There are some 460 pages in Yuval Noah Harari’s masterpiece Sapiens. That means I’ve probably read something in the region of 130,000 words over the past few weeks buried beneath it’s covers. Well I’ve emerged, brimming with knowledge that I’m desperate to share and have thankfully managed to contain my enthusiasm to a mere 3000 odd words… but first, Dark Days.
Dark Days by James Baldwin
I love this Penguin Modern series. Big ideas in bite sized books.
I’ve only ever read James Baldwin in short bursts – quotes and extracts, scraps of sentences which blew my mind and found a permanent place in my heart. Reading these essays, Dark Days, The Price of the Ticket, and The White Man’s Guilt, I rediscovered my admiration for Baldwin – a boldly, beautiful soul – and my affection for that bohemian, beatnik lifestyle he came to personify.
In Dark Days, Baldwin’s disgust soaks through the pages – the poverty, the stomach cramps of hunger which marked his childhood, while the television sold the American dream and farmers wasted meat and milk to force prices up. Born in New York to Southern stock, Baldwin sees through the thinly veiled racism which forces the black community into narrower channels – less education, poorer paid jobs, less opportunity, prejudice at every door. Children learnt their place from their schooldays but Baldwin was lucky, he says “I was not yet lost.” He was fortunate enough to have black teachers who would not allow their students to be “limited by the Republic’s estimation of black people”. It is with a bitter tongue that Baldwin turns to his own patriotic days, reciting the Pledge of Allegiance which promised no “liberty or justice” for the likes of him.
“The education system of this country is, in short, designed to destroy the black child. It does not matter whether it destroys him by stoning him in the ghetto or by driving him mad in the isolation of Harvard.”
It’s little surprise that Baldwin leaned to the left in politics and in life. In The Price of the Ticket he describes his formative years in Greenwich Village – mixing with artists, musicians and famous poets, eating, drinking and passing joints around. Between the lines colourful characters burst forth, spirits are wild and free yet also dangerously bent toward tragedy. Tragedy swims amid the words of war too, young men dying, black men, for a country which would not let them live:
“…one was expected to be ‘patriotic’ and pledge allegiance to a flag which pledged no allegiance to you: it risked becoming your shroud if you didn’t know how to keep your distance and stay in your ‘place’.”
Knowing one’s place, belonging somewhere – the theme creeps forward again and again as Baldwin ponders the ancestral line upon which white men get their step up, but also from which stems The White Man’s Guilt. For Baldwin, the white man of 1965 cannot face up to this guilt, to the black and white records of history without attempting to defend themselves against it:
“White man, hear me! History, as nearly no one seems to know, is not merely something to be read. And it does not refer merely, or even principally, to the past. On the contrary, the great force of history comes from the fact that we carry it within us, are unconsciously controlled by it in many ways, and historically is literally present in all that we do.”
Which leads us on nicely to this month’s big read.
Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind by Yuval Noah Harari
Phew! What a beast of a book.
It’s felt like a long haul with Harari but then, we have been dredging back through 200,000 years of evolution, a fact which rather puts the 450+ pages rather into perspective. This book is a big commitment but it is worth the effort and it will keep you hooked. This isn’t the dry history lesson of your schooldays, this is meaty, full of stories and facts which you’ll find yourself retelling over pints and torn open bags of crisps, or reading aloud in bed to your exasperated other half. Harari’s History of Humankind walks a fine line along the edges of history, science and culture, dipping in and out of each at will and often enough to clutch your poorly-evolved attention span.
I won’t attempt to regurgitate this book in its entirety, but please indulge my feverish need to share the anecdotes and snippets of history which Harari has embedded in my mind.
1. A Race of Cooks (An Animal of No Significance)
Unsurprisingly, the first narrative which drove me to fold down a dog-eared page was about food. The nameless Homo Sapien who discovered fire deserves to be remembered. The simple yet revolutionary process of cooking ingredients, hunted and gathered by hand, changed our species’ way of life. By killing parasites and germs, reducing chewing time and as a bonus, making everything much more delicious also changed our biology. Our intestinal tract shortened, our brain developed, increasing in size and opening the first unbridgeable gap between us and the rest of the animals in the food chain.
2. The Cognitive Revolution (The Tree of Knowledge)
Typically, the evolution of fiction also gripped me from the off. Believe it or not, the conception of fiction is fundamental to our evolution. As social creatures, we lived in packs, our survival depending not just on our hunting skills but on our ability to schmooze, to connect with others, often at the expense of someone else: “Our language evolved as a way of gossiping.”
