WASHINGTON – About 2 million years ago, a genetic mutation resulted in the human species – social, restless, but consigned to the middle of the food chain, breaking open the bones of carrion for marrow after the lions left. As a species, we were pretty slow starters. For most of the first 2 million years we used the same stone tools, entirely unconscious of the need for iPhone upgrades. Individually, no doubt, we could be the life of the party. Collectively, we migrated across the Earth without leaving much art or history. Several species of humans – Homo erectus, Homo soloensis, Homo neanderthalensis and the rest – lived the relatively healthy, relatively happy hunter-gatherer lifestyle.
Then, perhaps 150,000 years ago, came Homo sapiens. They looked innocent at first, ambling on the East African savannah. But about 70,000 years ago something shifted or snapped in their ample brains. They began a campaign of expansion that resulted in the extermination or absorption of every other human species (1 percent to 4 percent of the DNA of modern Europeans can be traced to our supplanted Neanderthal cousins). About 45,000 years ago, sapiens undertook the colonization of Australia, exterminating most of the large animals (including 450-pound kangaroos) in the process. About 10,000 years ago, they invaded the Western Hemisphere, killing most of the large animals there as well (including woolly mammoths). Sapiens arrived, with blood on their hands, at the top of the food chain.
Then, to cut a long story short, came coinage, empires, monotheism, cathedrals, global capitalism, Newton’s “Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica,” the moon landing and Taylor Swift.
It is one hell of a story. And it has seldom been told better than Yuval Noah Harari has done in “Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind.” The book is maddeningly opinionated and insanely ambitious. It is also compulsively readable and impossibly learned. It is one of the best accounts by a Homo sapiens of the unlikely story of our violent, accomplished species.
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There is no agreed description of what made humankind so suddenly creative and dominant. Some anthropologists talk of a “cognitive revolution” that allowed sapiens to accumulate knowledge so they could make changes in their behavior without waiting for those changes to be encoded in their DNA. A lizard might learn to fly through millions of years of environmental and genetic changes. Homo sapiens can take flight through collected and applied information.
Harari’s account of the cognitive revolution puts particular emphasis on one unique capacity of our species – the ability to tell stories about ourselves. A group of sapiens that exists only because of personal ties – ties of gossip – is limited to about 125 members. It is only “imagined communities” that allow thousands or millions to be part of the same enterprise – a kingdom, an empire, a church or a corporation. “Much of history,” says Harari, “revolves around this question: How does one convince millions of people to believe particular stories about gods, or nations, or limited liability companies? Yet when it succeeds, it gives sapiens immense power, because it enables millions of strangers to cooperate and work toward common goals.”
This “mythic glue,” argues Harari, is (to mix a metaphor) the secret sauce of humanity. Ten thousand chimpanzees in St. Peter’s Square would be utter chaos. Ten thousand sapiens is an outdoor mass. The ability to create unifying myths (used here as powerful, defining stories, not fictions) is our most powerful, distinguishing characteristic as a species.
Harari consigns all those myths to the realm of fiction – not only religions, but the whole enterprise of humanistic, rights-based liberalism. “There are no gods in the universe, no nations, no money, no human rights, no laws, and no justice outside the common imagination of human beings.” With a kind of courageous consistency, he argues that the life sciences reveal sapiens as nothing more than a bundle of neurons, blood and bile. And that, he concedes, destroys the whole basis for ethics, law and democracy.
Harari shrugs where he should shudder. It is not a minor thing to assert that the main evolutionary advantage of sapiens – their capacity to produce meaning – is a cruel and pointless joke. There is at least one other alternative: that the best of our stories are not frauds but hints, and that the whole unlikely story has led sapiens to a justified belief in their own dignity and purpose.
In this case, the myths produced by Homo sapiens would be, not the lies we tell ourselves, but the truths we dimly perceive.
Michael Gerson’s email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.