Yuval Noah Harari - Sapiens

To better know the history and future of our species, I would recommend Sapiens. A Brief History of Humankind. Yuval Noah Harari, tells us in just 400 pages about other species of human beings, including several that have become extinct since we first walked the Earth and about our species today and how artificial intelligence, genetic engineering, and other technologies will change us in the future. Translated into more than 30 languages, the book won the National Library of China's Wenjin Book Award for 2015. Although I disagree with Harari’s claim that humans were better off before we started farming, the deep lines of the story of sapiens are fairly uncontentious and set out with verve. Human beings (members of the genus Homo) have existed for about 2.4m years. Homo sapiens, our own wildly egregious species of great apes, has only existed for 6% of that time – about 150,000 years. The fact remains that the history of sapiens – Harari's name for us – is only a very small part of the history of humankind. He argues that prehistoric sapiens may have committed a massive genocide, leading other homo species such as the Neanderthals into extinction.

He further argues that Homo sapiens can cooperate flexibly in large numbers, because it has a unique ability to believe in things existing purely in its own imagination, such as gods, nations, money and human rights, thanks to a series of revolutions. First, the "cognitive" revolution: about 70,000 years ago, we start to behave in far more ingenious ways than before, for reasons that are still obscure, and we spread rapidly across the planet. About 11,000 years ago we enter on the agricultural revolution, converting in increasing numbers from foraging (hunting and gathering) to farming. The "scientific revolution" begins about 500 years ago. It triggers the industrial revolution, about 250 years ago, which triggers in turn the information revolution, about 50 years ago, which triggers the biotechnological revolution. Harari suspects that the biotechnological revolution signals the end of sapiens: we will be replaced by bioengineered post-humans, "amortal" cyborgs, capable of living forever. Harari embeds many other momentous events, most notably the development of language: we become able to think sharply about abstract matters, cooperate in ever larger numbers, and, perhaps most crucially, gossip. There is the rise of religion, from polytheisms to monotheisms. Then there is the evolution of money and, more importantly, credit. There is, connectedly, the spread of empires and trade as well as the rise of capitalism. Harari describes all these intricate matters approximately, but he is engaging and informative and he has powerful things to say, e.g., about the wickedness of factory farming, concluding with one of his many superlatives: "modern industrial agriculture might well be the greatest crime in history". Harari is probably right also when he writes that "only a criminal buys a house … by handing over a suitcase of banknotes".