Thursday, June 21, 2018

Sapiens - Yuval Noah Harari

"Sapiens - A Brief History of Humankind", is a Sunday Times Top Ten Bestseller written by Dr. Yuval Noah Harari. Dr. Harari specializes in world history, taught at Oxford and now at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. It starts with a timeline  - 13.5 billion years before the present was when matter and energy appeared, 4.5 billion before - Earth was formed, 3.8 billion before now organisms emerged, 6 million years before - last common grandmother of humans and chimps existed, 2.5 million years ago was the evolution of genus Homo, and the first stone tools, 2 million years before, humans (genus Homo) spread from Africa to Eurasia, 300000 years before now was usage of fire daily, 200000 years before, Homo Sapiens evolve in East Africa, 70000 years before was the Cognitive revolution and attempts at writing, emergence of fictive language, 45000 years  before now, Sapiens settle Australia, extinction of megafauna, 30000 years ago extinction of the Neanderthals, 16000 years ago Sapiens settle Amercia, 12000 years ago was the Agricultural revolution deomestication of plants and animals, 5000 years ago came the first kingdoms, script and money, polytheistic religions, 4250 years ago was the first empire, 2500 years ago was universal coinage, 2500 years ago the Persian empire broguth out the concept of universal political order for benefit of all humans, and Buddhism, 2000 years ago existed the Han empire, Roman empire, Christianity, 1400 years ago came Islam, 500 years ago came the Scientific revolution where man admitted ignorance and acquired immense power, rise of capitalism, 200 years ago was the Industrial Revolution where family and community were replaced by state and market, extinction of plants and animals, The present - humans transcend Earth, the Future is about Homo Sapiens and super humans. That, in a nutshell, is the history and the way Dr. Harari interpreted it.

Dr. Harari sets the framework elegantly - 13.5 billion years ago there was the big bang which created matter, energy, time and space (or rather Physics). 3 lakh years after that, matter and energy formed atoms and fused to form complex molecules (which began chemistry). 3.8 billion years ago, molecules combined to form organisms (biology). 70,000 years ago, Homo Sapiens formed cultures and started to write, thereby forming History. The Agricultural Revolution started about 12000 years ago. The Scientific Revolution som 500 years ago. Life has never been the same ever since. The key for us then is the Cognitive Revolution, the Agricultural Revolution, and the Scientific Revolution.

Dr. Harari points out that 10000 years ago, 6 human species inhabited the earth under the genus Homo apart from Sapiens - Homo Rudolfesis, Homo Erectus, Homo Neanderthalensis, Homo Floresiensis and Homo Ergaster. Only the Homo Sapiens survive now. He says it probably because the Homo Sapiens drove the others to extinction. It's interesting because even in present-day Homo Sapiens we find those who have a conquering gene and those who are quite happy to be where they are. In all likelihood, the discovery of fire and its use to cook food helped the Homo Sapiens cook and eat food like rice, wheat, and potatoes (which cannot otherwise be digested). Humans quickly moved up the food chain once they figured this out.

The next move up was when Homo Sapiens discovered language and realized they could share large amounts of information. Homo Sapiens gossiped for hours and used it as a means to transfer information (which we continue to do to date). They used fictional narratives to collaborated to keep those fictions alive. However, the author feels that fictional narratives serve the purpose of getting people to collaborate and hold a group of 150 or less. Beyond 150 it gets difficult to hold a group with gossip and fictional narratives. To hold larger groups they needed bigger fictional common myths. He cites the example of Peugeot a car manufacturer and how the company becomes a collective fiction that all of us buy into as if it were a real person. The problem with these large-scale myths is about how to convince others. Clearly, the ones who can use these fictions, social constructs or imagined realities well set the agenda for the rest of the world. Fictions helped large populations of humans to change their behavior quickly. They would believe these myths and it enabled big groups of humans to cooperate based on these myths. Trade would not have been possible if trust was not established. Now trust is a myth. With a diversity of stories, a diversity of behaviors was made possible which created different cultures. These myths changed behaviors and formed cultures and helped forge cooperation between people. That was the big impact of cognitive revolution - the break out into fictions.

