Power of Stories

A Review of Yuval Noah Harari’s SAPIENS: A Brief History of Humankind

/ by Jacqueline Raoul Duval

Look at the face and the narrow profile of this young man, barely in his forties. Doesn’t he seem to you, despite his bald head, even younger than he is? It’s difficult not to be captivated by his huge black eyes, and the irony of his smile, no? Until 2011, nobody knew him except his few students. Everything changed in 2014. His book, Sapiens, which he himself translated from Hebrew into English, is so successful that it now exists in about thirty languages. It is considered THE book to read. The revolutionary book that examines the history of humanity, a not-so-brief, few million years. After finishing Sapiens, which I devoured like a detective story, a satire of Voltaire, or even a nostalgic page of Montaigne (the author has an astounding understanding of France, Great Britain, the Great Empires, and the rest of the world), I was not at all proud to have descended, like you, from Homo Sapiens, an ecological serial killer all over the planet! 

This young man, this historian, this visionary is Yuval Noah Harari. He was born on 22 February 1976, in Israel. He holds a doctorate in medieval and military history from Oxford University’s Jesus College. (Marcel Proust has already pointed out the very lively taste of Jewish intellectuals for monasteries, churches, the history of saints and especially that of Jesus).

Since 2005, Harari has taught History of the World at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, the History of the World that none of his colleagues wanted to deal with. It is from this magisterial course that Sapiens was born.

The Internet tells me that Harari married someone named Iztik, in Canada, because civil marriage does not exist in Israel. Iztik gave up being a theater producer to become the very active manager of his spouse. To manage a worldwide bestseller is a full-time job. They live in a moshav, an agricultural cooperative, located between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. Scrupulously vegan, Harari banishes from his one hundred percent-organic diet anything that contains a hint of meat, chicken or fish. As well as all dairy derivatives. With one exception: When he goes to lunch with his mother, he tastes the cakes stuffed with cream and butter that she has made for him. The conditions of life, and of death, the tortures that the food industry inflicts on cows, pigs and chickens outrage him; he denounces them vigorously. As do many others around the world.
Let's open the book.

Sapiens reminds us of the appearance in Africa, between two or three million years ago, of at least five types of hominids very closely related to chimpanzees; their slow biological evolution, shape and weight of the brain, vertical posture and straightening of the spine continued for millennia. Of these human-like groups, Harari talks to us a little about Neanderthals, and continuously about Homo sapiens. You will understand why.

Two million years ago, many of these humans spread from Africa to Eurasia. But it is only around the year 500,000 that Neanderthals move towards Europe and the Middle East. 300,000 years ago, there is an important breakthrough: The daily use of fire. But the crucial, decisive step occurs only seventy thousand years ago: It is the cognitive revolution. That is to say the emergence of a fictional language, the power to invent a thing or a supreme being, a God or a story (the Holy Books are filled with evidence of this phase), which is purely the product of the imagination. Which has no other reality.

It is this cognitive revolution, this fictional language that ends prehistory and inaugurates history.

The Homo Sapiens species would be the only one to possess this faculty. In 45,000 BCE, it spreads out of Africa, and settles in Australia (what a trip!) where it massacred the fauna that lived there, the most gigantic and the most diversified of the globe: Diprotodons weighing two and a half tons, marsupial mammals two meters high, unknown in Africa. Of this prodigious fauna, only fossilized bones and excrement remain. This terrible chapter gives palpitations.

Let's summarize. In the year 30,000, the extension of Neanderthals is completed. Sapiens has established himself in America, and here again he systematically destroys all the megafauna.

In the year 13,000, Homo Sapiens is the only surviving human species.

The whole planet belongs to him.

And the billions of men and women who populate it today are therefore Sapiens, including you and me.

Harari puts forward the idea that Sapiens are the only ones to have survived because they were the only ones whose brain had developed this extraordinary faculty, that of imagining, of creating fiction. It is this creation of myths, stories, and gods, that they told each other and in which the whole group believed, as we firmly believe today, in the myth of the Rights of the Man, or in the Peugeot myth (most irresistibly told, page 40) or in the myth of money, checks, religion and the law. And it is these myths, built in common and accepted by all, transmitted from generation to generation, that would have enabled Sapiens to unite, to form small bands whose hierarchical powers ensured the social order and the survival of the species. Could anyone imagine a more extraordinary praise of culture?
Nourished by myths, these small homogeneous and connected groups have been able to develop and build traps capable of capturing even the largest mammoths. And to survive climate change.

The first hominids lived on gathering and hunting. They enjoyed, for just a few hours of daily work, varied food, abundant leisure, and led a life of travel, discovery and observation. "Forward!" was to be their motto.

Harari speaks of it as the happiest period of humanity, when man and nature lived in symbiosis, in perfect harmony. It's clear that he misses it. On the other hand, he considers the agricultural revolution--the settling down of mankind, the isolation, the continuous, stupefying work of uncertain result, the impoverishment of the land, the destruction of forests, the domestication of animals and plants--an absolute disaster, "the biggest scam in history," he writes.

I leave it to you to discover how the Sapiens, accustomed since millennia to move permanently, in bands of a hundred people, always in search of new horizons, of infinite spaces, of Far West, found themselves trapped in cities populated by millions of inhabitants. How the imaginary orders they created, and the writings they invented, allowed them to organize themselves into Empires, then into networks of mass cooperation, even while they lacked the biological instincts necessary to maintain such networks. 

It's amazing, it's exciting, alive, ironic, personal, colorful, simple, new, obvious.

What future does Harari foresee? The infinite possibilities that will be offered to Homo Sapiens via biology and new technologies, bionic life, the possibility of connecting the brain to the computer, to increase the capacity of our memory, to create supermen, seem to him terribly disturbing. Even if immortality and eternal youth, of which the charming Serpent and feminine candor have robbed us (what a perverse myth!), will soon be returned to us. The search for lost paradise and immortality (what an enchanting myth!) is the essential goal of the Gilgamesh Project. Researchers around the world are working on it, night and day.

And to the myth of returning to the Garden of Eden, we and our grandchildren all believe in it.

Would this book tell us the story of an animal transformed into Homo Deus?? Homo Deus is the title of a second volume even more fascinating than the first, and which is having even greater success!

To be continued!

Translated from the French by Diane Joy Charney

Jacqueline Raoul Duval
born Lily Khayat in Tunisia, was first professor of history and geography. Literary director for years in Paris, she wrote as a ghost-writer for others until the day she decided to write for herself. "Kafka, l’éternel fiancé"(Flammarion) has been translated in eleven countries. Her last one « La nuit de Noces »( L’Age d’Homme) is quite autobiographical.