This post is the next part of the review i am doing for you guys on Sapiens by Yuval Noah Harari. Check out part 1 here.
So, how did humans develop this ability to think, to communicate, to strategize? How did we manage to force out all other species of humans, even though they were physically superior? It’s all to do with our ability to think in fictional terms…
The Cognitive Revolution
It is widely believed that our ability to communicate is due a genetic mutation, that our close relatives never actually benefitted from. Our brains were altered by chance, but that isn’t the important thing (although it was vital). The important thing is to realise its consequences. Our ability to talk amongst each other allowed us to gossip. This theory is known as the gossip theory Yes, we even liked to gossip back then! We could talk about others behind their backs, we could gossip about relationships, we could speculate. And this is what forged the beginning of our unique language. All other species could not work together in any other way than in a rigid manner. Bees talk to each other, but their work is very purpose driven, they can’t gossip. Monkey’s and wolves have better skills, but nowhere the degree of our ability. So, as we got better at talking, so did our ability to fantasize.
As we began to think in fiction, we started to imagine communities. Working together in large numbers seemed possible. If we could tell stories, we could get more people on side. We could get fellow humans to work with us on things that were essentially non-existent. Think about it, before we could do this, how would it have been possible to get a large band of people together to build something? Of course, it would have been easy to get them to work together to cut down a tree, or kill a lion, but to build something from nothing? To make it possible, we have to imagine it first. We have to think about something that doesn’t exist. And we did. We got better at telling effective stories, that others believed. And as more and more Homo sapiens did, we started to do incredible things. We forged bands, groups of very large numbers. We were building ‘mini companies’. All of this, stemming from fictitious stories.
To further understand this, Harari uses Peugeot ( the car company) as an example. Peaugot is nothing more than a belief. It doesn’t actually exist. Imagine if tomorrow, all Peugeot factories were destroyed, and all cars just vanished. Peaugot would still actually be a company and soon enough factories would again start to be built and cars manufactured. This is all because of the belief. You could also turn the batton, and imagine a judge called a mandate on the company, that is, work is no longer allowed to continue. All work would stop, factories would be ghost towns, Peugeot (the belief) would vanish. But the judge hasn’t actually done anything physical, he has just said a few words, and the company has disappeared. What we call these companies are legal entities.
“Telling effective stories is not easy. The difficulty lies not in telling the story, but in convincing everyone else to believe it. Much of history revolves around this question: how does one convince millions of people to believe particular stories about gods, or nations, or limited liability companies? Yet when it succeeds, it gives Sapiens immense power, because it enables millions of strangers to cooperate and work towards common goals. Just try to imagine how difficult it would have been to create states, or churches, or legal systems if we could speak only about things that really exist, such as rivers, trees and lions.”
The catholic church has existed for centuries, not because of a special gene, but because of stories that have been passed on between generations. It has kept the religion going.
Our cognitive powers are what enabled us to venture out and explore the world. It allowed us to travel between islands, to jump on boats that sail out into the unknown. We did this on the basis of belief – not of actual proof anything was out there. Sapiens literally now had the power to take out all other species, and take over the world…
It is widely known by most people today , that the world used to inhabit many other amazing species that simply only exist today as fossils. Giant deer’s, mammoths, and more recently the white tiger, are just a few examples. But its actually us, humans, who have driven out all these amazing animals. When we arrived in Australia for the first time, we came across a strange universe of unknown creatures that included a 200-kilogram, two-metre kangaroo, and a marsupial lion, as massive as a modern tiger, that was the continent’s largest predator. Koalas far too big to be cuddly and cute rustled in the trees and flightless birds twice the size of ostriches sprinted on the plains. Dragon-like lizards and snakes five metres long slithered through the undergrowth. The giant Diprotodon, a two-and-a-half-ton wombat, roamed the forests.
And what did we do, we took over, drove them out, and thrived. We didn’t do this because we wanted to, we did it for survival. But there is no doubt, that Homo Sapiens are the deadliest of all species in history.
