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Of Humans and Humanity - Saurabh Kumar Shahi - The Sunday Indian
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Thursday, July 19, 2018

Of Humans and Humanity


SAURABH KUMAR SHAHI | Issue Dated: August 5, 2016, New Delhi
Tags : Of Humans and Humanity |



Yuval Noah Harari

Penguin Random House

Edition: Paperback

ISBN: 9780099590088

Pages: 510

price: Rs 499

Science books for general readers is probably the most difficult genre that there is. Most writers tend to either sound too academic or too frivolous. The sweet spot that is somewhere in the middle is more likely missed than found. But still, every now and then comes a writer, or more appropriately a book, that takes the world by storm. Perhaps not as big a storm as the Harry Potter series did, but still, on the top of my mind, I can name books like A Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson or Carl Sagan’s Cosmos. Notwithstanding his batshit rants these days, Richard Dawkins was once a great writer as well. But as I said, they are few in numbers.

Therefore, when I picked up Yuval Noah Harari’s Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, I picked it with certain trepidation. But let me say this at the very onset that this was probably the shortest trepidations in the history of all my trepidations. Sapiens gets cracking from the word go. As pompous as the title might sound, Sapiens achieves what he set out for.

Speaking strictly on classification, the book deals more with social anthropology than it does with the physical one; but the amalgamation is such that you hardly notice the transition. The book deals with several theories that are or were in fad. It critically analyses many of them and comes up with some of its own. However, this might be the only book on the subject which is this irreverent in its tone vis-à-vis Homo sapiens. In fact, too irreverent at times for comfort.

The primary basis of Harari’s argument are the three revolutions that have marked the history of the human races. It is these revolutions which have shaped its contours, says the book. “Three important revolutions shaped the course of history: the Cognitive Revolution kick-started history about 70,000 years ago. The Agricultural Revolution sped it up about 12,000 years ago. The Scientific Revolution, which got under way only 500 years ago, may well end history and start something completely different. This book tells the story of how these three revolutions have affected humans and their fellow organisms. There were humans long before there was history. Animals, much like modern humans, first appeared about 2.5 million years ago. But for countless generations, they did not stand out from the myriad other organisms with which they shared their habitats,” writes Harari.

But that is not all. It critically analyses several aspects of human life through fresh perspective. Take for example religion. The modern, scientific, man takes pride in his rejection of religion. And that is only logical. For it is by separating religion from science that the modern revolution started. But lately, and with more than a little help from scientists like Richard Dawkins, new-atheism has turned into a cult too. While its proponents are mostly bigots in disguise, their scientific knowledge gives them the veil of respectability. But Harari tackles the issue with great aplomb. Much to the chagrin of the new atheism crowd, he traces religious ritual to be one of the reasons why humans settled first and formed a community. It became the basis of further developments.

On the other hand, he is almost scathing in attacking the role that Homo sapiens played in the extinction of several species of flora and fauna. He analyses several evidences and reaches the conclusion that whenever in the history Homo sapiens have populated a land, it has seen drastic fall in the number of native species.

“The first human footprint on a sandy Australian beach was immediately washed away by the waves. Yet, when the invaders advanced inland, they left behind a different footprint, one that would never be expunged. As they pushed on, they encountered a strange universe of unknown creatures that included a 200-kilogram, two-metre long kangaroo, and a marsupial lion, as massive as a modern tiger, that was the continent's largest predator. Koalas far too big to be cuddly and cute rustled in the trees and flightless birds twice the size of ostriches sprinted on the plains. Marsupial mammals were almost unknown in Africa and Asia, but in Australia they reigned supreme. Within a few thousand years, virtually all of these giants vanished. Of the twenty-four Australian animal species weighing fifty kilograms or more, twenty-three became extinct. A large number of smaller species also disappeared. Food chains throughout the entire Australian ecosystem were broken and rearranged. It was the most important transformation of the Australian ecosystem for millions of years. Was it all the fault of Homo sapiens,” asks Harari. The book is full with other interesting bits too. Harari titles the Agriculture Revolution as the biggest fraud to be pulled on Homo sapiens. He goes on to prove how humans traded a miserable agrarian life over a much better hunter-gatherer lifestyle just for the sake of an unsure entity called “better future.” The race, as per Harari, has suffered since then. He also opines that while Homo sapiens domesticated every other specie for its benefit, it was wheat that domesticated Homo sapiens for its own survival.

The book is a riveting read. I would have never imagined that one day, a non-fiction on anthropology would read like some page-turner Scandinavian crime fiction. But yet it does. That it manages to do so without sounding frivolous is this book’s and of course Harari’s greatest achievement.

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Issue Dated: Feb 5, 2017