History of Humankind- Yuval Noah Harari

 

4.5 billion years earlier – formation of Planet Earth

3.8 billion years earlier- Emergence of biology. Beginning of Biology

6 million years earlier – Last common grandmother of humans & chimpanzees

2.5 million years earlier – Evolution of genus Homo in Africa. First tools

2 million years earlier- Humans spread from Africa to Eurasia. Different human species evolve.

500,000 years ago – Neanderthals evolve in Europe & Middle East

300,000 years ago – Daily use of fire

200,000 years ago – Homo sapiens evolves in East Africa

70,000 years ago- The Cognitive Revolution. Emergence of fictive language.

45,000 years ago – Sapiens settle Australia. Extinction of Australian mega fauna.

30,000 years ago – Extinction of Neanderthals.

16,000 years ago – Sapiens settle America. Extinction of American mega fauna

13,000 years ago – Extinction of Homo floresiensis. Homo sapiens the only surviving human species.

12,000 years ago – The Agricultural Revolution – Domestication of plants & animals.

5000 years ago – First kingdoms, script & money. Polytheistic (many Gods) religions

4250 years ago – First empire- the Akkadian Empire of Sargon

2500 years ago – Invention of coinage- a universal money. The Persian Empire, a universal political order “for the benefit of all humans’. Buddhism in India- a universal truth to “liberate all beings from suffering”.

2000 years ago – Han empire in China. Roman Empire in the Mediterranean. Christianity.

1400 years ago – Islam

500 years ago – The Scientific Revolution. Humankind admits its ignorance & begins to acquire unprecedented power. Europeans begin to conquer America & the oceans. The entire planet becomes a single historical arena. The rise of capitalism.

200 years ago – The Industrial Revolution. Family & community are replaced by state & market. Massive extinction of plants & animals.

The Present- Humans transcend the boundaries of planet Earth. Nuclear weapons threaten the survival of humankind. Organisms are increasingly shaped by intelligent design rather than natural selection.

The Future- Homo Sapiens is replaced by super humans?

 

Animals are said to belong to the same species if they tend to mate with each other, giving birth to fertile offspring.

Species that evolved from a common ancestor are bunched together under the heading “genus” (plural genera). Lions, tigers, leopards & jaguars are different species within the genus Panthera. Biologists label organisms with a two-part Latin name, genus followed by species. Lions, for example, are called Panthera Leo, the species leo of the genus Panthera. We humans are Homo Sapiens – the species sapiens (wise) of the genus Homo (man).

We are members of a family called the great apes.

Humans have extraordinarily large brains compared to other animals. Mammals weighing 60 kilograms have an average brain size of 200 cubic centimetres. Modern sapiens average 1200-1400 cubic centimetres.

Why are giant brains so rare in the animal kingdom?

Like a government diverting money from defense to education, humans diverted energy from biceps to neurons. A Chimpanzee can’t win an argument with a Homo sapiens, but the ape can rip the man apart like a rag doll.

A colt can trot shortly after birth. Human babies are helpless, dependent for many years on their elders for sustenance, protection & education.

Raising children required constant help from other family members & neighbours. It takes a tribe to raise a human. Evolution thus favoured those people capable of forming strong social ties. Most mammals emerge from the womb like glazed earthenware emerging from a kiln- any attempt at remoulding will only scratch or break them. Humans emerge from the womb like molten glass from a furnace. They can be remoulded. This is why we can educate our children to become Christian or Buddhist, capitalist or socialist, war-like or peace-living.

Thus humans who lived a million years ago, despite their big brains & sharp stone tools, dwelt in constant fear of predators, rarely hunted large game, and subsisted mainly by gathering plants, scooping up insects, stalking small animals & eating the carrion left behind by other more powerful carnivores.

One of the most common uses of early stone tools was to crack open bones in order to get to the marrow. Some researchers believe this was the original niche. Carrion of large animals was the only food available to humans.

Genus Homo’s position in the food chain was in the middle.

It was only 400,000 years ago that some species of humans learnt to hunt large game on a regular basis.  & only in the last 100,000 years – with the rise of Homo sapiens – that man jumped to the top of the food chain.

That spectacular leap from the middle to the top had enormous consequences. Other animals at the top of the pyramids such as lions & sharks evolved into the position very gradually over millions of years. This enabled the ecosystem to develop checks & balances that prevent lions & sharks from wreaking too much havoc. As lions became deadlier so gazelles evolved to run faster, hyenas to cooperate better & rhinoceroses to be more bad tempered. In contrast, humankind ascended to the top so quickly that the ecosystem was not given time to adjust. Moreover, humans themselves failed to adjust. Most top predators of the planet are majestic creatures. Millions of years of dominion have filled them with self-confidence. Sapiens by contrast is more like a banana republic dictator. Having so recently been one of the underdogs of the Savannah, we are full of fears & anxieties over our position which makes us doubly cruel & dangerous. Many historical calamities, from deadly wars to ecological catastrophes, have resulted from this over-hasty jump.

