Humans have never been more powerful, but aren't any happier, author argues
What is the price of human progress? That is the overarching theme of an ambitious new book that attempts to chronicle the entirety of human history in just over 400 pages.
Israeli historian Yuval Noah Harari takes on some of humanity's biggest questions in his book "Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind." Questions like: "How did our species become the dominant one?" "Have we become happier over time?" and "What will our world look like in the millennia to come?"
Drawing on an array of subject areas, including economics, biology and anthropology, Hariri guides the reader through history, as humanity goes through cognitive, agricultural, industrial and scientific revolutions.
Here are three insights gleaned from "Sapiens," which Harari shared with CTV's Canada AM:
1. Freedom may be working against us
Harari said one of the main messages of the book is that while humans have never been more powerful, this does not mean that we are any happier than our ancestors.
"Humans are very good in acquiring power, but they're not very good at translating power into happiness," he said. "We are far more powerful than ever before, but it does not seem that we are more satisfied than our ancestors."
He added that even the freedom we value so highly in contemporary society may be working against us.
"We are freer than ever, but we are also free to leave relationships, to leave families, to leave communities," he said.
"Over the last 200 years, what we saw in the Western world, in the advanced world, is basically the collapse of the family and of the intimate community. So people are more alienated and lonely than ever before."
2. Humans did not domesticate wheat, it was the other way around
Hariri argues it was not humans who domesticated wheat, but rather wheat that tamed humans.
He argues that, for thousands of years, people spent "sunrise to sunset" doing nothing but tending to the needs of wheat crops. In doing so, they elevated it from an "insignificant weed" to one of the most "successful" plants on the planet.
Just look at the Canadian Prairies as an example, Hariri says.
"In Canada, you didn't have a single wheat stalk 10,000 years ago, and today you can walk for thousands of kilometres and just see nothing but wheat all around you," he said.
3. We're hard-wired to be hunter-gatherers
Hariri argues that, when it comes to our emotions and desires, we're still hard-wired to be hunter-gatherers, just like our ancestors.
He gave the example of our ancestors in the African savannah 20,000 years ago. They would stop at a fig tree and eat as much as possible, because they knew that if they returned all the fruit would be taken by an animal or by somebody else, he said.
Fast forward to a more contemporary example, such as when you open your fridge and see a chocolate cake. While the situation is very different from that of our ancient ancestors, "your genes still feel like you're in the savannah," Hariri said.
"Our body still feels like we're in the savannah, so we react to the chocolate cake in the refrigerator in the same way that our great-great-grandmother reacted to the fig tree 20,000 years ago," he said. "It doesn't make sense, but we still react in the same way."
Harari offers lectures covering many of the same topics in his book on his YouTube channel.
In the introductory lesson he promises that the lessons will be "very superficial, and very controversial."
"The course is going to challenge many wide-spread views on history, on humankind, on politics, economics, religion and so forth," he said. "I hope you will take up this challenge and think about the issues raised and discuss them with friends and family members."