Sunday, April 16, 2017

Sapiens: Book Review

Rutherford supposedly said that there are only two kinds of science: physics and stamp collecting. History is like that too. Most historians concentrate on chronicling a sequence of events in some domain, what Toynbee called "one damn thing after another." Only a few choose the riskier path of seeking grand themes and patterns that unify the whole.

It's a risky path, because choosing the grand stage requires more erudition than any single human actually has. Mistakes and oversimplifications are sure to become targets. Toynbee's monumental magnum opus was not the first in this vein, but it might be the first of our own age. Two such works have had a huge impact on my view of human nature, how the world works, and how we got here: Jared Diamond's Guns, Germs and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies, and the present work, Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, by Noah Yuval Harari. Of the two, the latter is the most ambitious, taking mankind from the status of "An Animal of No Significance," the title of his first chapter, to "The Animal that Became a God," the afterword.

Sapiens has been widely praised for its scope, incisiveness, erudition, and style. My favorite blurb comes from Jared Diamond, who is in some ways his mentor and model: “Sapiens tackles the biggest questions of history and of the modern world, and it is written in unforgettably vivid language.”

Sapiens is not a story of kings, heroes, and conquerors. The real characters in the story are the intersubjective realities, the myths, that are the building blocks of cultures and large scale cooperation: tribes, nations, religions, money and others. Harari takes a close look at the fundamental transformations of human society which he identifies as The Cognitive Revolution (circa 70,000 years ago), the Agricultural Revolution (12,000 ya) and the Scientific Revolution (500 ya).

Many will be offended, I suspect, by his casual lumping of such religions as Christianity, Islam, and Humanism (with branches such as liberalism, socialism, capitalism, and Nazism.) Those with eyes to see, I think, will find them opened and their vision expanded.

This is big picture history. Not history from 10,000 feet, as Harari says, but from an orbiting satellite. The picture he sees is a world where thousands of fragmented and barely interacting cultures have been gradually absorbed and digested by an all encompassing global culture. The primary engines of that destruction and transformation have been money, imperialism, and universal religions.

The book, an online course based on it, a TED talk, and various articles have made Harari, as one reviewer pointed out, a rockstar in history and anthropology - a guy who gets invited to give lectures to the aristocracy of Silicon Valley. Much of this celebrity comes, I think, from the final chapter, entitled "The End of Homo Sapiens," wherein he speculates about the future of our species. For the first time, he says, biological evolution's blind chance has been replaced by an intelligent designer. The potential of genetic engineering has barely been touched by such stunts as a cow's ear in human shape growing on the back of a mouse or a fluorescent green rabbit. Cyborg technologies that allow neural implants to let the blind see, the armless operate prosthetics, and remote control of insects and fish are just the beginning. So too, other experiments like the billion Euro project to emulate a human brain in Silicon foreshadow purely artificial intelligences.

His final words warn that God like powers are not necessarily accompanied by divine judgement. His final question:

Is there anything more dangerous than dissatisfied and irresponsible gods who don't know what they want?

I have written a few dozen Harari posts over the years, collected here: