Saturday, 11 October 2014

Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind

From a pretty average creature, one species grew to dominate the world. This is their story. Following the history of Homo sapiens through three major revolutions: cognitive, agricultural and scientific.

The most important thing to know about prehistoric humans is that they were insignificant animals with no more impact on their environment than gorillas, fireflies or jellyfish.

It’s hard to grasp how humans went from being just another mammal to what we are today, with a global community so different from any other creature alive. It would seem it’s not so much our opposable thumbs that got us where we are but our ability to make stuff up and believe in made up stuff. I found the concept of imagined realities fascinating; we all believe in money so it doesn’t matter that it’s not an actual real thing. In fact if everyone tried to withdraw their money from banks, we’d be stuffed. We trust in the banks (and regulating bodies) that they will honour our money, so it works.

These imagined realities can be applied to so many things that have made Homo sapiens great, and this makes up quite a large portion of the book. The evolution of economics, empires and religions all keep coming back to the same thing. It also presents the idea that ideologies, such as communism and capitalism are religions without gods. They define an order for humans to live their lives by and require belief in something that is imagined. This all makes much more sense when you read the book!

Successful cultures are those that excel in reproducing their memes, irrespective of the costs and benefits to their human hosts.

One of the main turning points for Homo sapiens was an ability to cooperate with people outside of their immediate family. Our imaginations are crucial for this to work, but as communities grew, these imagined realities were not always beneficial. It seems like the Babylonians have a lot to answer when it comes to giving us sexism. But crucially, Sapiens does go on to dismiss any evolutionary basis for sexism, despites some anthropologists’ attempts. Our long term history also makes you realise how ridiculous modern racism truly is.

Archaic humans paid for their large brains in two ways. Firstly, they spent more time in search of food. Secondly, their muscles atrophied.

For me, the most interesting section was on the Cognitive Revolution and our forager ancestors. Following the small changes in their lives, it becomes easier to see how they moved onto farming. There wasn’t as much on human biological evolution as I was expecting but I did learn the reason human babies are so useless compared with fellow mammals (the kind that are running round minutes after birth).

Some of our footprint on the world is rather saddening. We were creating a trail of extinction from our earliest days of global exploration. I would have very much liked for giant wombats, just one of the mega-fauna that vanished shortly after Homo sapiens arrival in a region, to be alive today. There are also tales of genocide and exploitation, and of species progress being detrimental to the individual. As a species we were thriving, spreading DNA far and wide, but we couldn’t put the cat back in the box to return to simpler lives.

We did not domesticate wheat. It domesticated us.

I found that some points became a little repetitive and some of the more modern history was less interesting to me personally due to its familiarity. The small section on what the future holds felt a bit rushed, as current scientific research is such a huge and interesting area and I’m not sure it was needed. Maybe there’s another book in speculating how we could evolve, but the past was what I picked it up for.

Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind is published by Harvill Secker, an imprint of Penguin Random House, and is available now in hardback and ebook editions. Thanks go to the publisher for providing a copy for review via NetGalley.

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Disclosure: I received a copy of this book free of charge for review purposes only. Receipt of a book does not guarantee a review or endorsement. My reviews are my honest opinion and are not biased for the purpose of personal gain.

2 comments:

  1. Last autumn I did his Brief History of Humankind course on Coursera and it was utterly fascinating, will probably get the book at some point.

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  2. I've definitely got my eye on this one for next time I want a history/natural history fix. It sounds super-interesting and it's always so HANDY when you read it first and tell me that it's good, because then I KNOW TO BUY IT SOMETIME. Thank you fellow Ellie... :)

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