Sapiens – A brief history of humankind by Yuval Noah Harari is a mighty book, one that those who ask themselves questions must read. Not (only) because the author suggests valuable answers, rather because a logical train of thought is unfolded throughout the essay, that shepherds the reader on a journey as long as humanity’s history.
How long is this trip? The book starts explaining that “animals much like modern humans first appeared about 2.5 million years ago”. If one tries to grasp such an immense time span just for a moment, his head will probably start to feel slightly dizzy, just like it happens when in a moonless night we lie on a meadow, and scan the endless skies above. But then, is it really “above” what we’re staring at when looking at the sky? Here you go: this is the mindset that pervades Harari’s book, a work capable of challenging the certainties our life is entangled with, us barely realizing it.
In the prologue, the author’s voice starts sowing the seeds of doubt in the reader’s mind: these ancient creatures used to live in packs, where an observer would have encountered a familiar cast of human characters with anxious mothers cuddling their babies, temperamental youths chafing against the dictates of society, chest-thumping machos trying to impress women and elders who just wanted to be left in peace.
But “there was nothing special about humans”. Baboons, chimpanzees and elephants had similar behaviors.
How come, there was nothing special?
How could these creatures be similar to us, that rule the world wielding the power of human intellect, that steer our way through the seas, the skies and the depths of space, only intelligent species in the known universe that is capable of producing art and culture?
This is the first question that Harari asked himself, that spurs his quest along humanity’s past; to understand what mankind is.
The first answer that comes along is: if we got to the present degree of cultural development, that we give for granted now, it’s because we managed to climb three stairs: the cognitive revolution, the agricultural revolution and the scientific revolution. The last one being relatively recent, dating around five hundred years ago – remember Galileo? – while the first dates back to around seventy thousands years ago, back when humans had been around for over 2 million years already. It was most definitely a very steep step.
I try to comprehend how long seventy thousands years are, and… no way, that cosmic dizziness again.
The cognitive revolution is the departure point of Harari’s trek through the mists of time, set out on a quest that strives to give a new, deeper meaning to the word “ancestral”. He’s a highly cultured and agile storyteller, capable of giving an understandable framing to complex events; nevertheless, oftentimes right after getting to the end of an explanation, with an illusionist-like agility there he is, coming out with a sharp question, that suddenly highlights the shadiest part of his very own reasoning: and the whole process starts again.
Every question brings new ones, that may seem rhetorical sometimes; they are not. They’re elements of a dissection method, that constantly walks on the fine line that runs between the scientist’s approach, that explores the causes of events, and the philosopher’s whose outburst is about grasping the reason and the meaning behind those events. An overwhelming task, that the author seems able to perform in an apparently effortless walk. Here lies the majesty of this book.
Harari’s book is a lay bible, a research for the human being’s spirit: this being not a life-giving breath bestowed by God, but the cultural and cognitive stratification that, generation after generation, forged what we call “humankind” nowadays. It’s the soul that humanity gave itself throughout the immensely long journey towards its elevation to the kingdom of the world. Interestingly enough this king, like every ruler in (human) history, felt compelled to seek for legitimacy from an even greater and almighty superior being to justify its immense power.
In fact, religion holds a prominent spot in the narrative thread, being one of the topics where Harari unfolds some of the brightest parts looking for patterns that can match religions’ evolution with the evolving cultures and political systems of human societies. He proceeds to highlight the areas of alignment, or friction, between the spiritual beliefs and the historical context, exposing in a clear fashion the overlapping areas – or differing dogmas that produce incompatibility – between beliefs that lay upon different philosophical foundations. Once again, without ever being afraid of challenging the reader’s beliefs.
Let’s take as an example this excerpt, that checks monotheistic beliefs against the dualist ones by analyzing the issue of evil’s existence:
“What’s undeniable is that monotheists have a hard time dealing with the Problem of Evil.
For dualists, it’s easy to explain evil. Bad things happen even to good people because the world is not governed single-handedly by a good God. There is an independent evil power loose in the world. The evil power does bad things.
Dualism has its own drawbacks. While solving the Problem of Evil, it is unnerved with the Problem of Order. If the world was created by a single god, it is clear why it’s such an orderly place, where everything obeys the same laws. But if good and evil battle for control of the world, who enforces the laws governing this cosmic war? […]
So, monotheism explains order, but is mystified by evil. Dualism explains evil, but is puzzled by order. There is one logical way of solving the riddle: to argue that there is a single, omnipotent God who created the entire universe – and He’s evil. But nobody in history has had the stomach for such a belief.”
Plenty of answers are missing from the book: by contrast, the questions you can find there are among the best one can ask in a lifetime. A human lifetime, at least.
I feel a strong craving now, about going out there, to stare a starry sky and to think I’m not looking upwards but downwards. And to feel that thrill, stronger than usual this time.