“Yet the truly unique feature of our language is not its ability to transmit information about men and lions. Rather its the ability to transmit information about things that do not exist at all.”
Suddenly we could share, not just helpful survival tips such as the whereabouts of predators or fresh water, but stories, myths, gods and religions. These things didn’t help us survive as such, but they gave us something to live for. All those narratives which have shaped our cultures, our nationalities, our own sense of self – they all boiled over from the fictitious pot of creativity that broke through the boundaries of communication. But even these things – myths, legends, religious ideals – we might dismiss as primitive, something that we have evolved beyond in a modern era driven by capitalist consumerism but you’d be wrong. The fictions which were to have the greatest impact on our modern day lives were not just told around the fire or shared by travellers, they were plotted in boardrooms, on maps, bank balances and legislation. We believe in nations, in human rights and limited liability companies, we abide by laws and moral codes and apply for credit and visas to cross borders – all of which are works of fiction. Perhaps the most successful works of fiction we’ve ever known.
3. The Original Affluent Society (A Day in the Life of Adam and Eve)
When it comes to leisure time, a great deal of credence is given to the 1950’s boom in labour-saving, time efficient household appliances, but the new wave of suburbia had nothing on our pre-agriculture ancestors.
Living in small bands of foragers who travelled their varied territories, hunting animals, gathering roots and wild fruit, but also raw materials to make tools and shelter. For these Sapiens, knowledge was key – they had to know their territory like the back of their hand, without the help of any apps or guide books. They knew the growing patterns of every species of plant and animal, which berries would make you sick, which herbs would make you feel better and how to read the weather for signs of storms and dry spells. They acquired essential skills unlike anything even the most adventurous Renaissance man could master today – how to hunt, forage, build shelters, mend clothes, shape tools, track animals, butcher carcasses, cure snakebites and get out of an avalanche alive.
“The human collective knows far more today then did the ancient bands. But at the individual level, ancient foragers were the most knowledgeable and skilful people in history.”
And all this by early afternoon. Tribes generally only hunted every couple of days, they could forage enough to feed their band in just a few hours and there was no such thing as banal household chores to occupy their time. It’s no surprise then that they could devote so much time to the social developments and the pursuit of knowledge which mark the era.
Whats more, the varied diet they sustained through hunting and gathering meant they were better nourished than the peasants and labourers of the agricultural era to come who generally lived on one crop (rice or potatoes, for example) and as such avoided the perilous effects of famine or drought. In a way, we have come full circle as a species, trying to get back to that hunter gatherer lifestyle. A varied diet, the habit of travel, the pursuit of knowledge and understanding about our natural environment, these are the things we instinctively seek and have as a species, sought to replicate through the global trade of produce, the booming travel industry, the popularity of survivalist shows on TV, of gardening, allotments and small holdings. All we really want is to work less and live more, just like our ancestors once did.
4. History’s Biggest Fraud
The coming of the agricultural era did much to change that forager lifestyle, if not the mindset which we still harbour today and while history will celebrate the domestication of animals and the cultivation of crops as the anchor for everything to come in the evolution of Homo Sapiens, it was also the beginning of the end.
Today we worry about how much plastic ends up in the ocean, about global warming melting the ice caps, about the extinction of wild animals and the toxic levels of air pollution in our cities. It all began 12,000 years ago when the world’s first farmers laid down roots, tilled the soil to grow wheat and started breeding pigs. Back then wheat was a wild grass that grew in one small corner of the Middle East, within a thousand years it had gone global and now covers about 2.25 million square metres of the earth’s surface. If humans are the most successful animal in history, wheat is the most successful plant, purely because of us.
“Even today, with all our advanced technologies, more than 90% of the calories that feed humanity come from the handful of plants that our ancestors domesticated between 9500 and 3500 BC – wheat, rice, maize, potatoes, millet and barley. No noteworthy plant or animal has been domesticated in the last 2,000 years. If our minds are those of hunter-gatherers, our cuisine is that of ancient farmers.”
By cultivating wheat and rice, how many other species of plant were sifted out of existence? And as a result how many animals lost their habitats, their main source of nutrition, which they inevitably followed into extinction? And that’s not to speak of the impact we’ve had on the animals we did protect. If our own hunter gatherer instincts send us off on expeditions to trek mountains and camp in muddy fields, what must the sedentary pig feel, penned into a man-made cage, living only to reproduce and be served up with lettuce and tomato between two slices of bread, made from, you guessed it, wheat?
