Friday, January 13, 2017

"A Brief History of Humankind"

     Yuval Noah Harari. Sapiens (2014) Harari’s take on the history of us, homo sapiens sapiens, the only extant species of homo sapiens. He uses the title term throughout to refer to us in contrast to neanderthalensis and other human species (Wikipedia calls them “subspecies”.) He divides our history into three eras, the Cognitive, Agricultural, and Scientific.
     Our ancestors became sapiens when some changes in the brain enabled it not only to imagine non-present objects, but to talk about them. Harari calls this “fictive language” to distinguish it from the signaling systems used by other animals. Besides making the exchange of technical information easier, it accelerated technical improvements and the creation of societies that extended over space and time. Societies are held together by the stories they tell about themselves, and exist only to the extent that these stories are believed. To label them as myths is to misunderstand both their power and their necessity. It’s only when a myth is superseded by a new one that we see it as a fiction.
     Agriculture was not a precondition for large human societies capable of building monuments and settlements, but it certainly accelerated that shift in Sapiens lifestyles. But the key to the development of cities and empires was trade, facilitated and accelerated by writing. Writing is a method of recording and using more data than a single human can store in their brain. The earliest writings were records of numbers, not stories. Pure data, in other words.
      Science was the “discovery of ignorance”, the realisation that we don’t know everything there is to know. This placed a premium on searching for new knowledge, and fostered the stance that not only current knowledge but current lifestyles are subject to continuing change. Couple this with the invention of credit (the essential function of money), and the acceleration of technical, economic, and social change seems inevitable.
     Harari has the knack of noticing what’s right in front of us. Reading him has the twin effect of prompting “Well, of course, why didn’t I see it that way before?” and “Aha, just as I suspected.” It also reminds us that Sapiens has changed the planet more thoroughly than any other animal when it became the most skilful and efficient hunter and forager that ever evolved on Earth. Sapiens has altered every ecosystem it invaded, long before agriculture and the science speeded up and enlarged the scope of those changes. Sapiens has now developed the skills that ironically could enable it to create life forms that supersede it.
     We have become smart enough to replace ourselves, but not wise enough to understand why would want to do that, nor what kind of life form we would want to replace us.
     Every chapter, sometimes every paragraph, prompts questions, musings, applications to one's experience and knowledge. Harari’s large-scale view of human history expands the reader’s view also: I found my insights and perceptions continually challenged and shifting into new shapes.
     Read this book. ****

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