Yuval Noah Harari – Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind

Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind by Yuval Noah Harari ...

‘Seventy thousand years ago, Homo sapiens was still an insignificant animal minding its own business in a corner of Africa. In the following millennia it transformed itself into the master of the entire planet and the terror of the ecosystem. Today it stands on the verge of becoming a god, poised to acquire not only eternal youth, but also the divine abilities of creation and destruction.’

The final paragraph of the final chapter offers a fitting summary to Israeli professor Yuval Noah Harari’s magnum opus. ‘Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind’ (2014) traces the human story, from our humble beginnings to our exceptional rise, by identifying a series of key biological, social and technological developments that shaped the world we know today. Harari explains why and how homo sapiens are, illustrating the big picture with pertinent and oft amusing historical anecdotes. In the spirit of Jared Diamond’s ‘Guns, Germs, and Steel’, it provides a scientific perspective on world history.

Sapiens has four parts:

  • One: The Cognitive Revolution –sentience and self-awareness, language, hunter-gatherers and our role in the Pleistocene Extinction.
  • Two: The Agricultural Revolution – farming, hierarchies and the stories which underpin them, writing, prejudice and injustice.
  • Three: The Unification of Humankind – global civilization, money and commerce, empire, religion and ideology.
  • Four: The Scientific Revolution – the Scientific and Industrial Revolutions, capitalism, happiness the state of the modern world and our possible future

Harari’s premise is the impact of ‘shared fictions’: societies’ beliefs and values, the way we view the world, the ideologies we share and the stories and myths which uphold them. A corporation, a nation, a higher power or even money itself, is not real in the tangible sense, yet through shared belief in the system, it holds sway over our daily lives, unifies peoples and upholds social structures. In Harari’s view consumerism and liberal humanism – the dominant ideologies of today –  are just as much ‘religions’ as Buddhism or Islam, for they shape how we view and interact with the world and our fellow man.

Released in 2011 in Hebrew and 2014 in English, Sapiens was immensely successful. It sold over a million copies and catapulted Harari from an insignificant history professor to one of the world’s leading intellectuals. Barack Obama, Bill Gates, Jared Diamond and Mark Zuckerberg are fans. While Sapiens deals with our human past, his newer books Homo Deus (2016) and 21 Lessons for the 21st Century (2018) deal with the future and present, respectively. I have not yet read them.

Despite his heavy-hitting concepts, Harari writes in an eloquent and accessible manner. His prose is thoughtful, punchy and descriptive, his content insightful and often provocative. This book will change how you view the world.

I don’t think I’ve ever had so many ‘aha’ moments in so short a time. It might be the best nonfiction I’ve ever read.

Yuval Noah Harari is a professor of world history at Hebrew University. He lives with his husband on a cooperative farm near Jerusalem and is an ardent vegan. He meditates for two hours every day.

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The Sudan Crisis

Sudanese protesters maintain pressure on military regime ...Since toppling its dictator in April, Sudan stands torn between a nonviolent protest movement and an intransigent military regime. On June 3rd authorities fired on pro-democracy activists in capital Khartoum. Government militias ran rampant, accused of murder, theft and rape. At least 138 have died so far. The UN warns that Sudan risks slipping into a ‘human rights abyss’.

Key Figures:

  • Omar al-Bashir, ‘butcher of Darfur’ and dictator of 30 years, was overthrown by the military on April 11th after months of civilian protest. In 2008 the International Criminal Court convicted him of crimes against humanity for his role in the Darfur Genocide (2003 -).  Imprisoned in Khartoum, he stands trial for embezzlement, war crimes and terrorism.
  • Sudan military chief: We'll hand over power when there's ...Abdel Fattah al-Burhan rules Sudan as commander-in-chief of the armed forces and chairman of the Transitional Military Council. He visited Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the UAE in May, receiving support from their governments.Sudan's military to resume civil talks as barricades ...
  • Mohamed Hamadan ‘Hemeti’ Dangalo is commander of the Rapid Support Forces (RSF) and the junta’s number two. Hemeti earned a brutal reputation as leader of the Janjaweed militias against rebels in Darfur. Allegedly the true power behind the throne.

  • Mohamed Mattar, a martyr of the June 3rd massacre who flew from London to take part.  ‘#blueforsudan’ spread in his honour.

Viral ‘Nubian queen’ rally leader says women key to Sudan ...

  • Aala Saleh, nicknamed ‘Kandaka’ (Nubian queen)became the uprising’s Marianne after a video of her singing went viral.

