All thoughts written below are my own. Any resemblance to any other thought is purely coincidental. Writing this book review has been a part of pursuing my hobby, that gave me joy, with malice towards no-one, no-thing, or no-thought, and is not intended to trigger any heartbreak or a controversial conversation.
“Sapiens”, as the sub-title suggests, traces the history of human evolution, though from a different perspective. It begins its story 13.5 billion years ago, when Physics “appeared”. There seemed to be a lull before the next significant milestone happened about 4.5b years ago, when Earth was formed. Relatively quickly then, about 3.8b years ago, biology commenced, as first organisms were created. Between this and the appearance of first humans in Eastern Africa, about 3.5b years passed. These humans moved into different parts of the world, viz. North Africa, Europe, Asia, Australia … and even Americas. The movement across continents resulted in different evolutionary paths, and there lived about six “human” species, till about 10,000 years ago, when we “Homo Sapiens” were the only ones remaining.
The basic reason for Homo Sapiens winning over other human species (and the animal & plant kingdom, in general) is the development of cognitive abilities about 70,000 years ago. These abilities seemed to have happened due to chance gene mutation, but this paved the way for creation of “human language”, which was perhaps the turning point for human evolution. Development of language led to a clearer & sharper communication among our species. More importantly, it led to gossiping and imagining, which, in turn started creation of societal “myths” (e.g. Lion is the guardian angel of our tribe), which are nothing but “imagined reality” ingrained in the minds of a lot of people. This collective imagination then led to people cooperating to work towards a “common goal”, from spreading of one’s religious beliefs to running a government or a corporation, to spreading beliefs in human rights and social justice. It was this ability to communicate & cooperate in large groups, which was absent in other human species (or any other animal species, for that matter), which led to Homo Sapiens ultimately dominate over other siblings.
The author then moves on to the evolution of eating habits. Homo Sapiens had been hunter-gatherers, and were in the middle of the food chain, gorging on small animals/ birds/ fish/ insects, while being prey to larger ones such as lions. The discovery of fire about 300,000 years ago started altering this equation, and the Sapiens quickly jumped to the top of the food chain. The hunter-gatherers also started “settling” down along the coastal areas and water bodies about 45,000 years ago, where there was a good supply of aqua/marine food. This, and finally the agricultural revolution about 10,000 years ago, completely modified the social structure. The humans now started “owning” things, such as land to cultivate, “permanent” house to live in, and animals species such as cows (dogs were domesticated much earlier). Settling down resulted in alternation of human body structure, with joints now being used to plant saplings instead of hunting; teeth and intestines started shortening since there was less effort required to digest agricultural produce day-after-day. The quest to have a comfortable life did have its side effects, after all.
Another milestone in human evolution is creation of scripts, and represent ideas, thoughts, and numbers through writing. This was a direct result of settling down – people now wanted to keep track of their possessions and deal in financial transactions.
Then came the concept of “kingdoms”, about 5000 years ago, whence some “elitist” thought it to be their “God sent” responsibility to rule the masses. Alongside, the concept of “religion” started building up as well – Hinduism, Buddhism, Christianity, Islam. Over the years, ruling ideologies such as Communism, Capitalism, Nazism, etc. developed. Since these ideologies too are based on the beliefs of a “superhuman order”, these can be considered religions as well! Again, all these ideologies and religions were created to have some (imaginary) goals and purposes, for people to believe in, and (if required) give up lives.
Closer to current times, the next evolutionary milestone was the Scientific Revolution. Until this time, people believed they knew everything that was there to know; there wasn’t a focus on creating a future better than what was present; in fact it was believed that past had always been better than the present! The Scientific Revolution started with the concept of Ignorance – people started believing that there are things that they don’t know; and hence they started trying to find answers to the newer questions.
People (mainly Europeans) undertook voyages which led to the (modern time) discovery of Americas and many island nations in the Pacific. Most of the explorations were business focused, but they also took scientists alongwith; conversely scientifically curious expeditions carried with them business focused people as well. This led to a tremendous growth in scientific discoveries/ inventions in a period of about 500 years (very short duration, compared with the entire existence of Homo Sapiens till then). And the business-explorers started declaring their discovered lands as ‘colonies’ of their respective emperors, thus routing all ‘revenues’ from the colony to their kingdoms, pocketing handsome commissions and profits en route.
