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Sapiens: A Graphic History (2020)

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Sapienship is proud to have managed and co-produced the adaptation of bestselling book Sapiens into an enticing graphic novel series – in line with our mission to engage the general public with the story of humankind, and to facilitate a global conversation on issues that matter. Our editorial team embraced the challenge of telling the epic story of our species visually; we ensured every illustrated page was approached with research-based scientific rigour, and with attention to diversity and multiple cultural perspectives. Sapienship not only enjoyed facilitating the creative collaboration between renowned authors Yuval Noah Harari (co-writer), David Vandermeulen (co-writer) and Daniel Casanave (illustrator) – across continents and amidst a pandemic – but also contributing to the delicate representation of humankind in a way that is inclusive and universal.


Our adventure unfolds across millions of years, guided by a fictional Yuval Noah Harari and a whole host of globetrotting characters. Together, they cut through the noise of our information- deluged world, step back, and take a look at the really big picture: the entire history of the human species. At the heart of their explorations is a niggling question: how on Earth did an insignificant ape become the ruler of the planet, capable of splitting the atom, flying to the Moon, and manipulating the genetic code of life?

The series was launched in fall 2020 with Volume 1; The Birth of Humankind – which explores the rise of humans over other animals; how we spread from Africa to the rest of the planet; and the ecological footprints we left along the way. Volume 2; The Pillars of Civilization, continues to the domestication of crops and animals, the subsequent rise of cities, empires, bureaucracy, writing, and - of course – social hierarchies. Readers are taken on a wild and colorful ride through the Cognitive and Agricultural Revolutions, which are explored through humorous scenes, masterpieces of modern art, a fictional reality tv show, an Elizabethan tragedy, travel brochures, and many other pop culture references – along with guest appearances by the likes of Steve Jobs, Franz Kafka, Margaret Thatcher and Scarlett O’Hara.


Thanks, Laneigile. It's useful, isn't it.

Yuval is a master ideasman, but could benefit from more editing in his books: the chapters repeat and repeat and repeat! He offers different examples, but honestly, his books would benefit from a compressed summary at the start, followed by the endless examples he loves to give.

I was recently fascinated by his chapter on Meaning in 21 Lessons. At its core, it is quite revolutionary for what it implies, but this always remains hidden and understated. The revolution? The idea of the modern self -- who you think you are, and who I think I am -- is a lie foisted upon us by neoliberalism and media moguls. So, who are we? He never really gets to that, but left unstated it hangs in the air like MacBeth's dagger!

Summarizing briefly:

-Liberalism is founded on the belief in human liberty. Unlike rats and monkeys, human beings are supposed to have “free will”. This is what makes human feelings and human choices the ultimate moral and political authority in the world. Liberalism tells us that the voter knows best, that the customer is always right, and that we should think for ourselves and follow our hearts.

-Unfortunately, “free will” isn’t a scientific reality. It is a myth inherited from Christian theology. Theologians developed the idea of “free will” to explain why God is right to punish sinners for their bad choices and reward saints for their good choices. If our choices aren’t made freely, why should God punish or reward us for them? According to the theologians, it is reasonable for God to do so, because our choices reflect the free will of our eternal souls, which are independent of all physical and biological constraints.

-The liberal story instructs me to seek freedom to express and realise myself. But both the ‘self’ and freedom are mythological chimeras borrowed from the fairy tales of ancient times.

-Liberalism took a radical step in denying all cosmic dramas, but then recreated the drama within the human being – the universe has no plot, so it is up to us humans to create a plot, and this is our vocation and the meaning of our life.

-Thus, like all other cosmic stories, the liberal story too starts with a creation narrative.

-In order to understand ourselves, a crucial step is to acknowledge that the ‘self’ is a fictional story

He doesn't really go beyond that except to encourage people to do Buddhist meditation. But hidden beneath all of this, especially when viewed by eyes sensitive to how corporations can manipulate us, there are some sinister overtones.

Every writer bloat his books with unnecessary content. Who we are - everyone choose for itself. You will become what you want to be. You are not Skinner's box.Free will matters a lot.

laneigile wrote:

Free will matters a lot.

