SAPIENS, by Yuval Noah Harari (2014)
Sapiens, as the book describes itself, is ‘A Brief History of Humankind’. At 466 pages, alongside a lengthy bibliography, calling it ‘brief’ might be stretching it a bit – this is no thin paperback novel – but as an exercise in the macro-history of our eponymous species, it does well not to get bogged down in the details. Harari’s approach to tackling such a broad topic is unorthodox, highly subjective and truly fascinating. Instead of merely listing key discoveries, inventions and events and discussing their historical importance, Harari meshes history with biology, anthropology, philosophy and politics to provide a grand overview of where our species has come from, and ends the book with tantalising teasers of the great debate about where we’re headed next. (Not to be left on a cliff-hanger, Harari’s next book, and my next read – Homo Deus – deals with exactly that.)
Although it is very much a book about the past, Harari also takes the opportunity to deal with some major issues facing today’s society, and attempts to disseminate their historical or biological basis. The inequality between sexes has been a staple of the majority of human cultures and civilisations, yet Harari approaches each anthropological theory that justifies patriarchies and dissects their flaws. Similarly, he looks at racial discrimination and caste systems, part of the ‘imagined hierarchy’ that is a key social construct in creating these large-scale societies that humans now belong to, despite it going against our natural predisposition for social groups no larger than those that we have the capacity to know intimately (no more than a few dozen). Harari bravely places traditional religions such as Christianity, Islam and Buddhism on the same level as political systems such as Capitalism, Communism and Liberalism – both of which are ideologies with their shared beliefs and values based on a ‘superhuman order’. While he accepts this might make some readers a little squeamish, it is nevertheless a very valid way of explaining religion’s fundamental role in holding society together and uniting humans who would otherwise be incapable of co-existing and cooperating on the same scale, and also why these same religions appear to be falling increasingly by the wayside in a more progressive, secular world.
Harari goes against popular opinion in particular when it comes to two major elements of human history: the agricultural revolution, and empires. He is openly critical of the former, which in many ways he argues was by no means a necessary progression for the better, but dramatically decreased the quality of life of both humans and animals, whose lives were to be changed forever by the impact of domesticating particular species. Having read this argument, it would come as no surprise to know that Harari is a vegan, and the evidence he presents is indeed compelling. Likewise, imperial history is an area of great debate; what was once triumphed as the golden age of European history has increasingly been brought into disrepute by the emergence of stories about cultural and physical oppression – it becomes a lot harder to be proud of British colonialism when you learn that the first concentration camp was in fact invented by us during the Boer war, causing 26,000 women and children to die in appalling conditions. Yet by exploring how empires and science were inextricably linked, and that discoveries of new lands were key in the development of new disciplines, Harari argues that they were in fact crucial for the scientific revolution that has catapulted humans forward and continues to do so to this very day.
No book is perfect, and in its grandiose summation of such an immense topic, there are a few resulting statements that are potentially oversights – to say that before 1500 A.D. ‘western Europe ... played no important role in history’ is, I would argue, unfairly dismissive of a fairly interesting period to say the least. It may be a timeless study of a 70,000 year period, but this is also a very contemporary book, based on the latest understanding of humankind given to us by science, history and even religion (or logic). Yet, despite all that, it still remains a marvellous and exhilarating read. “Thinking outside the box” may be more than a little cliché, but this book will most certainly make you think about the world a little differently, and perhaps even change your outlook. Not every book can do that.