Is humankind happier?
BREAKTHROUGH - Elfren S. Cruz (The Philippine Star) - June 6, 2019 - 12:00am

His books are on the recommended reading list of  CEOs of Fortune 500 companies and prominent opinion makers like Barack Obama and Bill Gates. This has made Yuval Noah Harari as one of the most influential intellectuals of this decade and probably this century. Harari’s books explore a wide diversity of questions and answers that are constantly being asked by most people. They range from the possibility that the biological and genetic revolutions in technology and income inequality  will result in two classes of humans – the normal and the super mutants – to the questions why are people obsessed with eating sweets and desserts when it leads to obesity and diabetes?

I read Harari’s book chronologically backwards. I first read his latest book 21 Lessons for the 21st Century published in 2018. It was a book about the present and how to make sense of today’s pressing issues. It tried to answer questions like: How do computers and robots change the meaning of being human? How do we deal with the epidemic of fake news? Are nations and religions still relevant? What should we teach our children? Then I read his second book Homo Deus which looked to the future especially the effect of new technologies on the future mankind.

Recently I decided to read his first book, SAPIENS: A Brief History of Humankind which I now realize I should have read first. Bill Gates wrote: “I would recommend this book to anyone interested in fun, engaging  look at early human history...You’ll have  a hard time putting it down.” Barack Obama wrote: “Interesting and provocative...It gives you a sense of perspective on how briefly we’ve been on this earth, how short things like agriculture and science have been around and why it makes sense for us not to take them for granted.”

I think the best way to describe the book is to quote the blurb:

“ One hundred thousand years ago, at least six human species inhabited the earth. Today there is just one. Us. Homo Sapiens. How did our species succeed in the battle for dominance? Why did our foraging ancestors come together to create cities and kingdoms? How did we come to believe in gods, nations, and human rights; to trust money, books and laws; and to be enslaved by bureaucracy, timetables, and consumerism? And what will our world be like in the millennia to come?

In SAPIENS Professor Yuval Noah Harari spans the whole of human history, from the very first humans to walk the earth to the radical-and sometimes devastating- breakthroughs of the cognitive, agricultural and scientific revolutions. Drawing on insights from biology, anthropology, paleontology and economics, and incorporating full-color illustrations throughout the text, Harari explores how the currents of history have shaped our human societies, the animals and plants around us, and even our personalities. Have we become happier as history has unfolded? Can we even free our behaviour from the legacy of our ancestors? And what, if anything, can we do to influence the course of the centuries to come?“

 According to Harari, 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.

The book explores some serious topics like exploring the forces that shape history. For example, most historians believe  history to be “deterministic” which implies that our world and our beliefs are natural and inevitable products of history. It is natural and inevitable that we live in nation states , organize our economy along capitalist principles, and fervently believe in human rights. Harari says: “History cannot be explained  deterministically and it cannot be predicted because it is chaotic. So many forces are at work and their interactions are so complex that extremely small variations in the strength of the forces and the way they interact produce huge differences in outcomes.”

There are also fascinating historical nuggets in the book. Why, for example, do people gorge on high calorie food that is doing little good to their bodies? It’s a puzzle why we binge on the sweetest and greasiest food we can find until we consider the eating habits of our forager forbears. In the savannah and forest high calorie sweets were extremely rare and food in general was in short supply. A typical forager 30,000 years ago had access to only on type of sweet food- ripe fruit. If a Stone Age woman came across a tree groaning with figs, the most sensible thing to do was eat  as many of them as she could before the local baboon band picked the tree bare. Today our DNA still thinks we are in the savannah or forest which makes us eat  entire tubs of ice cream and was it down with bottles of soft drinks. This “gorging gene” theory is highly accepted.

What makes Harari distinct from other historians is that at the end of his book, he asks: Are we happier? Did the wealth accumulated over our history makes humankind happier? Parents declare that their children are their chief source of happiness and yet many people refuse to have children because of the “burden” of raising them. Do we understand the difference between pleasure and happiness? 

His conclusion? A meaningful life can be extremely satisfying even in the midst of hardships, whereas a meaningless life is a terrible ordeal no matter how comfortable it is.

Creative writing classes for kids and teens

Young Writers’ Hangout on June 1, 22, 29 (1:30 pm-3pm; stand-alone sessions) at Fully Booked BGC.  For details and registration,  email writethingsph@gmail.com.

Email: elfrencruz@gmail.com

HAPPINESS HUMANKIND
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