The End of the World As We Know It

Srinath Perur
Grist Media
Yuval Noah Harari. Photo credit Richard Stanton

“Humankind will not exist. This is obvious,” says Yuval Noah Harari, attached to the Department of History at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, when asked by email what our species will be like in a thousand years. “The more interesting and difficult question is whether humankind will exist 100 or 200 years from now.”

Harari is the author of the just-released-in-English Sapiens, a 400-page feat of synthesis that attempts to answer, in essence, how we came to be the way we are. Why, given that there were a half-dozen species of humans 1,00,000 years ago, does only one exist today? Why have men dominated women in most societies throughout history? Why do we live in nation-states? How did capitalism become universal? And, inevitably, where do we go from here?

Answers to 'how' and 'why' can be prodded endlessly with the same questions. These questions do not have right answers as much as they do satisfying ones. And Harari's answers are well-argued, compelling and provocative, drawing from diverse areas of human knowledge – among them biology, archaeology, anthropology, literature, economics, philosophy and, of course, history.

Harari attributes most human achievement – the pyramids, space missions, cities, civilizations – to our ability to cooperate on a large scale and in flexible ways. “If you put me and a chimpanzee together on a lone island and we had to struggle for survival, I would place my bets on the chimp,” he says. “However, if you place 1,000 humans and 1,000 chimps on a lone island, the humans will easily win, because 1,000 chimps can never cooperate effectively.” Other animals – bees and ants for instance – have been known to cooperate in large numbers, but only over a range of narrow tasks.

What is so special about us that allows for such cooperation? Unflatteringly, it is our talent for deluding ourselves. “If you examine any large-scale human cooperation, you will always find some imaginary story at its base,” says Harari. “As long as many people believe in the same stories about gods, nations, money or human rights – they follow the same laws and rules.” To Harari, Hamurabi's Code (1776 BCE) is as imaginary as the American Declaration of Independence (1776 CE). Liberal individualism is no more 'right' in any absolute sense than is Nazism. They are both similar in that they are variants of humanism, one upholding the well-being of every individual and the other that of a well-defined collective. According to Harari, humans owe their power in large measure to the stories we create. And then we take the stories too seriously and end up serving these imagined orders.

All this is in service of Harari's preoccupation: the relation between power and happiness through history. Harari has no doubt that the power humans wield over the world has increased many fold through history: for tens of thousands of years humans have dominated every corner of the planet they have reached, bending nature to their will, hunting large animals until they are extinct; the splendors of civilization, such as they are, are all around us. But: “Humans are not very good at utilizing power to overcome suffering and to increase happiness.”

Harari's argument is that the factors that allow our species to dominate may not be in the best interest of individual human beings. For instance, a key event in the history of humankind is the Agricultural Revolution around 12,000 years ago. Small bands of foragers began to cultivate crops. They settled down to peasant life, and formed villages, towns, cities, kingdoms. Civilization in the form we know it today followed from this and is usually seen as a great leap forward. But Harari calls the advent of agriculture “history's biggest fraud”. He brings up evidence to show that hunter-gatherers worked less than peasants, had better nutrition from a larger variety of food sources, lived in better hygiene and were less vulnerable to epidemics. Further, anthropological evidence shows that forager bands were likely more egalitarian. “Agriculture opened the way for social stratification, exploitation and, possibly, patriarchy,” says Harari. “The bottom line is that even though the Indus Valley Civilization or the Mughal Empire were far more powerful than the ancient hunter-gatherer bands, the average peasant woman in Mughal India probably had a harder and less satisfying life than her ancient ancestor who lived in the Ganges Valley 20,000 years previously.”

This sort of startling, sometimes showy, inversion of commonly held ideas about human history is a recurring feature of Sapiens. “Wheat domesticated humans,” not the other way round. In evolutionary terms domesticated animals such and cattle and chickens were enormously successful by virtue of their populations, but they were among “the most miserable animals that ever lived”. There is talk of the working life of a ploughing ox suiting “neither its body nor its social and emotional needs,” and a similar comment on the farmer driving it. There is much detached, defamiliarized viewing of our world: a comment on the power of stories compares the survival of the chimpanzee alpha male with that of the Catholic alpha male who resides in the Vatican; at different points in the book Christianity, democracy, capitalism, money, human rights and any number of cherished ideas and institutions are called out as being fictions; discussing gender, Harari points out that it is only in most cases that men are males and women females.

The Hebrew version of Sapiens has been a bestseller in Israel since its release in 2011. There's little doubt that the book is set to be hugely popular in English and other languages, and, at least for that reason, influential. Given this, it would be in the spirit of books such as Sapiens to ask where Harari is coming from – what is the story behind this story of humankind.

