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 no idea what the builders of G”bekli Tepe actually called the place. With the appearance of writing, we are beginning to hear history through the ears of its protagonists. When Kushim?s neighbors called out to him, they might really have shouted ?Kushim!? It is telling that the first recorded name in history belongs to an accountant, rather than a prophet, a poet or a great conqueror.
Whatever is possible is by definition also natural.
When we try to guess or imagine how happy other people are now, or how people in the past were, we inevitably imagine ourselves in their shoes. But that won?t work because it pastes our expectations on to the material conditions of others. In modern affluent societies it is customary to take a shower and change your clothes every day. Medieval peasants went without washing for months on end, and hardly ever changed their clothes. The very thought of living like that, filthy and reeking to the bone, is abhorrent to us. Yet medieval peasants seem not to have minded. They were used to the feel and smell of a long-unlaundered shirt. It?s not that they wanted a change of clothes but couldn?t get it ? they had what they wanted. So, at least as far as clothing goes, they were content.
Yet the idea that all humans are equal is also a myth.
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.
We like to see underdogs win. But there is no justice in history. Most past cultures have sooner or later fallen prey to the armies of some ruthless empire, which have consigned them to oblivion. Empires, too, ultimately fall, but they tend to leave behind rich and enduring legacies. Almost all people in the twenty-first century are the offspring of one empire or another.
When Charles Darwin indicated that Homo sapiens was just another kind of animal, people were outraged. Even today many refuse to believe it. Had the Neanderthals survived, would we still imagine ourselves to be a creature apart? Perhaps this is exactly why our ancestors wiped out the Neanderthals. They were too familiar to ignore, but too different to tolerate.
Why are you willing to flip hamburgers, sell health insurance or babysit three obnoxious brats when all you get for your exertions is a few pieces of colored paper? People are willing to do such things when they trust the figments of their collective imagination. Trust is the raw material from which all types of money are minted.
You could never convince a monkey to give you a banana by promising him limitless bananas after death in monkey heaven. But why is it important? After all, fiction can be dangerously misleading or distracting. People who go to the forest looking for fairies and unicorns would seem to have less chance of survival than people who go looking for mushrooms and deer. And if you spend hours praying to non-existing guardian spirits, aren?t you wasting precious time, time better spent foraging, fighting and fornicating? But fiction has enabled us not merely to imagine things, but to do so collectively. We can weave 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. Ants and bees can also work together in huge numbers, but they do so in a very rigid manner and only with close relatives. Wolves and chimpanzees cooperate far more flexibly than ants, but they can do so only with small numbers of other individuals that they know intimately. 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.
We members of one of its final generations should devote some time to answering one last question:
When Cort‚s and his men landed on the sunny beaches of today?s Vera Cruz, it was the first time the Aztecs encountered a completely unknown people. The Aztecs did not know how to react. They had trouble deciding what these strangers were. Unlike all known humans, the aliens had white skins. They also had lots of facial hair. Some had hair the color of the sun. They stank horribly. (Native hygiene was far better than Spanish hygiene. When the Spaniards first arrived in Mexico, natives bearing incense burners were assigned to accompany them wherever they went. The Spaniards thought it was a mark of divine honor. We know from native sources that they found the newcomers? smell unbearable.)
Why did the military?industrial?scientific complex blossom in Europe rather than India? When Britain leaped forward, why were France, Germany and the United States quick to follow, whereas China lagged behind? When the gap between industrial and non-industrial nations became an obvious economic and political factor, why did Russia, Italy and Austria succeed in closing it, whereas Persia, Egypt and the Ottoman Empire failed? After all, the technology of the first industrial wave was relatively simple. Was it so hard for Chinese or Ottomans to engineer steam engines, manufacture machine guns and lay down railroads?
You need to know a lot about your own tiny field of expertise, but for the vast majority of life?s necessities you rely blindly on the help of other experts, whose own knowledge is also limited to a tiny field of expertise. 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 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.
We moderns have an arsenal of tranquilizers and painkillers at our disposal, but our expectations of ease and pleasure, and our intolerance of inconvenience and discomfort, have increased to such an extent that we may well suffer from pain more than our ancestors ever did.