Debate Magazine

Unnatural Histories

By Cris

Were humans happier as Stone Age hunter-gatherers? This is the question asked, but not answered, by historian Yuval Noah Harari in this Guardian piece which previews his book Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind. Weirdly, the book is being described as an “international best-seller” even though it won’t be published until February of 2015. That is quite an accomplishment! Those who don’t want to wait can take Harari’s Coursera class which apparently led to the writing of the book. In the course description, we get a much better sense for Harari’s answer(s) to the initial question:

  • We rule the world because we are the only animal that can believe in things that exist purely in our own imagination, such as gods, states, money and human rights.
  • Humans are ecological serial killers – even with stone-age tools, our ancestors wiped out half the planet’s large terrestrial mammals well before the advent of agriculture.
  • The Agricultural Revolution was history’s biggest fraud – wheat domesticated Sapiens rather than the other way around.
  • Money is the most universal and pluralistic system of mutual trust ever devised. Money is the only thing everyone trusts.
  • Empire is the most successful political system humans have invented, and our present era of anti-imperial sentiment is probably a short-lived aberration.
  • Capitalism is a religion rather than just an economic theory – and it is the most successful religion to date.
  • The treatment of animals in modern agriculture may turn out to be the worst crime in history.
  • We are far more powerful than our ancestors, but we aren’t much happier.
  • Humans will soon disappear. With the help of novel technologies, within a few centuries or even decades, Humans will upgrade themselves into completely different beings, enjoying godlike qualities and abilities. History began when humans invented gods – and will end when humans become gods. 

This doesn’t sound very original, even if it is (as the course description states and book blurb promises) “provocative.” In fact, it sounds like a macro-historical rendering of Daniel Quinn’s novel Ishmael (1992). The description of Lecture 4 (“The Human Flood”) also sounds familiar:

Following the Cognitive Revolution, about 70,000 years ago, Homo sapiens spread all over the planet. While doing this, it drove numerous other species to extinction. In Australia, up to 95% of all large animal species vanished. In America, 84 of 107 large mammal species disappeared. Altogether, about half of the large terrestrial mammals that populated Earth became extinct. How could a few million individuals who possessed no more than Stone Age technology have caused such devastation?

These are questions asked, and persuasively answered, in Tim Flannery’s The Future Eaters: An Ecological History of the Australasian Lands and People (1994). I just finished Flannery’s magisterial tome last week and can say it’s one of the better books I’ve read over the past year. Those interested in this topic should also read The Biggest Estate on Earth: How Aborigines Made Australia (2011) by Bill Gammage. These two books are natural companions and essential background reading for those who wish to understand Aboriginal worldviews.


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