The foragers and hunters among our ancestors were probably better off than the average man is today. His brain was bigger, he was more aware, lived in tune with the rhythm of nature, ate a varied diet and got good nutrition and was aware and alert. He worked on an average of 35 hours a week to gather food, material, and knowledge as compared to the average of 80 hours a week that a man works today to eat far less nutritious food.

Dr. Harari says the Homo Sapiens spread out of East Africa to Asia and Europe and later to Australia. Soon after he went he killed the megafauna in all these places - an ecological serial killer. In a short time after the Homo Sapiens went to these places about 200 types of animals weighing over 50 kgs were reduced to 100 by the time agricultural revolution started. Dr. Harari says that was done by the Homo Sapiens probably to survive and make the world safer for himself.

The agricultural revolution started when Homo Sapiens started manipulating animal and plant species. He started growing wheat, rice, peas, and lentils. (Harari says that nothing much has changed in our diet since then - we still eat the same food that they grew. Though we expanded the total food produced, man does not get better diet or leisure.) Once he settled down in a place, the area grew smaller and he started to settle down. He toiled away at growing more food to stock more. Due to the stagnant nature of their lives, populations exploded. As now, even then the elites got control of the food while workers worked harder. Dr. Harari says that humans did not domesticate plants but it was the other way round - plants domesticated humans with their unique needs of being watered, kept pest free, fenced etc. Wheat gave the Homo Sapiens an opportunity to multiply because people settled down in secure settlements and every improvement became a bigger luxury trap and a mill stone around their neck that they could not get out of. however. They plowed on believing in better futures and in the security of food stocks. Humans domesticated the goat, cattle, and chicken. The agricultural revolution was terrible for animals because since then they have been treated as if they have no emotions or soul and were purely seen as an economic unit.

Agri territories shrunk from what the foragers were used to. Homo Sapiens also started putting up artificial stuff - they cleared lands, built houses, canals for humans and their 'plants, built walls etc. Thanks to all this they got tied down to that place. The small settlements became villages and then towns and then cities thanks to the food surplus they generated. As communities grew, bigger myths were needed to keep the flock together - like motherland. gods. Dr. Harari gives us the example of the Code of Hammurabi where a god ordained code was passed down to the people by the king to be followed - and they followed it. They completely believed in the fiction the king sold them. Cynics do not build the empire. believers do - those who believe in causes like the motherland, god, democracy, capitalism. Desires grew (about having more experiences), consumerism grew. Dr. Harari says we all buy into the myths of travel, of experiences that will enhance our lives and line the pockets of the capitalists while not adding any value to ourselves. (But in the olden days, people would build stuff like the pyramids if they were rich - not go for world tours.) To dismantle the myth of Peugeot  we need a bigger myth - like the French legal system

To sustain laws and customs consciously, Homo Sapiens now needed to store data. People still lived as small and simple social networks. However, the Sumerians started writing in 3500 BC. They stored facts and figures through quipus which allowed them to store data and helped in tax collection and property records. Around 2500 BC the cuneiform and the Egyptian hieroglyphics were discovered. The next problem arose. Though they had the facility to store records, they did not have good retrieval system. This was when the Hindus and the Arabs came up with the system of numerical from 0-9 and information and record keeping exploded.

The code of the Hammurabi had a pecking order - of superiors, common men, and slaves. In the American Declaration of Independence, there is a hierarchy of men. Similarly, there is the Hindu caste system. These imagined hierarchies enabled strangers to know how to trust one another because they were slotted. Clearly, people with the same ability would not have the same amount of success because the economic game was rigged by the legal restriction and an imaginary glass ceiling. The class system was based on the concept of purity. Untouchables, blacks were obviously impure and were at the receiving end simply because they were impure - based on a code no one knows. Myths were floated about blacks - that they were cursed, filthy, impure. That they would contaminate the others. The idea was to stick a label first and then prove the record. A case in point - in 1958 Clennon King a black young man who applied to a graduate course in the University of Mississippi was committed to the mental asylum because the judge believed that he must be mad to think that a black could get admission to the University. There is no biological difference that questions intelligence - just the commonly believed myth that served some. Similarly, gender myths were promoted as were myths about manhood and patriarchy. Also about men being stronger. These myths kept women out.

