Israeli Professor of History at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and Author of Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind
Yuval Noah Harari
Israeli Professor of History at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and Author of Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind
We have the dubious distinction of being the deadliest species in the annals of biology.
Whatever path we take, the first step is to acknowledge the complexity of the dilemma and to accept that simplistically dividing the past into good guys and bad guys leads nowhere. Unless, of course, we are willing to admit that we usually follow the lead of the bad guys.
Whenever they decided to do a bit of extra work ? say, to hoe the fields instead of scattering seeds on the surface ? people thought, ?Yes, we will have to work harder. But the harvest will be so bountiful! We won?t have to worry any more about lean years. Our children will never go to sleep hungry.? It made sense. If you worked harder, you would have a better life. That was the plan.
Yet the Soviet elite, and the Communist regimes through most of eastern Europe (Romania and Serbia were the exceptions), chose not to use even a tiny fraction of this military power. When its members realized that Communism was bankrupt, they renounced force, admitted their failure, packed their suitcases and went home.
We have to take into account the ideological, political and economic forces that shaped physics, biology and sociology, pushing them in certain directions while neglecting others.
Wheat did it by manipulating Homo sapiens to its advantage. This ape had been living a fairly comfortable life hunting and gathering until about 10,000 years ago, but then began to invest more and more effort in cultivating wheat. Within a couple of millennia, humans in many parts of the world were doing little from dawn to dusk other than taking care of wheat plants. It wasn?t easy. Wheat demanded a lot of them.
Whichever way it happened, the Neanderthals (and the other human species) pose one of history?s great what ifs. Imagine how things might have turned out had the Neanderthals or Denisovans survived alongside Homo sapiens. What kind of cultures, societies and political structures would have emerged in a world where several different human species coexisted? How, for example, would religious faiths have unfolded? Would the book of Genesis have declared that Neanderthals descend from Adam and Eve, would Jesus have died for the sins of the Denisovans, and would the Qur?an have reserved seats in heaven for all righteous humans, whatever their species? Would Neanderthals have been able to serve in the Roman legions, or in the sprawling bureaucracy of imperial China? Would the American Declaration of Independence hold as a self-evident truth that all members of the genus Homo are created equal? Would Karl Marx have urged workers of all species to unite?
Yet 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
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. According to the science of biology, people were not ?created?. They have evolved. And they certainly did not evolve to be ?equal?. The idea of equality is inextricably intertwined with the idea of creation. The Americans got the idea of equality from Christianity, which argues that every person has a divinely created soul, and that all souls are equal before God. However, if we do not believe in the Christian myths about God, creation and souls, what does it mean that all people are ?equal?? Evolution is based on difference, not on equality. Every person carries a somewhat different genetic code, and is exposed from birth to different environmental influences. This leads to the development of different qualities that carry with them different chances of survival. ?Created equal? should therefore be translated into ?evolved differently?. Just as people were never created, neither, according to the science of biology, is there a ?Creator? who ?endows? them with anything. There is only a blind evolutionary process, devoid of any purpose, leading to the birth of individuals. ?Endowed by their creator? should be translated simply into ?born?. Equally, there are no such things as rights in biology. There are only organs, abilities and characteristics. Birds fly not because they have a right to fly, but because they have wings. And it?s not true that these organs, abilities and characteristics are ?unalienable?. Many of them undergo constant mutations, and may well be completely lost over time. The ostrich is a bird that lost its ability to fly. So ?unalienable rights? should be translated into ?mutable characteristics?. And what are the characteristics that evolved in humans? ?Life?, certainly. But ?liberty?? There is no such thing in biology. Just like equality, rights and limited liability companies, liberty is something that people invented and that exists only in their imagination. From a biological viewpoint, it is meaningless to say that humans in democratic societies are free, whereas humans in dictatorships are unfree. And what about ?happiness?? So far biological research has failed to come up with a clear definition of happiness or a way to measure it objectively. Most biological studies acknowledge only the existence of pleasure, which is more easily defined and measured. So ?life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness? should be translated into ?life and the pursuit of pleasure?. So here is that line from the American Declaration of Independence translated into biological terms: We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men evolved differently, that they are born with certain mutable characteristics, and that among these are life and the pursuit of pleasure.
When agriculture and industry came along people could increasingly rely on the skills of others for survival, and new ?niches for imbeciles? were opened up. You could survive and pass your unremarkable genes to the next generation by working as a water carrier or an assembly-line worker.
While people in today?s affluent societies work an average of forty to forty-five hours a week, and people in the developing world work sixty and even eighty hours a week, hunter-gatherers living today in the most inhospitable of habitats ? such as the Kalahari Desert ? work on average for just thirty-five to forty-five hours a week. They hunt only one day out of three, and gathering takes up just three to six hours daily. In normal times, this is enough to feed the band. It may well be that ancient hunter-gatherers living in zones more fertile than the Kalahari spent even less time obtaining food and raw materials. On top of that, foragers enjoyed a lighter load of household chores. They had no dishes to wash, no carpets to vacuum, no floors to polish, no nappies to change and no bills to pay.
