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Sapiens: A Cautionary Tale for Humankind

“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 many more possibilities before us than we imagine.” (Yuval Noah Harari, Sapiens) 

Although they have only occupied a brief moment in the history of the universe, Homo sapiens’ time spent walking the Earth has been far from insignificant. In Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, Dr Yuval Noah Harari traces the cognitive and technological development of the Homo genus over the past two and a half million years. It is a multidisciplinary must-read for social and natural scientists alike. The book is wittily written in a journalistic style, uniting colloquial language and academic subject matter. As such, Sapiens plays a crucial role in the debate between popular and academic history. This book is not an academic text, but it shouldn’t be criticised for that. History need not be confined to academia. It is vital that the raw information given to the public through ‘infotainment’ style texts is factually accurate. The ‘sprucing’ of historical texts for entertainment or economic value may render them less valuable than academic analyses. Yet as long as the information is accurate, texts such as Sapiens remain an important form of historical writing.

Harari’s thesis includes a crucial observation on human history: that the struggles facing modern society are far from unprecedented. They are the consequences of clear historical trends in human actions that, despite often repeating themselves, open up human society to infinite opportunities. Language, according to Harari, is the key to unlocking these possibilities. Homo sapiens have the unique ability to create ‘social constructs’ and ‘imagined realities’, or more simply, to conjure myth. He uses the Peugeot corporation as an example. If every Peugeot car were to disappear along with its employees and offices, Peugeot would still exist as an entity without any physical connection to the world. In short, it is a ‘legal fiction’ or a ‘figment of our collective imagination’. Our ability to create institutions, religions and corporations gives us something no other animal has achieved: a purpose that fosters the cooperation of millions of individuals en masse. The possibilities for advancement are endless. However, more often than not, we limit ourselves to a small number of these conceivable options.

Across the world, forests are ablaze and ice caps are rapidly disappearing. This causes rampant loss of habitat, leaving many endangered species of flora and fauna in dire straights. Despite the plethora of alternatives at our fingertips, environmental degradation is accelerating exponentially. Here, Sapiens offers a simple, yet crucial, insight: such environmental damage has happened before, and humans have always been at fault. Mass extinctions occurred all over the globe as settlers reached the ‘Outer World’. At that time, most plant and animal species were unable to adapt to the new pinnacle of the food chain. For example, within a few 100 years of the Maori people’s arrival in New Zealand, 60 per cent of the country’s bird species and most of its megafauna were extinct. Harari demonstrates that despite our limitless cognitive potential, we often fall into the same historical cycles. We fail to confront unprecedented challenges, continuing on the path our ancestors once travelled.

Throughout the carefully structured sections of the book, which chart various periods of history, Harari demonstrates that Homo sapiens tend to repeat themselves. As a species, we often fail to consider that we have infinite possibilities for development, and instead become very predictable. Despite all of humanity’s ‘advancements’, Harari’s book ends on a pessimistic note with the chilling question: “Did we decrease the amount of suffering in the world?”

What next? Will we pursue a new path or fall back into old habits? Harari attempts to answer these questions in the second book in this series, Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow. We have so much knowledge at our fingertips, but do not know what to do with it. There is a cosmic number of possibilities for advancement, and history tells us we have the capacity to fulfill them. Harari leaves us with one final question: 

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

Will humans, “the animal[s] that became god[s]”, fall into the same dangerous cycles as our ancestors? Harari proposes that the purpose of studying history is to be ‘liberated’ from the past. But can we move beyond it?