Thanks to the customs, myths, and cultures there was no equality. Dr. Harari says that to understand any culture best one should not look at the pristine set of values but at the Catch 22s of the culture, the spot between the imperatives. The myths have generally been one of "Us vs Them" to create an economic, political and religious order. To show that humans were a single unit. The classes became those of merchants, conquerors, and priests.

The greatest conqueror of all soon arrived - money.

Trust, says Dr. Harari, is the raw material from which all types of money is minted. Money is the most universal and most efficient system of mutual trust ever devised. Whereas religions ask us to believe in something, money asks us to believe that other people believe in something. Money ensures cooperation. Money has two great qualities - universal convertibility and universal trust.

The creation of empires which came next further reduced human diversity. The Persians were the first to come up with the fantastic idea that they were conquering other lands for the benefit of the conquered people. The Chinese empires claimed heavenly legitimacy. The myth that "they" became "us" was floated but it was a lie of course. Gandhi despite all his efforts to be like "them" was brown and thrown out of the train. Aided by such myths a small group could establish an empire, a culture which is then adopted by the common people.

Religion is a system of human norms and values founded on a belief of superhuman order. It had two faces - a universal superhuman order and a need to spread this belief through missionaries. Where animism was a local phenomenon, people now looked to gods as a solution to things that went wrong in nature - like a drought for instance. Slowly polytheistic religions developed, with smaller gods for different things, gods with partial powers. (More Christians says Dr. Harari, were killed by fellow Christians on St. Bartholomew's Day massacre - about 5k to 10k of them - than by the polytheistic Roman empire. Christianity and Islam grew fast.  Humanist religions that saw humans as superior also spawned ideas of superiority among humans.

A few small cultures now became a few big cultures, creating a global empire.

Enter the Scientific Revolution next and Homo Sapiens growth exploded. In the last 500 years, ever since the Scientific Revolution, the population has grown from 500 mn to 7 bn, goods produced from 250 bn to 60 trn, and energy consumption from 13 trn cals to 1500 trn cals. Science plus empires plus economics of capitalism grew.

The Scientific Revolution was based on man's willingness to admit ignorance! On his ability to say "I don't know'. This ability led him to acquire more powers. Until then, man believed that all the answers were in the old religious classics. But with the introduction of "the Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy", science gave a new tool to humans to seek further progress. The sugar daddy of science was religious ideology.

The voyage of James Cook's expedition funded by the Royal Society gathered much data. Cook saved his crew from scurvy thanks to Vitamin C supplements and with a full, healthy crew was able to garner knowledge and lay claim on new territories along the way including Australia. Thanks to science and technology, European empires beat Asian empires which were very rich. The only difference between the two cultures was the mentality of conquest which the Europeans had. Dr. Harari says that whatever the Europeans did, they did scientifically. For example, the British mapped India, formed the Asiatic Society, explored Everest. They sought knowledge plus territories. No wonder then that the British with 5000 officials, 40-70 k soldiers and 1 lakh business people subjugated 300 million Indians. It was science that aided their imperial designs.

The economy was always driven by growth. The discovery of the use of credit kickstarted a new wave of economic growth. Where religion damned the rich, Adam Smith's 'Wealth of the Nations' said it was fine to be rich. Greater profits meant greater good for all. Greed is good he said, because everyone benefits. The distinction between capitalism and wealth was made now (growth vs stored). Technology was soon seen as important for the growth of the economy.

The Asia kings were non-mercantile in their approach while European kings were mercantile. They had bankers and merchants advising them. Interestingly Columbus was financed by the Queen of Sapin after he was rejected by Portugal France, Italy - a good case of venture capitalism. Most conquests were financed by bankers and merchants. India was ruled by a mercenary army of soldiers who were on the payroll of the East India Company. The Opium War, where the British sold opium to the Chinese and were barred by the Chinese from selling, quickly sought support from the British army which defeated the Chinese and made the Chinese sign a peace treaty allowing them to sell opium, compensate for losses incurred and to give control of Hong Kong. War itself became a commodity later.

