When I was about seven or eight years old, I became obsessed with airplanes, specifically World War I biplanes. I’m not sure how this obsession came about. Seeing Snoopy fight the Red Baron in the Sunday comics? Seeing King Kong on TV? Whatever caused the obsession, the obsession sent me on a quest for knowledge. I wanted to know everything about these planes. As a byproduct of that quest, I learned about the war. Suddenly, I knew who Archduke Franz Ferdinand was. I knew who the Central Powers and the Allied Powers were. I knew what trench warfare was. I was learning history.
I read—or attempted to read—library books about the planes and the war, some of which were well beyond my reading level. But, the books usually had maps, illustrations, and photos, and I could learn from them. Also, I distinctly recall finding some special edition of an aviation magazine featuring planes of World War I. I think it was in that magazine that I learned the Red Baron—Manfred von Richthofen—flew a Fokker DR1 triplane and shot down 80 Allied pilots before allegedly dying at the hands of Canadian Sopwith Camel pilot Roy Brown.
These books and magazines not only fed my curiosity to know more about airplanes but also fed my growing curiosity about the greater world around me. That’s something the study of history does. It widens your horizons, as Yuval Noah Harari writes in Sapiens.
“So why study history? Unlike physics or economics, history is not a means for making accurate predictions,” he writes. “We study history not to know the future but to widen our horizons, to understand that our present situation is neither natural nor inevitable, and that we consequently have more possibilities before us than we imagine”.
Of course, at seven or eight, I was unaware that my situation was “neither natural nor inevitable” and I doubt I was entertaining what possibilities were before me. I was gaining knowledge for knowledge’s sake. I just wanted to know more about the planes or the war they were flown in. I wasn’t following a narrative thread. I didn’t have any questions about the causes of the war or its consequences—as far-reaching as they continue to be. That interest would come later.
Reading Harari’s book, however, reminded me why I ended up studying history at university and why I still love history. Harari is right. Possibilities open up. When I studied history at university, possibilities opened up. One possibility was the thought of a career: I intended to get my bachelor’s degree in history and teach high school history. While that didn’t happen, studying history changed my life in other ways. A course on the Renaissance, for instance, gave me a greater understanding of my growing humanist outlook. I was discovering the foundations of a belief system, one that I continue to explore and develop. Later, I was drawn to the Enlightenment thinkers and their influence on the development of the United States: studying that era opened up the possibilities to me of what the U.S. could be and perhaps still strives to be.
Harari’s Sapiens is a history of our species—Homo sapiens—as a whole. While the genus Homo evolved about 2.5 million years ago and Homo sapiens about 200,000 years ago, Harari believes it was only about 70,000 years ago that our species really began to “stand out from the myriad other organisms with which [we] shared [our] habitats”. It was then that distinct human cultures began to form in an age Harari labels the Cognitive Revolution (not to be confused with the psychological movement of the same name that began in the 1950s). It’s this era when history began.
The Cognitive Revolution is one of three revolutions—the Agricultural and Scientific Revolutions are the other two—that changed everything and “shaped the course of history,” Harari tells us.
As you might expect, packing 70,000 years of human history into more than 400 pages, you get a pretty broad sweep. But Harari successfully navigates readers through time from the moment we developed cultures to the moment “about 10,000 years ago when Sapiens began to devote almost all their time and effort to manipulating the lives of a few animal and plant species” to the moment when it became possible for us to create medicines that save countless lives or to end everything in a mass of atomic fireballs. He draws from multiple disciplines—evolutionary biology, theology, and anthropology to name a few—as he plots his course to the future, concluding by examining what might lay ahead for Sapiens with artificial intelligence, genetic engineering, and cybernetics.
From what I can gather, Harari believes the course of history isn’t necessarily a good thing, at least up to the present. Threaded through the eye of his story is a dark narrative, a pessimistic “I’ve-met-the-enemy-and-it-us” needle. That whatever happened in our brains 70,000 years ago to cause us to create cultures and our myriad imagined orders and the notion of history itself has broken the world. Homo sapiens has made everything worse, including Homo sapiens.
