One Hundred Thousand Years Ago…
At least six human species inhabited the Earth
There is just one.
What did you do Sapiens?!
As Harari will enlighten me over the next several mostly excellently written pages, that we humans have a proclivity towards violence… and gossip.
He makes a convincing case that human evolution was driven forward by in no small part by the ability of humans to exceed the critical mass of animals required to form a group or tribe, where everyone knows everyone else and that familiarity builds trust, not because we are smarter in the traditional sense, but because a side effect of our intelligent brains is our ability to spin tales, to tell stories, and share gossip.
He expresses these ideas in very interesting and compelling terms.
Is Santa Claus a story?
How about a nation?
Isn’t a nation a made up concept? A story that we all buy into as its citizens and fight for our rights in it, fight to defend it? Would the US be the US if there were no Americans? If all Americans were moved to a different piece of land, would that land become the United States? If neither is true, then what explains this notion of a nation that is neither the landmass nor its population unless it’s both the land and the population and specifically, a story agreed upon by the people of the land and other people in other lands?
Why do we make up these stories anyway? Think about how we know people. We know our neighbours, our friends, people in our community that we speak to and interact with frequently. Then there are people that we meet once in a while, but aren’t a part of our community. How can humans create a sense of identity beyond community so that we can accomplish far more as a group than individually? Because individually we really aren’t anything special. We can’t stand temperatures too hot or too cold, can’t hear too well, can’t see too well, can’t run too fast, are kind of mid-way up the food chain. Sure we can make tools but so what? That just makes up for a lack of claws or strong teeth. Our strength lies in numbers. We aren’t actually too smart or effective by ourselves, but with a group? With social interaction? We’re better. How about if millions of humans could come together and work towards a cause, like say, climbing to the top of the food chain by fundamentally changing our environment? Hey, if we can’t win at the game, we’re going to change the rules.
And that’s exactly what we did. Together.
Hunter-gatherers were smarter and stronger individually. Each single person knew the lay of the land, how to hunt for food, how to protect their young, but agriculture was clearly the way to go because while each individual human was worse with directions and self-defense, we together got better at building GPS systems and armies.
And while none of these nuggets of information are spectacular or astonishingly new individually, taken together, Harari tells quite an excellent story!
Interestingly, he also mentions something that in all my years of a scientific education, my teachers failed to bring to my attention:
When man started standing erect on two legs so that they could free up their hands to be more useful, no one really explained to me the change that this wrought to women specifically. Isn’t it strange when everyone says that “man did this” implies all humans, including women, did this, but it always seems to focus on the male perspective of human evolution? For instance, if you were to google “evolution of man” or “human evolution”, it would always be a series of images of clearly a male member of our species evolving from crouching to erect with umpteen memes of the said male member crouching back down to hunch over a computer. You try “evolution of women” and besides the lone “Descent of Woman“, most other images of evolution are meant to be provocative. How depressing.
Which is why when Harari talks about how human intelligence was a byproduct of shrinking uteruses, I was shocked. Were these facts that I couldn’t have stitched together or inferred from my scientific education? Of course not. But no one had ever put it so succinctly in paper and ink, and having a mainstream mass consumption science-history book highlighting this is nothing that I’ve ever read before!
What he says is very straightforward. Humans began to stand erect. In order to do that, the abdominal area of humans shrank. For women, this includes the uterus, where women carry babies. So babies now have a smaller womb to grow in and a smaller canal to pop out of. Which means by natural selection, the babies that are likelier to survive are premature babies, at least by the standards of the animal kingdom. And this is common knowledge right? That compared to the rest of the animal kingdom, human babies are born prematurely (in a mere nine months, compared to the 18-22 for elephants!) and that human babies are much much weaker than other mammal babies (foals can walk in as little as 2-4 hours after they are born!). Now these human babies with unformed brains are much more malleable, find it much easier to absorb information and can be moulded to their environment, which is why human babies find it extremely easy to learn languages, can communicate with ease, can learn to use tools, can learn to navigate complex social structures all before they catch up to the independence of their other animal counterparts who are much better-formed when they exit the womb.
And much of the rest of Harari’s book is the same. With these gems of insight, all written in extremely accessible language that is a joy to read.
Why then would I file this book under “Israel” when it is a history of humankind, which is universal? Because with this history book I still found it to have a certain view of the world that isn’t quite American, and certainly isn’t Indian, it’s more towards the middle of the world (geographically).
Israel. Most of what I knew about it, at least peripherally, is the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Peripherally because while in many other parts of the world, it’s a conflict of central importance, particularly in the countries themselves and also in the US, in India, it’s simply another conflict in the world, and in the mind of the previous “Jewel in the Crown of the British Empire”, a phrase typically uttered with a grim sardonic smile in India, another example of the colonial British messing up someone else’s lives.
To me, it’s Harari’s views on India that make his book’s tone decidedly non-universal. And it’s his view of “Muslims” as some monolithic entity (and hence different from “Indians”) that make me think of him as more “Western” and of course, his mention of Asia and Africa in world history make him more “Eastern”. No self-respecting American historian ever mentions Asia except in passing in world history, ha!
“… the Taj Mahal could not have been built without the wealth accumulated by Mughal exploitation of their Indian subjects”
Hmm… Sounds awfully a lot like the British saying, “We didn’t oppress you! The Muslims did it first!” when they decided to divvy up Indian history as “Hindu” and “Muslim”. [Side note: Nope, they were totally not trying to drive a wedge between a diverse, syncretic population. Partition… that just happened, whoops!]
What makes Shah Jahan, who built the Taj, not Indian?
He was born and raised in India and thought of it as his homeland and kingdom.
His mother was the Rajput princess Jagat Gosini from Marwar (Rajasthan), his father was Jahangir, the previous Mughal king (Delhi) both of whom were also born and raised in modern-day India and thought of it as their homeland and respective kingdoms.
Jahangir’s mother was Mariam-uz-Zamani, more popularly known as Jodhabai in modern Indian pop culture, also a Rajput princess. His father was Akbar, the previous Mughal king who ruled from Delhi. Both of his parents (Shah Jahan’s grandparents) were also born and brought up in India and thought of it as their homeland and kingdoms.
Is the only thing that makes Shah Jahan “not Indian” that he is a Muslim? Because that’s laughably bigoted.
But Harari, similar to other non-Indian historians, tends to paint Indians as “Hindus” typically “oppressed” by their “Muslim” rulers, forgetting that even today, India is the second largest Muslim country in the world by population. Besides, just listing the religions practiced in India today wouldn’t do its diversity justice. It’s a conglomeration of people of different faiths, ethnicities, languages and histories, as it was in Shah Jahan’s time. And while the implication that the Mughal rulers (Indian and Muslim) needed to oppress their citizens to build extravagantly beautiful buildings, one might wonder why then “the average Indian peasant enjoyed a relatively higher income and lower taxation than his descendants ever would again” (Indian Summer, Alex von Tunzelmann)
Sapiens is still a fantastic book. It tells a compelling story about human evolution from a couple of million years ago to today. It’s most interesting when it talks about the byline of the book, the six human species and how Sapiens is the only one remaining. It’s significantly more boring and lazier, if the lack of research on the modern Indian state is anything to go by, in the second half.
The reason for my harping on this of course is the doubt that if Harari got this wrong, what else did he get wrong in the rest of the book and how much of it can I believe?
It’s not a problem that’s particular just to Sapiens of course. I’m currently reading Destiny Disrupted: A History of the World Through Islamic Eyes, written by an Afghan-American writer, and it has the same problems with India unfortunately, buying into the simplistic Hindu-Muslim view of the country, or even my eternal favourite web-series Crash Course World History by John Green talking about “Hindu India and Muslim Pakistan”. The country really isn’t defined by just it’s majority religion and worse, it’s not like “The Hindus” are a monolithic set of people anyway! In India, a Tamilian Hindu and a Tamilian Muslim share their culture, language and food far more than a Bengali and a Tamilian Hindu! The same for Bengali Hindus, Muslims, Christians, Jews, everyone. Indian historians never seem to have this same problem thankfully, maybe because they realize that they are writing for an audience of locals who have internalized the diversity of their massive land.
The sequel to Sapiens called Homo Deus has been out for a while now. I may read it.