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Yuval Harari: Making the world strange and new

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.

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Writer. In the summers, I live and work in the incredible state of Alaska, in the bush community of McCarthy; I pass the winters in the Santa Cruz Mountains of California. I'm working on a memoir-based nonfiction book on the American Dream. I blog, quite frequently, and I also have a novel in process, set in Alaska.

7 Comments

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  3. I remember having a brief exchange with you somewhere about Sapiens, but for the life of me I can’t remember where. As I recall I said that the book was engaging and exciting, with Harari building each chapter around a fairly grand claim, but that I regarded the evidentiary support for his claims to be scant, more along the lines of prooftexting. The quote you present in this post is an example of where I ran into problems with the book. “Most top predators of the planet are majestic creatures,” writes Harari. He seems to be thinking of solo practitioners — predators who hunt alone, like big cats. But what about big canines? A lone dog or wolf isn’t particularly majestic; it’s the pack, the collective, that holds the apex predator slot. So too with other predatory primates like chimpanzees: they’re majestic in packs, as isolated individuals not so much. And asserting that humans’ over-hasty jump to top predator causes us to be fearful and anxious, which in turn causes us to be doubly cruel and dangerous, which in turn causes deadly wars and ecological catastrophes? That assertion is an over-hasty jump. Maybe he elaborates on his position here, but I don’t remember the book well enough. I feel fairly confident that a mountain lion, confident of its superiority in encountering a solitary human on a trail, would feel fearful and anxious if hunted by a whole pack of humans.

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    • I’m not sure why I didn’t respond to this comment back in June. I’m inclined to blame the stress and business of work. In any event, my recollection of Harari’s point about apex predators is slightly different than yours.

      You put it like this: “…asserting that humans’ over-hasty jump to top predator causes us to be fearful and anxious, which in turn causes us to be doubly cruel and dangerous, which in turn causes deadly wars and ecological catastrophes? That assertion is an over-hasty jump…”

      As I recall, it wasn’t necessarily the over-hasty jump to top predator that causes us to be fearful and anxious. We already were fearful and anxious because for the vast majority of the life of our species, we’ve been an animal in the middle of the pack. For most of the life of our species, until very very recently, we’ve had many predators interested in having us for lunch. In fact, many of those species, in the past, were massive and terrifying: giant dinosaurs walked the earth and flew in the air, Rhino’s wandered around, and there were even species that were far larger, like giant beavers. Wolves and gators and all the usual suspects: lons and tigers and bears. Oh my.

      We’ve killed most of them off, others have gone extinct. The anxiety was a survival mechanism to ensure that we were alert to all of these (and other) dangers in our environment.

      Then humanity leap-frogged to the top of the food chain. However, we didn’t slowly evolve into this pole position. We cheated, so to speak. We cheated natural selection and evolution. But rather than simply relaxing and enjoying our spot at the top, we carried with us the same neural equipment, and this cognitive equipment still held all of that survival anxiety, from the millions of years of evolution.

      By contrast, lions evolved according to natural selection, and they gradually evolved accordingly. As a top predator, lions do not have anxiety about being hunted by other predators. It might be a possibility that they are aware, but the same sort of anxiety isn’t there, as it is with middle-of-the-pack species. It’s the same with bears, and when I see bears, up close, in Alaska, it’s intriguing to watch them, because they don’t give a shit about me, unless of course I might be getting between the bear and some food — or worse a mama bear’s cubs.

      That’s sort of the gist of Harari’s point, as I understood it.

      What do you think?

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  4. I remember Harari emphasizing the importance of storytelling in human evolution, which seems right. Are stories for entertainment, or for making sense of the world, or for building a shared cultural heritage to strengthen social relations? All of those seem plausible.

    I recall Harari also claiming that people developed language so they could gossip about each other — again emphasizing the importance of social solidarity. That seemed overstated. In studies of little kids’ language development, they seem to use language as a way of understanding the world: what things are, how they interact, cause-effect relationships, etc. Certainly other people are part of the world, so they’re a topic of conversation as well. And language helps people learn from one another, which is another key skill that sets humans apart from other primates and that builds an apex collective species. We’re way better at aping one another than the other apes are, and language helps speed the spread of skill acquisition through the group. Language also helps the human pack achieve apex predator status: You three go hide behind that rock, we’ll chase the wild boar toward you, so when it gets close enough you can come out and throw spears at it.

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    • What I recall from Sapiens is that Harari wanted to emphasize that cooperation was essential for humankind’s evolutionary leap to the top of the food chain. Cooperation was made possible by language. How language came about didn’t seem to be the main point — so far as I recall — but I do remember that Harari holds to the view that about 70,000 years ago humankind had some sort of mutation or something that led to enhanced cognitive abilities.

      This seems to be the prevalent academic perspective, at least as of the time that Harari wrote Sapiens. I think it’s a disputed point, and it’s perhaps hard to verify one way or the other, but, again, as I recall, Harari’s main point was that language allowed humankind to cooperate and that our ability to cooperate using language gave us all sorts of advantages, mostly technological, and that to this day we are still developing all of the technologies and possibilities afforded by our ability to use language and to cooperate.

      Stories were/are important to this development, as is symbolic logic.

      All of this is still being worked out, however. Our enhanced cognitive abilities have been an ever-changing and often-amazing display of wonders, all emerging from this Pandora’s Box that we opened. That, too, seems to be a primary point in Harari, and one that I resonate with: we change faster than we can keep up with, in a healthy way. What we hail as “progress” often has hidden and/or unforeseen traps and travails.

      Our improved cognitive equipment allows us to do so much that’s excellent and groovy, but we pervert it and twist it into something that causes death and destruction and harm. We can invent stories that help us cooperate, but we can also invent stories that make the human animal unique, the center of the universe, and hence justify our mistreatement of non-human animals. We can invent stories that make us empathetic to strangers across the globe that we’ve never met, or we can develop narratives of hate that lead to genocide.

      Why are we all over the map? I don’t know. It’s intriguing to think about though, and I think that Harari (and other’s) suggestion that we are going too fast for our minds to comprehend and adjust (in healthy and positive ways) seems to me to be an idea that’s on the right track.

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