Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind by Yuval Noah Harari
Read This Book If You Liked: Homo Deus, Blink (or anything by Gladwell), Thinking, Fast and Slow or if you like: History and Futurism
This Book is Good For: Long conversations, A gift to your favorite Trump supporter, a college class on literally anything to do with the Humanities/ Getting in arguments with your professors
Sapiens feels like a textbook when you first pick it up. It’s got thick, glossy paper and 400 pages of information. It’s heavy too (I definitely can’t lug this one around in my purse). Fortunately, Sapiens doesn’t read like a textbook. It entices the readers from the first page and flows well, connecting lots of information in an interesting way. The book is split into four different sections, starting with the Cognitive Revolution. Harari’s intention is clear: We were not always the only humans roaming the Earth. In fact, our singularity is unique. Sapiens encourages the reader to rethink our conceptions about humanity and tends to take a more objective scientific approach, focusing on our development as animals rather than some ‘high being.’ Harari addresses different theories of why we survived while our other fellow Homo family members didn’t. The book does a good job of explaining the “fictions” that people create in order to work together and create a functioning, forever evolving society. I’d never really thought about the point at which our own history separates from our predetermined biology and DNA. While reading the section on the Cognitive Revolution, it struck me that in every textbook I’ve ever read (or been forcibly handed) the section on ‘pre-history’ or before the Agricultural Revolution is just a paragraph on how we have no idea what happened. While this section is smaller than the others at 74 pages, it’s still the most I’ve ever read on the topic. I appreciated Harari’s willingness to be speculative where others generally are not. He writes a lot about events I’d never even considered or heard of, such as the human arrival on the continent of Australia and our hand in the extinction of hundreds of species. The arrival of the modern human was extremely consequential in ways that I’d never really thought about.
The second part of the book is focused on the Agricultural Revolution and takes a different tone than anything I’ve read before when it comes to the positive or negative impact of humanity’s move to farming. In fact, Harari thinks it’s history’s “biggest fraud.” He makes the argument that while the agricultural revolution was good for our species in the sense that we “created more copies of our DNA,” but bad in terms of quality of life and human suffering. It also contributed to the suffering of animals and the deterioration of entire ecosystems. This section also talks about the rise of the elite and the development of writing and mathematics. But the most interesting part of this section was chapter eight when Harari writes about the different “fictions’ in our society that organize us as well as the reality that “human rights” aren’t exactly what we think they are. A lot of this section is devoted to talking about the concept of “purity” in different cultures and how humans use it to segment themselves from other groups. He also delves into the subject of sex and gender, exploring the possibilities as to why many societies have developed into patriarchies. This section is a lot less about the events that took place during the Agricultural revolution and more about the reasons different societies developed the way that they did through different lenses like race, sex, and social status.
Section three is called the Unification of Humankind and focuses primarily on the growing unity between parts of the globe. Harari questions the modern political order, asking how American politics can both support the individual and equality? And how do you believe in one God and also a dualistic Devil? Most of the section is focused on addressing the different ways in which humanity has used our cognitive dissonance and dueling cultural values in order to move forward and the different major forces that have unified the globe in the modern era. The most interesting parts of this section had to do with the creation of money and the development of religion and ideology. I also thought that his argument as to why different ideologies such as communism are religions was fascinating and that he does an excellent job of explaining the different kinds of Humanisms.
Sapiens is different than a traditional history book in the way that it seeks to explain history through the lens of different significant ideologies and concepts rather than events. It asks why things happened in relation to various forces and questions them thoroughly rather than merely saying that they happened. Part four evaluates the world in terms of money, imperialism, capitalism, and modern science. So much of this book is focused on the importance of environmentalism and encourages the reader to think about their place in our ecological environment on this Earth and not just as a part of humanity. He also asks the reader to evaluate the last 200 years of history and the oddity of our exponential growth compared to the rest of our history. The reframing of the Industrial Revolution as a drastic change in the structure of our communities and families is well done. His view of the modern age feels optimistic, pointing out that while sometimes things feel bleak, humanity is also much less violent and connected to global interests than ever before. However, I can’t help but wonder what the tone of this book would have been had it been written in 2019.
At the start of chapter 19, Harari asks an important question, “Are we happier?” Do our advancements make us happier and better off? This is an important question and a unique one where history is concerned. Harari’s answer seems to be: Eh, not always. I thought an interesting point in this section was where he talks about how chronic illness isn’t always a terrible thing in people’s lives, and people with such illnesses often report happiness. As a person who’s lived with medical problems for years, it was nice to see myself represented. I can also confirm that this is true. He also talks about other factors, like how much money really makes a person happy and family values and marriage. But most of all, he talks about how a person’s subjective reality is actually what forms happiness. Compared to biological factors, what makes a person happy might have more to do with a sense of finding meaning. This is the most important part of the entire book and perhaps the point. Harari shows the reader that human history is, perhaps, chaos. There’s no real answer to anything or any way that things are supposed to be; it’s really how you see it all that matters. If we measured our history in happiness, what would we find? In his final chapter, Harari walks the reader through some possibilities for our future but reminds the reader that we don’t really know what’s next except that it will likely push humanity further than ever before: perhaps even into something that’s not human at all.