Man learnt to domesticate fire & later learnt to use fire for cooking. Food that man cannot digest in their natural forms- such as wheat, rice & potatoes- became staples of our diet, thanks to cooking.

Whereas chimpanzees spend five hours a day chewing food, a single hour suffices for people eating cooked food. This enabled humans to eat more kinds of food, to devote less time to eating, & to make do with smaller teeth & shorter intestines.

A single woman with a flint could burn down an entire forest in a matter of hours. The domestication of fire was a sign of things to come.

About 150,000 years ago, our ancestors were existing in identical forms as us. If one of them turned up in a modern morgue, the local pathologist would notice nothing peculiar.

Homo xxx, were other human species who were eliminated by Homo sapiens. 100,000 years ago, at least six human species inhabited the earth. Today there is just one.

Tolerance is not a Sapiens trademark. In modern times, a small difference in skin colour, dialect or religion has been enough to prompt one group of Sapiens to set about exterminating another group. Would ancient Sapiens have been more tolerant towards an entirely different human species? It may well be that when Sapiens encountered Neanderthals the result was the first & most significant ethnic-cleansing campaign in history.

For the last 10,000 years, Homo sapiens have grown so accustomed to being the only human species that it’s hard for us to conceive of another possibility.

Homo sapiens conquered the world thanks above all to its unique language.

The appearance of new ways of thinking & communicating between 70,000 & 30,000 years ago constitutes the Cognitive Revolution.

What was so special about the new Sapiens language that it enabled us to conquer the world?

It was not the first language. Every animal has some kind of language. Even insects such as bees & ants, know how to communicate in sophisticated ways, informing one another of the whereabouts of food. Neither was it the first vocal language. Many animals, including all ape & monkey species have vocal languages. For example, green monkeys use calls of various kinds to communicate. Zoologists have identified one call the means “Careful! An eagle!” A slightly different call was “Careful! A lion!” When researchers played a recording of the first call to a group of monkeys, the monkeys stopped what they were doing & looked upwards with fear. When the same group heard a recording of the second call, the lion warning, they quickly scrambled up a tree. Sapiens can produce many more distinct sounds than green monkeys.

The most common answer is that our language is amazingly supple. We can connect a limited number of sounds & signs to produce an infinite number of sentences, each with a distinct meaning. We can thereby ingest, store & communicate a prodigious amount of information about the surrounding world.

Our language evolved as a way of gossiping. Thus Homo sapiens are a social species. Gossip usually focuses on wrongdoings. Rumour-mongers are the original fourth estate, journalists who inform society & thus protect it from cheats & freeloaders.

Thanks to the cognitive revolution Homo sapiens acquired the ability to say, “The lion is the guardian spirit of our tribe.” The ability to speak about fictions is the most unique feature of Sapiens language. You could never convince a monkey to give you a banana by promising him limitless bananas after death in monkey heaven.

Sapiens can cooperate in extremely flexible ways with countless numbers of strangers. That’s why Sapiens rules the world, whereas ants eat out leftovers & chimps are locked up in zoos & research labs.

Sociological research has shown that the maximum ‘natural’ size of a group bonded by gossip is about 150 individuals. Most people can neither intimately know, nor gossip effectively about, more than 150 human beings. Below the threshold of 150, communities, businesses, social networks & military networks can maintain themselves based mainly on intimate acquaintance & rumour-mongering. There is no need for formal ranks, titles & law books to keep order. A platoon of 30 soldiers or even a company of 100 soldiers can function well on the basis of intimate relations, with a minimum of formal discipline. A well respected sergeant can become ‘king of the company’ & exercise authority even over commissioned officers. A small family business can survive & flourish without a board of directors, a CEO or an accounting department.

But once the threshold of 150 individuals is crossed, things can no longer work that way. You cannot run a division of thousands of soldiers the same way you can run a platoon.

How did Homo sapiens manage to cross this critical threshold, eventually founding cities comprising tens of thousands of inhabitants & empires ruling hundreds of millions? The secret was the appearance of fiction. Large number of strangers can cooperate successfully by believing in common myths.

Any large scale human cooperation-whether a modern state, a medieval church, an ancient city or an archaic tribe- is rooted in common myths that exist only in people’s collective imagination. Churches are rooted in common religious myths. Two Catholics who have never met can nevertheless go together on crusade or pool funds to build a hospital because they both believe that God was incarnated in human flesh & allowed Himself to be crucified to redeem our sins. States are rooted in common national myths. Two Serbs who have never met might risk their lives to save one another because both believe in the existence of the Serbian nation, the Serbian homeland & the Serbian flag. Judicial systems are rooted in common legal myths. Two lawyers who have never met can nevertheless combine efforts to defend a complete stranger because they both believe in the existence of laws, justice, human rights- & the money paid out in fees.

