We Went From Hunter-Gatherers To Space Explorers, But Are We Happier?

Feb 7, 2015
Originally published on February 7, 2015 8:29 pm

In his book, Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, scientist Yuval Noah Harari attempts a seemingly impossible task — packing the entirety of human history into 400 pages.

Harari, an Israeli historian, is interested in tackling big-picture questions and puncturing some of our dearly held beliefs about human progress.

"In some areas we've done amazingly well; in other areas we've done amazingly bad," he tells NPR's Arun Rath. "Humans are extremely good in acquiring new power, but they are not very good in translating this power into greater happiness, which is why we are far more powerful than ever before but we don't seem to be much happier."

The book charts humankind's journey from hunter-gatherer origins to a vision of the "superhumans" of the future.


Interview Highlights

On the various species of humanity

Until about 30,000 years ago there were at least five other species of humans on the planet. Homo Sapiens, our ancestors, lived mainly in East Africa, and you had the Neanderthal in Europe, Homo Erectus in part of Asia and so forth.

Just, I think, four or five years ago scientists completed the mapping of the Neanderthal genome and the most amazing discovery was that people of European origins today ... have up to 4 percent of their unique human genes from Neanderthal ancestors, which means there was some interbreeding. And this should make us realize that the gap between us and other animals is not as big as we tend to think.

On the concepts that separate humanity from other species

We control the world basically because we are the only animals that can cooperate flexibly in very large numbers. And if you examine any large-scale human cooperation, you will always find that it is based on some fiction like the nation, like money, like human rights. These are all things that do not exist objectively, but they exist only in the stories that we tell and that we spread around. This is something very unique to us, perhaps the most unique feature of our species.

You can never, for example, convince a chimpanzee to do something for you by promising that, "Look, after you die, you will go to chimpanzee heaven and there you will receive lots and lots of bananas for your good deeds here on earth, so now do what I tell you to do."

But humans do believe such stories and this is the basic reason why we control the world whereas chimpanzees are locked up in zoos and research laboratories.

On the Agricultural Revolution being 'history's biggest fraud'

That's actually a quote from Jared Diamond. It's today, I think, quite common in the scientific community to acknowledge that the Agricultural Revolution was maybe not such a good idea. On the collective level, it's obvious that agriculture made humankind far more powerful. But the individual human being probably had a worse life after the revolution than before.

The average peasant, let's say, he or she had to work much harder and in exchange for all this hard work people actually got a much worse diet. Most of the population got maybe 90 percent of their calories from a single source of food, like wheat in the Middle East or rice in East Asia. On top of that, you had much worse social hierarchies and social exploitation. Very small elites exploit masses of people for their own needs.

On the future of humanity

I try to be a realist and not a pessimist or an optimist. Again, there are certain things that humans have been doing that have been immensely successful. People don't realize it usually, but we are living in the most peaceful era in history. There are of course wars in certain parts of the world; I come from Israel, from the Middle East, so I know it. But there are far fewer wars in most areas in the world than ever before.

Not only in the mere technological field, but also in the field of ethics and morality, humankind can make progress.

Copyright 2015 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

ARUN RATH, HOST:

If you were to look at Homo Sapiens 100,000 years ago, you wouldn't find an awful lot to distinguish our species from other animals. But in the last 30,000 years, a mere blip in the history of the Earth, we transformed this planet in a way never seen before, leaving mass extinctions and climate change in our wake. Israeli historian Yuval Noah Harari tells the story of how we got here in his book "Sapiens: A Brief History Of Humankind." He says early Homo Sapiens weren't just vying for supremacy with other animals. We were also competing with other human species.

YUVAL NOAH HARARI: Until about 30,000 years ago, there were at least five other species of humans on the planet. Homo Sapiens, our ancestors, lived mainly in East Africa, and you had the Neanderthals in Europe, Homo Erectus in parts of Asia and so forth. Just, I think, three or four years ago, scientists have completed the mapping of the Neanderthal genome. And the most amazing discovery was that people of European origins today in the world have up to 4 percent of their unique human genes from Neanderthal ancestors, which means that there was some interbreeding. And this should make us realize that the gap between us and other animals is not as big as we tend to think.

RATH: You know, we like to think that we're special with our really big brains, and humans do have big brains. But you point out, you know, Neanderthals also had big brains. You write that what's really special about Homo Sapiens is this ability to create fictions, to believe in things that don't actually exist. Could you explain why that's useful?

HARARI: We control the world basically because we are the only animals that can cooperate flexibly in very large numbers. And if you examine any large-scale human cooperation, you will always find that it is based on some fiction like the nation, like money, like human rights. These are all things that do not exist objectively, but they exist only in the stories that we tell and that we spread around. This is something very unique to us, perhaps the most unique feature of our species. You can never, for example, convince a chimpanzee to do something for you by promising that - look, after you die, you will go to chimpanzee heaven. And there you will receive lots and lots of bananas for your good deeds here on Earth, so now do what I tell you to do. But humans do believe such stories, and this is the basic reason why we control the world, whereas chimpanzees are locked up in zoos and research laboratories.

RATH: There's a lot of ways in which you take on human history which kind of runs counter to what we learned in schools. One thing we learned was that the Agricultural Revolution was maybe the greatest thing in the history of humanity. You know, we could store food, we could make plans and build civilizations, not like those grubby hunter-gatherers. But you called the Agricultural Revolution history's biggest fraud.

HARARI: Yeah, this is actually a quote from Jared Diamond. And it's today, I think, quite common in the scientific community to acknowledge that the Agricultural Revolution was maybe not such a good idea. On the collective level, it's obvious that agriculture made humankind far more powerful. But the individual human being probably had a worse life after the revolution than before.

The average peasant, let's say, he or she had to work much harder. And in exchange for all this hard work, people actually got a much worse diet. Most of the population got maybe 90 percent of their calories from a single source of food, like wheat in the Middle East or rice in East Asia. On top of that, you had much worse social hierarchies and social exploitation - very small elites exploit masses of people for their own needs.

RATH: In this book, you put a lot of effort into taking kind of an objective view of Homo Sapiens. It's interesting, though, that you end the book with kind of a judgmental tone. If I can read this to you, you say (reading) we have advanced from canoes to galleys to steamships to space shuttles, but nobody knows where we're going. We are more powerful than ever before, but we have very little idea what to do with all that power.

I mean, for a species without direction, we've done pretty well, right?

HARARI: In some areas, we've done amazingly well. In other areas, we've done amazingly bad. Humans are extremely good in acquiring new power. But they are not very good in translating this power into greater happiness, which is why we are far more powerful than ever before, but we don't seem to be much happier.

RATH: Well, you talk about civilization - it's a trap though. We can't go back to the savannas. Are you pessimistic, or do you see a path to humans being happy?

HARARI: I try to be a realist and not pessimistic or optimistic. Again, there are certain things that humans have been doing that have been immensely successful. People don't realize it usually, but we are living in the most peaceful era in history. There are, of course, wars in certain parts of the world. I come from Israel, from the Middle East, so I know it. But there are far fewer wars in most areas in the world than ever before. So not only the mere technological field, but also in the field of ethics and morality, humankind can make progress.

RATH: That's Yuval Noah Harari. His new book is "Sapiens: A Brief History Of Humankind." He joined us from member station KQED in San Francisco. Yuval, very interesting stuff. Thank you.

HARARI: Thank you very much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.