The Agricultural Revolution
After the cognitive revolution, comes what we know as agriculture. We now harnessed the powers of fire, and we could think and communicate easily. The discovery of crops and vegetation was another turning point in history.It only took one band, one tribe of humans to start harvesting veg and growing crops, then the whole human race would catch on. It was irresistable, and the reason is as clear as day:
Upto this point, Homo sapiens were required to hunt and forage for food. Sometimes they would go days without a proper meal. Hunting and foraging expended a lot of energy, and when energy is scarce, we didn’t really want to do much else than play, eat and sleep. There is just no point; it doesn’t make sense to the brain. However, once we figured out how to grow and control the growth of crops, hunting was no longer required to survive. Food was as close as the back yard. We started growing potatoes, wheat and rice, which are all very energy-dense food. Energy dense does not exactly mean nutrient dense, as we will read below. Now, as food was now easily accessible and in a surplus, we started to put our attention elsewhere. We now had more energy than we needed.
We started to build houses, cultivate land and more importantly, start farms. As farms got more and more popular, so did fighting and civil war. This civil war and fighting is one of the reasons we have religion as it is today. Fighting broke out over territory and food supply. So in response to the fighting, communities were formed against other bands. Each band formed its own belief i.e. Chirstianity, Hinduism and many others. There were many other ‘religions’ with the numbers being in the hundreds, thousands even. The reason we do not have so many today is because some caught on, some didn’t. The ones that were popular, spread very quickly to other bands, other countries, other continents. The others just simply died off.
Take a minute to just imagine in your head the above paragraphs all those years ago, doing this makes it very clear and easy to understand.
Now, the agricultural revolution also had one other very important part in today’s world. As mentioned above, energy dense food became the staple diet. This huge surplus of energy did two things. Number one has been covered above – We built houses and farms. The other thing it did was essentially make us fat. The body is a smart machine. The millions of years before agriculture, food was scarce, so when we did get a meal, the body would store it. It would store it to keep us warm, reserve energy and essentially allow us to survive in times of starvation.
Another important thing to know is also the way our brain reacts to high-carbohydrate foods. Imagine this, you are a hunter-gatherer back all those years ago. You havent had food for 2 days and on your travels, you stumble across a fig tree. The tree is covered in figs, so what do you do? Well, inevitably, you eat as much as you possibly can. You do not know when your next meal will be, you may never see a fig tree again, you don’t want anybody else to eat it, should you try to save it. So you devour the whole lot (or as much as you can manage). All of these carbs will get stored by the body. It’s a natural reaction, first by the brain (to encourage you to eat), secondly by the body (to store calories).
The body will continue to store energy, as much as it can, at every given opportunity. We see today, that half the population of the globe is overweight, because of too much food.
Too much food is where bad health really started. If you were ill before the agricultural revolution, it was generally an injury from hunting or fighting, or an illness such as malaria. Our ancestors very rarely, if EVER suffered from disease of the heart or anything similar. You would be left behind by your band if your were causing too much hassle. You would usually die. This is survival of the fittest in its purest form. Scroll forward to agriculture and ill people are no longer left behind. Hunting is no longer needed, so we can look after our illnesses, or our loved ones then they are sick. Sick people and weaker humans can still reproduce, hence they created weaker humans. The comprimised immune systems got passed down the generations and there is no better evidence of this than a brief look at health news today.
So where did CV disease, cancer and diabetes come from? To put it simple: Before agriculture, we were eating meat, fish ,some plants and other vegetables. We rarely touched crops such as wheat, rice and potatoes. So when we started consuming these energy rich, nutrtionally-poor foods, our digestive system was not ready. This was the beginning of bloating, IBS and poor digestion. We are not designed to digest such foods (if you can call them foods). Because they are energy supplying, we continued to eat them at an astonishing rate. However, our nutritional status got worse and worse. People got fatter, weaker and dumber. This got passed on over many years, because it was so easy for us to reproduce.
To quote the author: “This is the essence of the Agricultural Revolution: the ability to keep more people alive under worse conditions.”
So that’s a wrap for part 2 of my deconstruction of Sapiens. I have discussed how we evolved our cognitive abilities to become what they are and how we then used that to create the agricultural age that was so pivotal. In the 3rd and final part, i will finalize my deep deconstruction of this fantastic book. I will go into how we invented ‘money’, how gold became so expensive (along with all the other expensive raw materials of the world), how we unified and humans, how science became what it is and how we reached the state we are at now. Oh, and the future ahead…
Look out for the 3rd part guys, thanks for reading!
Pick up the book here: