This is a partial summary of Yuval Noah Harari’s book Sapiens, A Brief History of Humankind. What follows is a combination of summary and review.
This article is a work in progress. I plan to finish this article by the end of 2017.
Main points of the Book.
Humans are animals like all other animals. When Homo Sapiens first came into being about 100,000 years ago, he was very much like the other animals and of no special significance.
- What makes men different is that they create and then live by fictions. After the cognitive revolution which happened about 75,000 years ago, Sapiens began to separate himself form the other animals and the other species in the homo genus. The foragers Secret of success, which protected them from starvation and malnutrition, was their varied diet. Farmers tend to eat a very limited and unbalanced diet and contrast.The main difference between man and the other animals was that man is capable of creating fictions, things that don’t really exist in the physical world. Fictions like myths, religion, stories, ideas, institlutions and things in society like everything from football to corporations. These myths became shortcuts to trust. Now humans could quickly build trust between strangers and society could develop to huge sizes. This gave humans a large advantage over other species.
- “For nearly the entire history of our species, sapiens lived as foragers….The flourishing field of evolutionary psychology argues that many of our present day social and psychological characteristics were shaped during this long create a cultural era….The foragers secret of success, which protected them from starvation and malnutrition, was their varied diet. Farmers on the other hand tend to eat a very limited and unbalanced diet.” p 51 Foragers experienced both peace and Tranquility there’s not much evidence as to which predominated.
- Humans kill everything they touch
- The agricultural revolution is a huge fraud
- The arrow of time is in the direction of increasing simplicity of human culture and society
General Evaluation of the book. By Fred Hanselmann
This book is popular history. But, in my opinion it is mostly pretty good popular history. There are some problems with this book. To see my discussion of these problems, read the essay I wrote on this subject here. These problems relate to Harari’s claim that it is Sapien’s ability to create fictions in the form of myths, religions and just about everything else that is responsible for man’s divergence from the other animals and for the fact that man is now at the top of all food and power chains in the world. I guess it is the word fictions that I am mostly taking issue with.
Mostly I think this is a good book about cultural anthropology, and ancient to Modern sociology, history, and economics. It is a good book, mostly because Harari has a real gift for putting difficult and abstract ideas into simple stories and narratives. This is a fun book to read. It may be that Harari’s translations of complex ideas to simple stories may sometimes lose some of the real complexity of the subject. However, some reviews say that, for the most part, the ideas behind the stories are valid and true. Some reviews also say the stories don’t lose any of the important truths about the subject.
It seems to me that Harari seems to have most of his facts right. I’ve read several reviews of the book and most reviewers agree with this. The book is terrifically well written and lots of fun to read. And the book has become immensely popular. It has been a huge publication success and has presumably made tons of money for Harari. He has become the latest rock star historian. Harari is an outsider type. He is gay and lives with his husband. He is very much not just another academic historian. I think he sees himself as writing something new and different and the real story of Sapiens. He is also what is known as a deep historian. He is conflating science and biology and evolution and anthropology with human history to give the big, deep picture from the big bang to the possible and probable futures of the human race. In some ways this is a very, very good book. In other ways his story is a little too much of an oversimplified, very entertaining story. Everything fits together a little too neatly and simply and un-complexly. Also, some of his ideas are a little controversial, such as the idea that what separates humans from the other animals is the human ability to create fictions, myths, religions, stories. I think this is a great idea, and possibly true. But it is just one opinion among many others.
It may or may not be helpful to keep that in mind John Searle has written two books that are seemingly on this same subject of how humans construct social, cultural fictions, ie non-material realities. His first book on this subject, published in the late nineties, is The Construction of Social Reality. In this book he says in the introduction that, “as far as we currently know, the most fundamental features of the world that we live in are described by physics, chemistry, and the other Natural Sciences. But the existence of phenomena that are not in any obviously way physical or chemical gives rise to puzzlement. How for example, can there be States Of Consciousness or meaningful speech-as as parts of the physical world.”
In his second book on the question of social fictions, Making the Social World, Searle says “This book attempts to explain … the human social institutional realities. What is the mode of existence of nation-states, money, corporations, ski clubs, summer vacations, cocktail parties, and football games, to name just a few.” He goes on to ask, “How can we give an account of ourselves, with our peculiar human traits– as mindful, rational, speech-act performing, free will having, social, political ,human beings– in a world that we know independently consists of mindless, meaningless, physical particles? How can we account for our social and mental existence in a realm of brute physical facts?”
In these two books, Searle seems, on a very superficial glance, to be talking about Harari’s invented fictions that humans create. However, I have not read either of Searle’s books, and he may be talking about something completely different.
The idea that created fictions such as myths, religions and stories enabled early humans to find shortcuts to trust is also developed by such writers as Robert Bellah in Religion in Human Evolution and Peter Turchin’s Ultrasociety.
Back to Harari’s book Sapiens, it seems to me that Sapiens falls pretty short in the dept of footnotes. There are footnotes but they are not helpful.
Basically, this is a very interesting book, but not in the mainstream tradition of serious academic anthropology and needs to be taken with a grain of salt. Caution is required. But still, it is a great book in many, many ways. Bill Gates pretty much agrees with this conclusion.
Discussion of Harari’s Idea that humans most salient characteristic is their ability to create fictions. By Fred Hanselmann
In his book Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, Yuval Harari states that the one characteristic of Homo Sapiens that separates him from other animals is his ability to create fictions. Harari begins this discussion on page 24 by saying that,
“… the truly unique feature of our language is not its ability to transmit information about men and lions. Rather, it’s the ability to transmit information about things that do not exist at all. As far as we know only sapiens can talk about entire kinds of entities that they have never seen, touched or smelled.”
“Legends, myths, gods and religions appear for the first time with the cognitive Revolution…This ability to speak about fictions is the most unique feature of Sapiens language. It’s relatively easy to agree that only Homo sapiens can speak about things that don’t really exist, and believe six impossible things before breakfast.”
Harari says that, yes fiction can be dangerously misleading and distracting,
“But fiction has enabled us not merely to imagine things, but to do so collectively. We can live common myths such as the biblical creation story, The Dreamtime myths of Aboriginal Australians, and the nationalist myths of modern states. Such myths give sapiens the unprecedented ability to cooperate flexibly in large numbers….Sapiens can cooperate in extremely flexible ways with countless numbers of strangers. That’s why sapiens rule the world, whereas ants eat our leftovers and chimps are locked up in zoos and Research Laboratories.
So, here is my question. Can Harari possibly be correct that the source of man’s power, the reason he has become the top animal of the world is his ability to create fictions?
Well, this is a pretty huge, sweeping generalization that Harari doesn’t really clarify. It depends on what exactly he means by fictions.
If he means that humans have the ability to use symbols and abstractions then I think he is correct. Symbols and abstractions do not exist in the material world. They are shortcuts that enable humans to create and manipulate ideas, which are also immaterial, which lead them to science and art and literature and everything else that makes humans so special.
