last thousand years or so have we become industrialised. The book contrasts the different stages of humanity, how our physiology is still basically hunter gather and how, in many ways, humanity was better off before we settled down.
Mr. Harari is an Israeli tenured professor at the Department of History of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and a very clever man. He explains that while hunter gatherers may have had no access to the benefits of modern medicine, television or draft excluders their lives were spent fulfilling their instincts. They were not driven to work all the hours God sends. When we settled down as farmers the effect was not to give us leisure time but to make us work harder, support more people and have any excess value creamed off by an elite. Harari’s focus is not merely that of a dry history professor. He gives great examples such archaeological records showing that ancient farmers had severe back problems due to constant stooping.
He notices how our expectations change with society. Many young people start off in life thinking that they will work hard, make money and retire at forty only to become accustomed to good wine, luxury cars and prestige.
He explains how our readiness to believe in myths underpins much of our civilisation and by myths he is not only talking only of King Arthur and Jesus. He’s talking about stuff that we believe in that does not physically exist. Money, Nation and the Public Limited Company. These myths depend on what he terms the intersubjective. That is something that does not objectively exist nor is it purely subjective. In a way, it is an illusion which is agreed upon by society because it is useful. The concept of the nation allows us to work together in large group and the concept of money allows us to trade with complete strangers.
In the early 21st century we all proclaim the mantras of equality and individualism but can it be coincidence that we all believe the same thing? Obviously our beliefs are, to a large extent, programmed by society. The belief in individualism and equality proliferates because it is useful for capitalism to have a population with few ties who can be easily moved from one task to another.
We all consider that a wide range of experiences are beneficial and it is common for young lovers to whisk themselves off to Paris for a romantic weekend. Yet, the elite of ancient Egypt would have never dreamed of wasting their wealth on taking their new love to some foreign land. They would much prefer to impress their intended by building a gigantic tomb.
To my mind Mr. Harari’s book begins to fade somewhat as he approaches the present and extrapolates the future as the themes he chooses seem fairly arbitrary. Yet as a whole the book is jam packed with ideas which must be well known in their respective disciplines yet unfamiliar to the layman. When placed together they represent a profound understanding of the state of mankind today.
He explains how, prior to fully developed capitalism, the rich would hoard or spend their money. Capitalism introduced the idea of investing capital to generate more capital which in turn produces economic activity and this has powered the industrial and technological revolutions. But the dependence of Capitalism on future profits raises the worrying concern that it is not possible for capitalism to reach an equilibrium. It must continually develop new products, services and markets in order to grow. Without growth, the system collapses. He suggests that capitalism has evolved a society which can only be run by capitalists. Perhaps this explains why opposition to capitalism seems so difficult: Other forms of society do not generate the material wealth to which we have become accustomed.
He also considers that we have achieved, to a large extent, a global society. Most forms of currency are freely exchangeable and it is possible to trade across the whole of the globe. Our religions are stabilising around fairly similar concepts of a single god and similar moral standards. Written prior to BREXIT and Trump, Harari suggests that notions such as the extended family, nation and race are now withering and being replaced with brand loyalty and lifestyle communities. In many ways, society has been shattered into atomised individuals which more readily useful to a global capitalist system.
His predictions of the future are fairly conventional including genetically modification and silicon based life but it his easily accessible narative of the history of humanity and the context in which we live that Harari marks this book apart. The evolution of the human species is not merely biological but cognitive. Our society and our sociology is evolving and with this in mind we should probably not become overly obsessed or self-riotous about our current dogmas. These, like everything else, will pass.