The people rose in December 2018 after the government tripled the price of bread. Civil war, international sanctions and mismanagement had stifled Sudan’s economy, with inflation reaching 70%.  Led by the Sudanese Professionals Association, thousands of protesters occupied the streets outside the Ministry of Defense in April demanding regime change.

The ten-member ‘Transitional Military Council’ (TMC) replaced al-Bashir. Power now rests with the military, the RSF and the ‘Declaration of Freedom and Change Forces’ (DFCF)– a coalition of trade unions, opposition parties, activists and rebel groups.  A tentative agreement promised elections in three years’ time. Demanding the military cede power to a civilian-led transition government, protesters continued their nonviolent sit-in with numbers swelling.

Survivors of Sudan's Security Crackdown Describe Brutal ...The Khartoum Massacre: On June 3rd RSF gunmen dispersed the protesters with live bullets and pickup trucks.  They killed over 100 and dumped 40 bodies in the Nile, according to Sudanese doctors. At least 70 people were raped by the RSF, who prowled the streets, dismantling barricades, beating and torturing those who resisted and blockading hospitals.  The military put Khartoum in lockdown and arrested DFCF leaders. The African Union promptly suspended Sudan’s membership. 

A health worker commented on the protesters’ camp:

“Everything was destroyed – it’s the same thing when you pass by villages in Darfur where they have shot and killed people and looted property, it’s the same picture.”

Sudan to Deploy Troops in Darfur After Tribal ClashesThe Rapid Support Forces is the new name for the Janjaweed – Arab militias responsible for atrocities in Darfur. Led by Hemeti, the Janjaweed draw from provincial Sudanese nomads, and, though loyal to the government, are notoriously undisciplined and violent. At least 9,000 currently occupy Khartoum.

The DFCF responded with a three-day general strike from the 9th to 11th of June which paralysed Sudan’s economy.  They demand the TMC step down and an independent investigation of the June 3rd Massacre.

Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed is mediating talks with the TMC and the protesters, who have since suspended their strikes.  With the internet cut, defiant activists now stage night rallies spread by text and word of mouth. The government claims to regret the massacre but denies culpability.

Massacre in Sudan: Revolutionaries vow to fight on despite ...

Sources: The Africa Report, Al Jazeera, BBC, Crisis Group, Foreign Policy, Liberation News, Middle East Eye

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Update 3/7/19: Associated Press confirms 128 killed June 3rd.

Update 4/7/19: The military and protest leaders announce a joint government, with the promise of elections. in three years’ time. 

Why Did Europe Take Over the World?

November | 2013 | Abagond | Page 2In 1750, China, India and the Middle East led the world in technology, power and sophistication, as they had for most of history.  In 1775 India and China controlled 66% of the world’s economy. Less than a century later the British ruled India and China accounted for only 5%. By 1900 all the Americas spoke European languages, and Britain, a formerly insignificant island, ruled a quarter of the world. How was that possible?

The crucible of ‘western civilization’, my classics professor once told me, was not the Greek victories over Persia but the Roman conquest of Gaul. Civilization arose in Egypt and Mesopotamia, spread to Greece, and from there Italy. When the Romans conquered the Mediterranean, their contribution was a thin layer over millennia of development. Western Europe, however, was not so civilized – so Roman laws, language, architecture and government provided cultural bedrock. At the cost of thousands of Gallic lives, Caesar’s conquest brought Western Europe into civilization’s fold.

Western Europe adopted the Roman model wholesale with limited contribution from the invading Germanic tribes. From then on Western Europe largely bore one legal and cultural heritage with a single script, all preserved by the Catholic Church and rediscovered in the Renaissance. Islam may have accomplished such unity in the Middle East but, like China and Eastern Europe, the region was beset by invasions from Central Asia. Arab civilization arguably never recovered from the Mongols’ sack of Baghdad.

Jared Diamond attributes Europe’s rise to guns, germs and steel. That is, being in the right place at the right time. Europe had the environment and the resources for state-building and, through ancient trade routes, was connected to other civilizations, their ideas, resources and diseases. More isolated parts of the world lacking the crops, animals or geographic conditions, did not develop so. The Roman script and a common religion helped spread ideas while, unlike imperial China, fragmented political boundaries fostered competition and innovation.

Yuval Harari credits ‘values, myths, judicial apparatus and sociopolitical structures that took centuries to form and mature’ – crucially capitalism and western science. While the ideologies of the Ottomans, Ming China and Mughal India promoted continuity and stability, those of England, France and Spain favoured ambition and greed.

Before 1492, the world’s civilizations were sure they knew the world.  Christianity, Islam, Confucianism or Buddhism provided answers to all the world’s mysteries with little room for the unknown. The Medieval worldview was strict and stagnant. Then, Colombus discovered the New World. A generation later, Amerigo Vespucci suggested the discovery was not Asia, as Colombus believed, but a new continent altogether.

Vespucci’s realisation taught Europeans a valuable lesson; admission of ignorance. For the first time, cartographers now printed maps with blank spaces – an open invitation for the intrepid. While the more advanced empires of India and China dismissed these discoveries and remained convinced they were the respective centres of the universe, states like Spain and Portugal embarked on an Age of Discovery. Hunger for knowledge, as much as land and wealth, drove the explorers of that age.

Capitalism was significant, for economies based on credit, not gold, can multiply wealth. Journeys across the world, colonies and railroads would not have been possible without investment banking, loans, interest and shares. Nor would the transatlantic slave trade.

A feedback loop resulted: science brings better technology, technology brings conquest, conquest brings wealth, wealth invests in science and so on. By extracting wealth from the rest of the world, European empires only increased their power. The more they developed, the more the technology gap, and their hubris, grew.

The factors involved in springing that feedback loop are too variant to attribute to simple determinism – geography, environment, economics,  accident and circumstance all played their part.

Sources: Jared Diamond – Guns, Germs and Steel: The Fate of Human Societies, Yuval Noah Harari – Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind

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The 1769 Transit of Venus

In 1716 Edmund Halley, namesake of comets, figured how to calculate the distance between the earth and sun. Twice every 120 years, Venus passes between the bodies as a black spot gliding across the Sun’s surface. By measuring the transit’s duration at different angles from different points on Earth, one could, in theory, calculate the distance between Earth and Venus, and consequently the sun, through parallax and trigonometry.

Halley did not live to see his work complete. In 1761, when the next transit came, astronomers observed from Russia, Mauritius and South Africa.  The Seven Years War hampered efforts, however. Guillaume le Gentile, for example, failed to observe the transit from Pondicherry, India after the British seized the city and closed their doors.

When the next transit came on June 4th 1769, Europe was at peace. In a far greater effort, the continent’s scientific authorities dispatched astronomers to 76 points across the earth.

Jean Baptiste Chappe d’Auteroche, who had observed the 1761 transit from Siberia, led a French-Spanish team through the Mexican wilderness to Baja California. He succeeded, but 26 of 28, Chappe included, died from dysentery and yellow fever not long after.

Le Gentile chose Manila for the 1769 transit but was again rebuffed, this time by the Spanish, forcing the French astronomer to observe Venus from Pondicherry (now back in French hands) instead. Le Gentile waited in his observatory but come June 4th, poor weather clouded his telescope. It was sunny in Manila.

The British Royal Society sought to observe Venus from Tahiti, an island 20 miles wide in the distant South Pacific. Seasoned explorer James Cook received two missions, his first – to find Tahiti, befriend the locals, build an observatory and record the transit. The second, from the Royal Navy, was contained in a sealed envelope to remain unopened until the first was complete. Astronomers, botanists and anthropologists accompanied him – the expedition was both scientific and colonial.

Scurvy was the bane of 18th-century sailors. On an eight-month journey like Cook’s, it would typically kill half those aboard. Working from a recent hypothesis based on a folk remedy, Cook forced his men to eat oranges and lashed those who didn’t. It worked – citrus proved a cure. Captains have ensured their sailors eat plenty of fruit and vegetables ever since. The ‘scourge of the seas’ was defeated. Later science linked scurvy to vitamin C deficiency – before Cook, sailors ate mainly biscuits and jerky.

Cook’s View of the Transit of VenusDespite the effort, observations of Venus’s 1769 transit were inconclusive. The ‘black drop effect’ marred accurate measurements, an issue not resolved until the 20th century. It did, however, have widespread effects. Cook’s second mission was to explore the Pacific’s rumoured southern continent which Abel Tasman had sighted in 1642. From Tahiti, Cook sailed to and mapped New Zealand, and from there Australia.   Though a boon for geography and the natural sciences, the Cook expedition paved the way for British colonisation of the region, displacement of its inhabitants, and genocide of the Tasmanians.

Sources: Yuval Noah Harari – Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, NASA, Sky and Telescope.

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