Yet none of these things exists outside the stories that people invent & tell one another. There are no gods in the universe, no nations, no money, no human rights, no laws & justice outside the common imagination of human beings.

People easily understand that ‘primitives’ cement their social order by believing in ghosts & spirits, & gathering each full moon to dance together around the campfire. What we fail to appreciate is that our modern institutions function on exactly the same basis. Take the world of business corporations. Modern business people & lawyers are, in fact, powerful sorcerers. The principal difference between them & tribal shamans is that modern lawyers tell far stranger tales.

Telling effective stories is not easy. The difficulty lies not in telling the story, but in convincing everyone else to believe it. Much of history revolves around this question: how does one convince millions of people to believe particular stories about gods, or nations or limited liability companies? Yet when it succeeds, it gives Sapiens immense power, because it enables millions of strangers to cooperate & work towards common goals. Just try to imagine how difficult it would have been to create states, or churches, or legal systems if we could speak only about things that really exist, such as rivers, trees & lions.

Ever since the Cognitive Revolution, Sapiens have thus been living in a dual reality. On the one hand, the objective reality of rivers, trees & lions; and on the other hand, the imagined reality of gods, nations & corporations. As time went by, the imagined reality became even more powerful, so that today the very survival of rivers, trees & lions depends on the grace of imagined entities such as the US & Google.

The Agricultural Revolution- AR- History’s biggest fraud

About 10,000 years ago, Sapiens began to devote all their time& effort to manipulating the lives of a few animal & plant species. From sunrise to sunset humans sowed seeds, watered plants, plucked weeds from the ground & led sheep to prime pastures.

Even today, with all our advanced technologies, more than 90% of our calories that feed humanity come from the handful of plants that our ancestors domesticated between 9500 & 3500 BC- wheat, rice, maize, potatoes, millet & barley. No noteworthy plant or animal has been domesticated in the last 2000 years. If our minds are those of hunter gatherers, our cuisine is that of ancient farmers.

Of the thousands of species that our ancestors hunted & gathered, only a few were suitable candidates for farming & herding.

Agricultural revolution left farmers with lives generally more difficult & less satisfying than those of foragers. Hunter-gatherers spent their time in more stimulating & varied ways & were less in danger of starvation & disease. The AR certainly enlarged the sum total of food at the disposal of humankind, but the extra food did not translate into a better diet or leisure. Rather, it translated into population explosion & pampered elites. The average farmer worked harder than the average forager & got a worse diet in return. The AR was history’s biggest fraud.

Who was responsible? Neither kings, nor priests nor merchants. The culprits were a handful of plant species including wheat rice & potatoes. These plants domesticated Homo sapiens rather than vice versa.

Think for a moment about the AR from the viewpoint of wheat. Ten thousand years ago wheat was just a wild grass, one of many, confined to a small range in the Middle East. Suddenly it was growing everywhere.  In the great plains of North America, where not a single wheat stalk grew 10,000 years ago, today it is everywhere.

Wheat did it by manipulating Homo sapiens. Men cleared  rocks, weeds & arranged water. Wheat was attacked by rabbits so man built fences. The body of Homo sapiens had not evolved for such tasks. It was adapted to climbing fruit trees & running after game, not clearing rocks & carrying water. Human spines, knees, necks & arches paid the price. Study of ancient skeletons indicate many ailments such as slipped discs, arthritis & hernia. Moreover, the new agricultural tasks demanded so much time that people were forced to settle permanently next to their wheat fields. This completely changed their lives. We did not domesticate wheat. It domesticated us. The word ‘domesticate’ comes from the Latin ‘domus’ which means ‘house’. Who’s the one living in a house? Not the wheat. It’s the Sapiens.

Wheat is not particularly good for health as compared to the varied diet of the forager. But wheat could be produced in large quantities. This led to the population explosion.

Just as economic success of a company is measured only by the number of dollars in its bank account, not by the happiness of its employees, so the evolutionary success of a species is measured by the number of copies of its DNA. If no more DNA copies remain, the species is extinct, just as a company without money is bankrupt.

This is the essence of the AR: the ability to keep more people alive under worse conditions. Nobody agreed to this deal: the AR was a trap.

Why did people make such a fateful miscalculation? For the same reason that people throughout history have miscalculated. People were unable to fathom the full consequences of their decisions. Our children will never go to sleep hungry. It made sense. If you worked harder, you would have a better life. That was the plan.

It happens to us today. How many young college graduates have taken demanding jobs in high-powered firms, vowing that they will work hard to earn money that will enable them to retire & pursue their real interests when they are 35? But by the time they reach that age, they have large mortgages, children to school, houses in the suburbs that necessitate at least 2 cars in the family, & a sense that life is not worth living without really good wine & expensive holidays abroad. What are they supposed to do? Go back to digging up roots? No, they double their efforts & keep slaving away.

The AR is one of the  most controversial events in history. Some supporters proclaim that it set humankind on the road to prosperity & progress. Others insist that it led to destruction. This was the turning point, they say, where Sapiens cast off its intimate symbiosis with nature & sprinted towards greed & alienation. Whichever direction the road led, there was no turning back. Farming enabled populations to increase so radically & rapidly that no complex agricultural society could ever again sustain itself if it returned to hunting & gathering.

Since the AR, mankind has sprayed chemicals & killed millions of flora & fauna.

Henceforth, attachment to ‘my house’ & separation from the neighbours became the psychological hallmark of a much more self- centered creature.

When the AR opened opportunities for the creation of crowded cities & mighty empires, people invented stories about great gods, motherlands & joint stock companies to provide the needed local links. While human evolution was crawling at its usual snail’s pace, the human imagination was building astounding networks of mass cooperation unlike any other ever seen on earth.

Let us see the extent of fiction & imagination that is used in the American Declaration of Independence: We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, & the pursuit of happiness.

Evolution is based on difference, not on equality. Every person carries a somewhat different genetic code, & is exposed from birth to different environmental influences. This leads to the development of different qualities that carry with them different chances of survival. ‘Created equal’ should therefore be translated into ‘evolved differently’. Neither is there a ‘creator’ who ‘endows’ them with anything. There is only a blind evolutionary process, devoid of any purpose, leading to the birth of individuals.. ‘Endowed by their Creator’ should be translated simply into ‘born’.

Equally, there are no such things as rights in biology. There are only organs, abilities & characteristics. Birds fly not because they have a right to fly, but because they have wings. Many of them undergo constant mutations, & may well be completely lost over time. The ostrich is a bird that lost its ability to fly. So ‘unalienable rights’ should be translated into ‘mutable characteristics’. There is no such thing in biology. Just like equality rights & limited liability companies liberty is something that people invented & that exists only in their imagination. From a biological viewpoint, it is meaningless to say that humans in democratic societies are free whereas humans in dictatorships are unfree. And what about ‘happiness’? So far biological research has failed to come up with a clear definition of happiness or a way to measure it objectively. Most biological studies acknowledge only the existence of pleasure which is more easily defined & measured. So’ life, liberty, & the pursuit of happiness’ should be translated into ‘ life & pursuit of pleasure’.

So here is that line from the American Declaration of Independence translated into biological terms:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men evolved differently, that they they are born with certain mutable characteristics, & that among these are life & the pursuit of pleasure.

Advocates of equality & human rights may be outraged by this line of reasoning. Their response is likely to be ” We know that people are not equal biologically! But if we believe that we are ll equal in essence, it will enable us to create a stable & prosperous society.”

I have no argument with that. That is exactly what I mean by ‘imagined order’. We believe in a particular order not because it is objectively true, but because believing in it enables us to cooperate effectively & forge a better society. Imagined orders are not evil conspiracies or useless mirages. Rather, they are the only way large numbers of humans can cooperate effectively.

Voltaire said about God that ‘There is no God, but don’t tell that to my servant, lest he murder me at night’.

Homo Sapiens has no natural rights, just as spiders, hyenas & chimpanzees have no natural rights. But don’t tell that to our servants, lest they murder us at night.

There is no chance that gravity will cease to function tomorrow, even if people stop believing in it. In contrast, an imagined order is always in danger of collapse, because it depends upon myths, & myths vanish once people stop believing in them. In order to safeguard an imagined order, continuous & strenuous efforts are imperative. Some of these efforts take the shape of violence & coercion. Armies, police forces, courts & prisons are ceaselessly at work forcing people to act in accordance with the imagined order. When in 1860, a majority of American citizens concluded that African slaves are human beings & must therefore enjoy the right of liberty, it took a bloody civil war to make the southern states acquiesce.

That is why cynics don’t build empires & why an imagined order can be maintained only if large segments of the population- & in particular large segments of the elite & security forces- truly believe in it. Christianity would not have lasted 2000 years if the majority of the bishops & priests failed to believe in Christ.

There is no way out of the imagined order. When you break down our prison walls & run towards freedom, we are in fact running into the more spacious exercise yard of a bigger prison.

After the AR, human societies grew even larger & more complex, while the imagined constructs sustaining the social order also became more elaborate. Myths & fictions accustomed people, nearly from the moment of birth, to think in certain ways, to behave in accordance with certain standards, to want certain things, & to observe certain rules. They thereby created artificial instincts that enabled millions of strangers to cooperate effectively. This network of artificial instincts is called ‘culture’.