I finally finished the thrilling “Sapiens: A History of Humanity”, a book bursting with strange facts and thought-provoking ideas. Among these: can we measure happiness? If not, how can we measure the success of civilisation? Are we happier than our forebears?
The author, Yuval Harari, answers that we may (or may not) be happier since we abandoned life as hunter gatherers, but when animals are taken into account since the advent of the agricultural revolution, the sum of unhappiness on our planet is greater than ever before. Does that make it a failure?
Elsewhere, he ponders immortality, positing a belief in our finite existence as cultural and religious rather than biological. Scientists have shown our body is made up of thousands of systems which could potentially fail, causing death. But one by one, we have made huge progress in finding these “fixes”. What really is standing in the way of us, one day, soon, finding the final solutions to all of them?
Harari argues powerfully that “progress” – a belief in the ability to make life better – is a concept not shared by all cultures, but one which now powers the modern world (generally for the better).
And along the way he throws in some tantalising historical factoids and perspectives; one is that our Earth was once home to hundreds of “worlds” – human communities who believed themselves alone and unique on the planet, whereas over thousands of years we have inexorably become linked together into one giant Earth-sized “world”.
He wonders what would have happened had Manichaeism, an extinct religion which once flourished from China to North Africa, beaten Christianity to become the new favourite of Rome two thousands years ago. How would this have influenced human thought and morality?
And he relays the fact that aluminium, now used to wrap sandwiches, was once one of the most expensive substances on Earth and that at one infamous banquet Napoleon and his guests of honor ate with aluminium utensils while the second-rank guests were forced to make do with forks and knives of pure gold.
A lot to learn, and a lot to think about.