If by “fictions” Harari means “intellectual maps” in the sense that “the map is not the territory”, then, again, I think he is correct. Maps are shortcuts to understanding reality, but they are not the same thing as reality. For instance, actual maps such as road maps, world maps, hiking maps are clearly not the territory. Reality, the territory, is immensely complicated and trying to make a map that contains it all is both impossible and self defeating. A map that depicted all of reality would be reality itself. So we create simplified maps that are not the same as the territory but are still very useful. All maps are not only incomplete, simplifications of the territory, but they are actually false in important ways. World maps transform the 3D earth to a 2D short cut. In the process, they are necessarily distorted, they contain actutal errors. Travel maps, topo maps, google earth maps, infrared maps, geologic maps are all maps designed to help the reader understand some specific aspect of the territory. They are all false in many ways, but true in other ways.
Human beings constantly create all kinds of maps. These are not actual literal maps. These are maps are made up of language, symbols and shortcuts. All of these maps are fictions of a sort, but without them we could never understand anything. We name these maps things like History of Western Civilization, or Plain Geometry, or Calculus, or Chemistry or Physics or Literature or Sociology or Evolution or Evolutionary Psychology or Economics. Economics is one of the most obvious cases of the human practice of making fictional maps that are extremely useful. (Economics Rational Man is totally fictional but economics, for all its faults is still one of our most useful maps.) All of the above disciplines things are distortions of reality that contain fictions that we invent, but all of them are still extremely useful. (And to use them, we do have to make sure we understand that they are not the actual territory but but useful fictions. We have to be careful to not confuse the map with the territory.)
Harari doesn’t seem to mean this when he uses the word “fictions” though. What he seems to mean by fictions are things that are fictional through and through. He means things like religions, myths, fairy tales and fantasy. And I think he is right as far as this goes. Humans do create completely false religions and they do gain huge amounts of power by using religions as a kind of shortcut to gain social coherence and enormous power. The human distrust of strangers is hard wired into us by millions of years of evolution on the African savannah. But religion and myth can create shortcuts by which one human can quickly trust another. If you met a stranger and learn that he is a Christian just like you, you can instantly understand and trust him if you also are a Christian. He is no longer the “other,” he is “us”. This gives humans tremendous power. It enables humans to coalesce into tribes that number in the millions. This is the now common idea among anthropologists, that what makes humans different and powerful is their social instincts and not their rationality.
And this idea extends to all kinds of myths, not just religions, such as national myths. One of the reasons that Americans have become so powerful is that they believe they are special, that they alone among nations are democratic, free, good and decent people. This of course is total nonsense. But it allows them to act as one united Nation. And it allows them to treat all other nations and foreigners as The Other.
I think that Harari thinks that everything that humans believe is this kind of a fiction. Everything that humans come up with is total nonsense and totally a fiction. This, I think is not true. There are many levels of fictions: some are much better than others. And some of these fictions, like good maps, gives us valuable knowledge that help us make the world a better place to live in. (By better, I basically mean Greater Happiness to the Greater Number. That is, less war, less hunger, less torture, less injustice, less inequality, more satisfaction, more well being.)
I don’t think we are ever going to find the Perfect True solution to everything: not Truth, not Knowledge, not Good. And in the long run we are all, of course, dead. But in the meantime human existence can be better or worse. Paradise is a dangerous myth that leads only to worse forms of existence. I think Isaiah Berlin has pretty much the right answer: Tolerance, Pluralism, and Imperfection are the only way human beings are going to be able to coexist and avoid killing everyone and everything. Unfortunately it doesn’t look like we are going to make it.
So just because humans insist on creating fictions doesn’t mean that the imperfect systems of knowledge that we create are all totally worthless. Just like maps are not the territory but are still valuable, imperfect systems of knowledge are are still worthwhile. This, I think, is a hard truth to learn.
One of the main arenas for discussion of these ideas is the idea of Platonism. Platonism is the idea that Truth is built into Reality and that it is out there for us discover if only we can be smart enough, or work hard enough, or create the right powerful tools. This idea originated with Plato in his idea of the world of eternal forms. The idea was still alive in the world of the Enlightenment in the ideas of scientist and philosophers like Newton. And it is still championed by many very intelligent people like Roger Penrose. This basic idea is discussed very well by Isaiah Berlin in his book The Crooked Timber of Humanity is the first essay which has the same name as the book, I believe.
The idea of Platonism depends on the idea that Absolute Truths can and do exist, that they are built into Reality and they they are out there just waiting for us to discover them. However, problems keep cropping up to disprove this idea. Even mathematics doesn’t seem to be universally or eternally true. It turns out that mathematical laws seem to created in men’s brains, that they are not eternal verities out there waiting to be discovered. For instance even simple mathematics turns out to be incomplete. Godel proved this with his famous incompleteness theorem. And as others have shown, all of the axioms of geometry are not really true. Plain geometry is not the only kind of geometry. There are many geometries. And in addition, there are many kinds of mathematics that are absolutely untrue in the experiential world but are absolutely true in imaginary mathematical worlds that begin with imaginary premises.
However, just because standard mathematics is not absolutely consistent all the time forever, this doesn’t mean that it isn’t valuable. Even though it turns out that mathematics is not totally provable in the material, experiential world, it still works well enough to be an indispensible tool for making the world a better place to live in. (And, of course, it turns out to be indispensable for the construction of A-bombs and H-bombs and and climate change and all the rest as well. Like most things in the real world it is double edged. It contains the ability to destroy as well as to create.)
And, it turns out that, like math, physics is not totally true and valid in all circumstances either. Newtonian physics doesn’t not quite agree with the physics of relativity, which doesn’t quite with quantum physics, which doesn’t quite agree with cosmic physics. Physicists have been working for many years to find the Grand Synthesis between Newtonian physics, relativity, quantum physics and cosmics physics but they never seem to find it. Perhaps there is no Grand Synthesis, that the various physics are all created in human minds which are all imperfect.
But again this doesn’t make all physics worthless. Just because Truth is not Universal or Eternal or Absolute doesn’t mean that all knowledge is totally worthless and hopelessly false.
But still, Harari does have a point. Most humans (even if not all humans) seem to be hopelessly addicted to creating fictional worlds that are blatantly false. The recent research of the behavioral economists like Daniel Kahneman, or George Akerlof, or Robert Shiller, or Richard Thaler, or Nassim Taleb, points to the fact that most humans live in a almost totally fictional world. It turns out that almost everything most people believe is determined by their completely untrustworthy number one system of thinking. Our number one system operates mostly on a subconscious level and leads everyone to believe what is most easy to believe, not what is most likely correct. Basically everyone is a lazy thinker and will subconsciously accept the easiest answer almost always. The only route to accurate knowledge about the world is through our number two system, which is hard work, and which we have to consciously engage. Our number two system ignores most of what our number one system tells us and relies much more heavily on hard evidence that is mainly arrived at statistically. However the fact that accurate knowledge is extremely hard to come by, doesn’t mean that it is non-existent. All of the behavioral economists believe that humans are not the rational animals that we once thought them to be. But none of them say that accurate knowledge is impossible, just that it is extremely hard to come by and that the route to finding it is not the “rational“ one that has been touted for the last 2000 years.
