Book Review: Sapiens by Yuval Noah Harari

Harari takes the reader on a thrilling ride through 70,000 years of our species, the Homo Sapiens (wise men).

Starting with the cognitive revolution that kick started the human spirit, through the agricultural revolution that gave us surplus food and spare time for creative pursuits, the unification of mankind through myths and finally the scientific and industrial revolution that gave us the modern facilities and lifestyle.

In the chapters on cognitive revolution, Harari explains what differentiates homo sapiens from other species and how our capacity for social cooperation has made us the rulers of Earth. He argues that with the advent of cognitive revolution , historical narratives should replace biological theories as the primary explanation in what drives human history. We cannot understand why french revolution happened by studying the biology of humans.

In the subsequent chapters, Harari claims that agricultural revolution has made lives of modern humans worse than the life of foragers. He argues that foragers had more free time than a modern person and they valued social interactions and friendships more than us. Also their diet was more nutritional because of non-dependence on a single food like wheat or rice which agricultural revolution produced. I think this argument may not be completely correct as hunting animals for food is not easy and couple it with the long distance travel that foragers undertook frequently in search of food. The constant threat of wild animals forcing them to stay vigilant even during their supposed free time.

The book is a decent read except for some chapters where the author seems to have injected his personal views. Two examples, first is the chapter on ‘There is no justice in history’ where he talks about the dichotomy of sex and gender and gender being a imagined hierarchy rather than a biological reality. There are not enough arguments given to how these conclusions were reached.
His views on religions seems to be quite superficial though he agrees to their unifying power he could not think of them more than imagined myths and labels it as ‘fiction’ throughout the book. He couples ideologies like communism, capitalism,  liberalism etc in the category of religions which I think is quite silly for a serious scholar. In the same chapter Christianity ‘s view on Satan is also misunderstood by the author. Incidentally, this chapter on religion is among the ones with the least references.

If I had to pick a favorite chapter, it would be ‘The scent of money’. In this chapter, Harari shows how money is the only universal system of mutual trust between humans ever devised that breaks all barriers of caste, religion, race and ideology. With money as the medium of exchange, any two strangers can cooperate on any project. This is now evident in the large multi-national corporations spread across the world.

Moving further the book talks about progress and constant change that came about by the scientific revolution and accompanying capitalism. Here, Harari argues that all the modern advancement came about because humans finally accepted their ignorance and realized that they do not know everything. This is also quite a preposterous claim. Humans have known even before the modern scientific revolution that they did not understand everything. The history of modern scientific revolution is better explored in other books and how it is deeply rooted in western philosophy and Christian theology.

The book ends with a chapter exploring the potential changes that our species will undergo in the future, from genetic engineered humans to cyborgs to inorganic life. These will lead to significant ethical questions in coming years and our answers to them will tell whether we have really created a Frankenstein monster in technology, that will destroy our species, or something that will make us even more God-like.

Albert Camus: Some thoughts on the Myth of Sisyphus

sisyphus

I had been planning to read this book for the past one month.I had earlier read one of Camus best works,’The Stranger’. ‘The Stranger’ was about the meaninglessness of life.

Similarly, Myth of Sisyphus is about the absurdity we encounter daily in our lives. According to Albert Camus,  the absurdity is created by the rift between what we expect from life and what it offers. The essay on Absurd reasoning starts by formulating the importance of the book- “There is but one truly serious philosophical problem, and that is suicide”. Yes, having experienced suicidal thoughts myself, I can relate to this problem. It is one of the quintessential problems of life. A day comes in every man’s life when he will ask himself “Why should I live?”. He will look at the pointless drama unfolding in front of him and see all the sufferings, the inevitability of death. As Camus says there is nostalgia in every human, i think what he meant by this nostalgia is a craving for meaning, a craving for coherence and order, a craving for something that will make everything lucid.Even though Camus does not like to be labelled as an existentialist, the problem he is pondering is fundamentally an existential problem.

There are two main points that Camus was trying to express through these collection of essays :-

  • Life is meaningless and there is no point in trying to escape it by taking refuge under the mask of religion or absolute reason.
  • Even though life is meaningless ,it does not imply that you should quit your life. There is a middle way .

Camus illustrates the middle way through the Greek legend of Sisyphus. Sisyphus is condemned by the Gods to push a large rock up a mountain, only to see it roll downwards from the peak. Sisyphus has to repeat this process of pushing the rock up, eternally. Somehow, the Gods considered hopeless and futile labor as the harshest punishment possible. Camus argues that our life is similar to this punishment. Despite this unceasing ordeal, Sisyphus concludes that “All is Well”.

But how does Sisyphus conclude that “All is Well”? Well, Camus says that “Crushing truths perish from being acknowledged”. Camus further adds that, Sisyphus silent joy is in knowing that, even though he has an inevitable and despicable future, he is the master of his fate. In other words saying that, he can make himself happy and conclude that all is well.

Camus ends his essay with the same lyrical eloquence that he maintained throughout , “Each atom of that stone,each mineral flake of that night filled mountain,in itself forms a world. The struggle itself towards the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy.”

So Can we really imagine Sisyphus happy?

I can’t. And, I don’t think anyone can, without taking a leap that Camus objected to from the beginning. By suggesting that our hearts can be filled without meaning, Camus seems to be undermining the nostalgia that he himself found overflowing in his heart. I think it is not wise to let our hearts settle for just the passions of the earth, I think we should go further and take the leap of faith. After all, the nostalgia won’t exist if the passions of the earth were enough to satisfy our desires. As I have experienced in my own life, the leap of faith becomes more rational only after the leap. I think God has placed in every human heart a yearning for him,a yearning for perfect love,truth and beauty and, this is what Camus identifies as the nostalgia. As C.S.Lewis says “Only God can satisfy us completely,there is no happiness outside of him”.

One thing is clear from reading Albert Camus Novels, every man has a desire for meaning and without a leap of faith, life appears absurd, hopeless and meaningless. Camus thinks that hope is a refuge of the coward who wants to run away from the tragedy. I consider hope us an anti-absurd-ant, hope does not ease the sufferings of life, it only provides the illumination of meaning.The leap, similarly provides the holistic meaning ,the leap of truth is not for the faint-hearted, for its a call to greatness, a call to let go of all ego and embrace divine humility. What Camus settles for is the romanticized version of the absurd, he somehow feels that acknowledging the anguish and romanticizing it, will help every man leave happily. I find no merit in it.