'When kings fail to do their jobs and regulate the market prospects, it leads to a loss of trust, dwindling credit, and economic depression.'

The Europeans conquered America and planted sugar, tobacco, cotton and mined for gold and silver. To meet the excess supply of sugar produced, an industry of cakes, candy etc was founded. The annual intake of sugar for Homo Sapiens went up from 0 to 8 kgs. Since plantations were labour intensive they began a lucrative slave trade. 10 million slaves were shifted from Africa who made huge profits for the sugar barons. There were slave trade companies whose stock was traded in Amsterdam, London and Paris stock exchanges. Companies would raise money by selling shares, went and bought slaves from Africa, sold slaves to American planters, bought goods from them, sold for a profit in Europe and again went to buy slaves. The profit motive of these companies was also responsible for the death of 10 mn Bengalis in the Bengal famine. The Belgian King took the Congo basin for exploration and exploited 20-30 million native inhabitants for rubber and other produce.

One of the biggest problems that science needed to solve for Homo Sapiens was how to convert one for of energy to another. Solar energy from plants was the only source of energy. No one understood steam then but once steam (conversion of energy) was discovered, the Industrial Revolution started. Until then, man did all the work. Now machines did it for him. Mass production meant that animals were now used in horrible ways to feed the population. Dr. Harari describes the appalling conditions in which cattle, sheep, pigs and chicken are grown and killed to feed the people. He quotes Dr. Harlow's monkeys experiment where young monkeys were separated from their mothers (just as all young liter are separated in the dairy industry) and given a cloth monkey. The young monkeys would hug the cloth monkey. Even when a steel monkey was kept next to the cloth monkey with food, the young monkeys ate the food clinging to the cloth monkey - clearly showing how emotional they were. Industrialisation for agriculture led to urban industrialization revolution. Man produced and produced and found many ways to produce more at the cost of animals and their emotions, at the cost of the environment.

Soon supply exceeded demand. Who will buy these goods?

Since consumption was now needed to take care of demand, a new myth was promoted. Frugality, which was hitherto seen as a good habit, was now shown as a disease. The masses were killed by over-consumption. A selfish, decadent and morally corrupt creed was promoted. There is no reason why a poor person should want to eat a burger or a pizza or drink a cola spending hard earned money for low nutrition foods. But the myths are stronger.

"The new ethic promises paradise on the condition that the rich remain greedy and spent time making more money and that the masses give free rein to their cravings and passions - and buy more and more.'

The world has been changed to fit the needs of the Homo Sapiens. Habitats have been destroyed. If the mass of all the people is 300 mn tons, of farming animals 700 mn then the mass of all surviving large wild animals is a mere 100 million tons. It shows how much we have depleted those species.

Homo Sapiens are now ruled by time. Now they require mass transportation. Earlier humans lived in small, intimate communities. Now communities are replaced by the state and the market. Earlier they had the support of the nuclear family, the extended family, and the local intimate community. But now the idea of the individual was promoted - and it draws them away from their families. People now have imagined communities like the nation. This allows people to be in order which provides stability an continuity.

Dr. Harari asks - despite all the progress etc, are we happier? How can we count happiness? He avers that family and community have more impact on our happiness than wealth and money. Of course one cannot be happy all the time. He concludes that perhaps happiness depends on self-delusion

Be present. Mindful. Another solution.

A look at what is now happening. We are looking at Genetic Engineering where science is transforming living beings. There is a possibility of reviving extinct creatures. There is the Bionic life where human and inorganic life meets to extend human life and convenience. Then there is an Inorganic life where science is making do with only inorganic material to replicate life. Humans may now live up to far longer - maybe become a-mortal i.e. not die deaths unless by accident. There is a human brain project underway to construct a human brain.

Dr. Harari ends with a question - what can we expect then from dissatisfied, irresponsible gods who do not know what they want. That sums up where Homo Sapiens stand today.

A fascinating book. I read it once and then again. Thanks Abhinay.

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