An interesting book – far more readable than the finger-wagging harangue that was A history of the world in seven cheap things. It covers a much broader sweep: Harari’s starting point is ca. 70,000 years ago with the Cognitive Revolution, when our ancestors began to communicate more elaborately and to create ideas and fictions shared by the group: practical knowledge, stories, hopes, religions. By 45,000 years ago homo sapiens had made it to Australia; followed by the disappearance of all megafauna except for kangaroos. By 16,000 homo sapiens was in America; disappearance of megafauna. Coincidence? By 13,000 years ago we were the only homo left standing, and 12,000 years ago we embarked on the Agricultural Revolution.
Harari is very disparaging of that Agricultural Revolution (ca. 9500/8500 BC): we swapped a fairly leisurely life of gathering and hunting in small groups for one of constantly tending seeds and plants and putting yourself at the mercy of poor weather and bad harvests. Harari sees the embrace of agriculture as a fraud; once we fell for it, however, there was no going back. Agriculture enabled populations to grow, and by the time your population has increased by 10% you are on a treadmill of having to grow more food to feed the extra mouths, and you no longer have the option of leaving your hard-earned plot to find a more fruitful corner. There is evidence that foragers were healthier and longer-lived than the early agriculturalists; living permanently in small, growing communities enabled the spread of disease, and the back-breaking work involved in growing and preserving enough food was constant. It took millennia and many famines before it all paid off, but now we can have grapes all year round and don’t have to sharpen a spear before we prepare dinner.
As in “A history of the world . . .”, Christopher Columbus is presented here as the gate-keeper to the modern, capitalist world we inhabit today. Imperialism, economic expansion, credit, voyages of discovery and exploitation, scientific revolution, extinction . . . it’s all here. Both books emphasise the death and suffering caused by human activities – not just to other humans but to all creatures, not least those that we breed for food.
Harari has a detached, irreverent way of describing the world of the past. He expects his readers to have no illusions:
The other-worldly meanings medieval people found in their lives were no more deluded than the modern humanist, nationalist and capitalist meanings modern people find.
and I found him constantly entertaining and thought-provoking. For example, he says that trust in the future was the founding principle of the modern economy, which depends on continuous growth. The opening of the Americas to European trade/plunder combined with the scientific revolution led to a new belief that it was possible to have an ever-expanding economy. New commodities, new markets, new discoveries in manufacturing methods, new tastes and fashions . . . and so here we are today with perpetually growing economies on a finite planet.
Harari ends the book by looking forward to the possibilities that our collective ingenuity offer in the future: biologically engineering humans that become a new form of homo, anyone?