“Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind” Review

Yuval Noah Harari’s, Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, is an exceedingly unique and captivating read primarily because of its brevity. In a mere 400 pages, Israeli historian Harari presents and analyzes over 50,000 years of human history.

Former U.S. President Barack Obama praised Sapiens, calling it “a sweeping history of the human race, from 40,000 feet. It talks about some core things that have allowed us to build this extraordinary civilization, that we take for granted.”

Sapiens humbles us by allowing us to step back and understand how our modern existence is a mere blip in the history of humanity and the world.

Pliability of Humans

The history of humanity is distinct from the history of other animals because of the unique pliability of humans. Harari describes humans as molten glass that can be shaped over and over again by a broad palette of values, beliefs, habits, and ideologies.

Consider a resident of Berlin, born in 1900 and living to the ripe age of one hundred. She spent her childhood in the Hohenzollern Empire of Wilhelm II; her adult years in the Weimar Republic, the Nazi Third Reich and Communist East Germany; and she died a citizen of a democratic and reunified Germany. She had managed to be a part of five very different sociopolitical systems, though her DNA remained exactly the same.

Trending Towards Unity

The overarching trend of humanity has been towards unity — humans have spread across the continents and then engaged with one another. The primary units of cohesion began as tribes, and slowly grew to villages, towns, cities, and nation-states. Arguably, today, our level of economic, security, and cultural unity is so great that our primary unit of cohesion is somewhere between the nation-state and the whole world.

The concepts of immigration and creating new cultures through transcultural engagement is nothing new. Xenophobia, economic protectionism, and militant nationalism may seem like forces driving the world apart. However, in the broader trajectory of humanity, these reactionary forces are minor hiccups towards an inexorable global community.

Humans have always divided ourselves and have been susceptible to an “us vs. them” mentality. We always find some group to classify as the “other” and label them the bad guys. Why is this perspective a net bad? It is hard to say without making a spiritual claim. Some argue, from an evolutionary perspective, that this divisive perspective is inherent to our individual survival. However, other scientists, anthropologists, and sociologists argue that although a tendency for division may have characterized humanity for millennia — that our new, prosperous, and collective global culture is finally at a stage in which the incessant need to divide is no longer necessary, and we can look at all humanity as one legal (in terms of human rights), economic, and even spiritual entity.

As a Bahá’í, I believe an “us vs. them” mentality is fundamentally a negative worldview because my Faith cherishes, above all else, the unity of humanity. Bahá’ís believe, alongside many other religions and humanist perspectives, that every human being is valued and deserves to be a part of a global societal structure. This opportunity to create oneness among humanity is unique and meaningful because humans have never before possessed the capacity to create such a holistic global order. Additionally, only humans are capable of thinking and acting so collectively. As Harari comments, “No social animal [has] ever [been] guided by the interests of the entire species to which it belongs.”

Economic Unity

Despite innumerable systemic flaws and inequities, international investment and trade are without doubt one of the world’s most powerful forces for development, prosperity, intercultural engagement, and cementing peace. As Harari eloquently stated: “People who do not believe in the same god or obey the same king are more than willing to use the same money” and “people who don’t know each other and don’t trust each other can nevertheless cooperate.”

One particularly fascinating aspect of economic unity is the global credit system. Credit is a reflection of our trust in the future and succeeds only when we perceive our future economic status to be superior to our current situation. Investments (purchases of equity rather than loans) demonstrate this same trust in the future. Loans and investments, then, are a form of economic faith, and the astoundingly interconnected global lending and investment super network is a testament to just how much humanity is in this together. An economy in sickness anywhere in the world affects us all.

he Port of Singapore is one of the world’s business maritime ports and serves as a hub for the global economy. Photo Credit: World Maritime News

Religious Unity

Although religion is commonly seen as a source of division and discord, religion must also be accorded the merits as a unifier of humanity. Harari demonstrates why religion is such a wonder in unity humankind:

When Constantine assumed the throne in 306 [AD], Christianity was little more than an esoteric Eastern sect. If you were to suggest then that it was about to become the Roman state religion, you’d have been laughed out of the room just as you would be today if you were to suggest that by the year 2050 Hare Krishna would be the state religion of the USA… In AD 600, the notion that a band of desert-dwelling Arabs would soon conquer an expanse stretching from the Atlantic Ocean to India was even more preposterous.

The sheer statistics associated with the spread of religions are astounding. Islam is the fastest growing religion in the world — while the world’s population is projected to grow 32 percent in the coming decades, the number of Muslims is expected to increase by 70 percent. Meanwhile, Christianity and the Bahá’í Faith are the most widespread religions in the world.

Catholic pilgrims from a diverse array of cultural and national backgrounds walk the Camino de Santiago across northern Spain Photo Credit: Michael George/national geographic

Unity in Security

Although conflict and discord continue to plague the world, the grim perspective shown through 24/7 news channels and social media do not accurately depict the rates of violence and war in the world. In fact, we are currently experiencing the most peaceful time in human history with the majority of the world having diplomatic relations with one another, unparalleled levels of collaboration among governments, record volumes of international trade and investment, and unprecedented international military collaboration.

Harari identifies four reasons why peace is so prevalent:

  • The price of war has gone up dramatically;
  • The profits of war have declined;
  • Peace has become more lucrative than ever;
  • The world is dominated by a peace-loving elite — politicians, business people, intellectuals, and artists who genuinely see war as both evil and avoidable.
The navies of the United States, India, Japan, Australia, and Singapore participate in the Malabar War Games in the Bay of Bengal.

The Future of Unity

When we unplug from incessant social media and news reports and take a step back to see our society in the arc of the humanity’s development, we see that things are not so bad. Every traditional metric of human well-being — peace, health, lifespan, and per capita GDP — indicate a positive trajectory (sans environmental issues). Additionally, the forces connecting the world and uniting people across cultural, political, and national divides seem more powerful than ever before. That said, we must also consider the meaning behind all of this growth.

Despite these tremendous improvements, studies reveal that we are not happier. Some of these forces of unity, such as an increasingly globalized economy, has corroded local cultures and community life. Combating globalization and yearning for former times is most certainly unreasonable given the futility of the endeavor and the benefits of our globalized world to our well-being.

However, growth for growth’s sake is meaningless, and it is critically important to ensure that our new global economy, culture, and identity possess new conceptions of community, meaning, and compassion. To do so, we must engage spiritually.

What do we want our lives in a globalized world to stand for?

What do we want for our global village? And why?

A mother (in red scarf) and her children weep as Afghan policemen flatten her poppy field during a raid in northeastern Afghanistan. The woman’s husband was killed by insurgents, she says, and poppies are her only income Photo Credit: David Guttenfelder/National Geographic Magazine
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