I really enjoyed Yuval Noah Harari’s book, Sapiens: A Brief History Of Humankind. That’s not surprising since it combines the most interesting bits from all history with a particular attention to two of my favorite topics: philosophy and the history of consciousness.

I’ve been to natural history museums with a conga line of evolving hominids. I’ve never been able to really care too much about the details of that kind of history, but this book really put a fresh spin on it. It really stressed the concept that we homo sapiens (of the book’s title) weren’t the only humans. Like fictional Vulcans or Hobbits, our Earth was once home to quite a few real species of people who were not sapiens. The fact that they were contemporaries of our species is about as interesting as it was for Star Trek’s writers. Maybe even the basis for ancient myths that ultimately inspired Tolkien.

Of course those other folks don’t get to the end of the story with a particularly happy ending. Neanderthals, we are told, could be fair skinned according to DNA evidence. DNA research also suggests that certain modern people, such as East Asians and Europeans, have maybe 2%-3% of Neanderthal genes. Modern humans also have genes from other hominid species too like the 3% of Denisovan genes in modern aboriginal Australians.

We can follow the story of these animals through paleontological evidence. For a long time they were just apes doing ape things like gorillas do today, but a couple million years ago or so, they started making stone tools. Of course stones can comfortably lie around for millions of years waiting to be found; it’s not unreasonable to assume these creatures were crafting other artifacts now lost to time. After a long time of being the weird animals that made mineral tipped sticks, the hominid species figured out something even more awesome: how to use fire. At first it was probably just scavenging the carnage of natural fires, but of all the earth’s animals, humans (many species of them) learned to produce fire on demand. This was a big deal, not just for us, but for the entire planet.

The book talks about how this technology of fire coincided with the massive dispersion and success of early humans. It also pointed out that it is likely that early humans used controlled fires to burn down forests as a food gathering strategy. The rise in human populations coincides suspiciously with a serious decline in the planet’s terrestrial megafauna. As I read about this I wondered if these people ever wondered if killing so many mammoths could just wipe them all out completely, but I figure probably no more so than someone today who eats a tuna sandwich is worrying about devastating the ocean’s megafauna. Basically throughout history, when humans achieve access to a new realm, all the big animals are pretty much hunted to extinction. Of course sapiens, us, are prime suspects in the ongoing investigation into the extermination of all the other species of humans.

If you could teach your dog to write book reviews, that would be a pretty interesting read. Yet it’s no exaggeration to claim that some mysterious factors caused a species of ground ape to learn to write book reviews. I believe the most interesting question ever asked is, how did this happen?

After killing our hominid cousins and most varieties of the big animals, and burning down a lot of forest, things start to get really interesting. With less shadowy forest, grasses become more competitive. Humans who may have created this grassland are in the right place to learn how to forage in it. By collecting the kernels of these early grains, sapiens start to figure out that these plants can be controlled. They can be induced to grow for the convenience of humans. The selection of these plants can furthermore stop being natural; they start to co-evolve with and for the convenience of humans. Domestication of animals starts about this time too. After getting so good at herding them off cliffs and trapping them in canyons, etc. it was just a small refinement in technology to keep some animals alive. By constantly killing and eating the unruly ones, our ancestors created new strains of animals that were relatively easy for humans to completely control.

The book is peppered with philosophy. The author really is a philosopher who figured that a history PhD was going to pay the bills better. At this point in the story of our species the author hits us with a quirky bold suggestion that is, true or not, delightfully thought provoking. He points out that our transition to agriculture may not have been "progress". I pointed out in my review of Traffic that if you try to alleviate traffic congestion by building more roads, you are likely to just get a lot more cars which will perversely cause even more traffic problems. Harari thinks this kind of thing may have happened with our transition to agriculture. By the time humans perfected taking care of wheat and barley plants they found themselves in a strange situation where they could sustain many more people in a given area, but that each person had to work a lot harder to do so.

And with the ability to support more people, more people appeared. Populations exploded. People were crammed into dense clusters for the first time. Diseases became more dangerous. They now had possessions and big investments in particular parcels of territory. Conflict became more coordinated and serious. Foragers who were defeated by their warring neighbors could run away and forage elsewhere; farmers on the other hand would fight to the bitter end knowing that leaving the farm was a death sentence.

The book casts the transition to agriculture as a kind of trap; it is described as "History’s Biggest Fraud". Nobody masterminded it or made some obvious catastrophic mistake, but as things developed we found ourselves in a position that may not have been "better" in the ways we normally assume. The book figures that we spent more time and toil with early agriculture than we did hunting and foraging. Of course maybe being neurotic weird apex predator apes in our modern milieux is better than being more harmonious with our evolutionary character. It’s hard to say. I think asking the question is cool. Certainly it’s a precedent for other subsequent "advances" that some members of our species view with a bit of chagrin.

After a long time of hazy relatively slow moving anthropological history, civilizations begin to emerge and big changes start happening very quickly on the path towards apes writing book reviews. Harari highlights the fact that we sapiens are quite receptive to coordinated beliefs in imaginary things. Just like your dog thinks you’re the greatest thing in the entire universe, we humans are even more skilled at fervently believing in things that are obviously complete fictions. The book contrasts the Code of Hammurabi (~c.1776 BC) with the Declaration of Independence (1776) and notes that they have some radical differences that were both believed by their contemporaries to be fundamental truths. For example, the Babylonians believed that the required reparations for killing a woman was in the ball park of 30 raisin-sized nuggets of silver, unless she was a slave in which case about 20 would suffice. That fiction was a truth as obvious to those people as the fiction "that all men are created equal… with certain unalienable rights" is to us. The progression of which wacky fictions we’ve been taking as divine truths is as good a proxy of our species' "progress" as anything.

The book covers a lot of territory. There is a nice history of literacy and math and scientific thinking. A nice high level overview of major civilizations rising and falling and the role of empire in catalyzing the whole circus. The importance of religion is noted. There’s a brilliant presentation of the weird collective fiction that is money, the god that brings together Arabs and Jews and everyone else. And credit, the god that buys now and pays later, weirdly providing for no small amount of domination through growth.

In a blink of an eye, we have some Industrial Revolution and human rights and a Space Age and Gilligan’s Island reruns. The book ends wondering what’s next? Given how awesomely interesting the story has been so far, we’re in no danger of boring ourselves anytime soon.