The Hematologist

November-December 2018, Volume 15, Issue 6

Off the Shelf: Sapiens: A User's Manual for a Confused Species

Parameswaran Hari, MD Professor and Chief, Division of Hematology Oncology
Medical College of Wisconsin, Milwaukee, WI

Published on: October 10, 2018

I have recommended Yuval Noah Hariri’s Sapiens to so many people, it was just a matter of time perhaps before Dr. Michaelis invited me to pen my own “Off the Shelf.” It is a privilege to write about this particular work as I believe every human could benefit from reading it. Mr. Hariri is a historian who has connected multiple disciplines — anthropology, evolutionary biology, history, cultural studies, and philosophy — and woven them into a compelling story of our species, Homo sapiens. Sapiens can be considered either a cultural history of our species or a product manual that explains some of our senseless behaviors (in essence, caveman biology clashing with our rapid cognitive evolution of the last 10,000 years). It is written in tight and elegant prose as Mr. Hariri sieves through massive amounts of data with wry humor to tell a gripping tale replete with delightful analogies and salient and witty examples.

The past 70,000 years transformed us from an insignificant, small primate species eking it out in Africa (with no more environmental significance than a “jellyfish or a firefly”) into the dominant, planet-shaping force that we are now. The four major processes that shaped our destiny including the cognitive, agricultural, and scientific revolutions, and the unification of humanity are discussed in detail.

Mr. Hariri’s take on some of humanity’s major achievements is rather unique. In fact, he questions whether they can actually be characterized as achievements. In a chapter titled “History’s Biggest Fraud,” he tackles the domestication of wheat, provocatively asking whether we domesticated wheat or were domesticated by it. Our species throughout the past few millennia transformed this “insignificant wild grass from the Middle East” to a ubiquitous plant species cultivated globally in an area 10 times the size of Great Britain. Homo sapiens broke rocks, tilled and irrigated fields, and destroyed wheat’s competitors, completely changing their own way of life from the ancient hunter-gatherer style to fit into an agricultural society. It is hard to ignore the argument that wheat might have domesticated us (and not the other way around) — “a Faustian bargain between grains and humans.”

One of the chapters I find most appealing describes the origins of large-scale human cooperation. The “mythical glue” that binds humans in large networks and allows them to cooperate on a broad scale is unique to our species and a product of our cognitive r/evolution. Mr. Hariri expounds upon the imagined realities (i.e., social constructs or cultural myths) by providing numerous intellectually satisfying examples such as the “legend of Peugeot.” These imagined realities that we all subscribe to in one form or the other — our own institutions, alma maters, sports teams, religions, the laws we obey, the idea of country, human rights, and justice — are all entities with no physical existence and exist as figments of our species’ collective imagination. This insight on the nature of many things we hold dear has stuck with me. I find it strangely comforting to think of the “dual reality” of our existence; that is, “the objective reality of trees and rivers and the imagined reality of gods, nations and corporations.” In his typically dry manner, Mr. Hariri writes, “No one was lying when … the UN demanded that the Libyan government respect the human rights of its citizens even though the UN, Libya and human rights are all figments of our fertile imaginations.”

Another chapter that I have returned to many times deals with a comparison of Hammurabi’s Code and the Declaration of Independence — documents purporting to outline universal principles of justice. Mr. Hariri reminds us that outside of our imaginations and the myths we retell, there are no universal and immutable principles of justice. He comes up with a hilarious “biologically correct” version of the famous opening sentence from the Declaration of Independence, although some readers might take offense with his reductionism. One brilliant quote from the book: “History is something that very few people have been doing while everyone else was ploughing fields and carrying water buckets.”

One of the persistent arguments made throughout the book is that what we consider human progress is not necessarily progress since it often comes at a cost to us, to other species, and to the planet. Our cultural evolution in the past few hundred years has come at an astounding pace compared with the slow rate of biological evolution. Some of the consequences of progress are downright dangerous: Examples include obesity derived from a biological drive to store energy that in this era of abundant production can be considered a handicap rather than an evolutionary advantage. In the final chapter and in his two subsequent books, Mr. Hariri imagines how the current advances in artificial intelligence, genetic manipulation, and similar technologies will alter our culture. While many hematologists may not agree with the author’s judgement on these topics, his perspective is valid and the discussion around it invigorating. For example, not everyone will agree on the time point in humans’ cultural evolution where we felt maximally fulfilled or happy. Was it when we lived in small bands of genetically related individuals hunting and gathering? Was mammoth hunting more fun than tilling the soil?

Ultimately, this is a book that creates a framework for introspection from which everyone can benefit. Can we stop wars predicated on disagreements over firmly believed imagined realties? Can we call our own imagined realities into question? Religion, caste hierarchies, partisanship, patriotism, and a whole host of other beliefs are what drive humans to both greatness and evil. Realizing the artificiality of imagined realties can only be a positive step perhaps. As we stand on the threshold of manipulating our own genes and creating artificial intelligence, we must debate Hariri’s question: “Can we trust cavemen to be gods with unlimited power?”

Sir Francis Bacon said that only a few books could be chewed and digested thoroughly. Sapiens is certainly a book I wish all humans would chew, digest, and absorb.

Conflict of Interests

Dr. Hari indicated no relevant conflicts of interest. back to top