The number two system is no longer called rationality, since what we once thought was rationality (that which comes from the cerebellum) is contaminated with emotion and all sorts of other inputs that are far from “rational.” However, the number two system is pretty much what we once called rationality. It is difficult, uncomfortable, conscious thinking based on experientially provable information expressed mostly in statistical form.
Various intellectuals and thinkers have been dealing with this problem of Truth and Knowledge for many years without making much progress. Below are some examples.
The Enlightenment thinkers believed in Platonism, that truth was objectively a part of reality waiting to be discovered. They were mostly wrong, but not entirely. Then along came the Romantics in the 19th century. The Romantics decided that the enlightenment was wrong and that truth was subjective and could be best discovered thru the emotions, the feelings and the instincts. The decided that truth was entirely subjective and individual. They were also mostly wrong, but not entirely.
And pretty soon the Logical Positivists came along and decided that the Romantics were totally wrong and that truth could be found only in Science which was gained through the use of Pure Logic plus Experiential approaches to reality. They were also mostly wrong, but not entirely.
And then beginning in the 1950’s the Post Moderns came along and said there was no truth at all, but that everything we once thought was the truth was just a fiction that we had invented, and that all fictions were equally fictional and bogus and that we should just give up on the whole project of truth or any kind or accurate knowledge of any kind. The postmoderns thought that all “Truth” was based in human language which we just made up and which had nothing to do with the objective world which is totally unapproachable by humans any way. They were mostly wrong, but not entirely.
And then along came the analytic philosophers who also thought the real problem was language but that maybe something could be done about this problem. But, what that something was no one could seem to agree on and besides that no one seemed to be able to understand what the other people were saying about the problem anyway And they were mostly wrong, but not entirely.
And so is Harari right when he says that the most important thing about humans is that they cannot resist creating fictions which give humans tremendous power and that this is what differentiates humans from the rest of the animals? Well, not really, but kind of. Harari is mostly wrong, but not
Full Summary of the book. By Fred Hanselmann
Chapter 1, An animal of no significance
The big bang was about 13.5 billion years ago. 300,000 years after that matter and energy coalesced. We call this chemistry. 3.8 billion years after that biology began. 70,000 years ago Homo sapiens started to form into more elaborate structures called cultures. This is called history. Three important revolutions shaped history. The cognitive revolution about 70,000 years ago.The Agricultural Revolution 12,000 years ago. The Scientific Revolution 500 years ago. Is about these three Revolutions in human culture.
Animals that looked and acted very much like modern humans appeared about 2.5 million years ago. But for a long time humans were not much different than other animals, especially chimpanzees, baboons and elephants.
Modern men are called homo sapiens. The species is sapiens and the genus is homo. The genus homo is part of a family called the great apes. Also included in the great apes are chimpanzees, gorillas and orangutans. About 6 million years ago a single female ape had two daughters. One became the ancestor of all chimpanzees the other is our own grandmother.
Everyone in the homo genus is actually a human. There are other humans in the homo genus, but they are dead now. At some point in the future there might be different kinds of humans in the homo genus.
Humans first evolved in East Africa about 2.5 million years ago from an earlier genus of apes called Australopithecus. Two million years ago some of these archaic people left their homeland to settle in vast areas of Northern Africa, Europe and Asia. Since the environment was no different these early humans Evolve into different directions. Some became Neanderthals, Others became Homo erectus also known as upright man. Homo erectus survived for close to 2 million years. This is the longest any human species has ever survived. We undoubtedly will never last this long, we will probably be extinct in a thousand years from now. Other lost species of humans also survived for awhile. Who knows how many other human species survived that we have never discovered.
Meanwhile back in Africa the human species kept evolving. Finally Homo sapiens evolved. It is a fallacy to think all of these humans evolved in a straight line. All kinds of different human species lived at the same time and evolved separately. From the time from around 2 million years ago up until 10000 years ago the world was home to several human species including homo sapiens.There were at least 6 different species of human beings.
Humans had extraordinary large brains compared to other animals. It seems natural to us that Evolution would select for giant brains. But this is not correct. Giant brains are heavy and hard to carry around and they are very energy-intensive. Humans paid a large cost for these big brains. They spent a lot of time searching for food. Also their muscles atrophied. This is because humans diverted energy from biceps to neurons. No one is quite sure what kept humans alive for the 2 million years while their brains keep growing bigger and bigger. Humans also stand upright. This freed their arms and hands for other uses like throwing spears and rocks. Because human hands are so highly specialized they can perform very intricate tasks and therefore they can make and use very sophisticated tools. Tool production dates from about 2.5 million years ago. And the use of tools is the criteria by which archaeologists recognize ancient humans.
Women especially paid for the skill of walking upright. Walking upright resulted in a narrow pelvis. Since humans were also getting larger Heads, this resulted in many deaths in human childbirth. Evolution improved on this situation by selecting for children who are born very small and undeveloped, This means that humans are born as premature infants and with very undeveloped organs. Therefore humans require a long time to grow up. This contributed to humans unique social abilities and social problems. Raising children required constant help from Neighbors. It takes a tribe to raise a human. Thus evolution favors those capable of forming strong social ties. This also means that since humans are born so undeveloped they can be educated and socialized to a far greater extent than other animals. Humans are very plastic when they’re born they can be changed without breaking them.
Part of the reason humans are the way we evolved into the top predator very rapidly. Humans were originally scavengers. We were kind of in the middle of the food chain. We waited for the Lions to kill the antelope and then when everyone else was done we dashed in and cracked the bones and ate the marrow. This was our niche. However with the rise of homo sapiens, humans jumped to the top of the food chain very rapidly. Other animals didn’t have a chance to evolving the ability to evade us. Lions evolved so slowly that gazelles also evolved and learned how to evade them and rhinoceroses learned how to be nasty and so the viciousness of lions was kept in check. Nothing however kept human viciousness in check. We evolved so rapidly that nothing else kept up with us and we became the number one predator very quickly.
Most top predators of the planet developed very slowly and this filled them with self-confidence. Sapiens by contrast is more like a Banana Republic dictator. Having so recently been one of The underdogs of the savanna we are full of fears and anxieties over our position, which makes us doubly cruel and dangerous.
