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Sapiens: Decoding Our Human Origins

Updated on September 7, 2019
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Vincent Dublado taught EFL for more than 15 years. He is a book reviewer and a mass culture enthusiast.

Since the advent of Charles Darwin's Origin of Species, the literature on human origins continues to delve into the history of our species. Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind makes another bold attempt. From its subtitle alone, author Yuval Noah Harari goes straight into decoding our formation beginning in the Stone Age. The Israeli professor draws a fascinating argument by dividing human history into four major parts: the Cognitive Revolution, Agricultural Revolution, Unification, and the Scientific Revolution. He attempts at summarizing 14 billion years of the evolutionary timeline at 400 pages.

The book opens with a revelation that we are animals with no significance. However, we contend with the irony that as a human species, we developed the most sophisticated brain structure that enabled us to shape and dictate our surroundings to suit our needs. Our blueprint is a mere fraction of the world's history--and we are bound to lose it from our own doing. Thanks to our continuous development.

Sapiens traces our lot as content members of the caveman tribe, concerned only with hunting and gathering and watching our backs against predatory dangers. Then our brains got the better of us as it evolved, and it made us restless creatures that gave us the capacity to change the face of the earth. According to Mr. Harari's timeline, the Cognitive Revolution started 70,000 years ago, in which the emergence of fictive language allowed us to communicate in arbitrary signs and symbols that no other species were capable of doing. Our physiology synchronized with the demands of our brains that we became modern, learned to use fire to our advantage and invented the wheel. Thus, we spread out, heralding the Agricultural Revolution.

As we entered the Agricultural Revolution, we enter into wide-scale industrialization where settlement, land tilling, and domestication of animals became standard practice that replaced hunting-gathering. It precipitated war and peace, as humans developed the concept of ownership--part of the legacy of the Cognitive Revolution as we learned to think in abstract ways. This led to further developments as our sophisticated cognition ushered us into Unification--money, religion, and materialism came into play as our social constructs became more elaborate. We found ways to answer the unknown by ascribing them to the supernatural. Trade became more streamlined as money became the commodity of exchange.

As civilizations intensify, we come to the Scientific Revolution as the product of acknowledging our limits and compensating for it. However, along with this revolution, Mr. Harari postulates that the demise of our species will be our own doing. We are bound to destroy ourselves from our restlessness. The present information and biotechnical age, according to Mr. Harari, are manifesting signs of our predisposition toward extinction, as we lean toward artificial intelligence that may soon replace our position in the circle of life.

These four major parts of human history serve as the head topics of a well-outlined discourse on the components that Mr. Harari deems instrumental in our formation. Language strikes a particular interest. He goes into an exposition on our tremendous capacity for thinking that enabled us to view the world according to our socio-political needs. He assumes the role of a prophet of doom by extrapolating on our penchant for technology that will lead to our demise, as we create intelligence far superior to us.

Mr. Harari keeps his audience absorb by balancing historical accounts with fascinating information. Case in point is how he illustrates Peugeot's corporate model that does not seem to have any essential connection to the physical world. This French car manufacturer falls under a legal fiction called "limited liability companies." His quips are impeccable and placed at the right time. It strikes our fancy when he says, "Modern business-people and lawyers are, in fact, powerful sorcerers." This is when he talks about our evolutionary hangover as primitives who believe up to this day in ghosts and spirits. When he poses the interrogative, "If credit is such a wonderful thing, why did nobody think of it earlier?" Expect to get enlightened as you time travel to uncover such "why."

However, this historical account is not without flaws. We do not hesitate to sharpen our knives to dice questionable standpoints. Mr. Harari argues that our baser instincts responsible for our biological connection to our past were shaped during the long pre-agricultural era. Rather than evolving, our hunter-gatherer mentality now interacts with modern-day conveniences. Our instinct to binge, for example, is hardwired into our brains that we now developed a plethora of unhealthy foods. We commercially furnished our sexual inclinations with condoms and vibrators. "There's hardly an activity, a belief, or even an emotion that is not mediated by objects of our own devising," he writes.

Of the most compelling argument is Mr. Harari's claim that the Agricultural Revolution was one of the biggest mistakes in human history. He said that we were better off as hunter-gatherers. As farmers, we had to work a lot harder, and it paved the way for social hierarchies that designated us under peasantry or elitism. He argues that there were less social and political dilemmas when we were hunter-gatherers. If we were happier then as nomadic cave dwellers, and our cognitive abilities continue to evolve, it appears that gradual steps in a revolution are inevitable. Besides, are we happy as hunter-gatherers when resources also fall scarce?

Finally, he sought out to prove that the breakthroughs and milestones that we Homo sapiens have achieved would serve as the nails that will shut our coffins tight. Our deliberate and expedient intervention on longevity through biological engineering is replacing natural selection by intelligent design: "Natural selection may have provided Homo sapiens with a much larger playing field than it has given to any other organism, but the field has still had its boundaries. The implication has been that, no matter what their efforts and achievements, Sapiens are incapable of breaking free of their biologically determined limits." This is debatable since biological limitations are not objective properties.

We may or may not agree with these stances, but Mr. Harari somehow managed to address the huge biological and ontological questions in the formation of our species. As we continue to change the face of the planet, take time to read this book. See if his rudimentary questions on happiness would make you ponder a more positive outlook for the future of Homo sapiens. Begin with yourself: Are you truly happy?



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