One of the most influential books for me in the last few years is Yuval Harari’s Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind. It’s extremely well-written, entertaining even. Praise for the book includes a critic saying that with his Sapiens book Harari is “…making the world strange and new…” This big picture view of human history often includes fairly simple ideas with big implications, things we don’t necessarily always think about but that give us a sense of perspective.
For example, human beings made a huge and fast jump in the food chain as a result of a cognitive revolution some 70,000 years back. Prior to the cognitive revolution, we were anxious animals, as so many animals are, keeping ourselves alert for predators. Then came the cognitive revolution, which was sort of a huge advancement in our brains and minds, and the result was that we were catapulted to the top of the food chain. We ourselves became the world’s top predator, which sort of seems cool, at first, but history has shown that we weren’t really ready for it. We haven’t handled our power very well. For one thing, we haven’t treated each other very well. More importantly, our mental leap has had devastating results for the rest of the species of the world. We became the top dog but carried with us all of the mental baggage of a middle-of-the-pack species, all of the anxiety we had when we had to fear bigger and meaner predators.
Here’s how Harari puts it:
That spectacular leap from the middle to the top had enormous consequences. Other animals at the top of the pyramid, such as lions and sharks, evolved into that position very gradually, over millions of years. This enabled the ecosystem to develop checks and balances that prevent lions and sharks from wreaking too much havoc. As lions became deadlier, so gazelles evolved to run faster, hyenas to cooperate better, and 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 and anxieties over our position, which makes us doubly cruel and dangerous. Many historical calamities, from deadly wars to ecological catastrophes, have resulted from this over-hasty jump.
Are we too smart for our own good? Could many of the problems of our world today go back to our inability to adapt to our increased mental capacities? It’s an intriguing thought, it comes in the first few pages, and it’s one of the hooks that kept me reading.