Sapiens. The first chapter: The Cognitive Revolution. Fire, gossip, free sex and working less than the modern digital warriors
Two Greeks and a Romanian are to blame for Sapiens. A Brief History of Humankind, the book that I am currently reading and that I will share chapter by chapter.
There are two reasons for doing so: the book is heavy (almost 500 pages) and quite complex, yet written in a fun way, combining biology, history, business, philosophy, psychology and politics into a masterpiece. It will open doors of knowledge and understanding based on scientific research - something that we are desperately looking for in times of fake news, soft news, plastic brains.
My group of Sapiens recommenders could have been formed instead by a Homo neanderthalensis (“Neanderthals”)- having larger brains than Sapiens, a Homo erectus (“Upright Man”) - the most durable human species ever and a Homo floresiensis - with a maximum height of only one meter. But we somehow forgot the memory of our siblings, pretending that it is only us who survived this world.
We, Homo Sapiens are neither the smartest, nor the strongest of all human species.
“a jumbo brain is a jumbo drain on the body”
“walking upright has its downside and women paid extra. An upright gait required narrower hips, constricting the birth canal - and this just happened when babies heads were bigger and bigger”
We had already populated East Africa 150,000 years ago but drove other human species to extinction only about 70,000 years ago. What made Sapiens win the battle across other human species and in particular the Neanderthals, who were smarter and more resilient?
- banana-republic dictator type. Because we have claimed the top position of the food chain kind of yesterday and we are not an underdog of the savannah anymore, we are full of fears and anxieties over our postion, which makes us doubtly cruel and dangerous. Think of whoever gets to the top ladder fast versus one who works for years and generations:)
- master chefs who domesticated the fire and cooked better and more easily assimilating food. The fire gave us power to win territories against other species and against animals
- a revolution in cognitive abilities - accidental genetic mutations changed the inner wiring of the brains of Sapiens, enabling them to think and communicate differently. Yuval calls it The Tree of Knowledge mutation.
- our language evolved as a way of gossiping - hello, I guess you do not expect that a Phd professor, an artist and a CEO would talk over lunch about the universe, Dali and the stock exchange? Sometimes maybe, but more often they will be gossiping about cheating husbands and wives, frictions and generally wrongdoings. Gossip helps us cooperate.
- the appearance of fiction facilitated the foundation of cities comprising tens of thousands of inhabitants and empires rulling hundreds of millions. The maximum “natural” size of a group bonded by gossip is about 150 individuals. Ironically or not, this is also the critical threshold for human organisations. The only way to manage larger groups is by making them believe in common myths that only exist in people’s collective imagination. Storytelling is the new digital trend? Forget about it, this is a habit since Sapiens conquered the world.
- adapting and changing quickly their social behaviour. One-on-one, a Neanderthal would probably have beaten a Sapiens, but in a conflict of hundreds, Neanderthal would not be able to tell stories and therefore cooperate effectively in large numbers, nor to adapt its social behaviour to rapid challenges.
- the freedom of relationships. A good mother was having sex with different men, especially when she was pregnant, so she was sure the baby will get the best mix of genes: from the best storyteller to the strongest hunter and from the best takecarer to the most passionate lover. The collective fatherhood theory is way more flexible than many current mentalities of modern apes.
- a varied diet, a short working week (less than 35 hours per week compared to a minimum of 40 for modern workers) and less infectious diseases make the pre-agricultural societies the “original affluent societies”. Ok, it was not by far the dreamlike landscape of your life, but rather a violent one (in archaeological findings, 4.5% of deaths in the ancient Danube Valley were caused by human violence compared to 5% in the 20th century, the bloodiest of all). But it looks like our ancestors lived a more comfortable and rewarding lifestyle than many of their descendants.
The Cognitive Revolution is about stories and fiction. Just try to imagine how hard it would be to create states, churches and legal systems if we could only speak about things that really exist, such as rivers, trees and lions:) It is also about living in duality ever since we discovered the stories: the objective reality of rivers, trees and lions and the imagined reality of gods, nations and corporations.
So do not worry anymore that you are bi-polar!
P.S: “Hands Cave” in Argentina is one of the most moving relics of the ancient forager world, a message from the hunter-gathers from 9,000 years ago to their grand grand children of today. The handprints from the cave are reaching towards us in a sign of help to keep their memory alive!
P.P.S. The author of the book, Yuval Noah Harari is an Israeli historian, teaching history at the Hebrew Univeristy of Jerusalem. He (yes, he) married his husband in Toronto Canada, 15 years ago, he is a vegan and does not have a smartphone. In 2015, Sapiens was elected by Mark Zuckerberg for his online book club.