Living with Sapiens

A particularly "woke" Progressive friend recommended that I read Yuval Noah Harari's book Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind.  After others also pushed it on me, I let her lend me her copy.  Needless to say, I was suspicious and not at all surprised to see a long thread of Marxist ideology woven throughout its pages — but it was still quite interesting and somewhat informative.

An online biography of the author states that he's a native Israeli born to "secular" Jewish parents.  He was only 38 years old when he wrote this book.  But then, he supposedly taught himself to read at the age of three.  He is also considered to be a "professional intellectual."  The book was originally published in Hebrew and was then translated into several other languages.

The book begins with a not-so-subtle lament for the demise of the early human lifestyle expressed as bands of hunter-gatherers — which was eventually replaced by the dreaded advent of agriculture.  He claims that the diet of cultivated grain was much less healthy than the roots and squirrels previously enjoyed by humans.  The domestication of animals also opened up an avenue for cruelty that persists.  The family then replaced the community as the primary social entity.  This also led to humans thinking of themselves as individuals, rather than as basic functionaries within a harvesting system.  Not only is this essential Marxism, but he fails to refer to the ancient legend of the banishment from Eden and the still existing lifestyle of pastoral nomadism.  Arab Bedouin continue to herd goats and sheep, and the word "Hebrew" originally meant wanderer.

Later on, Harari describes the voyages of discovery as quests for wealth...epitomizing capitalism.  I consider this to be equating capitalism with greed.  But capitalism is much more than just greed.  It is also the enlightened management of wealth in order to create more of it.  And greed is a natural impulse.  Theft and assault are villainous acts often provoked by greed — but greed can also be the cause of hard and diligent work.

An interesting point he does make concerns the impact of primitive humanity on wild species.  Long before Columbus, human arrival in various parts of the world caused widespread extinction.  This has been called by some the Pleistocene Overkill.  In Montana, there's a place called Buffalo Jump, where ancient "Native" Americans would stampede bison over a cliff so they could easily harvest the meat down below.  Lacking refrigeration and efficient transportation, a lot of the harvest was lost to spoilage and eaters of they soon went out to find another herd to wipe out.

Later in the book, he covers a topic much the way that I have done.  The lessons of the global holocaust known as the Second World War have impacted modern thought.  Combine them with proliferated nuclear deterrence, and such immense conflicts seem considerably less likely than they used to be.  Hence, the Cold War was kept in the refrigerator.  Harari goes even farther to interestingly describe how the world used to be considerably more violent.  Battles were constantly being fought.  War was normal.  Peace was exceptional.  However, had he written the book now rather than in 2014, he would likely have been less confident in his assertion that global conflict is obsolete, having witnessed the Russian invasion of Ukraine and all the sword-rattling by the onlookers.

He also has a section praising the virtues of Buddhism, since it releases humanity from desire and, thus, greed.  He, however, fails to mention the Japanese invasion of China in 1931.  This Buddhist-against-Buddhist conflict, in modern times, left almost 20 million humans dead — mostly civilians.

Ultimately, he describes a kind of cyber-reality, in which computers become a new life-form, both by learning new stuff and replicating themselves as a cyber-species.  As many would say, there are both pluses and minuses to such an outcome.  The impact of technology has influenced human progress for millennia...starting with fire, then metallurgy, agriculture, etc.

In his afterword, Harari condemns humanity as a curse upon the world: "The Animal that became a God."  For starters, "a" god is normally not capitalized.  Only the one God is.  Next comes the multifarious condition of the human experience.  But guilt sells.  And it's pretty easy to cast blame but a lot harder to come up with valid solutions.  I do give him credit for completing an ambitious undertaking and stimulating a worthwhile dialogue.  My one particular complaint is that the book was printed on coated paper, which made it more than twice as heavy as a book printed on ordinary paper.  Such printing stock is often used when fine graphics are involved.  This was not here the case.  The book may stand up better as an archival object, but it was a pain to read while lying in bed.

Image: HarperCollins.

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