Human History in Three Revolutions

Cognitive Revolution


The pace of biological evolution makes paint drying on a wall seem like NASCAR, so not a lot of noteworthy stuff occurs  until we arrive at anatomically modern humans in East Africa 200,000 years ago.

Although slowness still reigns, it picks up a bit 70,000 years ago when the Cognitive Revolution begins. This is one of three major revolutions that Yuval Noah Harari details in his comprehensive book Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind.

“The Cognitive Revolution is accordingly the point when history declared its independence from biology.  (…) From the Cognitive Revolution onwards, historical narratives replace biological theories as our primary means of explaining the development of Homo sapiens. To understand the rise of Christianity or the French Revolution, it is not enough to comprehend the interaction of genes, hormones and organisms. It is necessary to take into account the interaction of ideas, images and fantasies as well.”

Long before Christianity or the French Revolution came, the development of language itself and the radical expansion in our ability to think and communicate came. All of subsequent history is indebted to the gifts imparted by the Cognitive Revolution. 

These gifts followed the forager bands of early humans as they walked across the Afro-Asian landmass over the course of thousands of years. “If a forager band split once every forty years and its splinter group migrated to a new territory a hundred kilometres to the east,” Harari writes, then “the distance from East Africa to China would have been covered in about 10,000 years.”

A blink of an eye.

The genus Homo had a variety of different species during this time. Perhaps most famous is the often inaccurately depicted Neandarthals (“cave-men” in the common imagination). When they and Homo sapiens sapiens (us) met, one of two things happened — an interbreeding or a “replacement”.

Whatever the specifics of the encounter, the significant point is that all other species of the genus Homo besides Homo sapiens sapiens disappeared by the time of the next revolution.

“The last remains of Homo soloensis are dated to about 50,000 years ago. Homo denisova disappeared shortly thereafter. Neandarthals made their exit roughly 30,000 years ago. The last dwarf-like humans vanished from Flores Island about 12,000 years ago. They left behind some bones, stone tools, a few genes in our DNA and a lot of unanswered questions. They also left behind us, Homo sapiens, the last human species.”

Ancient Egypt Agricultural Revolution

Agricultural Revolution

The foraging lifestyle of early Sapiens began moving toward a farming lifestyle “around 9500 – 8500 BC in the hill country of south-eastern Turkey, western Iran, and the Levant.” This picked up so rapidly that “by 3500 BC the main wave of domestication was over.”

I say rapidly because 140,500 years elapsed between anatomically modern humans in East Africa and the start of the Agricultural Revolution in the Levant, so a mere 6,000 years for the “main wave of domestication” to be completed is nothing.

Harari provides a simple reason for understanding why it occurred where it occurred. Basically “most species of plants and animals can’t be domesticated” and those that were suitable for domestication “lived in particular places, and those are the places where agricultural revolutions occurred.”

That seems simple enough, something that the process of domestication itself was not. It was arduous and violent “to turn bulls, horses, donkeys and camels into obedient draught animals,” because “their natural instincts and social ties had to be broken, their aggression and sexuality contained, and their freedom of movement curtailed.”

That’s a tall order that often involved castration and fencing. The humans who engaged in that process and, later on, created the Empires built upon it, suffered physically (farmers were less healthy than foragers) and emotionally (we cast off our “intimate symbiosis with nature”).

DNA Double Helix

From the perspective of human and animal welfare the Agricultural Revolution was an utter catastrophe, but from the perspective of DNA it was a major success.

“The currency of evolution is neither hunger nor pain, but rather copies of DNA helixes. (…) From this perspective, 1,000 copies are always better than a hundred copies. This is the essence of the Agricultural Revolution: the ability to keep more people alive under worse conditions.”

Is it any wonder that “(T)he Agricultural Revolution is one of the most controversial events in history.” Wherever one falls on the spectrum, it’s  incredibly difficult to imagine going back because “(F)arming enabled populations to increase so radically and rapidly that no complex agricultural society could ever again sustain itself if it returned to hunting and gathering.”

The DNA double-helix multiplies many-fold over the next few thousand years, leading to the first known empire in history: The Akkadian Empire of Sargon the Great. Established in 2250 BCE, it “boasted over a million subjects and a standing army of 5,400 soldiers.” The trend continues and a few thousand years later we arrive at the Roman Empire which “at its zenith collected taxes from up to 100 million subjects.” Take a look at China now.

With all these strangers living together, the problem of social ties and cooperation grows. In smaller foraging bands, this was maintained through intimate bonds –hugging, slapping, kissing etc. –but that’s a bit more difficult when there’s a few million of you.

It was solved through what Harari calls “imagined orders.” These built upon the “appearance of fiction” in the Cognitive Revolution and were utilized by post-Agricultural Empires to “provide the needed social links.” Harari outlines three major types of imagined orders:

  1. The Monetary Order (economic)
  2. The Imperial Order (political)
  3. The Religious Order (religion)

“After the Agricultural Revolution, human societies grew ever larger and more complex, while the imagined constructs sustaining the social order also became more elaborate. Myths and fictions accustomed people, nearly from the moment of birth, to think in certain ways, to behave in accordance with certain standards, to want certain things, and to observe certain rules. They thereby created artificial instincts that enabled millions of strangers to cooperate effectively. This network of artificial instincts is called ‘culture’.”

Newton's Principia Mathematica Scientific Revolution

Scientific Revolution

This “network of artificial instincts” grows more elaborate as the years go by, leading to a situation where people could “imagine the entire world and the entire human race as a single unit governed by a single set of laws.”

That single set of laws that dominated many Empires tended to be religious, but that influence began to wane around 500 years ago with the emergence of The Scientific Revolution.

This revolution represents a major departure from old traditions of knowledge which tended to value authority over experience and were largely unconcerned with “progress” (which, though useful, can also be its own trap). Harari identifies three core principles of the Scientific Revolution:

  1. “The willingness to admit ignorance”
  2. “The centrality of observation and mathematics.”
  3. “The acquisition of new powers.”

Clearly a major part of this revolution was the development of science and a new method for gathering knowledge, but, it involved a lot more than that.

“Political and economic institutions provide the resources without which scientific research is almost impossible. In return, scientific research provides new powers that are used, among other things, to obtain new resources, some of which are reinvested in research.”

This triad structure of science-politics-economics radically transformed the world as we know it. It fueled the spread of Empires and the development of Capitalism.

The “imagined order” of Capitalism quickly became “far more than just an economic doctrine” because it became far more than just a model for how the economy should work. It became ethical:

“… a set of teachings about how people should behave, educate their children and even think. Its principle tenet is that economic growth is the supreme good, or at least a proxy for the supreme good, because justice, freedom and even happiness all depend on economic growth.”

While it is true that money has the potential to be an equalizing force because it encourages cooperation among peoples and cultures who might have otherwise fought, it’s also true that the growth imperative inherent in Capitalism has a very dark side.

“When growth becomes a supreme good, unrestricted by any other ethical considerations,” Harari writes, “it can easily lead to catastrophe.”

Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade

One of the most glaring examples of these dark catastrophes was the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade:

“From the sixteenth to the nineteenth centuries, about 10 million African slaves were imported to America. (…) The slave trade was not controlled by any state or government. It was a purely economic enterprise, organised and financed by the free market according to the laws of supply and demand. Private slave-trading companies sold shares on the Amsterdam, London and Paris stock exchanges. Middle-class Europeans looking for a good investment bought these shares. (…) Throughout the eighteenth century the yield on slave-trade investments was about 6 percent a year — they were extremely profitable, as any modern consultant would be quick to admit.”

The slave trade was ended for a variety of reason, one being its social unacceptability among a growing number of people. There was a social revolution against it.

Around the same time that this horrendous practice was phased out in the United States and Britain, the Industrial Revolution was ramping up. This revolution in industry was a direct descendant of the scientific-economic-political triad that had been running for the past few centuries.

When studying this revolution, focus tends to center around advances in technology. Although important no doubt, Harari also emphasizes that “all these upheavals are dwarfed by the most momentous social revolution that ever befell humanity: the collapse of the family and the local community and their replacement by the state and the market.”

It’s a major restructuring of human communities and relationships. One that impacts nearly everyone’s life in the 21st century. Harari outlines two “imagined communities” that work to “fill in the emotional vacuum.”

  1. The Nation: “The nation is the imagined community of the state.”
  2. The Consumer Tribe: “The consumer tribe is the imagined community of the market.”

So the imagined orders that grew out of the “appearance of fiction” during the Cognitive Revolution are re-organizing “the needed social links” in an increasingly global society built upon the contributions of earlier Agricultural Empires.

These imagined orders, like all other ones, are “packed with internal contradictions. Cultures are constantly trying to reconcile these contradictions, and this process fuels change.”

What are some of the internal contradictions of nations and consumer tribes?

What kinds of changes will be fueled by trying to reconcile the contradictions?