Why do homo sapiens rule? Find out in Oxford next week

The author of a book that looks at a brief history of … well, everything … will be speaking at Oxford’s Natural History Museum next week.

Dr Yuval Noah Harari has written Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind – a book that comes with a big premise; that “Homo sapiens rule the world because it is the only animal that can believe in things that exist purely in its own imagination, such as gods, states, money and human rights”.

To celebrate, he is coming to the museum to give a talk that starts at 7pm on Wednesday, September 10.

With this as a starting point, Dr Harari takes the reader on a tour through history. In the book, he looks at the things we take for granted such as money, religion and agriculture, picking over the bones of each concept, turning it inside out and upside down until he reaches the essence of what each word stands for.

Although it has the trappings of a text book (scholarly author, serious subject matter), Sapiens is no Brief History of Time that will sit unread on bookshelves. Sapiens looks at history through science and economics in an unusual way, taking the large scale and small scale of situations and looking at what it must have felt like to be around during those times.

The book is already a bestseller, has been translated into 20 languages to date and was released in the UK on Wednesday, September 4.

“I think people connect to the book because the book connects history with present concerns,” Dr Harari said. “Many people view history as a boring catalogue of dead kings and long-forgotten battles, devoid of any relevance to our lives. But the book explores the connections between past events and our daily lives. It explains how our daily lives are shaped by historical processes.

“For example, today almost everything we do is subject to very precise timetable. This is not something natural, but the result of recent historical processes. Back in the Middle Ages, there were hardly any timetables, either at home or at the workplace. In a medieval shoe-workshop each shoemaker made an entire shoe, from sole to buckle.

“If one shoemaker was late for work, it did not stall the others.

“However, in a modern footwear factory every worker mans a machine that produces just a small part of a shoe, which is then passed on to the next machine. If the worker who operates machine number five has overslept, or takes an unexpected lunch break, it stalls all the other machines. In order to prevent such interruptions, everybody must adhere to a precise timetable.

“Each worker arrives at work at exactly the same time. Everybody takes their lunch break together, whether they are hungry or not. Everybody goes home when a whistle announces that the shift is over – not when they have finished their project.

“The Industrial Revolution turned the timetable and the assembly line into the basis for almost all human activities. Shortly after factories imposed timetables on human behaviour, schools too adopted precise timetables, followed by hospitals, government offices, grocery stores, transport networks and entertainment channels. Thus was created a global system of timetables, synchronized down to the tiniest fractions of a second that controls every aspect of our lives.

“Almost everything we do has to be done on the minute. An alarm clock wakes us up at 7am, we heat our frozen breakfast for exactly 50 seconds on the microwave, brush our teeth for three minutes until the electric toothbrush beeps, catch the 7.40 train to work, leave work at 17.00 sharp, run on the treadmill at the gym until the beeper announces that half an hour is over, sit down in front of the TV at 1.:00 to watch our favourite show, get interrupted at preordained moments by commercials that cost $1,000 per second, and eventually complain about how stressful our lives are to a therapist – who restricts our prattle to the now standard 45-minute therapy hour.”

If our lives are so restricted and stressful where did we go wrong in history? Did we take a wrong turn at some point?

“I don’t think that there are ‘wrong turns’ in history.” he answered. “We are not going anywhere in particular, so we cannot really get lost. However, a lot of decisions humankind took during history resulted in much suffering both for themselves and for other animals and this is very unfortunate. The problem is that humans are quite good in foreseeing the short-terms consequences of their actions, but not the long term.

“A critical example is the Agricultural Revolution. Contrary to what is often thought, the lot of the individual person became far worse due to the adoption of agriculture.

“When humans began cultivating the land, they thought that the extra work this required will pay off. ‘Yes, we will have to work harder. But the harvest will be so bountiful! We won’t have to worry any more about lean years. Our children will never go to sleep hungry.’ It made sense.

“If you worked harder, you would have a better life. That was the plan.

“The first part of the plan went smoothly. People indeed worked harder. But people did not foresee that the number of children would increase, meaning that the extra wheat would have to be shared between more children.

“Neither did the early farmers understand that feeding children with more porridge and less breast milk would weaken their immune system, and that permanent settlements would be hotbeds for infectious diseases.

“They did not foresee that by increasing their dependence on a single source of food, they were actually exposing themselves even more to the depredations of drought. Nor did the farmers foresee that in good years their bulging granaries would tempt thieves and enemies, compelling them to start building walls and doing guard duty.”

Dr Harari, 38, was born in Haifa, Israel and is looking forward to returning to Oxford.

He said: “I did my Ph.D. at Oxford from 1998 to 2002, and the last time I visited was around 2005. So I am keen to see how Oxford changed … and how I have changed.”

He now lectures at the Department of History at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem where he specialises in World, medieval and military history.

For more on the book, Waterstone’s website has published an extract. 

He will be visiting Oxford on Wednesday, September 10 where he will be speaking at the Natural History Museum in Parks Road, OX1 3PW. The talk begins at 7pm and tickets cost £5. For more details, contact Waterstones, Oxford by calling on 01865 790212.