A few months ago was the first I had heard of Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind by Yuval Hahari. I heard about the book in passing and it was presented in the way that the author is attempting to give as macro of a view as humanly possible about our species from day one to now and if the things that have happened in the mean time has been “good” or “bad”.
Then, more recently, I heard a brief interview with the author on Decode-DC with Dick Meyers. The interview does focus on some of the main points in the book, so it did act a bit like a movie trailer that gives away most of the film’s plot. However, we are talking about a non-fiction book where the main themes are the very reason on why I’d want to read it.
I put on a hold on it at the library, which had a rather lengthy wait time on it, as most pop-sci books do. But when it came up, I started reading, and when the lending period expired, I simply bought the book to immediately continue reading. (For contrast: when Stephen King’s Wolves of the Calla expired, I just put in another hold for it). The book was certainly worth paying for.
I’d like to interrupt myself for a moment and explain that I really did like the book and I’d recommend it, highly, to anyone, but it’s not a perfect read. There are lengthy portions of the book that feel a slog. The author regularly goes over previously trodden ground and sometimes it feels like he is tying things together, but other times it feels like he may have just forgotten that he’d already touched on a topic. Don’t get me wrong, the guy knows how to put together a narrative out of some of the highest level understanding of historical time lines that I’ve ever known. It’s just sometimes tedious for a non-academic like me.
And the book is certainly pop-sci. If this book ever finds its way into an academic setting, I’m not sure which classroom it would wind up in. Anthropology? Philosophy? Sociology? Economics? The author makes arguments in all of these areas. His arguments are easy to understand and many, I feel, would be difficult to contest. Some simply because they’re logically sound, but a few because they’re unarguable, difficult to substantiate opinion.
Spiritual and Philosophical Wrecking Ball
I’ve read articles (although to be fair, not books) from some of our world’s leading advocate atheists. As a Christian reader, most of the time I feel like the authors are talking to a adult who didn’t get the memo about Santa and the Tooth Fairy and is vaguely disgusted at my stupidity. I imagine that it works the other way when the forward Christian who is attempting the grocery aisle conversion can’t believe that this person won’t believe in their Santa or Tooth Fairy. Anyhow, the reason that I put this out there is that I’ve read the other side’s thoughts. Some are aggressive, some are mild, some are thought provoking, and some are as mindless as the La-Z-Boy theologian. I found the first couple chapters of this book to be one of the more faith and philosophy shaking tracts of text I may have ever read.
The author starts strongly emphasizing that our species are not the only people that have ever been on this planet. He goes on to explain that the Neanderthals and Homo erectus predated our species and, with the Neanderthals in particular, we had some overlap and likely competition. I knew these things. The real challenge is— I had never thought about what this means in regards to any sort of idea of the Creator. We have these other people’s who are, as far as we know, had the ability to become what humans are right now. Heck, Neanderthal may have had us in the brain size department, but here we are and there aren’t any of them left at all.
I’m not the kind of Christian that starts up with some sort of Scriptural patch work, theological gymnastics at times like these. Instead, I let it stew for a bit. Interestingly, the closest thing in this life that I’ll get as an answer came from the author himself a just a bit later in the book.
Homo erectus had a great run. They lived from start to finish for about two million years. During that time, they behaved just like the oldest of our ancestors. They wandered around, hunting and gathering, they made some tools, but grew no crops and founded no permanent places to live. Keep in mind, they, biologically, had enough similarities to us that there should be no reason at all that they didn’t wind up with technology just like ours. But they didn’t. Two million years and not a single one of them figured out how to make anything more complicated than a stone axe.
Then comes along Homo sapiens. We’ve been on this planet for one hundred thousand to two hundred thousand years. That is a comparatively short amount of time compared to some of the other people who have been here. Here’s the strange part though, roughly sixty thousand years ago, we explode out of Africa. Let’s presume for a moment that we do have something in our biology that does make us different from the other species of people that enables us to develop the way that we have. For at least forty thousand years, we weren’t doing any better than H. erectus. Not one bit.
The author of the book refers to what happens as the Cognitive Revolution. I’m not clear if he coined this phrase or if it’s something that anthropologists have been using for some time. In a historical blink of the eye, we went from no better or worse than chimpanzees to masters of the planet.
