Magazine article Geographical

Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind

Magazine article Geographical

Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind

Article excerpt

SAPIENS: A Brief History of Humankind

by Yuval Noah Harari

Harvill Seeker, hb, 25 [pounds sterling]

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Yuval Noah Harari has a penchant for dramatic phrases. The agricultural revolution, which began to unfold 12,000 years ago, is described as 'history's biggest fraud'. This will come as a surprise to many of Harari's readers.

We have usually been taught that humanity's decision to abandon its hunter-gathering ways and settle down as farmers was a master-stroke: the tap root of all subsequent civilisation. Harari recognises that it was a development of the greatest significance, but he wonders if it was a terribly good idea. Societies could now produce a lot more food and this resulted in an exponential growth in population, but were those lives better or happier? Harari has his doubts.

He suggests that hunter-gatherers enjoyed more varied existences, had more leisure time, and ran a smaller risk of disease and starvation. The agricultural revolution 'left farmers with lives generally more difficult and less satisfying than those of foragers.' Their diet did not improve, their bodies had to perform tasks unsuited to human anatomy, and being in thrall to wheat, rice or potatoes meant that a single bad harvest could signal disaster. Harari sums up the whole process in another of his bold phrases: 'the ability to keep more people alive under worse conditions.'

Such analysis is typical of this courageous, thought-provoking, and occasionally reductive book. Harari offers a panoramic survey of human history and challenges many preconceptions. The results are frequently magnificent, though they sometimes involve conspicuously broad brush strokes. What, for example, has been the key to human cooperation and our ability to establish efficient, stable societies?

We have the cognitive revolution to thank. 70,000 years ago something very strange happened to the human brain, most likely the result of a random genetic mutation. We could think in more abstract, long-term ways. Language arrived on the scene and, just as importantly, we could cultivate what Harari regards as shared societal fictions. Apparently, we have been doing this ever since: dreaming up principles that bind us together and legitimise our actions. …

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