The rise of Homo sapiens

Yuval Harari is the author of Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, which charts the rise of Homo sapiens – and its impact on its fellow species. As Yuval points out, we humans are more powerful now than ever but, Rob Attar asks him, has our progress made us happy?

This article was first published in the October 2014 issue of BBC History Magazine

Cave of Altamira, Cave painting showing Wisents (Bison bonasus).
Early Paleolithic period, mid ñ
Magdalenien, c. 12000 BC.
near Santillana del Mar (Spain, Cantabria).

How did we come to dominate the world?

We often try to answer this on the individual level, believing there is something special about us compared with, say, a chimpanzee. We think that we are so much smarter than the ape but actually, one-on-one, we are not much better. If you placed me on an island to compete with a chimpanzee for survival, I would bet on the chimpanzee.

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The characteristic that makes us special is on the collective level: the unparalleled ability to co-operate flexibly in large numbers. There are other kinds of animals – ants and bees, for example – that also co-operate in large numbers, but they do so in a very rigid way. If a new challenge or opportunity arises, they cannot reinvent their society to better fit these conditions. There are also animals, including chimpanzees, that are flexible – but they co-operate only in small numbers, in groups that know each other intimately.

Sapiens are the only creatures that can combine the two factors. Millions of people who never met before can join together to form a network of commerce or fight a war.

What is it about Sapiens that enables us to use this flexible co-operation?

The key is our imagination. We are the only animals, as far as we know, that can talk about things that exist just in our heads. We use our language not just to convey things about the world – as many species do – but also to create new things. For example, you can never convince a chimpanzee to give you a banana by telling him that, after he dies, he will go to chimpanzee heaven and enjoy lots of bananas as a reward for his good deeds. Only we can believe such fictional stories, and this is why we control the world – because this is the basis for all large-scale human co-operation.

It extends to all kinds of things, including money, the nation and human rights. Billions of people believe in human rights, and it is the basis for our legal system, but in fact human rights exist only in our imagination. If you cut open a human you won’t find any rights, yet still everyone believes this invented story, and it enables us to co-operate even with complete strangers.

The first evidence for the human ability to use imagination and language to create new realities arose 50–70,000 years ago. That’s when the first objects that are clearly art and indications of religion, such as ivory statues of imaginary beings, were created. It was also the time when Sapiens emerged from east Africa, caused the extinction of all other human species (including Neanderthals) and spread around the world, starting to change entire ecological systems.

We often think that our big impact on the world is a phenomenon of the past 200 years, but in fact it began much earlier. Sapiens reached Australia around 50,000 years ago, and within a short time 95 per cent of the large animals there had become extinct. Likewise, a few thousand years after we reached America, 70 to 80 per cent of that continent’s large animals were extinct. Even before the agricultural revolution (which saw a large-scale transition from hunting and gathering to agriculture and settlement around 12,000 years ago), Sapiens had caused the extinction of half of the planet’s large land mammals.

These extinctions weren’t planned. They happened inadvertently, as a result of changes to the ecosystem caused by the use of fire, as well as through hunting. The big advantage Sapiens had when arriving in Australia and America was surprise. We don’t look dangerous. We are not very muscular, don’t have long teeth or nails, and aren’t poisonous. Africa’s big animals had time to learn that this creature, even though it looks harmless, is dangerous because it can co-operate in large numbers. But in America and Australia what occurred is often called a ‘blitzkrieg of extinction’ – because it happened so fast.

In your book you say the agricultural revolution made life worse for most people. So why did it happen?

For the average person, life after the agricultural revolution was certainly worse than before. Diets became monotonous and people had to work harder at tasks for which they were less suited. We’re essentially hunter-gatherers, with bodies and minds adapted to running after rabbits and climbing trees, not carrying buckets, weeding or harvesting.

There are several theories about how this revolution came about despite the fact that it did not improve people’s lives. One of the best is that it was a miscalculation. People accepted that they would work harder, planting and harvesting, but in exchange they hoped for more food and security. What they didn’t take into account was that extra food would not make life easier but would instead spur population growth – so each person did not enjoy more food than before. Furthermore, it led to new social structures, with elites such as kings, priests and armies that monopolised the food sources, leaving the general population with just what they needed to survive.

How important was the agricultural revolution in the evolution of the first major civilisations?

It was an important development, but not the only important one. A city or kingdom needs lots of food in one place, which cannot normally be achieved without agriculture.

But food on its own is not enough to create a major civilisation. Another vital element is a method of storing and processing large amounts of information. Hunter-gatherers and early farmers relied on their brains – fine for small groups, but not for a city or kingdom that needs to handle a vast amount of information about taxes, property ownership and the like. That’s why there were no cities or kingdoms for thousands of years after the agricultural revolution. They appeared only when people learned to store and process information using an external system: writing.

Writing was essential, though not necessarily in the form with which we are familiar. The Inca, for example, used a system of ‘quipus’ – knotted strings – to store information.

You argue that empire is a good form of rule. What led you to that point of view?

Today, empires have a very bad reputation. To describe someone as an imperialist is about the worst thing you can call them. It’s thought that empires don’t work because you can’t control large numbers of conquered people for a long time. People also believe that even if you can keep control, it’s still bad because empires corrupt both the rulers and the ruled.

However, over the past 2,500 years, empires have been probably the most successful political regimes. Most people in the world have lived under empires, many of which survived for hundreds of years. Even when they did collapse, it was usually not because the subjugated people rose in revolt but due to external invasion or infighting among elites. As for this idea that empires are evil, the fact is that most human culture today is an imperial legacy. It’s not just art, philosophy and culture, but even language – we almost all speak, think and dream in the languages of empire, be that English, French, Spanish, Chinese or Arabic.

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A bronze head of the Akkadian king Sargon the Great, c2300 BC. His people built one of the first empires in human history. © Alamy

Empires are successful because they have at heart a universal idea that a single political order – one set of rules – can apply to all people. This is unique to humans. Despite what you might see in films, no lion ever tries to become king of all the world’s lions, nor has there ever been an attempt to unite every bee into a single global community. But Sapiens, beginning with the Akkadians (who established an empire in Mesopotamia in 2300 BC), have embraced this idea of bringing all humans into a single political system.

The scientific revolution was a major step in our advancement. Why did this begin in western Europe?

This is one of the biggest questions of modern history. Why Europe? Before the late Middle Ages, nothing very important happened in this area. Even the Roman empire was based mainly in the eastern Mediterranean, while Gaul, Britain and Germany were like the Wild West. No religions ever came out of western Europe, nor was it ever a particularly important cultural or economic centre.

So it’s strange. There are many theories, but I think we need to be frank and admit that we simply don’t know. It was probably just a coincidence, because you don’t see anything in the previous history or geography of the region that mandated the outbreak of the scientific revolution in western Europe.

It’s often argued that science needs breathing space; it needs a society in which it is okay to question things, to hold different views. Yet there’s never been a less tolerant place than western Europe in the early modern age. It was the time of the Wars of Religion, the Inquisition, witch-hunting, and the expulsion of Jews and Muslims. If science needs pluralism then the revolution should have erupted in the Middle East. In 1600 Baghdad and Istanbul had many religious communities living peacefully side by side – which was impossible in Paris or London.

Some say that Europe’s advantage was in comprising many contending countries rather than being a unified empire like China. So if you had a theory about the cosmos that wasn’t accepted in Spain, you could flee to the Netherlands and publish there. However, at that time there were other regions in the world – the coast of India or south-east Asia, for example – comprising several city-states and kingdoms.

Why didn’t the scientific revolution happen in one of those places?

Any quality claimed as special for western Europe could be found in other regions at the same time or in different eras. It’s not that we don’t have any explanations, but we don’t have one really good theory that explains why it occurred in western Europe, not elsewhere.

You claim we live in the most peaceful time ever. How has that happened?

Obviously, we don’t enjoy complete peace, but it is true that we are more peaceful than ever before. Not only are there fewer international wars but a conceptual change has occurred: the very meaning of peace has altered.

Previously, peace simply meant the absence of war. Now we have what scholars call ‘the new peace’: not just the absence but the implausibility of war. When we say there is peace between France and Germany, we don’t mean “there is no war now, but one might soon erupt”. We mean it is inconceivable that Germany and France will go to war in the next year. In many places, war is unthinkable.

The most important reason for this is nuclear weaponry. It made hegemonic wars between superpowers pointless because it’s not possible to emerge victorious from a nuclear conflict. Once the superpowers realised that, the entire geopolitical system changed to one in which war is not an option.

Another factor was the rise of the capitalist economy, making war less profitable. This is also connected to science. Today, the world’s most advanced economies are based on knowledge. In previous eras, during which most of the wealth was in gold mines, animals and wheat fields, war made sense because you could invade a country to become richer. No longer. If China tried to invade California to conquer Silicon Valley it would gain nothing – because the riches there are in the minds of Google engineers and Facebook executives, which can’t be conquered by force. Now wars break out only in areas where the economies are still old-fashioned – for example, the Gulf War, when Iraq invaded Kuwait for its oilfields.

Has our progress made us happier?

Ultimately, this is the most important question in history. If we can’t answer it then we don’t understand the real meaning of development. If, for example, the rise of Christianity increased human happiness, then our attitude towards it should be different compared to how it should be if it made people miserable.

Based on research in fields such as economics, sociology and psychology, we are probably not much happier than our ancestors. We are undoubtedly more powerful – a thousand times more powerful than we were in the Middle Ages. But are we a thousand times happier? Definitely not.

There is a huge gap between power and happiness. One explanation for this is that happiness does not depend on your objective conditions but on your subjective expectations. Because we expect much more than our ancestors, we can be just as dissatisfied as people were in the Middle Ages.

Take the recent revolution in Egypt. From a historical perspective it seems strange: the Egyptians had never had it so good as they did under Hosni Mubarak. The chances of the average Egyptian dying from hunger, war, plague or childbirth were much smaller than ever before – vastly lower than under the Mamluks or the pharaohs.

You would expect Egyptians to be delighted with Mubarak – but they were very dissatisfied, to the extent of starting a revolution. Why? Because their expectations were different. They saw on TV and the internet how people lived in the west, and they wanted this for themselves. This is why they were dissatisfied even though they, like many people around the world, were enjoying better conditions than in any previous era.

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Dr Yuval Harari is a historian based at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem