Rarely you read something that alters how you look at the world around you. Yuval Harari’s Sapiens: A Brief History of Humanity was one such book for me. It is not a masterpiece. It relies on the familiar large-fonted, sweeping sensationalism which is now the stock in trade of paper publishing, and a lot of his generalisations are for the birds. But with his direct, clipped prose Harari opens up blinding horizons. Like how Keanu Reeves must have felt after his near-death snog with Carrie Anne Moss gave him the ability to see the Matrix.
Adam’s descendants have faithfully executed God’s instruction to fill and subdue the earth. It was already obvious from the concrete expanses of our towns and cities, intervening deforested landscapes dissected by roads and intense farming. But I hadn’t realised that non-domesticated mammals give humans a wide berth because they have learned to fear us through thousands of generations of repression and abuse.
The hitherto unremarkable Sapiens moved out of East Africa across the earth following a mysterious eureka! moment 70,000 years ago: the ‘cognitive revolution’, which Harari attributes to a new skill for forging fictions which suddenly were powerful enough for humans to form cohesive groups of over 150 individuals. Since then all the great fauna considered rivals to our supremacy have been annihilated, including our closest peers, the various other human species like Neanderthals and Denisovans who, far from being the cliched ‘missing link’, co-existed with Sapiens in the same way as there are several species of each other animal genus today. ‘The earth a hundred millennia ago was walked by at least six different species of man,’ writes Harari. ‘It’s our current exclusivity not that multi-species past that is peculiar – and perhaps incriminating… we Sapiens have good reasons to repress the memory of our siblings.’ The leading theories for the extinction of neanderthals are competitive replacement, pathogens, or plain genocidal violence: the last of these would come of no surprise to anyone who follows the news, or even merely considers the trivial unthinking acts of wilful destruction that go unremarked, like the splatting of insect intruders in our homes. Now we are at last ravaging and devastating the oceans, nature’s last redoubt.
We look for pristine way of life and purity of intent in less civilised inhabited parts of the world, but the fellow sapiens living there are themselves descended from foraging migrants who laid waste to competitor species, like the original human invaders of Australia 45,000 years ago whose depredations wiped out each of the multiple species of large animal inhabitant excepting the kangaroo. Mass extinctions recurred whenever humans first appeared: the latest being New Zealand 800 years ago. Mankind envelopes the earth like the W.G. Sebald vision of sleep’s death sickle laying people down as night falls progressively around the planet. The archaeological pattern is always the same: first diversity and human absence, then a human bone and a spear point, then only men and women. The casualty list is extensive, and includes the elephant birds of Madagascar 1500 years ago, the giant ground sloth of the americas 12000-50,000 years ago, the diprodopon of Australia.
The will to conquer is enduring. I heard once that finance and banking have always consisted in the strong and intelligent finding ever more ingenious ways to rip off the weak. Politics is an exhausting and brutal game of shifting alliances of convenience and doublecrossing. The office, the sports field, the dinner party are all powerplays of one man or woman trying to outwit the other. Why am I writing this blog? Because I want people to pay attention to me, to say nice things about me, to like me, and not someone else.
Those of us who profess to be generous progressives of socialist bent are no different. The Labour Party is currently in existential crisis because it does not know whether it should be trying to wrest back government or instead to indulge in ideological smugness. Each wing is striving for vindication and superiority. They struggle to accept that each of us, as we accrete worldly items, a partner, a house, a car, children, become conservative – we will resist any force which, like Ed Miliband or refugees from Syrian, seems to want to take these away. It is easy to propound the redistribution of wealth when your possessions are not at stake, such a political stance adds a glam ideological accoutrement to an already affluent wardrobe. No one is immune to this self-absorption: one of the most saintly figures of our day, Aun San Suu Kyi, herself appears completely indifferent to the situation of the stateless Rohingya because that is politically expedient thing to do.
We all peddle myths. Elites who in the past who used to talk about the Great Chain of Being and social classes, now preach ‘equality’ and ‘meritocracy’. Back to Harari: ‘Judicial systems are rooted in common legal myths. Two lawyers combine efforts to defend a complete stranger because they both believe in the exisetnce of laws, justice, human rights – and the money paid out in fees. Yet none of these things exists outside the stories that people invent and tell one another. There are no gods in the universe, no nations, no money, no human rights, no laws and no justice outside the common imagination of human beings.’
Our current stock of myths deliver diminishing returns. We now need to formulate a myth which will stave off ecological catastrophe and the Singularity, when the computers take over. Perhaps the former can only be prevented by the latter.
Once when we were in the Alpes after a day’s hiking in high summer among the marmottes and ibex, we saw below in the valley a network of buildings, little coloured vehicles mostly parked, a few moving sliently along the roads. ‘Humans are a plague,’ remarked suddenly my closest companion. I jovially shrugged away this uncharitable observation. And yet, consider the impact of the supreme species of our green- blue globe in an unfeeling, unfathomable universe, and the dark epigram is irrefutable.
A little perspective can be asphyxiating.