And as we farmed , we created labour, commerce, settlements where disease became a very real threat. What began as growth has undoubtedly destroyed much of the natural environment and drew the lines of survival and of thriving. By settling on the land we inadvertently created landowners – the elite to whom tithes must be paid, a chain of power which evolved beyond our control to the preposterous rental market and housing crisis of today. Greed replaced need.
5. An Imagined Order (Building Pyramids)
Which brings us to the evolution of poverty. It’s a difficult thought to comprehend that poverty had to be created, that it is a man-made thing. When we lived off the land as foragers you might go hungry, but the cause wasn’t financial – you may have grown too weak or old to hunt, natural sources of food might have dried up due to the weather, generally these changes were experienced on mass and, a resourceful, cooperative species, we found a solution as a community. With agriculture came trade and debt and politics. Farms were swallowed up by kingdoms and on the wealth of their produce, one fat cat king would prevail. Our intrinsic link with Mother Nature had been broken, the myths and fictions we had created to survive in tribes evolved with us, leaving behind the ancestral spirits and tribal totems which guided us to follow Gods, national leaders, political agitators who generally grew richer from the sweat, sacrifice and benevolence of their flocks.
We created the elite, or at least, we created the environment where leaders (bounteous or otherwise) could thrive, acquiring wealth and rank, building the foundations of an imagined order which we still live by today. While those at the top may be loathed to admit it, the class system, even one as ancient as knights and noblemen, is man made and as a result, so is poverty.
6. There is no Justice in History
As a pacifist with a fairly well-oiled moral compass (thank you Harper Lee and To Kill a Mocking Bird), this was a tough concept to wrap my little Sapien brain around. The justice system, the bill of rights we award ourselves and often deny others, these are all fictions. With the emergence of a privileged society, so to came the codes to preserve it. The peasants mustn’t be allowed to revolt, wealth must be protected and slaves must be beaten into assent.
We assume that our codes are natural – we call acts of evil unnatural, for centuries we vindicated the passing of wealth and title by bloodline as the will of God (Christ, even in 2018 the birth of one ‘Royal Baby’ causes a media storm unheard of to the thousands of children starving to death in developing and war-torn countries). But we can’t fool ourselves that this archaic entitlement is reserved to the royal courts of old Europe, the American Declaration of Independence, written in 1776 is lauded as a bastion of democracy and remains impervious to legal challenges despite the fact that it sustains a hierarchy in which some men are more equal than others and certainly more equal than women.
7. What’s so Good about Men? (There is no Justice in History)
Which leads us to the patriarchy. Harari considers and confirms the existence of patriarchal societies throughout history but treads lightly when it comes to an explanation as to why. Why is it that most human societies have valued “male” qualities over “female” qualities even where the definition of each varied according to era or culture? Why has society always sought conformity? Whatever the reason, the results are not up for debate:
“Qualities considered masculine are more valued than those considered feminine, and members of a society who personify the feminine ideal get less than those who exemplify the masculine ideal. Fewer resources are invested in the heath and education of women; they have fewer economic opportunities, less political power, and less freedom of movement. Gender is a race in which some of the runners compete only for the bronze medal.”
From a feminist point of view, this isn’t a particularly helpful confirmation of the facts. The fact remains that most human societies were based on a patriarchal system, systems which developed independently of each other across the world. The patriarchy is not the result of one, self-serving secret society, it is universal so there must be a reason rooted in the way our species developed but as Harari concedes “We do not know what this reason is. There are plenty of theories, none of them convincing.”
Whether the reason is rooted in the physical make up which gives men the edge on muscle power, or the chemical balance which gives them a greater inclination to physical violence, it’s likely that the patriarchy isn’t the result of one evolutionary factor alone. Today we know that women can be world leaders, they can be politicians, CEOs, banking giants, scientists and sports stars. But pay gaps and gender imbalances in industry worldwide tell us that it’s still not the norm and despite all the progress we’ve made over the last 100 hundred years since some women in the UK were given the right to vote, they are still the primary caregivers in the majority of family homes, they still carry out more of the unpaid domestic chores and that inequality at home only perpetuates the inequality in the workplace. An unhelpful impediment when we’re still only competing for bronze at best.
8. The Scientific Dogma
Here in Booky Towers we live in a ying and yang of arts and science. My world is one of words, pictures, stories, while DH’s is rooted in numbers, equations, code. I have never been particularly blown away by maths but then, when I look at an artichoke I see the beginnings of something delicious rather than natural proof of Newton’s Laws, but as Harari confirms “the book of nature is written in the language of mathematics.” But even I, who marvels at the masterpieces of authors and artists can appreciate the magic of numbers and scientific evidence when they so beautifully solve a problem, not least at that of Webster and Wallace, two Presbyterian clergymen in Scotland who wished to secure funds sufficient to provide pensions for the wives and children of deceased clergymen.
“Take note of what the two churchmen did not do. They did not pray to God to reveal the answer. Nor did they search for an answer in the Holy Scriptures or among the works of of ancient theologians. Nor did they enter into an abstract philosophical disputation. Being Scots, they were practical types.”
They turned to maths, contracting a professor from the University of Edinburgh to assist in the collection of data, the calculation of probability, the laws of statistics which might predict with accuracy the outcomes they might need to make provision for – how many widows and children. Where God could not provide answers, science did and upon Webster and Wallace’s statistical foundations, one of the world’s largest pension and insurance companies was established – Scottish Widows.
9. Knowledge is Power (The Discovery of Ignorance)
Knowledge is power but what does that power look like in the hands of humankind? While the founders of Scottish Widows may have put statistics to good use, we know all too well from the recent Cambridge Analytica scandal that not everyone has the same good intentions. Science has cured diseases, built bridges, brought us to the moon but we need only look to the arms race, the atom bomb, the Holocaust to balance the ethical scales of science in action.
Take gunpowder for example, discovered around 850 AD, it was 600 years before it was put to use on the battlefield. Before it became a weapon, gunpowder had been used for fireworks.
We have touched on poverty a little already, but as Sapiens evolved, so too did poverty. Harari describes the two kinds of poverty which have plagued societies throughout history – social and biological:
“Until recently, most people hovered very close to the biological poverty line, below which a person lacks enough calories to sustain life for long. Even small miscalculations or misfortunes could easily push people below that line, into starvation. Natural disasters and man-made calamities often plunged entire populations over the abyss, causing the death of millions. Today most of the world’s people have a safety net stretched below them. Individuals are protected from personal misfortune by insurance, state-sponsored social security and plethora of local and international NGOs.”
There will always be arms dealers, terrorists and dictators who will use science and technology for destruction, but humankind must always work to tip the scales in favour of groundbreaking medicine and life-saving solutions, and hope that it won’t go too far in the other direction, as Harari gibes “in many societies more people are in danger of dying from obesity than from starvation.”
10. The Sugar Daddy of Science (The Discovery of Ignorance)
Sadly, like most things in the modern world, the scales of science are controlled by money. Scientific discovery does not come cheap and pure altruism rarely motivates those who fund it.
“Most scientific studies are funded because somebody believes they can help attain some political, economic or religious goal.”
While the motives behind progress will always fall within the realms of humanity, be they good or bad, there are no bounds to the resourcefulness of Sapiens. Whatever the incentive, our history has proven that we can always find a way forward. We can do the best we can with what we have and when we know better, we do better – look at plastic. Since the 1940s, the whole world has been plastic fantastic, but the headlines of recent months attest to a new plastic-free ambition.
And as a species we are always learning from our mistakes, always seeking to balance the scales. Another example – we eat too much meat. Our hunger has lead to deplorable ethical standards in the animal industry (Harari has come closer than anyone else to making me a vegetarian!) but while the whole world won’t go vegan, the recent surge (be it ethical or trendy) in going green may do something to tip the scales and change standards.
Believe it or not I’m holding back.
I haven’t even touched on The Hindsight Fallacy or The Law of Religion chapter which just had too much fat to chew over in this post. I’ve held back on too much reflection on the food industry but rest assured there will be further reading, writing and no doubt, heated discussion over pints to come. I’m sure to return to thoughts about how nature and industry have affected our body clocks, the growth of the state and liberation of the individual, socialism, feminism, the permanent flux in which we now exist.
For now, I hope to leave you with the same shy hope that I left Sapiens with. The world is, for the greater part, at peace. Child mortality is less than 5% worldwide. We know more now than ever before but have barely scratched the surface of human potential. We’ve been roaming this earth for 200,000 years and haven’t completely fucked things up yet. We’ve made mistakes, but we are learning from them.
“Every new invention just puts another mile between us and the Garden of Eden.
Yet this romantic insistence on seeing the dark shadow behind each invention is as dogmatic as the belief in the inevitability of progress. Perhaps we are out of touch with our inner hunter-gather, but it’s not all bad.”
If you want the proof, pick up this book.