Keep going

laneigile wrote:

You will become what you want to be.

Not according to Yuval. And not according to just about any postmodern philosopher. (I think you would be better off to quote Nietzsche: you will become who you *are*.)

Jorge Luis Borges talks about a map so detailed that it must have a 1:1 scale to the land it represents. When the Empire that the map represented finally decays, the map is the only thing that remains. Its existence is more real than the land itself.

This is what the French philosopher Jean Baudrillard calls the "desert of the real itself"; Morpheus in the Matrix repeats this phrase as he shows Neo the desolate "real" world and its stark contrast to the allegorical "map" the Matrix.

The point is that the map became the Real to them. Or in other words, all we’re left with is the slutty allure of second-order simulacra. --> FYI that is the book that Neo "hollows" and hides his illicit stash within. Simulacra = representation.

I am suggesting here that our concept of "self" has become a representation -- not authentic. ["welcome to the desert of the self" - me]

Hold this thought in mind and watch any Hollywood film that encourages the audience to "become what you want". Even the Matrix itself, oddly: Neo is nothing if not the "hero of the Real".

But is he? Or is the contemporary subject has now “only a pure screen, a switching center for all the networks of influence"?

Does that encouragement have value for the individual or *for the system itself*? [Baudrillard famously said that, "the Matrix is a film that the matrix would make about the matrix."]

Back to Yuval: if we can be influenced by advertisers and algorithms, how can we be sure we haven't been influenced by them to believe that we are in control? That we can become what we want? It is certainly a nice thought...but the fact is that people who think they are in control, who feel empowered, are really useful purchasers and money spenders, and are not likely to rise up and rebel against the system.

[and I haven't even gotten into any of the deeper questions in the Matrix about what is real, can you really taste synthetic things, how would know this, etc.]

* * *

You could stop reading at the above, but all this stuff is deep deep deep. I haven't even gotten into Philip K Dick (or how Hollywood co-opted his stories for its own economic purpose while he died penniless)

Here is a long but useful excerpt from Erik Davis, who I contend is one the best writers in the last 25 years:

While the conviction that the world is a VR game can be chalked up to fringe psychosis, such mad beliefs can also be interpreted as dreamlike symptoms of a more pervasive cultural pathology. Datagloves and head-mounted video displays are visible symbols for a much more immersive “virtual reality”: the ersatz electronic environment of images and data that embower our bodyminds and social spaces. The French philosopher Jean Baudrillard diagnosed this condition as a mass infection by the hyperreal, which he defined as a social, political, and perceptual organization based on the dominance of technological simulacra. Like an ontological virus, the hyperreal invades and destroys the older frameworks for understanding the real, replacing it with a new order of reality based on simulation. In his 1983 book Simulations, Baudrillard argues that Disneyland is the Mecca of this hyperreal civilization: an environment that is neither authentic nor fake, a copy for which there is no original, and the paragon of social control by “anticipation, simulation, and programming.” In Baudrillard’s deeply pessimistic view, the mass media have become a kind of orbiting strand of DNA that “mutates” the real into the hyperreal, eroding any space of authentic resistance and establishing the absolute dominion of the society of the spectacle.

Baudrillard’s apocalyptic theories can be read as highbrow science fiction, and in the realm of SF, his basic ideas... aren’t so novel...Perhaps the greatest SF novel of such demiurgic media control is Philip K. Dick’s The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch, written in 1964. To escape the dismal toil of their lives, the human colonists on Mars while away the hours with Perky Pat Layouts, miniature dollhouses complete with Pat and Walt, svelte figurines resembling the postwar archetypes Barbie and Ken. After gathering together in their hovels, the colonists swallow an illegal drug, Can-D, which “translates” them into Pat and Walt’s Baywatch-like lives for a painfully brief spell. Some colonists view the virtual trip as escapism; others interpret it as a religious experience in which they lose the flesh and “put on imperishable bodies.” A satellite radio station owned by Perky Pat Layouts orbits Mars, emitting a stream of ads for new Perky Pat accessories, while the DJs deal Can-D on the side. Even psychic powers are exploited for commercial gain, as “pre-cogs” working for PPL use their gifts to predict which new accessories will score with the colonists.

