Tuesday, March 7, 2017

Yuval Harari's "Sapiens": I Think I Finally Get It

At the start of 2017 I checked the actuarial tables and determined, at 12 books per year, I had about 168 books left to read.  Give or take.  That's not a lot.  So I decided then and there that I would read only books that had the potential to delight, change my mind, or change my life.

I read Sean Carroll's The Big Picture, which certainly changed what I knew about the universe.  Then I read Ted Chiang's Stories of Your Life and Others, which I should have read before I saw Arrival, but liked even better.  Next, I finally finished Zinsser's On Writing Well, which I should have read 30 years ago.  So I'm three-for-three.

And then I picked up a copy of Yuval Harari's Sapiens which, I now believe, explains nearly everything that has confused me about life and my fellow human beings, especially since November 2016.

Here's just some of what I learned:



1. Until about 10,000 years ago, there were several species of human beings: Homo rudolfensis, Homo ergaster, Neanderthals, a few others.  And then there was us, immodestly styled Homo sapien.

Some of our cousins were big, some were dwarfs, some foraged and some hunted, but just like poodles and beagles and pit bulls, we were all part of the same species.

Then Homo sapien wiped them out.  One by one.  All of them.  In the case of Neanderthal, Harari writes, the likely result was "the first and most significant ethnic-cleansing campaign in history."

"Tolerance," he says, "is not a Sapien trademark."

And when they were all gone, what did we do?  We looked around and marveled that we were the only ones, the epitome of creation.  God's chosen creatures.  "Sapiens have good reasons to repress the memory of our siblings," Harari concludes.

It's like pit bulls eradicated all other dogs and then proclaimed themselves Canine sapien.

Homo destructive.  Our calling is to destroy that which is unlike us.

2. Until quite recently, Sapiens' position in the food chain was solidly middle class.  We hunted little stuff; big stuff hunted us.  And then, about 400,000 years ago, with our growing brains and improved weapons, we began to kill the big stuff.

In the last 100,000 years we vaulted from the middle to the top of the food chain.  What took other animals like sharks and lions millions of years, we achieved in a flash.  The ecosystem didn't have time to develop around us, to create checks and balances.  And Sapiens didn't have adequate time to prepare, either.

Consequently, we have all the phobias of the food-chain middle class and all of the destructive power of the top dog.  We are, Harari writes, "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."

First we hacked our way to the center of the universe. Then we hacked our way to the top of the food chain.  We are intolerant, we are anxious, and we are cruel, and our calling is to destroy that which is unlike us.

3. Sociological research suggests that the maximum "natural" size of a group bonded by personal and family relations is about 150 individuals, Harari writes.  After that, order begins to break down.

The only way that humans can cooperate in large groups is with fiction--by inventing and embracing common myths.  So we created stories called money, law, justice, race, capitalism, corporations, and nations.  We created stories called "creation."  And we invented gods.  And in time, these imagined realities became so powerful that the survival of real things, like "rivers, trees and lions, depends on the grace of imagined entities such as the United States and Google."

There is a reason Genesis gives us dominion over all the Earth; you would expect a destructive species to have controlling and destructive myths, would you not?  Myths have made us masters of creation, Harari says.

We are intolerant, we are anxious and we are cruel, but we have God on our side.  And our calling is to destroy that which is unlike us.

4.  Within 2,000 years of the Sapien arrival in the Americas, our ancestors had wiped out 34 of the 47 genera of large animals in North America, and 50 of 60 in South America.  Sabre-tooth tigers flourished for 30 million years until they met Sapien.

If you count wiping out all of our first cousins, and the mass extinction we engineered first in Australia and then the Americas, "the inevitable conclusion is that the first wave of Sapiens colonisation was one of the biggest and swiftest ecological disasters to befall the animal kingdom. . .Homo sapiens drove to extinction about half of the planet's big beasts long before humans invented the wheel, writing, or iron tools."

We are, Harari concludes, an ecological serial killer.  We are the deadliest species in the annals of biology.  Our ancestors never lived in harmony with nature.  And our newest weapons, the Scientific Revolution and climate change, are poised to wipe out everything.

What I thought was a dumpster fire going on in Washington, is, I now understand from Harari, simply intolerant, anxious, cruel, and righteous Sapien practicing their calling.

For me, I've got 164 books left, hoping I can fit them all in before Homo sapiens' final triumph.