During times like these, it’s admittedly hard to keep things in perspective. I bet that few Americans this past week have been contemplating the long march of human history. But I have. I’ve been reading Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind by Yuval Noah Harari, a tenured professor of history at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. In this ambitious book, Harari documents how humans came to dominate Planet Earth. Unlike world histories, Sapiens is not the story of the rise and fall of nations. For that reason, it probably has not attracted the attention of many national security professionals, even though luminaries, such as President Barack Obama and Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates, have praised it.
For the most part, Sapiens doesn’t concern itself with the struggle for power among nations. Instead, it documents how humans have emerged as the dominant species on the planet and hints at how we may be planting the seeds of our destruction. Along the way, there’s an insight or two to be had on world affairs and even some relevance for today’s headlines.
Among the questions that Harari seeks to answer is, why humans engage in violence, why, compared to many species, we can be particularly nasty. Harari’s explanation, in part, is that because humans were far from the most impressive physical specimen on the savannah, we were full of “fears and anxieties” that made us “doubly cruel and dangerous.” Humans overcame these physical drawbacks because of their revolutionary cognitive abilities, which were abetted in part by the fact that cooked food allowed for the extraction of maximum nutrition from plants and animals, thus feeding a larger brain. And so humans evolved to be both cunning and insecure.
Despite this human propensity for violence, Harari makes a strong case that the species has become less violent over the millenia. Examination of Ice Age burial sites reveals that our ancestors often harmed or killed each other. The percentage of deaths resulting from human against human violence today appears to be less than half of what it was 20 to 30 thousand years ago, even taking into account wars, genocide, and terrorism.
Harari also writes optimistically about the recent decline of international war in human society. Many national security realists tend to dismiss this argument, believing that nation-state behavior is bound to return to the mean. But I found at least one of Harari’s arguments convincing. International wars will continue to be rare because wars simply are no longer profitable. Given the importance of profit and greed to human motivation, Harari may have a point.
Speaking of profit and greed, Harari cites capitalism as one of the key drivers of modern human society. The great empires of human history, he argues, harnessed the power of finance. And they used financial resources to fund scientific research and breakthroughs—such as the early steam engine—that made their empires even more powerful. Europe’s dominance of capitalism and modern science is what led directly to its dominion over the early modern world.
Is that conclusion relevant today? I think so. The country that dominates the modern financial system and leads the world in scientific research is likely to matter most this century. Can the U.S. continue in this role? Or will the part fall to China? Or will this discussion become irrelevant if human activity continues to unbalance the planet’s fragile ecology?
Harari ends Sapiens by discussing another possibility: that humans may evolve into a bionic “life form” that will flirt with immortality. In fact, his new book, Homo Deus, discusses how humans could evolve into a new species. Is that far-fetched? I wonder. As I started to write this book review, China announced that its scientists had for the first time injected a fully-formed human with cells genetically edited using CRISPR technology.