The Human Experiment
I am mid-way through Sapiens, a monumental work by Yuval Noah Harari about the history of humanity.
I don’t think we’re still saying this, but I am shook.
My little brain is way overwhelmed. Thinking about my great grandparents’ lives blows my mind. Thinking about my ancestors 12,000… 20,000… 100,000 years ago is very difficult to comprehend — our existence and our massive impact through time. It’s easy to forget in the daily dramas of politics and culture and technology that we are part of a long, convoluted evolution from primates to hunter-gatherers to the kaleidoscope of real and virtual identities we inhabit today. And boy have we have left our mark in that time.
Did you know that there used to be giant sloths that weighed over 2 tons, car-sized armadillos and dozens of mega-fauna all over the world? We single-handedly killed them off. And there used to be other human-like species but those went the way of the sloths as well. We developed a form of intelligence that enabled us to cooperate around ideas, and then we began to transform the biodiversity and future of the planet beyond recognition. And it wasn’t just white imperialists, although they (or I should say, we) have done some truly terrible things. Indigenous humans accomplished much of this without guns, factories, and single use plastic.
I am no stranger to the character flaws of human nature. Living in a city, and the Bay Area in particular, I am confronted with income inequality, mental illness, addiction, pollution, and racism on a near daily basis. I teach self-defense classes, and hear about horrific gender-based harassment and violence. I’m under no rosy illusions that we’re perfect or even getting better. But I think I assumed that a lot of our destructive ways were the result of modern capitalism, of industrialization, of the sheer volume of people on Earth.
It appears, however, that a hallmark of our species is manipulating our environments to our short term desires. It’s been an asset to our survival in many ways. A giant sloth probably fed a tribe of our ancestors for months. (The giant sloth extinction really got to me. I love giant animals.) They were too concerned with their immediate needs to recognize when there were too few to sustain reproduction. My judgment is a privilege. Starvation was a real threat in those days. If I had to decide between my family’s survival and that of the sloths, I’m pretty sure I would do the same. But once a species is gone, it’s gone (along with a host of interconnected species who depend on it). We categorize, quantify and measure it now, and its still a monumental task to get us to modify behavior for the benefit of an ecological system.
We can cooperate on a larger, more complex scale than any other species, but this isn’t restricted to creating public parks or planning beautiful cities or legislating civil rights. We also use this skill in industrialized agriculture and institutional racism and justifying ideologies that allow gun violence to continue unfettered. It’s not all good.
I am going to finish the book. I have to hope he’ll take mercy on us, end on a high note and resolve some of my angst. But it’s really disturbed my happy little life plan. I feel liberated and insignificant at the same time.
Thinking about my own life in this larger context sparks an outburst of new points to consider. I’ve been mulling over my own need for connection & cooperation lately. My last 16 months as a single woman have been mostly wonderful, I love my alone time and doing what I want when I want. I’m grateful to live in a time when I could go on this way indefinitely without being ex-communicated or burned at the stake. But I am also wary of unbridled individualism, the idea that I can do it all by myself. My inner experience sometimes makes me feel like I am not part of the continuum of evolution, but then I get lonely and I remember that I’m not a machine. I am very ‘animal’ in the sense that I need connection; I need physical touch and juicy gossip and a sense of being accepted and loved.
I want to do big things with my life. I want to build a legacy that improves people’s lives and makes the world more beautiful. I want to be a master of my creativity and my health. Developing my skills for these objectives requires a lot of time… to contemplate, to execute, to assess and re-calibrate. I’m an introvert and don’t tend to think as well around others. Most men I’ve dated take up more energy than I’m willing to part with. As much as I love them, friends are a lot of work too. How do I meet my need for connection while also accomplishing the goals I need a lot of alone time to achieve? Being an animal with ambition is hard!
This book has made me want to reconsider my goals. What does it mean to be a human? What do I (and we) truly need? Who do I want to be [with]? What do I want to accomplish? And why?
I think those are questions we need to ask ourselves over and over in our lives anyway, it’s part of the process of growing. But it can be helpful (if temporarily paralyzing) to zoom way out and look at humanity as a whole. I had a lot of misconceptions about our evolution with my narrow view of our history. Considering who we’ve been, who we are… who might we become? How can I contribute to creating the best that humanity has to offer? How can I help to leave the world better so future generations have role models and worthy inspiration?
In some ways the book is a comfort. We aren’t wildly worse than our ancestors, our bad behavior as human as our good behavior, and we are capable of amazing things with our cooperative cognitive abilities. But we need to remember we are just a part of the story. We have made ourselves the hero and victor, but we are not actually the protagonist. The universe will go on unfazed if we destroy ourselves through our ever-expanding power and the consequences sure to follow.
There’s so much to enjoy here as a human, the summer peaches and the butterflies when falling in love, the wonder of starry nights and acoustics of an orchestra at Carnegie Hall, the accomplishment of finishing a marathon or expressing an elusive idea through art. We have such privilege in our subjective experience as homo sapiens, may we make the most of it.