We are on the threshold of both heaven and hell, moving nervously between the gateway of one and the anteroom of the other. History has still not decided where we will end up, and a string of coincidences might yet send us rolling in either direction.
So says Yuval Noah Harari. You might answer, ‘Aren’t we always?’ – especially if you happen to be a lover of Dickens.
The history of our species as detailed in Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind makes it sound as though we’ve been hovering on that threshold since the ‘cognitive revolution’ of 70,000 years ago, when the first human culture arose. There are, however, times when the doors to heaven and hell have looked particularly enticing and we live in one of those times. As with all the other times, the doors are labelled with hieroglyphics in a language we can’t read. Even if we think we’ve deciphered them, we only have a vague idea of how to make the sort of collective decision that leads to choosing one of them.
Whenever we’ve stepped through one of those doors, we’ve usually found ourselves in another threshold rather than heaven or hell, but there have never been seven billion of us before and we’ve never had technology that’s capable of restructuring the world we live in quite so comprehensively.
Sapiens is less about the choice before us now than about how we got here, via similar choices in the past. Harari leads us through the cultural innovations that brought us here, including economic leaps such as the agricultural revolutions of the last 10,000 years, the evolution of religion from animistic beliefs to the explosion of monotheism in the first millennium AD, and the geopolitical rise of the empires that dominated most of human history for around two thousand until the last of them crumbled in the last century.
If you are a firm believer in, or opponent of, any political or religious doctrine, you’ll probably find yourself disagreeing with at least part of what Harari has to say. That reflects the strength of Harari’s analysis, but is also something of an omission: it would have been interesting to know how he thinks we should go forward from here. That said, Sapiens is not a political doctrine but a work of history that draws from many disciplines across the sciences and the humanities. I found myself reading it as a continuation of the multidisciplinary history I first came across in Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs and Steel, albeit with another decade and a half of scientific progress to draw on.
Harari’s research is, like Diamond’s, rigorous and considered, but considerately banished from the text. Sapiens is not an academic tome, but is a very readable high-speed tour through seventy millennia of humanity with enough information in the bibliography to chase down his sources for anyone so inclined.
I’d definitely recommend it for anyone with an interest in where we are and how we got here – as long as you’re willing to have your assumptions challenged.
As a taste of what to expect, it’s worth a look at Harari’s TED talk in which he condenses some of the themes of the book into ten minutes, which is no small feat in itself: