There are many short histories of the world and histories of philosophy. Where to start? Some historians just write well without necessarily focussing on particular themes- Geoffrey Blainey is an example.
Ian Morris and Jarod Diamond explore why the West developed before other parts of the world.
Jarod Diamond argues for the primacy of geographical factors. He points to the large number of grains and animals that were native to the Fertile Crescent, the easier spread of these grains and animals due to similar climatic conditions resulting from Europe’s East-West orientation and Europe’s multiple peninsulas which made it easier for smaller kingdoms to hold out against potential conquerors.
Ian Morris agrees with the primacy of geographic factors. He argues that while individuals differ, large groups of humans are much the same the world over. He says that everywhere change is mostly caused by lazy, greedy, frightened people looking for easier, more profitable and safer ways of doing things. It follows that if people are much the same world over, then geographic factors are the most likely explanation for why the West achieved earlier economic development. Morris also takes a peek into our possible futures- cities of 140 million people, the merging of organic and digital intelligence and genetic manipulation. These technologies give rise to the possibility that we will transcend our own biological limitations. This Morris contrasts with the worst case scenario- failure to overcome the threats posed by climate change, famine, state failure and disease.
In his little book ‘Power and Greed’, Phillip Gigantes discusses different historical figures and epochs in an entertaining way. But he never really delves too deeply into the themes after which he has named his book. The book is nevertheless, a good, short read. Similarly ‘This Fleeting World’ by David Christian is a short and easy to read book, focussing on what Christian says are the three basic stages of history- the foraging or hunter gatherer stage (from 250,000 to 10,000 years ago), the agrarian or farming stage (from 10,000 to 250 years ago) and the modern stage (from the year 1750 to present).
In ‘The Better Angels of Our Nature’, Stephen Pinker traces the history of violence throughout history, arguing, somewhat controversially, that human societies have become increasingly less violent.
In ‘The Undivided Past’, David Cannadine focuses on the multiple identities that human beings assume- religion, nation, class, gender, race and civilisation. He argues that each identity has proponents who argue that the particular identity is the dominant force which moves history along. But Cannadine argues that this is wrong- there is no single dominant identity. Rather most people assume multiple identities. He suggests the extent to which our past is often portrayed as involving perpetual war and conflict overlooks large swags of history that are characterised by co-operation- including co-operation between those with different identities.
In his book, ‘A Short History of Progress’, Ronald Wright focuses on environmental issues and identifies how human societies commonly encounter what he refers to as “progress traps”- economic developments that start off with positive consequences for humanity but eventually trap us with negative ones. Wright says history is littered with examples of progress traps where environmental degradation occurs at societal level. His starkest example is Easter Island. Here a community, that once proved itself capable of building and transporting huge ancestor honouring statues, destroyed the forest on which it was dependent, leading to cannibalism and the almost complete extinction of the Island’s inhabitants.
In her book ‘Big History’, Cynthia Stokes Brown summarises history from the big bang to the present. Her book weaves historical knowledge with cutting edge science. It attempts to place human history into the wider context of the universe’s history. It also leads into a focus on environmental issues and the developing crises of global warming, soil erosion, water shortages as well as dangers stemming from radiation. It ends with the conclusion that in some few tens of millions of years, stars will be dying and the lights of the universe will go out with only subatomic particles left in endless night.
But of all these books, Yuval Harari’s international bestseller ‘Sapiens- A brief history of Humankind’ is undoubtedly the most concept laden. This book drips with themes and ideas. And if you cannot be bothered reading it you can access most of his ideas in “mini talks” he has put up on YouTube.
If you only ever read one book on the short history of humankind I would recommend you read Harari’s book, perhaps followed by Cynthia Brown’s ‘Big History’.
Controversy in Harari’s book starts early with his discussion of what happened to the other human beings with whom we once shared the planet. Most other historians refer to the other human descendants of the apes as ‘hominids”. But Harari (accurately) uses the term “human being” to describe this collective group. He uses the term “Homo sapiens” to distinguish our own species from other human beings. He does this to remind us that we are probably responsible for the extinction of other human beings.
Harari discusses the two main theories as to whether Homo sapiens replaced or interbred with the other human beings. He says that the interbreeding theory (which now seems to be at least partially confirmed by 2010 studies which show 1-4 % of human DNA in the Middle East and Europe is Neanderthal) potentially provides material for explosive racial theories.
But Harai asserts that just because there was an occasional successful mating between Homo sapiens and Neanderthals, this does not mean that the replacement theory is completely wrong. It is still possible, even likely, that we basically drove the other species of human beings to extinction. What happened to the Neanderthals? asks Harari. And what if Neanderthals had survived? Would we still imagine ourselves to be special creatures apart from other beings? Would the American Declaration of Independence still have held it “a self evident truth” that all human beings are equal? Would Karl Marx have urged all workers of all species to unite?
These kinds of questions represent the thing that is a bit special about Harari’s book. Harari enjoys constantly linking historical events, even remote ones, to contemporary political and philosophical issues in controversial and very thought provoking ways. He is the proverbial “shit-stirrer”.
Read part 2- Yuval Harari- ‘Sapiens uniquie ability to gossip and believe in things that do not exist’ here.