We excel it seems, for instance, at genocide. Well before the atrocities of Cambodia’s killing fields, or Stalin’s purge, or Hitler’s final solution, Sapiens in one way or another eliminated the other human species—the Neanderthals, the Denisovans—we once shared the planet with. One theory has it that we starved them out. Our proficiency at hunting and gathering took away the resources the Neanderthals needed to feed themselves. As a result, Harari writes, “[t]heir population dwindled and they slowly died out, except perhaps for one or two members who joined their Sapiens neighbours”.
Another theory suggests, as Harari notes, “that competition for resources flared up violence and genocide. Tolerance is not a Sapiens trademark. In modern times, a small difference in skin colour, dialect, or religion has been enough to prompt one group of Sapiens to set about exterminating another group”.
This isn’t to say that Harari doesn’t acknowledge our species’ achievements or even our ability to cooperate at times, enough to come up with imagined constructs such as religion, law codes, science, or empires. It’s just that those constructs aren’t necessarily as great as we’d like to believe. That’s not wholly untrue: Empires, science, law codes, and religion have been equally destructive. Harari, though, just doesn’t seem to like his species.
“Unfortunately, the Sapiens regime on earth has so far produced little that we can be proud of,” he writes. “We have mastered our surroundings, increased food production, built cities, established empires, and created far-flung trade networks. But did we decrease the amount of suffering in the world? Time and again, massive increases in human power did not necessarily improve the well-being of individual Sapiens, and usually caused immense misery to other animals”.
For all of the book’s many charms and insights, Harari’s species loathing left me numb and nihilistic after I finished reading the book. Early reviewers, too, were critical of Harari’s deprecating tone. Charles C. Mann, for instance, notes briefly something I picked up on: Harari’s scant reference to art or music or literature, those accomplishments that we can be proud of, that have brought to our species contentment, joy, entertainment, the realization of possibilities.
“Personally,” Mann writes, “I’d say that Beethoven’s symphonies, the Kokedera moss garden in Kyoto, the Great Mosque of Djenne, classical Greek drama and the theory of quantum electrodynamics ain’t beanbag”.
Few references to art, music, or literature are worthy enough to make mention in the book’s index, although in a quick scan, Byron, Shaw, Dickens, Cicero, and Harry Potter get nods. Few works of art or music appear in the book. Harari does champion the great religions—Buddhism, Islam, and Christianity, in particular—but perhaps music, art, and literature are just extensions of religions. Or perhaps the arts, in general, don’t really matter that much to Harari because like all aspects of human culture, they are fictions, imagined social constructs we’ve created in order to survive and dominate the earth? His outlook is often postmodernist, favoring cultural relativism, I suppose, because it’s all fiction anyhow.
If a loathing of the species is what the study of history has pressed upon Harari, is history really worth studying? I thought the study of history opened up the possibilities before us? Harari concludes we’ve become self-made gods whose seemingly only possibility is psychopathic self-annihilation. He leaves readers with this question: “Is there anything more dangerous than dissatisfied and irresponsible gods who don’t know what they want”?
While I don’t want to read rose-tinted versions of history, I do tend to agree that studying history is worthwhile, as Harari asserts early in his book. Studying history does open up possibilities. It also helps us understand human nature better, perhaps to improve it. Studying history presents us with checks and balances to the worst of our nature, and possibilities to stifle the childlike gods that dwell in our psyche. I’ll take Hans Rosling’s view of the necessity of studying history over Harari’s.
“When we hang on to a rose-tinted version of history we deprive ourselves and our children of the truth,” Rosling writes in his book Factfulness. “The evidence about the terrible past is scary, but it is a great resource. It can help us to appreciate what we have today and provide us with hope that future generations will, as previous generations did, get over the dips and continue the long-term trends toward peace, prosperity, and solutions to our global problems”.