How Did Humans Become Masters of the Earth?

I have recently finished reading Sapiens, A Brief History of Humankind. The book tries to tell the entire story of us, Homo sapiens (Latin for “wise person”), in 450 pages. It was one of the most thought-provoking books I have ever read. Yuval Harari’s articulate writing takes you back 2 million years and slowly brings you back to present day. Throughout this journey this book changes your mental model of the world we live in.

One hundred thousand years ago we were just one of half a dozen human species all competing for survival. Today we are the only species alive. The book gives a horrific account of our struggles on our path to supremacy. For the first half of our existence, we were an animal of no significance; “The most important thing to know about prehistoric humans, is that they were insignificant animals with no more impact on their environment than gorillas, fireflies or jellyfish”, Harari writes.

However in second half of our story, we undergo a series of revolutions that continues to this day. The “cognitive” revolution about 70,000 years ago is the first. We start behaving in far more ingenious ways than before, and we spread rapidly across the planet. Harari argues that cognitive revolution gave us an edge over other human species.

What has made us so successful is that we are the only animals that are capable of large-scale cooperation. We know how to organise ourselves as nations, companies, and religions, giving us the power to accomplish complex tasks. What’s unique about Harari’s take is that he focuses on the power of stories and myths to bring people together. Baboons, wolves, and other animals also know how to function as a group, of course, but they are defined by close social ties that limit their groups to small numbers. Homo sapiens have the special ability to unite millions of strangers around common myths.

In an interesting thought experiment, imagine one human and one chimpanzee stuck on an island fighting for survival. I would put my money on the chimpanzee. The chimp would easily overpower the human. However, if we have 1,000 humans and 1,000 chimpanzees, there is a very good chance that the humans would win the fight for survival. One thousand chimps can’t cooperate. One thousand humans can. And we are only powerful if we work together in large groups.

The reason that 1,000 humans can cooperate and chimpanzees can’t is simply because humans can come together around myths, legends, and stories. As long we believe in the same story, we follow the same rules and hold same values. If you ask a chimpanzee to give you its banana in return for going to chimpanzee heaven where it can have unlimited bananas in return for its good deed, it would never believe you. However, Homo sapiens easily believe in these imaginary stories and work together on building cathedrals and waging crusades. Ideas like freedom, human rights, gods, laws, and capitalism exist in our imaginations, yet they can bind us together and motivate us to cooperate on complex tasks.

About 11,000 years ago we entered the agricultural revolution era, converting in increasing numbers from hunting and gathering to farming. Harari sees the agricultural revolution as “history’s biggest fraud.” It is very discomforting to think that “we did not domesticate wheat. It domesticated us.” More often than not it provided a worse diet, longer hours of work, greater risk of starvation, crowded living conditions, and greatly increased susceptibility to disease. Harari thinks we may have been better off in the Stone Age.

The scientific revolution begins about 500 years ago. It triggered the Industrial Revolution about 250 years ago, which triggered in turn the Information Revolution about 50 years ago. He argues that this could be the biggest revolution of all. It may be able to alter the course of human evolution and lead to new human species in future.

The final section of the book is especially interesting. After going through thousands of years of history, the author turns to the future and wonders how artificial intelligence, genetic engineering, and other technologies will change our species.

I did not agree with all of Harari’s arguments. However, I would highly recommend this book to anyone interested in early human history. Once you start reading, it is hard to put it down, and certainly it will spark interesting conversations with your favourite Homo sapiens.

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