How homo sapiens ruled the world

Saturday February 3 2018

Yuval Harari’s book Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind

Yuval Harari’s book Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind is an important reading for self-reflective people to look at the world anew. PHOTOS | COURTESY 

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From the painstaking research of young historian Yuval Noah Harari comes a thrilling account of our extraordinary history from insignificant apes to rulers of the world. He wrote Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind while pursuing his PhD in History at the University of Oxford.

The book tells the history of ambitious humankind through vivid, provocative and enlightening discussions on biology, economics and evolutionary anthropology. It questions how the sapiens species won the battle for dominance.

Dr Harari’s book is important reading for self-reflective people to look at the world anew. It is the sort of book that sweeps the cobwebs out of your brain. The author is an intellectual acrobat whose logical leaps leave you gasping with admiration.

Some 100,000 years ago, at least six human species inhabited the earth. Today there is just one. This was the basis of Dr Harari’s book; he is a lecturer in World History at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

The author’s focus is on what he describes as the “cognitive revolution”, occurring roughly 50,000 years ago, when Homo sapiens supplanted the rival Neanderthals, mastered cognitive linguistics, developed structured societies, and ascended as apex predators.

The species was aided by the agricultural revolution and more recently accelerated by scientific methodology and rationale, which have allowed humans to approach near mastery over their environment.

Dr Harari was born in Kiryat Ata, Israel. He first published the book in Hebrew in 2011, and then in English in 2015. He cites Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs and Steel as one of his greatest inspirations for Sapiens, saying it allowed him to ask big questions and answer them scientifically.

Dr Harari’s main argument is that present-day humans came to dominate the world because it is the only animal that can co-operate flexibly in large numbers. He writes that prehistoric man caused the extinction of other human species such as the Neanderthals, along with numerous mega fauna. He says humans have the unique capacity to believe in things existing purely in the imagination, such as gods, nations, money and human rights.

Throughout the book, his deep interest shows in how Homo sapiens reached their current state, and in their future. He essentially focuses on macro-historical questions such as: What is the relation between history and biology? What is the essential difference between Homo sapiens and other animals? Is there justice in history? Does history have a direction? Did people become happier as history unfolded?

The author sees the Scientific Revolution as founded in European thought, whereby elites became willing to admit to and hence to try and remedy their ignorance.

Dr Harari says this was a driver of early modern European imperialism and of the current convergence of human cultures. He also says there is little research into the history of happiness, positing that people today are not significantly happier than in past eras.

Dr Harari concludes by considering how modern technology may soon end the species as we know it, as it ushers in genetic engineering, immortality and non-organic life. Humans have, in Dr Harari’s chosen metaphor, become gods: they can create species.

Sapiens has risen explosively to the ranks of a bestseller. It tackles the biggest questions of history. Dr Harari was awarded the annual Polonsky Prize for Creativity and Originality in the Humanistic Disciplines in 2012.