You can do many things with bayonets, but it is rather uncomfortable to sit on them.
The truth is that earth?s climate never rests. It is in constant flux. Every event in history occurred against the background of some climate change. In particular, our planet has experienced numerous cycles of cooling and warming.
There is some evidence that the size of the average Sapiens brain has actually decreased since the age of foraging. Survival in that era required superb mental abilities from everyone. When agriculture and industry came along people could increasingly rely on the skills of others for survival, and new ?niches for imbeciles? were opened up. You could survive and pass your unremarkable genes to the next generation by working as a water carrier or an assembly-line worker.
This is the fly in the ointment of free-market capitalism. It cannot ensure that profits are gained in a fair way, or distributed in a fair manner. On the contrary, the craving to increase profits and production blinds people to anything that might stand in the way.
Tolerance is not a Sapiens trademark. In modern times, a small difference in skin color, dialect or religion has been enough to prompt one group of Sapiens to set about exterminating another group. Would ancient Sapiens have been more tolerant towards an entirely different human species? It may well be that when Sapiens encountered Neanderthals, the result was the first and most significant ethnic-cleansing campaign in history.
Until the late modern era, more than 90 per cent of humans were peasants who rose each morning to till the land by the sweat of their brows. The extra they produced fed the tiny minority of elites ? kings, government officials, soldiers, priests, artists and thinkers ? who fill the history books. History is something that very few people have been doing while everyone else was ploughing fields and carrying water buckets.
Most people claim that their social hierarchy is natural and just, while those of other societies are based on false and ridiculous criteria. Modern Westerners are taught to scoff at the idea of racial hierarchy. They are shocked by laws prohibiting blacks to live in white neighborhoods, or to study in white schools, or to be treated in white hospitals. But the hierarchy of rich and poor ? which mandates that rich people live in separate and more luxurious neighborhoods, study in separate and more prestigious schools, and receive medical treatment in separate and better-equipped facilities ? seems perfectly sensible to many Americans and Europeans. Yet it?s a proven fact that most rich people are rich for the simple reason that they were born into a rich family, while most poor people will remain poor throughout their lives simply because they were born into a poor family.
No noteworthy plant or animal has been domesticated in the last 2,000 years.
One of the few rigorous laws of history is that the luxuries tend to become needs and generate new obligations.
Paradise, the capitalists promise, is right around the corner. True, mistakes have been made such as the Atlantic slave trade and the exploitation of the European working class, but we have learned our lesson and if we just wait a little longer and allow the pie to grow a little bigger, everybody will receive a fatter slice.
Premodern traditions of knowledge such as Islam, Christianity, Buddhism and Confucianism asserted that everything that is important to know about the world was already known. The great gods, or the one almighty God, or the wise people of the past possessed all-encompassing wisdom, which they revealed to us in scriptures and oral traditions. Ordinary mortals gained knowledge by delving into these ancient texts and traditions and understanding them properly. It was inconceivable that the Bible, the Qur?an or the Vedas were missing out on a crucial secret of the universe ? a secret that might yet be discovered by flesh-and-blood creatures. Ancient traditions of knowledge admitted only two kinds of ignorance. First, an individual might be ignorant of something important. To obtain the necessary knowledge, all he needed to do was ask somebody wiser. There was no need to discover something that nobody yet knew. For example, if a peasant in some thirteenth-century Yorkshire village wanted to know how the human race originated, he assumed that Christian tradition held the definitive answer. All he had to do was ask the local priest.
Science can explain what exists in the world, how things work, and what might be in the future. By definition, it has no pretensions to knowing what should be in the future. Only religions and ideologies seek to answer such questions.
So, monotheism explains order, but is mystified by evil. Dualism explains evil, but is puzzled by order. There is one logical way of solving the riddle: to argue that there is a single omnipotent God who created the entire universe ? and He?s evil. But nobody in history has had the stomach for such a belief.
That evolution should select for larger brains may seem to us like, well, a no-brainer. We are so enamored of our high intelligence that we assume that when it comes to cerebral power, more must be better. But if that were the case, the feline family would also have produced cats who could do calculus, and frogs would by now have launched their own space program. Why are giant brains so rare in the animal kingdom? The fact is that a jumbo brain is a jumbo drain on the body. It?s not easy to carry around, especially when encased inside a massive skull. It?s even harder to fuel. In Homo sapiens, the brain accounts for about 2?3 per cent of total body weight, but it consumes 25 per cent of the body?s energy when the body is at rest. By comparison, the brains of other apes require only 8 per cent of rest-time energy. Archaic humans paid for their large brains in two ways. Firstly, they spent more time in search of food. Secondly, their muscles atrophied. Like a government diverting money from defense to education, humans diverted energy from biceps to neurons. It?s hardly a foregone conclusion that this is a good strategy for survival on the savannah. A chimpanzee can?t win an argument with a Homo sapiens, but the ape can rip the man apart like a rag doll.