...Perhaps the manic enthusiasm for information, for producing, packaging, transmitting, and consuming scattered fragments of a coded world, is partly motivated by an unconscious desire for a totalizing revelation, an incandescent apocalypse of knowledge. After all, the word apocalypse simply means an uncovering or revealing. As a literary genre, the apocalypse presents itself as a kind of visionary freedom of information act, with God granting the prophet a glimpse of his multimedia, literally all-time book of the world. All apocalyptic writings are shot through with the desire for the transparency and fullness of knowledge, a yearning for that time when all will be revealed, when a truer Torah will emerge, when light will come to the hidden things in the dark. In Matthew 10:26, Jesus even sounds like a pundit for the open surveillance society, promising that, in the last days, “there is nothing covered up that will not be uncovered, nothing hidden that will not be made known.” But of all prophetic intimations of the information age, the most suggestive remains Daniel 12:4, at least in its squirrelly and much-loved King James translation. After proclaiming the future resurrection of the dead, when the “wise shall shine as the brightness of the firmament,” the messiah tells the exiled prophet to seal up his book until the time of the end, when “many shall run to and fro, and knowledge shall be increased.”

Now there’s a vision that most of us can relate to. Today we are drowning in an information glut, and the faster we move about, online or off, the more ferocious the flows become. In this sense, our high-speed information overload is itself generating an ersatz apocalyptic buzz, though not quite the way that Daniel envisioned. As we wire ourselves into the buzzing networks of information exchange, we give ourselves over to the time-splicing, space-shrinking, psychic intensification of the whole giddy and heedless rush of Progress, its hidden eschatological urges laid bare at the very moment they become the most profane. We can no longer even keep time with the modern sense of history, because its feisty rhythms were still very much a product of books and material memory, both of which are now evaporating into the sound-bite, quick-cut, self-referential “now” of the ever-forgetting electronic universe.

In one of his apocalyptic theoretical tracts, Baudrillard called this mediated rapture “the ecstasy of communication.” He argues that the “harsh and inexorable light of information and communication” has now mastered all spheres of existence, producing an omnipresent system of media flows that has colonized the interior of the self. Passion, intimacy, and psychological depth evaporate, and we wind up “only a pure screen, a switching center of all the networks of influence.” No longer subjects of our own experience, we abandon ourselves to a cold and schizophrenic fascination with an infoglut he likens to a “microscopic pornography of the universe.”23 Though one suspects that Monsieur Baudrillard might do well to cancel his premium cable service, his dour prophecy certainly resonates. Many of us have indeed enclosed our nervous systems within a vibrating artificial matrix of devices that monitor us as much as we monitor them. As we attempt to micromanage this onslaught of posts, emails, links, and data dumps, we lose the slower rhythms and gnawing silences of the inner world. We lose the capacity to speak and act from within, and communication is reduced to a reactive, almost technical operation. And so we drown, believing that to drown is to surf.

The problem with the totalizing pessimism of Baudrillard and other technological doomsters is that humans remain protean beings, blessed with enormous elasticity and a profound potential for creative adaptation. Indeed, I suspect we will hack this phase-shift in our own tangled way, and that part of this adaptation may actually involve moving the ecstasy of communication to a higher ground, where we might grab the visionary bull by the horns. Along the multiplying planes of information and communication, we may learn to move like nomads, becoming errant seers despite ourselves, just to grapple with it all. And in the periphery of perception, where all the networks intersect, we may glimpse the outlines of some nameless system emerging, some new structure of being and knowing that undergirds the merely material real, a vast webwork of collective intelligence within which we are at once on our own and one with the immense ecology of a conscious cosmos.

Needless to say, the ecstasy of communication still leaves one dazed and confused when the morning comes. That is our human lot, after all, to fall to earth. But to see just how dazed and confused a close encounter with the information eschaton can be, we need to turn to one of the most sublime and crackpot tales in the annals of techgnosis: the strange and visionary case of Philip K. Dick, who wrestled with the information angel and woke up battered and bruised, wondering if it was all just a dream. Or a trick.

-Erik Davis, Techgnosis