These expeditions, however, led to the (near) extinction of the local/ tribal population – human and animal kingdom alike – over a very short period of time, since they were no match to the scientifically and technologically advanced European nations. Slavery was introduced too during this time – businesses wanted to maximize profits with minimum input costs, as well as avoid carrying out risky work (e.g. mining) themselves, hence they started importing labor (mostly) from Africa.
A very important change in mindset was that people started believing that future will be better than the present times. This virtually catapulted the prevalent business models by introducing the concept of credit, investment, and shareholding. On one hand, this fueled the consumption patterns (bicycle -> bike -> car -> SUV -> yacht), and, on the other, it pressed the accelerator further towards scientific & technological research to continually enhance the consumption experiences (2WD -> 4WD). This started creating a vicious & never-ending cycle of having to want more and more with each passing day.
The last few decades have been truly breathtaking in terms of scientific and technological advancements. Scientists are now ‘creating’ new types of organisms by cross pollinating ‘unnatural’ genes (e.g. a rabbit and a jellyfish)! They are very close to re-creating extinct beings (e.g. Mammoth)! They have an ambition to create Neanderthals as well!
We are also working on completely eliminating all natural causes of death! We’re flying! We’ve gone beyond the boundaries of our planet! We’re now creating robots and cyborgs! In other words, we’ve breached the Theory of Evolution which was based on Natural Selection – we’re probably becoming gods ourselves!
Shocking and Awesome. Both at the same time. The last statement above is also very scary, since we Homo Sapiens – this time – would probably end up annihilating ourselves, with so much power.
The book starts slowly, tracing the human evolution gradually. The pace of the book varies, as the author spends more time on some of the milestones, e.g. around 70,000 years back (migration of Homo Sapiens out of Africa), and around 10,000 years ago (Agricultural Revolution). The last 500 years, however, occupy about half of the book (200+ pages) – which, in my opinion, could have been abridged by about 50-75 pages.
The key (still unbelievable) messages – which I took a long time to assimilate – are as follows:
a) I am forced to ponder over some of my own beliefs, e.g. the concept of ‘settling down’ (which is considered ‘common sense’ now, wasn’t common at all until recently), or being a vegetarian (not that I can become a non-vegetarian now)!
b) Religions and Gods – just as Countries, Empires, Constitutions, Ideologies (e.g. Communism, Capitalism, Nazism), Social Justice, Money, and Corporations – are myths ingrained in our collective minds. Myth that there is a “superhuman order” beyond what the mortal eye can see. Why are these myths created? To create a collective “goal” for Homo Sapiens (or any subset thereof) to work towards. Who creates these myths? The ones who first create (and start believing in) the myth of this superhuman order, now (as a follow up corollary) start believing in the difference between “us” vs. “them” – that the superhuman order has entrusted upon “us” (the privileged ones) to take care of “them” (the differently privileged ones).
c) Why should there be a collective goal? To let the Homo Sapiens feel a sense of purpose in life. Why is there a need for a purpose? To feel happy. Why is there a need to feel happy? Blame it on the Cognitive Revolution about 70,000 years ago which mutated the Homo Sapiens’ genes in a way that led them (us) to do creative thinking, devise languages, gossip, do measurements, and collect taxes. This is what makes us believe that our future would be better than our present. This is what led to the discovery of the happiness chemicals such as endorphins and dopamine. This is what we constantly chase, as a dog its tail and a musk-deer its musk. This is what, on one hand, makes us ambitious about living on Mars someday, and on the other, live in the present in a way that is destroying Earth every day.
d) So is there a purpose of life? Scientifically speaking – No. Humans are the outcome of a blind evolutionary process without a purpose. In the grand (cosmic) scheme of things, if Earth were to blow up tomorrow, this “event” won’t even be noticed! But We The People, aren’t content with our present (literally and figuratively), and, in a constant pursuit of “happiness”, keep buying & selling future, forever! This ‘forever’, however, isn’t expected to be a very long duration anyway 😦