Monday 10 February 2020

Harari: Sapiens

On Sunday, 9 February 2020, the New York Times reported that Yuval Noah Harari’s Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, had been on its nonfiction best-seller list for 91 weeks. At the centre of this book is an idea. It is that, sometime between 70,000 and 30,000 years ago, we humans who had previously discovered how to make stone tools and fires, invented … stories.  

Harari tends to call these stories, myths: about how we came to be, about how we are influenced by gods and spirits. More recently, he says, we invented the myth of commercial companies with limited liability, so their owners cannot be sued. 

For a commercial company, Harari presents Peugeot, founded in 1896 by Armand Peugeot who turned the metal-working shop he had inherited from his parents into a limited company to make motor vehicles. Harari argues that it is by means of a myth that such a company can exist at all, and that huge numbers of people have been able to work for it. The company does not depend on Armand Peugeot. He died in 1915. Nor does it depend on any other individual. It’s an entity that is imagined. In 2008, Harari says, it produced 1.5 million automobiles, with revenues of 55 billion Euros. Two other prevalent myths, says Harari, are nation states such as USA, and religious groups such as the Catholic Church.

To explain the agricultural revolution, some 10,000 years ago, Harari writes about wheat. It used to be a kind of grass that grew in the Middle East. Then, within two millennia, it had convinced Homo Sapiens to cultivate it. “Wheat didn’t like rocks,” Harari writes on p.80, “so Sapiens broke their backs clearing fields.” And he goes on: “We did not domesticate wheat, it domesticated us” (p. 81). Harari suggests that the life of members of the Sapiens species as nomadic hunter-gatherers was rather good. So then he asks, “How did wheat convince Homo Sapiens to exchange a rather good life for a more miserable life?” (p. 81). 

The agricultural revolution, Harari writes, was accomplished by wheat. He says it was “History’s Biggest Fraud” (p. 77); capital letters at the beginning of each word. Yes, a joke, and Harari can be witty. But what’s behind the joke? 

Might one say that Harari is a genetic determinist? He is unusual among historians in that he centres on DNA. He says our ancestors started by being a small and obscure group, who lived in Africa. Now we have taken over the planet. He explains this in terms of genetic variations that separated us from our chimpanzee cousins. Then, he says, came three revolutions: first cognitive, then agricultural and, more recently, scientific. It was, he says, with the cognitive revolution that we became able to construct stories, myths. Then, because of these, we humans became able to cooperate not just in gangs of eight or ten, like patrolling chimpanzees, but in groups that can number thousands, as in the Peugeot company, or millions as in USA or the Catholic Church.

By 2014, when the English translation of Sapiens came out, Harari seemed not to have read Keith Stanovich’s book, which came out ten years earlier, The Robot’s Rebellion. As Stanovich explains, many people, with Harari seemingly among them, think that members of a species have genes, which they then pass on to their offspring. But Stanovich points out that they have this the wrong way round. Genes have us as their vehicles. Genes direct these vehicles toward reproduction, so they can replicate. That’s what genes do: self-replicate. They use the bodies of plants like wheat, and of animals like humans, as vehicles to evade dangers, to survive long enough to reproduce, so that the genes can replicate. In this way, the information they contain, in their patterns of DNA, go forward in time. Genes program the vehicles that are plants and animals. 

Our next step, as humans, Stanovich suggests, is not just a revolution but a rebellion. We humans have become the first genetically engineered vehicles that do not need simply to be controlled by genes. By thinking, by imagining possible futures, by making plans, by cooperation with others, in some aspects of life we can choose for ourselves what to do. Although we are robots of our genes, to think and to choose for ourselves has become our collective rebellion. We have started to direct ourselves, and not just in such matters as birth control.

And how do we do that? It may be helped by writing and engaging in fictional stories, about possible states of our human world. So in George Eliot’s Middlemarch, Dorothea Brooke asks Tertius Lydgate: “What do we live for if it is not to make life less difficult for each other?” (Ch. 72, p. 789).

George Eliot (1871-1872). Middlemarch: A study of provincial life. London: Penguin (current edition 1965).
Yuval Harari (2014). Sapiens: A brief history of humankind. Toronto: Penguin Random House.
Keith Stanovich (2004). The robot's rebellion: Finding meaning in the age of Darwin. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
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