The Three Revolutions of Human Evolution

Let’s be careful about what we throw away. Yes, it may be time to discard the Ronettes Beehive hairdo, the orange polyester bellbottom trousers, and the yellow kitchen telephone with its twelve-foot extension cord that coiled around itself like a clinging vine. But some things are worth holding on to—like foraging.

Yuval Noah Harari is a professor of history at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. His book, Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind,is required reading. (Barack Obama included the title among his ten essential books.)

Harari explains that Homo sapiens came on the scene 200,000 years ago. Since then, humankind has evolved through three revolutions:

  1. 70,000 years ago. The cognitive evolution, when sapiens developed language about things that could not be seen. He calls it fictive language. This was a critical advancement for sapiens. Tribes of 150 members or less can make do with physical language—rocks, spears, mammoths. But larger tribes require a mythology to create cohesiveness. That is true for religion, industry, and war machines. You must have language that captures the invisible—faith, profit, and freedom—to rally the troops. 
  1. 12,000 years ago. The agricultural revolution allowed sapiens to settle down in the hill country of south-eastern Turkey and western Iran. They first domesticated wheat, followed by peas, lentils, and grapes. By 3,500 B.C. rice, corn, potatoes, millet, and barley had been added to humankind’s diet. In addition, goats, horses, and camels were tamed, respectively, at 11,000, 6,000 and 5,500 years ago.
  1. 500 years ago. The scientific revolution inspired sapiens to look inward and admit that they were ignorant. Prior to the scientific revolution, no person had circumnavigated the globe. No human had set eyes on 99.99 percent of earth’s organism, that being microorganisms. And no human had the hubris to detonate an atomic bomb. From that date in history—July 16, 1945 at Alamogorda, New Mexico—we sapiens had the capability of ending history.

Harari offers us a universe of ideas to consider. Allow me to explore just one.

We like to think of the agricultural revolution as a fantastic advancement in human history. Harari calls that idea fraudulent. Foragers had it pretty good. They would spend the morning hunting and foragers for food. And then they could sit by the fire (once they figured fire out) and tell stories. Compared to agriculturists, their diets were more diversified and balanced. And they worked less. Growing wheat was no piece of cake (pun intended). It was hard work. First you had to clear and seed the land. They you had to weed and irrigate. Finally, you had to deal with locust, bad weather, and marauding invaders who wanted your land and your harvest.

All of this makes me wonder about our species today. Have the cognitive, agricultural, and scientific revolutions served as well? Has the ability to use abstract terms like righteousness, liberty, and progress advanced or threatened our species? Has a hard-earned diet of wheat, rice, and corn made us better—or just more fearful, more protective, and lot fatter? Has the scientific revolution—with all its technology and fire power—only managed to put us and our planet in harm’s way?

I can’t answer these questions. They are too complex for my pedestrian mind. But I am smart enough to wonder.

To use today’s fictive language, what does it really mean to say that we must make America great again? What is the outcome of returning to a state of ignorance and pretend that global warming does not exist? And what is the apocalyptic danger of even hinting at returning to a nuclear arms buildup?

If these questions are not considered with the most solemn gravity, we could—whether we like it or not—become a species of foragers once again.     

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