A brief interlude here. I’ve never believed in a six day creation. The Genesis account is a poem to help humans understand the world around them and how they came about. I know there is a lot of time behind us and I don’t think that somehow precludes God’s hand from being involved. Was this Cognitive Revolution the addition of the Divine Spark to animals who now knew to call themselves “people”? Or did our species just have forty millennia of bad intellectual writer’s block?
What We Did with Our Time
That explosion from Africa was accompanied by the slaughtered of most of the world’s land dwelling megafauna. The author of the book carefully takes note of how the estimated time that humans would arrive in a new area is when species die offs, specifically of large animals, would happen there. He goes into quite specific detail of Australia’s in particular. When I was taught in school that there were so many species going extinct because of humanity, I didn’t know that it was a very long standing tradition.
Religious People, Don’t Get Lost Here
The author of the book lays a thematic foundation that he will return to for the remainder of the book. This theme is “fictions”. Things that humanity has simply invented out of its mind or imagined around something that is real. Some of the frictions are obvious ones like money. Even when money was actual gold, it doesn’t have any real value to a human being. It’s not food, it’s not shelter, it’s nothing but a not-that-uncommon metal. Things that are less obvious are corporations, or justice, or human rights.
“All right,” said Susan. “I’m not stupid. You’re saying humans need… fantasies to make life bearable.”
REALLY? AS IF IT WAS SOME KIND OF PINK PILL? NO. HUMANS NEED FANTASY TO BE HUMAN. TO BE THE PLACE WHERE THE FALLING ANGEL MEETS THE RISING APE.
“Tooth fairies? Hogfathers? Little—”
YES. AS PRACTICE. YOU HAVE TO START OUT LEARNING TO BELIEVE THE LITTLE LIES.
“So we can believe the big ones?”
YES. JUSTICE. MERCY. DUTY. THAT SORT OF THING.
“They’re not the same at all!”
YOU THINK SO? THEN TAKE THE UNIVERSE AND GRIND IT DOWN TO THE FINEST POWDER AND SIEVE IT THROUGH THE FINEST SIEVE AND THEN SHOW ME ONE ATOM OF JUSTICE, ONE MOLECULE OF MERCY. AND YET—Death waved a hand. AND YET YOU ACT AS IF THERE IS SOME IDEAL ORDER IN THE WORLD, AS IF THERE IS SOME…SOME RIGHTNESS IN THE UNIVERSE BY WHICH IT MAY BE JUDGED.
“Yes, but people have got to believe that, or what’s the point—”
MY POINT EXACTLY.
― Terry Pratchett, Hogfather
This is true. But the amount of fictions that swirl around us are the unusual pieces. The author spends quite a bit of time talking about individual fictions. Receiving more attention than any other is religion and her gods. As you might imagine, it is no difficult task trying to find religious people here who have taken to the Internet to toss this book into the dustbin right along with any other God denying work. I won’t take a position of defending the author of the book or try to put words in his mouth, however, if you’re a Christian (and this probably applies to just about every other religion as well) then you’re believing in a lot of fictions around God.
Let’s just examine one example.
God is male.
God isn’t male. It’s just that we can’t call God “it”, that seems rude. When we develop an understanding of the divine in a monotheistic way while we also exist in a patriarchy, of course the rule of the universe is going to be male. And I’m not going to blame anyone for their cataphatic imagination, I do it too. Trying to cram infinity into my brain made of meat is a exercise in futility.
The author of the book gives humanities ability to collectively create, agree on, and abide by these fictions is one of our species greatest strengths. As a reader there is a unusual discordance that is felt when the author tells you that you believe in things that do not exist in reality, but that’s a really good thing.
The Universal Religion & Where We’re Headed
The back third of the book talks about money. Previously, he had explained how religion was and is used to shore up the infallibility of beliefs in humanity. We do not argue that the poor need to be fed, because God said so. We don’t have to argue that at all, we can move on to other things. But what if we disagree on what is “God”? No one argues over what is “money”. Human conflict has come up over this imaginary concept of money, but far more cooperation has come out of it. The author goes over this thought several times from different angles.
He also speaks about globalism and how we, as a species, are at a single culture currently. The people alive today have so much more in common than at any other time that a global society, culture, or government is either coming or is already here, and that’s a good thing.
Read the book. It’ll unhinge your world.