Harari says he was always interested in the big questions of history but was disappointed to find that university didn't seem the right place to answer them. Then he encountered Jared Diamond's book Guns, Germs and Steel. “It showed me,” he says, “that it is possible to tackle the biggest questions of history and of human existence in a scientific way.”

The facts of Harari's arguments come from scholarly work and are available to anyone. But it is the sensibility behind their synthesis that gives Sapiens its power and uniqueness: an empathetic consideration of humans and other animals; a view of history that considers not just kings, presidents and empires, but also well-being and suffering among people (and even animals); the ability to examine deeply entrenched ideas in a fresh light; a delightfully non-anthropocentric worldview; an interest in telling what is real from what is imaginary.

Anyone who's taken even a passing interest in Eastern spiritual traditions can see parallels here. Harari agrees. “One of the central ideas of Hinduism, Jainism and Buddhism is 'the world is an illusion'. This strikes many people as an absurd proposition but is in fact a very accurate description of the world most humans inhabit. We live in a world of nations, gods, business corporations, human rights and money, without noticing that all these things are in fact just imaginary stories that exist only in our own minds.” Harari practices Vipassana meditation daily and visits India once a year for a retreat. The practice helps him tell “what is really real” from the mind's fictions. He says, “Without the clarity I gained from practising this meditation I would not have been able to write this book.”

Here then is a thought experiment for Harari: what if his book ended up being so successful that a significant number of people in the world questioned their belief in all these imaginary stories. Nationalism would be diluted; religion would cease to be a matter of life and death; no one would be terrified of god or hell; laws and money would be acknowledged as mere conventions. Would such a world be a utopia of the John Lennon sort or would we see chaos and societal collapse?

Harari feels at least some conventional beliefs can be abandoned without descending into chaos. “For centuries,” he says, “many thinkers warned that if people stop believing in god and hell, the result will be unbridled chaos, crime and violence.” But then, he says, look at contemporary Europe, which has largely abandoned belief in god and hell. “It is the most peaceful and orderly place in human history. Far more peaceful and orderly than the god-fearing and hell-fearing Middle East.”

Harari points out that some conventions, like money, are useful for societies to function. “We should retain our more useful fictions,” he says, “but at the same time be able to separate fiction from reality, and see reality very clearly. For most of history, people have been so obsessed with fictions such as nations, gods and money, that they lost touch with reality.” Harari offers a thumb-rule for distinguishing a real entity from an imaginary one: can it suffer? “A nation cannot suffer,” he says, “even if it loses a war. A bank cannot suffer, even if it crashes. Humans, however, can suffer. Animals can suffer. Their suffering is real. I hope that we can retain the most useful fictions of humanity, but at the same time be in touch with reality, and thereby know how to make use of our power not to inflate some fictional entity like a nation, but in order to reduce real suffering in the world.”

That may not be forthcoming any time soon. And there may be no point in worrying about human suffering a few generations from now because it may not even be a thing – it's a chilling thought that our descendants are likely to be so different from us that we lack any basis for even beginning to talk about their internal lives.

Sapiens, by Yuval Noah Harari

For almost two million years humans lived more-or-less like other animals. Then, around 70,000 years ago, they had what Harari calls a cognitive revolution, an explosion of ingenuity and linguistic ability that allowed them to cooperate in unprecedented ways and populate most of the planet. The agricultural revolution around 12,000 years ago led to the creation of settlements and social structures as we now know them. The scientific revolution, around 500 years ago, brought about the heady collusion of capital, science and empire, and before we could realize it, brought us to the precipice at which we now stand. We will likely fly away from there.

According to Harari, humankind as we know it has at most a few hundred years left. Not because it will go extinct, but because in all likelihood we will upgrade ourselves using technology to a point where we are no longer recognizable as human. Perhaps we would be “an eternally young cyborg who does not breed and has no sexuality, who can share thoughts directly with other beings, whose abilities to focus and remember are a thousand times greater than our own, and who is never angry or sad, but has emotions and desires that we cannot begin to imagine.” We would have converted ourselves into a class of beings that is impossible to relate to from our present vantage. Effectively, we would have turned into gods.

This is not as far-fetched as it might sound. We already have ear implants, pacemakers, artificial hips and knees, and likely in a matter of decades, artificial organs. Sapiens has a photograph of two people with brain-controlled prosthetic arms shaking hands. Even as the book appeared on shelves there came news reports of a demonstration that claimed thoughts were recorded from the electrical activity in a subject's brain and transmitted through the internet to another person, all the way from Thiruvananthapuram to Strasbourg. The words communicated were 'hola' and, perhaps appropriately, 'ciao'.

Srinath Perur writes on a variety of subjects, often to do with science and travel. He is the author of If It's Monday It Must Be Madurai, a book about travelling with groups.