In his book “Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind”, author Yuval N. Harari describes two very distinct revolutions in the history of Homo sapiens. Without either of these revolutions, it’s unlikely that humans would’ve ended up where we are now. The Cognitive Revolution effectively began with the birth of an upright ape, one capable of both complex communication and imaginative thought (Harari, 2015, p. 20-25) . There were multiple species of humans living around the same time as Homo sapiens, and while they were certainly intelligent enough to wield tools, evidence suggests that they could not think in abstraction the same way that modern humans can. Higher cognition allows us to express ideas that aren’t physically tangible, such as mathematics or stories. We can be specific with what we want to communicate, which helps considerably with decision making and teamwork. The second leap in human progress was that of the Agricultural Revolution, an event which occurred around 10,000 years ago. With the foundation of higher reasoning already in place, humans slowly figured out that we could raise plants and animals alongside us instead of having to actively search for our next meal. Having eliminated the need to hunt and gather, many people began living in static settlements, which grew in density and population as time went on. Villages developed into towns, towns developed into cities, cities developed into kingdoms and empires. Eventually, those kingdoms and empires became the countries we know today (p. 77-79).
Our capacity for imagination, according to Harari, allows an immense population of human beings to cooperate with one another (2015, p. 102-103). Under a single religion, a leader can convince his people to go to war or build a shrine in the name of their deity (p. 113). There is strength in sheer numbers, but those numbers are far stronger when they are working together. I agree with Harari that these social structures, imaginary though they may be, are powerful enough to affect the material world, from what we eat to who we associate with (p. 113-114). I also find his arguments for how humans became dominant over nature to be logically sound, as he backs it up with plenty of scientific evidence. Where my skepticism lies is in how he addresses dominance within human society itself, primarily his assertion that there is no reasonable explanation why men are dominant in a majority of cultures (p. 153-154). He uses bonobos to back his argument that the human male’s tendency towards violence doesn’t make sense in regards to dominance, since bonobos are female-dominated and violence is rarely tolerated (p. 157-159). The biggest flaw in this argument is the notion that humans and bonobos can be perfectly compared to one another. Yes, we are genetically close, but just because bonobos don’t have tendencies towards aggressive dominance doesn’t mean that humans shouldn’t either. In another sharp contrast to Harari’s stance, I would suggest that women’s reliance on men is a reasonable theory if we consider hunter-gatherer societies. When understanding why women tended to gather instead of hunting, I believe the answer can be boiled down to children. If you’re trying to hunt an animal, do you really want a crying baby on your back to give away your location? Do you want to risk your child’s life by trying to attack an animal that’s two or even three times your size? One could argue that the women could go hunting if the men or other women watched the children, but that brings about issues of its own. Nowadays, we can easily supplement mother’s milk with formula, but for eons, breastmilk was the only reliable food source for an infant. Human babies also get hungry several times a day (Brennan, 2017). Again, using another woman to feed your baby while you hunt is certainly doable, but why do this when you can feed the baby yourself? Taking all of this into consideration, it doesn’t make much sense for a mother to go hunting when she could simply keep the children close and pick fruit instead. Plants aren’t liable to run away or attack your offspring. Admittedly, my argument does weaken a bit when agriculture comes into the picture, since one does not have to venture far from home to care for their animals. At the same time, it’s quite possible that the positions assigned to men and women simply carried over from hunter-gatherer societies. We already had religious beliefs by then, so is it that big of a stretch to think we already made up our minds about gender roles?
Brennan, D. (2017, July 16). How Often Should You Feed Your Baby? Retrieved September 16, 2018, from https://www.webmd.com/parenting/baby/baby-feeding-schedule
Harari, Y. N. (2015). Sapiens: A brief history of humankind. New York, NY: Harper Perennial.