Sapiens : A Brief History of Humankind: Book Review
Author: Yuval Noah Harari

K Rajeshwar Sharma *

Speaking at an inaugural function of a recreation hall at Manipur University during its nascence in the early eighties, Professor Mahale, the former Vice Chancellor of the university, said, “There is a history behind every person, behind everything. So is there a history behind this recreation hall which was once a saw mill in its previous avatar.”

No matter how important or rather how trivial the subject is, its history cannot be ignored. Nothing can escape from history. Nor can anyone escape from it. The beauty of history is its ubiquity that enables a historian to explore the past and write the history of anything under the sun. Here is a book of history about humankind which goes back to prehistoric times millions of years ago.

A few years ago, when I was browsing at a book-shop at Ooty, a hill station in the Nilgiris in Tamil Nadu , I saw a thick white paperback of about five hundred pages. With a fingerprint just above the letter ‘I’ of its title which is printed in red, the book looks so tempting.

As I was travelling alone, I couldn’t help but buy the book because I thought it would give me company during my short stay at Ooty and throughout the nine-hour Volvo bus return journey from Ooty to Bangalore.

Moreover I prefer travelling alone particularly in hill stations where one can enjoy the serene beauty of Mother Nature with all her fresh cold air that touches you gently and passes through the woods on the slopes of the hills.

The book is none other than the bestseller Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind written by Yuval Noah Harari who is a Professor of History at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Not only is it a history about what we were, who we are and where we are destined, but it is also an epic poem written in prose in the guise of history.

In other words, Sapiens is about how humans evolved and ‘controlled this planet.’ It strikes you at your psyche. No historian has ever attempted to write history about humankind in such an epic scale. Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind was first published in 2015 by Vintage and it became the Sunday Times top ten bestseller of the year.

Yuval Noah Harari, the author of the book, has a PhD in History from the University of Oxford and he won the Polonsky Prize for creativity and originality in 2009 and 2012.

In tracing the origin of fellow humans, Yuval Noah Harari takes his readers back to the dark world of prehistoric times in East Africa. More than two million years ago, humans were ‘insignificant animals’ living as any other animals were. They had ‘no more impact on their environment than gorillas, fireflies or jellyfish.’

Further the author dives deeper into the world of organisms where they are classified into species. The species that evolved from a common ancestor are put together and they are called genus.

Lions are called Panthera leo by biologists. It means the species leo of the genus Panthera. Similarly we humans are called Homo sapiens which means the species sapiens (Wise) of the genus Homo (Man). Genera (Plural of genus) are further classified into families. As for instance, wolves, foxes and jackals belong to the family of dogs. So do humans belong to the family of ‘apes’.

Humans are said to have first evolved about 2.5 million years ago in East Africa from “an earlier genus of apes called Australopithecus which means ‘Southern Ape’”. Chimpanzees, gorillas and orangutans are the living ‘relatives’ of humans. Among them, chimpanzees are the closest ‘relatives’.

‘Like it or not, we are members of a large and particularly noisy family called the great apes,’ writes Yuval Noah Harari.

They continued to evolve into other species such as Homo rudolfensis, Homo ergaster, Homo neanderthalensis, Homo erectus, Homo soloensis, Homo floresiensis and Homo sapiens which means wise man. 70,000 years ago Homo sapiens spread to Asia and Europe from East Africa, the cradle of humanity.

In 2010 another species of man was discovered at Denisova Cave in Siberia. It was named Homo denisova. Out of these seven different species of man, only Homo sapiens lives till today. The others had gone extinct.

In Sapiens, Yuval Noah Harari raises a few fundamental questions that intrigue us. ‘What was the Sapiens’ secret of success ? How did we manage to settle so rapidly in so many distant and ecologically different habitats ? How did we push all other human species into oblivion ?’ asks the author. The main theme of this book is the answers to these questions.

As they moved eastward and north, about 70,000 years ago Homo Sapiens reached the Middle East and Europe where they encountered the Neanderthals, another species of humans. Soon the entire Eurasian landmass was overrun by Homo Sapiens.

Scientists and historians wonder how Sapiens could defeat the Neanderthals who were ‘more muscular than Sapiens, had larger brains, and were better adapted to cold climes.’ Subsequently they propounded two conflicting theories, the ‘Interbreeding Theory’ and the ‘Replacement Theory’.

According to Yuval Noah Harari, neither of the two theories is valid. He argues, ‘If the Replacement Theory is correct, all living humans have roughly the same genetic baggage, and racial distinctions among them are negligible. But if the Interbreeding Theory is right, there might well be genetic differences between Africans, Europeans and Asians that go back hundreds of thousands of years.