One of the main steps in human development was the use of Fire. This made humans cooks very early on. By 300,000 years ago Homo erectus, neanderthals and homosapiens were all using fire on a daily basis. Cooking allowed us to eat food such as wheat, rice and potatoes which we cannot digest in their natural form. Cooking is also important because it allows us to quickly chew up soft foods. And it also enables us to kill bacteria and parasites and basically sterilize food. Cooking also enabled us to have shorter intestines. And since intestines are also very energy-intensive it enabled us to put more energy into our brains and develop bigger brains. Fire also opened the gulf between humans and other animals. Also when humans domesticated fire they gained access to a huge Force they could control to accomplish many ends. Fire was an important step for human beings.
Despite the use of fire, human beings were still very marginal creatures 150,000 years ago. Most scientists say that by a hundred and fifty thousand years ago East Africa was populated by sapiens that looked exactly like us.
About 70,000 years ago sapiens from East Africa spread into the Arabian Peninsula and from there they quickly overran the entire Eurasian landmass. There were already a lot of other humans in Eurasia. What happened to them? There are two conflicting theories: the interbreeding theory says that we bred with other human populations and that people today are the outcome of this interbreeding. This may be what happened to the Neanderthals. In this theory, modern humans are a mixture of sapiens and neanderthal.
The other Theory, called the replacement theory, says that sapiens were not compatible with the neanderthals, perhaps sexually, and that the neanderthals gradually died out. If this is true it means that all humans can be traced back to their East African origins, 70,000 years ago. A lot depends on this debate. If the replacement theory is true this means that all living humans have roughly the same genetic baggage and racial distinctions. But if the interbreeding theory is right there might be genetic differences between Africans, Europeans, and Asians that go back hundreds of thousands of years. This is political dynamite and could provide material for explosive racial theories.
In 2010 is was discovered that 1 to 4 percent of the human DNA of modern populations in the Middle East and Europe is Neanderthal DNA. It was also found that up to 6% of human DNA in Australia is Denisovan DNA. This means that the interbreeding theory could be correct. There we’re only small amounts of Neanderthal DNA though so these results are not yet conclusive. So sapiens and Neanderthals are not different species like horses and donkeys. They could interbreed at least sometimes. On the other hand they were not just different populations of the same species like bulldogs and spaniels. Different populations sometimes get different enough that they turn into totally different species. Species and population differences are not black and white, there are lots of Grey areas there. As more and more mutations occur populations move towards distinct species. It appears as if sapiens and Neanderthals were heading in the direction of separate species, however they weren’t quite there yet and evidently on rare occasions they could still interbreed. So why did the Neanderthals disappear. It could be that the sapiens drove them to Extinction. Sapiens were superior hunters and gatherers and this could have driven the Neanderthals to Extinction. Or it could have been violence and genocide that did the job. It would have been a completely different world if the three species: sapiens neanderthals and denisovans had all lived together. If all three species had coexisted it would be much more difficult for sapiens to think of themselves as a completely different kind of living creature as many humans do now. Denisovans disappeared about fifty thousand years ago. Neanderthals disappeared about thirty thousand years ago. The last dwarf like humans vanished from Flores Island about twelve thousand years ago. After that homo sapiens was the last surviving human species. So, why did Homo sapiens survive and all other human species go extinct. The most likely answer is that homo sapiens conquered the world thanks to their unique language.
Chapter 2, The tree of knowledge
To review, sapiens began to overrun the planet Earth and drive all the other human species to Extinction about 70,000 years ago. Before 70000 years ago human beings were really nothing special, l they didn’t really accomplish much of anything special. But then something really special happened. In the. Between 30,000 and 70,000 years ago something really special began to happen. There was the invention of boats, oil lamps ,bows and arrows and needles. This was when the first objects of art begin to be seen. This was when religion and commerce and social stratification begin to be seen. Most researchers believe that a cognitive Revolution happened. That if we were to meet these sapiens, they would be just like us intellectually. We would be able to talk and communicate. They would be able to understand quantum physics and we would be able to understand all their ideas.
This is what is called the Cognitive Revolution. It happened between 70000 and 30000 years ago. Most researchers think that accidental genetic mutations changed the inner wiring of the sapiens brains. This enabled them to communicate in a totally new language. What was so special about the new sapiens language that enables them to conquer the world. This was not the first language. Every animal has some kind of language. Even insects could communicate in sophisticated ways. What is so special about our language. It seems to be basically that we can make a very limited number of sounds and songs that combine into an infinite number of sentences and an infinite number of meanings. This makes it possible for us to store and communicate a huge amount of information about the world.
There is a second theory about human language. This Theory says that the essence of human language is that it is basically gossip. According to this Theory, sapiens is primarily a social animal. Social cooperation is our key for survival and reproduction. Numerous studies support this Theory. Most of human communication is gossip about social stuff like who’s sleeping with who, who can I trust, how is the best way to get something done.Gossip usually focuses on wrongdoings and this is how it protects societies from cheats and freeloaders
The real value of human language is that it enables us to transmit information about things that do that do not exist at all. These are basically myths and stories, myths and stories that all people in the society hold in common. Only sapiens can talk about fictions. Only with this kind of language do you get things like Legends, myths, Gods, and religions. But are not fictions dangerous things? Yes, sometimes. But fictions enable us to imagine things and also to imagine things collectively. We can cooperate flexibly in large groups with countless numbers of strangers unless we have myths to hold us together. We can have common myths, we can have nationalist myths. Such myths give us the ability to cooperate in large groups. This, says the author is why sapiens rules the world.
[Many anthropologists often use this idea to talk about religion as a binding myth that allows strangers to communicate and work effectively together. See Peter Turchin in Ultrasociety and War and Peace and War– Ian Morris in War! What is it good for–Bellah, Religion in Human Evolution– maybe Joshua Green in Moral Tribes.]
The legend of Peugeot: Champs live hierarchical societies. The alpha male usually leads a chimp faction. Alpha males gain power because they have superior social skills not because they’re tougher than everyone else. There are clear limits to the size of factions or groups that can be formed in this way. In order to function each member of the group has to know the rest intimately. When the groups get too large they cease to function effectively. And then they split into two or more factions. The limit to the size of these chimp groups is about 100. There is warfare between groups. Similar patterns probably dominated the social life of early humans including archaic sapiens. But after the cognitive revolution, gossip helped sapiens to form larger groups. However the size limit even for groups bonded by gossip is only 150. This is still true today. This still works in army platoons and even in companies. So, how did sapiens manage to be to go beyond this critical threshold. How did they manage to found cities of tens of thousands of inhabitants. The secret was probably the appearance of fiction says Harari. Large numbers of strangers can cooperate successfully by believing in common myths. “Any large-scale human cooperation, whether a modern State, a medieval Church, an ancient city or an archaic tribe is rooted in common myths that exists only in people’s Collective imagination.” p27. Religious myths or national myths or legal myths all work in this way. Yet none of these things exist outside the stories that people invent and tell one another. There are no gods in the universe, no Nations, no money, no human rights, no laws, no justice, outside the common imagination of human beings. Modern institutions are myths just like the myths of sorcerers and tribal shamans of primitive cultures. Modern business people and lawyers are in fact powerful Sorcerers. The principal difference between them and tribal shamans is that modern lawyers tell far stranger Tales.
The Legend of Peugeot a good example. Peugeot is actually a figment of our imagination. It doesn’t really exist in its employees, factories, management, at cetera. Lawyers call this a legal fiction. It’s not a physical object. But it exists as a legal entity. It is bound by the laws of the country in which it operates. Peugeot belongs to a particular genre of legal fictions called limited liability companies. This is one of Humanity’s most ingenious inventions. In the US the name for limited liability companies is Corporation.
[As some writers have pointed out, limited liability companies have real problems. They can be as irresponsible as they want. But without them not much would have happened business-wise.]
And how was Peugeot created. The same way that priests and Sorcerers have created gods and demons throughout history. It all revolves around telling stories and convincing people to believe them. In the case of Peugeot,The crucial story was the French legal code, as written by the French Parliament. Once the lawyers had performed all the right rituals and pronounced all the necessary spells and oaths, millions of upright French citizens behaved as if the Peugeot company really existed.
Telling effective stories is not easy. The real problem lies in convincing everyone else to believe the story. But when you get people to believe the story it gives Sapiens immense power because it enables millions of strangers to cooperate and work towards common goals. The kinds of things that people create through this network of stories are known as fictions or social constructs or imagined realities. An imagined reality is not a lie. Animals can lie. For instance green monkeys and chimpanzees can lie. A green monkey has been observed calling “careful: a lion. when there was no lion around at all. The monkey did this to scare off the competition so he could have the banana.
[The real problem with all this is that not only good people create these social fictions or social constructs but bad people also do this for bad purposes. The whole concept of slavery is really a social construct that people convince other people to believe. Nazism is the same thing. To some degree the American official story is also kind of the same thing; It allowed the American government to fight the Civil War, the first world war, the second world war, and the Korean War. None of these things really being necessary or all that good for the people who lived in America. Clearly all this happens, both the good and the bad. Pretty much everything humans do is double edged. Human rights, and civil rights and democracy and justice are all constructs.]
Bypassing the Genome: What enabled Sapiens to rise above animals was their ability to create social fictions, myths, religions, etc. It was the ability to create an imagined reality out of words that enabled large numbers of strangers to cooperate together effectively. Large scale human cooperation is based on myths, fictions. The way people cooperate can be altered by changing the myths. For example in 1789 the French population switched almost overnight from believing in the myth of the divine right of kings to believing in the myth of the equality of all man.
This ability to create myths created a fast lane of cultural evolution which bypassed the traffic jams of genetic evolution. Other animals don’t have this ability for every individual to behave in a similar way unless there is a change in DNA.Significant changes in social behavior cannot occur in other animals without genetic mutations. Chimpanzees cannot change their cultural behavior. For similar reasons archaic humans before sapiens did not initiate any cultural revolutions. Homo erectus came into being 2 million years ago, but Homo erectus was not Homo sapiens. There are no real changes for 2 million years in Homo erectus. Ever since the cognitive Revolution sapiens has been able to change their behavior quickly. The cognitive revolution was presumable caused by some physical mutation which changed the way humans spoke and thought. After this, Sapiens could transmit new behaviors to Future Generations without any DNA change.
A good example of cultural rather than biological evolution is appearance of the Catholic priesthood.. The Catholic Church has survived for centuries not by passing on a celibacy Gene from one point to the next but by passing on the stories of the New and Old Testament. Consider another example. A woman born in late 19th Europe. This person could manage, if she lived to be a hundred years old, to be part of 5 very different sociological systems, though her DNA remained exactly the same. The key to the ability to change culture in this rapid mann is the ability to create fictional myths.
In a one-on-one brawl Neanderthals would have probably beaten sapiens, but in a conflict of hundreds of people neanderthals wouldn’t have a chance. Without an ability to compose the fictions that unites societies, the Neanderthals were unable to cooperate efficiently in large numbers. Nor could they adapt their social behavior to rapidly changing challenges.
One of the things that sapiens could do that neanderthals could not do was trade. Trade seems to be a very pragmatic activity that requires no fictional basis. Yet the fact that no animals other than sapiens engage in trade is pretty revealing. All of the primitive trade networks about which we know were based on fictions. Trade cannot exist without trust and it is very difficult to trust strangers. Global trade networks of today are based on our trust in all kinds of fictional things like money and the United Nations. If two strangers in a tribal Society want to trade they will of what often establish trust by appealing to religion, or God, or a mythical ancestor or some other mythology.
Hunting techniques provide another illustration of the differences between neanderthals and sapiens. Neanderthals hunted alone or in very small groups. Sapiens on the other hand developed techniques that relied on cooperation between many dozens or hundreds of individuals. Sapiens often used techniques like herding animals into a tight Canyon. This requires lots and lots of people. But it enabled them to kill hundreds of animals at one whack.
In terms of violence, neanderthals were not much better off than wild horses. 50 Neanderthals cooperating in traditional and static patterns were no match for 500 versatile and innovative sapiens.
History and Biology . The myths and fictions that humans created are called cultures. And once cultures appear that never stop changing and developing. And these changes in culture are what we call history. And the cognitive Revolution is that point when history declares its independence from biology. This does not mean that sapiens and human culture became exempt from biological laws. We are still animals. Our societies are built from the same building blocks as Neanderthal or chimpanzee societies. And the more we examine these building blocks the more similar humans seem to animals. The real difference between us and chimpanzees is the mythical glue that binds together large numbers of sapiens. And it is this glue this mythic glue that has made us the masters of creation. And it is this Mythic glue which gives us cooperation. In our modern society we have to have very complex cooperation to do what we do. Physiologically there has been no significant improvement in our tool-making capacity for the last 30000 years. Albert Einstein was far less dexterous with his hands than an ancient hunter-gatherer. However our capacity to cooperate with large numbers of strangers has improved dramatically.
To summarize the relationship between biology and history after the cognitive Revolution: Biology sets the basic parameters for the behavior and capacities of homo sapiens. Thanks to their ability to invent fiction, copy and create more and more complex games, which each generation develops even further. Consequently in order to understand how sapiens behave we must describe the historical evolution of their actions.
The next chapter takes a look at what life was like in 2000 years separating the cognitive Revolution from the Agricultural Revolution period.
Chapter 3, A day in the life of Adam and Eve.
This chapter takes a look at what life was like in 2000 years separating the Cognitive Revolution from the Agricultural Revolution.
