Book Reviews


Does the species have a purpose? Ollie Brock finds that ‘history’ is as subjective as ever as he reviews this new account of the human story.

SapiensA landmark exhibition at the British Museum last year, Ice Age Art, displayed some of the oldest known artworks in the world. They included portraits between 10,000 and 40,000 years old, some of them highly symbolic, of humans and animals carved from mammoth tusk, reindeer bone, limestone and other materials. Sometimes a figurine would be found intact alongside tiny broken fragments of many others at the same site. One theory for why this might be suggested a practice of ritually smashing some figurines and burying the pieces with the surviving sculptures; it has also been suggested that while some clay figures were left to harden by the fire, others were deliberately left to overheat and explode, also for ritualistic reasons. The overwhelming message of the curators seemed to be that they knew almost nothing about how the artefacts on display were used, what they had represented. I found that a deeply satisfying principle for an exhibition. In the half-dark around the glass cases with their tiny, spot-lit figures, the air was thick with mystery.

Because archaeology can only show us what was carved, written down or built, everything else that must have characterized ancient lives – beliefs, myths and social norms – will always be a matter for speculation. Yuval Noah Harari knows this, but does not acknowledge it enough in Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind. While he does sometimes nod towards gaps in knowledge of human history, only occasionally will that be convenient to a project with a subtitle like ‘A Brief History of Humankind’. The book attempts a synthesis not just of our own species but of the whole genus Homo; and not just of its past but of developments still to come, up to the eventual extinction of the species and its possible replacement by artificial intelligence. So the title contains a kind of joke: this is the history of a species that was.

The book is in four parts. ‘The Cognitive Revolution’ covers the emergence of abstract reasoning and the sea-changes it brought about in our history; ‘The Agricultural Revolution’ charts our transition from a nomadic life to settled domesticity. ‘The Unification of Humankind’ looks at the development of cultures, their increasing contact with each other, the arising of empires and religions. And ‘The Scientific Revolution’ explores the post-Enlightenment world, over which industry, capitalism and materialism have reigned. The book offers an accessible, broad sweep of the human story. And it is one that weighs opposing arguments, often refusing to side with one theory over another. Harari criticizes, for instance, a theory that the Agricultural Revolution and the emergence of private property turned us into an envious and therefore violent species; but he is also impatient with the counter-argument that our ancestors were savagely brutal, and farming made us meek. What this adds up to, in the book’s best moments, is a refusal to subscribe either to the ‘romantic’ model – we were noble savages who roamed wild, in touch with nature and our senses, an ideal we have lost irrevocably – or to the ‘progressive’ one, which holds that we have emerged from savagery into a noble, civilized modernity.

Harari’s language is  full of suggestions that Homo sapiens is slowly executing a grand plan

Harari does have a view of how and why we are developing, though. For him there is no causality except evolution. He can make it sound, in fact, as though everything that has happened on the earth has happened so that a species could expand. ‘If a species boasts many DNA copies, it is a success, and the species flourishes,’ he writes. ‘From such a perspective, 1,000 copies are always better than a hundred copies.’ But Darwin was clear that species do not hatch plots for their evolution and expansion; he argued only that certain characteristics are unconsciously preserved because they survive better. Harari’s language is nonetheless full of suggestions that Homo sapiens is very slowly executing a grand plan. This happens because it is hard to talk about the history of a species without suggesting an overall purpose to its existence. And as purpose is an abstraction (you can’t pick it up or smell it), this necessitates metaphorical language.

In our last issue I reviewed a book by the American writer Curtis White. White rails against certain scientists and outspoken atheists for rubbishing ideas not based on ‘fact’, but for having recourse to metaphorical language – ‘wiring’ in the brain, and so on – when it is convenient to them. If White has read Sapiens, he must have had a fit. Harari writes that for early humans to make the first crossing from Eurasia to what we now know as America, ‘Sapiens first had to learn how to withstand the extreme Arctic conditions of northern Siberia.’ He is talking about genetic advantages that emerge over millennia, but his use of ‘learn’ makes it sound like a sort of elite Darwinian training course. Other examples abound. If Harari had to suspend this tongue-in-cheek metaphorical language entirely, he would have to acknowledge much more mystery in our existence than he does here.

Myths, stories and ideas are rolled into an all-consuming causality of species survival.

Things that you cannot pick up or smell, however, are all ‘fictions’ to Harari (as opposed to ‘things that really exist, such as rivers, trees and lions’). Myths, stories and ideas are rolled into this all-consuming causality of species survival. ‘Fiction has enabled us not merely to imagine things, but to do so collectively.’ Sentences like this sometimes allowed me to think we might hear something in praise of the imagination, of creativity, even self-transcendence in this book. But I was hoping for too much. What is the purpose of these myths, stories and dreams? ‘Such myths give Sapiens the ability to cooperate flexibly in large numbers … That’s why Sapiens rule the world, whereas ants eat our leftovers and chimps are locked up in zoos and research laboratories.’

Only in the sixth edition of On the Origin of Species did Darwin change his description of evolution from ‘natural selection’ to ‘survival of the fittest’. His original phrase suggested a passive process of preservation. Tellingly, the more competitive, even aggressive-sounding ‘survival of the fittest’ was borrowed from an economist called Herbert Spencer, a contemporary of Darwin’s, who tried to apply the principles of evolution to other disciplines, including his own. Harari has been seduced by this same reductionism. Couldn’t the Cognitive Revolution, rather than the moment we learned to cooperate in large numbers with the help of ‘fictions’, be thought of instead as the development of enough consciousness in us to be receptive to a deeper reality?

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