This is political dynamite, which could provide material for explosive racial theories.’ However, in 2010 the preference given to the Replacement Theory ended with the publication of the results of ‘a four-year effort to map the Neanderthal genome.’ It is said that ‘1-4 per cent of the unique human DNA of modern populations in the Middle East and Europe is Neanderthal DNA.’

Although it is not ‘a huge amount’, the finding is significant. Later in the same year it was found ‘that up to 6 per cent of the unique human DNA of modern Melanesians and Aboriginal Australians is Denisovan DNA.’

Whichever theory one might choose, one thing is sure that Homo Sapiens have a unique quality that enabled them to outclass the other species of man. According to Yuval Noah Harari, it is their ‘cognitive abilities’ that enable humans to land and walk on the Moon, to write great epics like the Mahabharata, the Illiad etc., and to create a virtual reality in cyberspace.

He attributes the ‘cognitive abilities’ of the Homo Sapiens to the ‘Cognitive Revolution’ that took place between 70,000 and 30,000 years ago. What caused the ‘Cognitive Revolution’ is not certain but there is a theory that ‘argues that accidental genetic mutations changed the inner wiring of the brains of Sapiens, enabling them to think in unprecedented ways and to communicate using an altogether new type of language.’ It is called ‘Tree of Knowledge mutation.’

Homo Sapiens is blessed with ‘unique language’. What is unique about the human language is that it not only makes Homo Sapiens able to communicate and give information about ‘men and lions’ but it also makes them able ‘to transmit information about things that do not exist at all.’ This unique ability of humans resulted in the creation of ‘legends, myths, gods and religions’.

In other words, with the ‘Cognitive Revolution’, humans were able to say that ‘The lion is the guardian spirit of our tribe.’ Yuval Noah Harari writes, ‘This ability to speak about fictions is the most unique feature of Sapiens language.’

Not only does fiction enable Homo Sapiens to imagine things, but it also enables them to do things ‘collectively.’ For instance, State, Nationalism, government and religion are all fictions but they unite people and enable them to work together.

Yuval says that ‘the Nationalist myths of modern States……give Sapiens the unprecedented ability to cooperate flexibly in large numbers.’ The ability ‘to cooperate flexibly in large numbers’ of ‘strangers’ has made Sapiens able to rule the world.

But one may wonder how long Homo Sapiens will rule this planet when they have the knowledge and expertise to engineer superhumans. With the super advancement made in the field of biotechnology and genetic engineering, today Homo Sapiens ‘stands on the verge of becoming a God, poised to acquire not only eternal youth, but also the divine abilities of creation and destruction.’

Professor George Church of Harvard University said that ‘we can now implant reconstructed Neanderthal DNA into a Sapiens ovum, thus producing the first Neanderthal child’. Moreover ‘a few small changes to internal brain structure’ could ignite a Second Cognitive Revolution that would ‘transform Homo Sapiens into something altogether different.’

At the dawn of the twenty-first century, living beings are no longer bound by the laws of natural selection. Every single organism has evolved for about four billion years under the laws of natural selection but at the beginning of the twenty first century they are being replaced by ‘the laws of intelligent design’. Throughout the world, scientists are engineering living beings in laboratories so as to ‘break the laws of natural selection’.

For instance, in the year 2000 Eduardo Kac, a Brazilian ‘bio-artist’ designed a fluorescent green rabbit which was given to a French laboratory to engineer ‘a radiant bunny according to his specifications.’ The French scientists engineered a green fluorescent rabbit by taking the embryo of a white rabbit and implanting in its DNA a gene from a green fluorescent jellyfish. Eduardo Kac named the rabbit Alba, which is a product of ‘intelligent design.’

With such expertise in the field of genetic engineering, there is apprehension that scientists might soon ‘make far-reaching alterations not only to our physiology, immune system and life expectancy, but also to our intellectual and emotional capacities.’ Yuval Noah Harari asks, ‘If genetic engineering can create genius mice, why not genius humans?’

The only obstacles that prevent the scientists from ‘producing superhumans’ are the ethical and political objections. But a few questions need to be answered. ‘What would happen, for example, if we developed a cure for Alzheimer’s disease that, as a side benefit, could dramatically improve the memories of healthy people? Would anyone be able to halt the relevant research?

And when the cure is developed, could any law enforcement agency limit it to Alzheimer’s patients and prevent healthy people from using it to acquire super-memories?’ asks the author. It is only a matter of time that one day humans might be living forever without ever having to worry about diseases or death.

* K Rajeshwar Sharma wrote this book review for The Sangai Express
The writer is a is a freelance journalist and can be contacted at sharmarajeshwar36(AT)gmail(DOT)com
This article was webcasted on May 11 2023.

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