For nearly the entire history of our species, sapiens lived as foragers. The 10,000 years of the Agricultural Revolution and the 200 years of the industrial revolution are a blink of the eye. The flourishing field of evolutionary psychology argues that many of our present day social and psychological characteristics were formed during this long pre-agricultural era. Even today scholars in this field claim that our brains and minds are adapted to a life of hunting and gathering. Scholars say that almost everything we do is a result of the way our hunter-gatherer mines interact with our current post industrial environment. This Modern environment gives us more material resources and longer-lives than those enjoyed by our ancestors, but it often makes us feel alienated, depressed and pressured. To understand all this, evolutionary psychologists say we have to delve into the hunter-gatherer world that shaped us, the world that we still subconsciously inhabit. For example people in the modern world are in the middle of a plague of obesity because we want to binge on the sweetest, greasiest food we can find. We think we’re still back in the savannas. Back in the savannas food like this was really rare and we needed to eat as much as possible when it was available if we wanted to survive. The instinct to gorge on high-calorie food was hardwired into our genes. This gorging Gene theory is widely accepted. Other theories are far more contentious. For example the theory of an ancient hippy community where all men could have sex with as many females as they wanted is a little more contentious. Some Scholars argue that we are hard-wired for monogamy and nuclear families and not hippy paradise. To understand all this a little better we need to know more about how Sapiens actually lived between the cognitive revolution of 70,000 years ago and the start of the Agricultural Revolution about twelve thousand years ago. This is tough since there are no written records of this era. In addition there are almost no surviving artifacts from this period of time. As opposed to our time where there are zillions of artifacts for almost everything that we do. Foragers did not have all the stuff that we fill our lives with. They had to move to a new house every week or so or maybe every month. So, it’s reasonable to presume that the greater part of their mental, religious, and emotional lives was conducted without the help of artifact. So, a Reliance on artifacts will thus bias an account of ancient hunter-gatherer life. Just like an account of teenagers today would be based if we only looked at their snail mail since all their electronic communications would no longer exist.
One way we can remedy this problem is to look at modern forager societies. But we have to be very careful here. Modern Forager societies are influenced by surrounding Agricultural and industrial societies. Also, modern Frasier societies have different environments than ancient ones. For instance they do not often have really good agricultural land as ancient ones did. A third problem is that Hunter-forager societies tend to be very different one to another. For instance in Australia before the British Conquest there were 200 to 600 tribes there. Then each of these tribes was divided into several bands. Every tribe had its own language, religions, Norms, and customs. And so we have to conclude that there was probably all of this diversity in ancient tribes also. And so we have to assume that all of these millions of ancient foragers lived in all kinds of very different cultures. And, after all, diversity was one of the main legacies of the cognitive Revolution. Because each culture made up its own fictions and myths, even people who were very similar genetically, and who lived under very similar conditions were able to create very different imagined realities. Each tribe invented its own customs and myths. So, it’s really difficult to say what the natural forager way of life was; there was no natural way. There were millions of very, very different ways.
The Original Affluent Society: There are a few General things that we can know about early pre agrarian societies.
In agricultural and industrial societies there are many domesticated animals. However, in pre- agricultural societies there were no domesticated animals except for the dog. The dog was the first domesticated animal. With the passing of generations the two species evolved to communicate well with each other. Dogs that were friendly to people got more food also dogs learned to manipulate people for their own needs. A 15,000 year bond of much deeper understanding and affection evolved between humans and dogs than between humans and any other animals.
Tribes fought with each other but they also got along pretty well in many ways. Such cooperation was one of the important trademarks of homo sapiens and it and gave humans a crucial edge over other species. Still neighboring tribes spent the vast majority of their time in complete isolation and independence. There really wasn’t much trade.
The tribes were small and were thinly spread over vast territories. Before the Agricultural Revolution the entire human population of the entire planet was smaller than that of today’s Cairo. Most of these people lived on the road most of the time. They mostly travel within their own territories. But sometimes they migrated to a new territory. This was basically the engine of human worldwide expansion. Sometimes foragers set up semi-permanent camps where food was exceptionally Rich. This was usually alongside seas and rivers rich in seafood and waterfowl. These people did little hunting and more Gathering. Sapiens did not forward only for food and materials. They forged for knowledge as well. To survive they needed a detailed mental map of their territory. In order to survive they needed to have all kinds of information about their territory. Where to find which foods and which were most nourishing. They needed to learn about weather and every stream and every walnut tree and every bear cave in their area. They needed to learn how to make tools. The average forager could turn a Flint stone into a spear point in minutes. This would take us forever to do. In other words the average forager had a lot more knowledge about their immediate surrounding world in his head than most modern people do. Modern people are experts in one tiny specialty in their world, but know almost nothing about how to live in the world in general. In modern times the human Collective knows far more today than did the ancient bands. But at the individual level, ancient foragers were the most knowledgeable and skillful people in history. There is some evidence that the size of the average sapiens brain has actually decreased since the age of foraging. Survival in that area required superior mental abilities from everyone. When Agricultural and industry came along people could increasingly rely on the skills of others for survival. Foragers mastered not only the surrounding world of animals, plants and objects, but also the internal world of their own bodies and senses. Foragers had a physical dexterity that people today are unable to achieve no matter how much they practice.
On the whole, foragers seem to enjoy a more comfortable and rewarding lifestyle than most of the peasants, Shepherds, laborers, and Office Clerks who live today. Foragers seem to spend fewer hours working than even modern foragers or most civilized people today. Also they have a lighter load of household chores once they get home since they had no dishes, carpets, floors Etc.
It’s possible that foragers has much more interesting lives than people in agricultural agricultural or industrial societies do. In industrial societies people trudged through polluted streets to sweatshops and had little time at home because they had to do household chores. As opposed to that, foragers really didn’t have to work that hard to find food. That left them plenty of time to tell stories to play with kids or just hang out. Of course they didn’t live ideal lives. But they didn’t have to worry about automobiles or pollution.. Foraging also provided ideal nutrition. Evidence from fossilized skeletons indicate the ancient foragers were less likely to suffer from starvation and malnutrition. And they were generally taller and healthier than the farmers who followed them. . Average life expectancy was about 30 years. But this was largely due to infant mortality. There was a good chance of reaching the age of 60 or even 80.
The foragers real secret of success was a varied diet. Foragers eat lots and lots and lots of different things every day. On the other hand Farmers had to eat a very limited and unbalanced diet. They tend to live on a single crop such as rice, corn or potatoes. Our ancient ancestor may have eaten berries and mushrooms for breakfast, fruits, snails and turtle for lunch and rabbit steak with wild onions for dinner. Furthermore by not being dependent on a single kind of food they were less liable to suffer when one particular food source failed them. They had their share of natural disasters and floods and fires but they were able to deal with such calamities more easily. They didn’t have to rebuild house, find new fields, domesticate new animals. Ancient forages also suffered less from infectious disease. Most infectious disease in farming communities originated from domesticated animals. Also most people in Agricultural and industrial societies lived in dirty, unhygienic permanent settlements which of course are hotbeds for disease.
The wholesome and varied diet, a relatively short working week, and the Rarity of infectious diseases has led many experts to Define agricultural forager societies as the original affluent societies. It would definitely be a mistake though to idealize the lives of these ancient. There were obviously very severe problems of living this kind of life. For instance high child mortality and lack of modern medicine. The Ache People, hunter-gatherers who lived in the jungles of Paraguay until the 1960s, offer a glimpse into the darker side of foraging. These modern foragers indulge in all kinds of horrible practices like killing old people, killing children, torturing people, burying people alive, all kinds of awful things. But on the other hand they had all kinds of very wonderful customs. Many of their bad customs are really little different than our customs of abortion and euthanasia. The truth is that the Ache society, like every human society was very complex. We should beware of demonizing or idealizing it on the basis of a superficial acquaintance. The Ache were neither angels nor fiends – – they were humans. So, too, were the ancient hunter-gatherers.
Talking Ghosts Animism was probably the religion of the foragers. Animism is the belief that almost every place, every animal, every plant and every natural phenomenon has awareness and feelings, and can communicate directly with humans. This means you can talk to rocks and trees and animals and clouds, not to mention demons fairies and angels, and ask them all for favors its cetera. All of these beings you can talk to are not Universal Gods but a particular tree stream or ghost. There is no hierarchy here, the world does not revolve around human beings. Animism is not a specific religion. It is a generic name for thousands of different religions. Saying foragers were animists is a huge generalization. But this is about as far as we can go. We also know almost nothing about the socio-political world of the foragers. Scholars cannot agree even on the basics here.
And then there is the question about the role of war in forager societies. There is a lot of disagreement on this subject. Some Scholars argue that foragers were very peaceful and others that they were very warlike. It’s hard to figure out the truth by looking at modern forager tribes. Scholars have had only two opportunities to observe large and dense populations of independent foragers. These are in Northwestern North America in the 19th century and in Northern Australia in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. There were frequent armed conflicts in both places. But it’s really hard draw any conclusions from this. Today the global percentage of deaths by violence including both war and crime is about 1.5%. During the 20th century about 5% of human deaths resulted from human violence. And this was in a century that saw the bloodiest Wars in history. As for violent deaths in forager societies, scholars have found evidence of high rates of death by violence in some areas and the opposite in other areas. Just as foragers exhibited a wide array of religions and social structures, some foragers societies were peaceful and some were warlike. Some areas and some people may have enjoyed peace and Tranquility, others were divided conflicts and Wars. It’s very hard to draw any conclusions in this area.
The Curtain of Silence It is really difficult to tell what actually happened in all of those thousands of years before agriculture. All we have here are guesses. Yeah it says Harari, it is vital to ask questions for which no answers are available. If we don’t ask these questions we might be tempted to dismiss 70,000 years of human history with the excuse that nothing of importance happened. The truth is that these people did do lot of important things. Mainly they shaped the world around us to a much larger degree than most people realize. The next chapter explains how the foragers actually did reshape the Ecology of our planet. These wandering bands of Storytelling sapiens were the most destructive force the animal kingdom has ever produced.
Chapter 4. The flood.
This chapter explains how the foragers reshaped the Ecology of our planet. These wandering bands of Storytelling sapiens were the most destructive force the animal kingdom has ever produced. Prior to the cognitive Revolution the oceans kept humans and other animals from penetrating the Seas to other lands. This sea barrier prevented afro-asian animals and plants from reaching the outer world. As a result organisms on distant lands evolved separately. Planet Earth was separated into several distinct ecosystems, each made up of a unique assembly of animals and plants. Homo sapiens was about to put an end to this biological exuberance.
After the cognitive Revolution sapiens figured out how to break out of Africo-Asia and settle the outer world. First they colonized Australia beginning 45,000 years ago. Every other mammal that went to sea comma had to take eons to evolve flippers and gills and fins and what not. Humans did it by building boats and learning how to steer them. The moment the first hunter-gatherer set foot on Australia was the moment that homo sapiens got to the top rung in the food chain and became the deadliest species on planet Earth. Until then humans effect on the environment had been negligible. When humans settled Australia, they didn’t just adapt, they transformed the Australian ecosystem beyond recognition. Basically they conquered Australia. When humans landed in Australia, Australia was filled with huge predators and mammals. Almost all of these animals were marsupials. Within a few thousand years of humans getting to Australia virtually all these giant marsupials vanished. Of the 24 Australian animal species weighing 100 pounds or more 23 became extinct. A large number of smaller species also disappeared. Food chains throughout the entire ecosystem or broken and rearranged.
Some Scholars try to exonerate our species. But humans are guilty as charged. Climate change really didn’t cause the damage. 45,000 years ago Australia did have some climate change but it was minor. It’s true that in history every real change occurs against the background of some climate change. During the last million years there has been an Ice Age on average every 100,000 years. The last ice age ran from about 75,000 to 15,000 years ago. Australia survived the first peak of the last ice age around 75000 years ago. But more than 90% of Australia’s megafauna disappeared 45000 years ago. it’s hard to imagine that sapiens just by coincidence arrived in Australia at the precise point that all these animals started dropping dead. Another piece of evidence that humans caused the death of large animals and not climate, is that when climate causes large numbers of deaths it usually happens in the Seas as well as on the land. This was not the case here. Another piece of evidence that man caused the death of large fauna in Australia is that there are always huge extinctions whenever humans entered a new continent or even island. The Maoris, New Zealand’s first Homo sapiens colonizers, reach the islands about eight hundred years ago. Within two centuries the majority of local megafauna was extinct. The same thing happened on Wrangel island in the Arctic Ocean. There used to be mammoths everywhere. But by 10000 years ago there was not a single Mammoth to be found in the world. There were a few mammoths left on wrangel Island. But these also disappeared about four thousand years ago when the first humans reach that island. One reason humans killed so many animals so quickly was that when they arrived on new continents they took the large megafauna by surprise. Humans have been hunting an afro Asia for 2 million years and the big beasts they had learned how to avoid them. Also, large animals have long gestation periods and it takes a long time for the young to grow up. Humans only had to kill a few large animals until that their death rate exceeded their birthrate, and in a few years that animal became extinct. Also it seems that early man burned large tracts of land when they first went to Australia this attracted more easily hunted game and they were easier to kill off. The result was that they totally changed the Ecology of Australia within a few short millennia.
