Sapiens

Sep 10, 2017

I just finished reading “Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind.” (Amazon. Wikipedia.)

It’s a big claim to be able to survey the whole humankind history, but this book does it well. I read it because several colleagues had done so before and recommended it, and I wasn’t disappointed.

The biggest insight for me was how humankind started to organize itself into smaller groups not around any natural limitations, but around common shared myths. This applies in smaller communities as well as on the global scene. Just think about our societies, and what’s powering them: government. Money. Companies. Religion. National borders. None of these things really exist in the physical, natural world sense. Sure, they have physical expressions, but those are constructed because we believe in the myth, not the other way. These things only exist in our shared imagination because we choose to believe in them collectively. The book argues that this really is the main thing that separates humans from other species. Until humans developed this ability, we were just another species among many. Humans ate foxes, and tigers ate humans, until we rose to the top of the food chain by being able to organize into bigger groups.

The other concept I liked is the duality of progress. Transitioning from hunter-gatherer to agriculture meant that we could feed a bigger population with food from the same territory. For an individual human, though, conditions easily became worse, because the diet was less varied, disease came into settlements, there was a bigger risk of famine and crop destruction. From the perspective of just DNA replication, chickens have been very successful at evolution because there are 50 billion chickens in the world, most in industrial farms. From the life quality perspective, though, how successful is their life? How good is the quality of life of an individual chicken?

Here is my favourite part, arguing very well against some myth that claims we need to go “back” to some “natural” and supposedly better way of life. (It is greatly expanded later in the book, showing that human culture is layers upon layers, and it’s impossible to identify a single “natural” state.)

Culture tends to argue that it forbids only that which is unnatural. But from a biological perspective, nothing is unnatural. Whatever is possible is by definition also natural. A truly unnatural behaviour, one that goes against the laws of nature, simply cannot exist, so it would need no prohibition. No culture has ever bothered to forbid men to photosynthesise, women to run faster than the speed of light, or negatively charged electrons to be attracted to each other.

In truth, our concepts ‘natural’ and ‘unnatural’ are taken not from biology, but from Christian theology. The theological meaning of ‘natural’ is ‘in accordance with the intentions of the God who created nature’. Christian theologians argued that God created the human body, intending each limb and organ to serve a particular purpose. If we use our limbs and organs for the purpose envisioned by God, then it is a natural activity. To use them differently than God intends is unnatural. But evolution has no purpose. Organs have not evolved with a purpose, and the way they are used is in constant flux. There is not a single organ in the human body that only does the job its prototype did when it first appeared hundreds of millions of years ago. Organs evolve to perform a particular function, but once they exist, they can be adapted for other usages as well. Mouths, for example, appeared because the earliest multicellular organisms needed a way to take nutrients into their bodies. We still use our mouths for that purpose, but we also use them to kiss, speak and, if we are Rambo, to pull the pins out of hand grenades. Are any of these uses unnatural simply because our worm-like ancestors 600 million years ago didn’t do those things with their mouths?

Wikipedia cites “Guns, Germs, and Steel” as one of the inspirations for the author, so I intend to also read that one, even if they now are in the “wrong” order.