The extinction of the Australian megafauna was probably the first significant Mark Homo sapiens left on our planet. The Australian ecological disaster was followed by an even worse disaster in America. Homo sapiens was the first and only human species to reach America arriving about 16000 years ago. They got to America across the land bridge from North Eastern Siberia which connected to Northwestern Alaska. Humans first had to manage Crossing Northern Siberia which was extremely cold. Human beings developed different skills for crossing Siberia; they learned to sew furs into outer clothing. They also learned to kill mammoths in Siberia. Actually since they learned to kill mammoths humans were soon thriving in Northern Siberia. Around 12000 BC global warming melted the ice in America and opened a easy passage to the South. Early humans migrated cells and Mass. By 10000 BC humans inhabited almost all of North and South America all the way down to the island to Tierra del Fuego at the continent’s southern tip. No other animal has ever moved into such a wide variety of radically different habitats so fast. And using virtually the same genes. No genetic Evolution was involved at all. When Homo sapiens first moved into the Americas the land teemed with all kinds of mammals and mammoths and mastodons, many of them of huge size. Within two thousand years of homo sapiens arrival, almost all of the unique species were gone from the Americas. There are no fossilized dung balls from any of these animals that are older than 9000 BC. Again, some Scholars try to exonerate Homo sapiens and blame climate change for the extinction of all these animals. However that just doesn’t seem to fly. At the time of the cognitive Revolution the Earth was home to about 200 genera of large terrestrial animals weighing over 100 pounds. At the time of the Agricultural Revolution only 100 remained. Thus Homo sapiens drove to Extinction about half of the planets big animals long before humans invented the wheel, writing, or iron tools. This tragic story was repeated many times since the Agricultural Revolution; the archaeological record of Island after Island tells the same identical story. For example this happened in Madagascar, an island off the coast of Africa. There were huge numbers of very large animals on Madagascar about fifteen hundred years ago. They did all disappeared precisely when the first humans set foot on the island. Similar ecological disasters occurred on almost every one of the thousands of islands that pepper of the Atlantic Ocean the Indian Ocean the Arctic Ocean and the Mediterranean Sea. This happened on even the tiniest of islands. Humans destroyed the Ecology of everything they touched. Almost instantly. This first wave Extinction was followed by a second wave Extinction with your company the spread of the farmers. And then there was the third wave Extinction which accompanied the Industrial Revolution much later. Don’t believe Tree Huggers who claim that our ancestors lived in harmony with nature. Long before the Industrial Revolution Homo sapiens held the record among all organisms for driving the most plant and animal species to their extensions. We have the dubious distinction of being the deadliest species in the annals of biology. The large sea animals suffered relatively little from the cognitive or the agricultural revolutions. But they are now on the brink of extinction because of the industrial pollution and human use over use of oceanic resources. Among all of the world’s large creatures the only survivors of the human flood will be humans themselves and the farmyard animals that serve as Galley slaves in Noah’s Ark.
Part Two: The Agricultural Revolution
Chapter 5, History’s Biggest Fraud
Humans fed themselves by gathering plants and hunting animals for 2.5 million years. Homo erectus, Homo ergaster, Homo Sapiens and the Neanderthals picked plants and hunted; They were all Foragers. Then all of this changed about ten thousand years ago. The transition to agriculture began around 9500 to 8500 BC in Southeastern turkey, Western Iran and the Levant. Wheat and goats were domesticated by 9000 BC, peas and lentils around 8080 BC, Olive Trees by 5000 BC, horses by 4000 BC, and grape vines in 3500 BC. Today more than 90% of the calories that feed us come from just a few plants that our ancestors domesticated between 9500 and 3500 BC. These are wheat, rice, corn, potatoes. Our minds are those of hunter-gatherers, our cuisine and our bodies are those of ancient farmers.
Scholars agree that agriculture sprang up in other parts of the world not by the action of Middle East Farmers exporting their revolution but entirely independently. Why did crops first erupt just in the Middle East, China and Central America but not in places like Alaska. The reason is simple, most species of plants and animals cannot be domesticated. The few species that can be domesticated lived in particular places and those were the places where agricultural revolution occurred. [I think this is the Jared Diamond thesis.]
Scholars once thought that the Agricultural Revolution was a Great Leap Forward for Humanity. Harari’s view is that this tale is a fantasy. Foragers knew the secrets of nature long before the Agricultural Revolution. In Harari’s opinion the Agricultural Revolution left Farmers with worse lives that were more difficult and less satisfying than those of the foragers. He says the average farmer worked harder than the average forager. And got a worst diet in return. He thinks the Agricultural Revolution was history’s biggest fraud. He says the culprits in this fraud were a handful of plant species including wheat, rice and potatoes. He says these plants domesticated Homo sapiens rather than vice versa. Wheat was one of the great benefactors of the Agricultural Revolution. In the Great Plains of North America there was not a single stalk of wheat 10,000 years ago; now if covers great swathes of the American Heartland. Nowadays, worldwide, wheat covers about 870,000 square miles of the earth’s surface. Harari says that wheat did it by manipulating Homo sapiens for own its advantage. He says that within a couple of Millennia after the Agricultural Revolution, humans were doing little from dawn to dusk other than taking care of plants and this wasn’t easy. The body of homo sapiens has not evolved for such tasks, it was adapted two entirely different things like climbing apple trees and running after a gazelle, not to clearing rocks and carrying water buckets. The result was human spines and knees and arches paying a high price. There were lots of things like slipped discs, arthritis and ruined knees.
Harari says wheat domesticated us rather than vice versa. How did wheat convince homo sapiens to exchange a rather good life for a more miserable existence? Wheat did not give people more security. In many areas people relied on a single staple such a potatoes or wheat or rice. If the rains didn’t come the result was disaster and peasants died by the thousands and millions.
Nor could wheat offer security against human violence. When you begin to live on farms and to depend on farms, and they were threatened by neighboring villages losing their lands could mean the difference between subsistence and starvation. When Sapiens was still a forager if one band was attacked by rivals, you could usually move on. But when a strong enemy threatened an agricultural village, moving on meant giving up fields and houses. This doomed the refugees to starvation. So they tended to stay put and fight to the bitter end. [I think archaeologists call this caging. Ian Morris has a long discussion of caging and warfare in his book War! What is it Good For.]
Harari says that in simple agricultural societies with no political framework human violence was responsible for about 15% of all deaths including 25% for men. In contemporary New Guinea violence accounts for 30% of male deaths, inXXX it results in 35% of male death, and in Ecuador it results in perhaps fifty percent of male deaths. The currency of evolution is neither hunger nor pain, but copies of DNA. The happiness of the species is measured by the number of copies of its DNA. When no more copies remain, the species is extinct. However individuals could care less about this evolutionary calculus. Nobody agreed to this deal. The Agricultural Revolution was a trap.
The Luxury Trap: Page 83. The rise of farming was a very gradual affair spread out over centuries. Homo sapiens reached the Middle East around 70,000 years ago. For the next 50,000 years they flourished there without agriculture. In Good Times people had more children and in bad times less. Humans have mechanisms that help control procreation. In Good Times females reach puberty earlier and their chances of getting pregnant are greater. Cultural mechanisms were added to these natural population controls also. Babies and small children were a burden nomadic people, so they had fewer of them and they were spaced out more.
This post is still in progress. It should be done soon.