Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind is a bestselling nonfiction book authored by an Israeli historian Yuval Noah Harari. The book was originally published in Hebrew in 2011. It was published worldwide in English by Harper three years later. Over a million copies of the English edition have been sold since then. At four hundred and forty three pages in the original edition, Sapiens is a broad take on human evolution and history of the world spanning a hundred thousand years, which is approximately the time human species have been around.
Yuval Noah Harari surveys the history of sapiens, not just Homo sapiens, from Stone Age to the present day, also referred to as the Silicon Age. Harari draws from natural sciences including evolutionary biology and the history of the world that is around four and a half billion years old. The book explores how in just a short period of time, given the age of the planet, one particular species has managed to emerge as the most superior and has conquered the world including all other species. The book has been received with largely positive reviews from readers but scholars have been skeptic and cautious with their assessments and criticism. Subject matter experts have found the book to be too concise and also opinionated in large measures. Voracious readers, especially those who have a penchant for history, have also found the book to be lacking in more factual substance.
What is the Sapiens all about?
The official blurb of the book says that it is a provocative and bold account of who we the humans are, how we have managed to become so advanced and also so destructive, how we have lived and survived, what has made us so deadly and where we are headed. Yuval Noah Harari begins his retelling of an extraordinary but true story of insignificant apes becoming the rulers of the planet at a time when more than six human species inhabited earth a hundred thousand years ago and narrates the journey to now when we are the only ones who have survived and thrived.
Harari deals partly in natural sciences with some depth in evolutionary biology, explores possibility of human activity and the limits, factors in culture and the changes it brings about to initiate a conversation in an academic discipline of history that primarily is about cultural change. Sapiens is divided into four parts: Cognitive Revolution, Agricultural Revolution, Unification of Humankind and Scientific Revolution.
Cognitive Revolution dates back to circa 70,000 B.C. when it is believed that human species evolved to be capable of imagination. Agricultural Revolution is set in circa 10,000 B.C. when humans developed the practice of farming. Unification of Humankind discusses the consolidation of political organizations of the world to form one large empire, which has of course happened more than once. Scientific Revolution begins circa 1500 A.D. and tracks the birth and evolution of objective science.
Major Takeaways from Sapiens
Harari puts forth many arguments in the book. He advocates the idea that humans have managed to dominate the world as the most superior species because we can organize ourselves and operate flexibly but also in an organized manner. This has ensured our survival and eventual prosperity. The primitive human species such as Neanderthals were not capable of this and hence perished. To further the argument, Harari uses motivations such as nationhood or nations, Gods, money, human rights, trade networks and political structures that have enabled us to bind together and write a collective destiny of our own. Harari does call these motivations imaginations. He even equates money, economic and political systems as somewhat similar to religions where mutual trust and faith determine the rules of engagement.
Harari is more provocative with his claims about the Agricultural Revolution. He concedes that agriculture benefited humans but he has tried to celebrate the hunter gatherers in a more romanticized manner than perhaps any other author in the niche. In this fiery debate he has thrown in violence against animals and many other relevant issues. The book then explores the histories of empires, universal religions and capitalism. Finally, Harari discusses the pros and cons of the Scientific Revolution and finds that Homo sapiens have probably become gods, now that we can create new species through genetic engineering, nonorganic life and digital immortality.
Who is Yuval Noah Harari?
The author is a historian and a professor at the Department of History in the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. He has authored “Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind”, “Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow” and “21 Lessons for the 21st Century”. Harari has examined consciousness, intelligence, free will, human evolution and history. More recently, he has written about consequences of futuristic biotechnological advancements that will enable intelligent biological or non-organic organisms to threaten the very existence of humans. In his estimate, Homo sapiens may disappear in a century.
Harari has studied medieval and military history. He is a doctorate and an alumnus of Jesus College, Oxford University. He has also authored other books and numerous articles. Presently, Harari teaches history and explores macro historical processes. Sapiens remains his most popular work till date. It has been translated in thirty languages, excluding the English edition and Hebrew original.
Review of “Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind”
Sapiens is not a scholarly work. It is a nonfiction book, a rather concise one since the subject is history and human evolution. Historical books tend to be available in volumes, with each discussing a few major developments or one noteworthy period. The history of any of the older cities in the world will take more than one volume and the history of any of the ancient civilizations will demand dozens of volumes, perhaps different series of books. The history of the world merits hundreds of books, if not thousands. Hence, it is impossible for any writer to discuss human evolution or history of over a hundred thousand years in less than five hundred pages.
Yuval Noah Harari does a good job as a writer. The vivid writing makes it a good read. Sapiens is not a coffee table book in the classic sense but at best it is a light read. Anyone who is interested in some light reading about humans, where we have come from and where we stand today will find the book pleasing but certain musings of the writer may not be acceptable to many readers. Anyone who wants to truly explore human evolution will have to read much more. The book does not dive into any of the extensive details of any major events. It is more like an inventory of trivia that marks the checkboxes to mention major events and developments.
Harari does manage to drive home many points in the book, some of which are hard to argue but a few are outright unfounded. The author makes presumptions about human species that lived ten thousand, fifty thousand and a hundred thousand years ago. He thinks he can speak for them when he compares the happiness of hunter gatherers and that of modern farmers. It may appear to be preposterous to many readers. Hunter gatherers were by no means better off than us. There is no empirical evidence suggesting their lives were more joyous than ours. There is no theoretical or even theological suggestion that ancient humans were faring better than us. Harari argues that they were more intelligent than modern humans, that they knew more about their world and immediate surroundings than us, that we rely on collective intelligence but at an individual level we are more ignorant than our foraging ancestors and that we have basically embarked on a downhill ride with agriculture that is apparently one of the frauds committed by humans on themselves.
Sapiens does for history of humans what “A Brief History of Time” does for cosmology. A vast premise that is almost inaccessible to the millions of people who may be interested but do not have the time or the familiarity with the premises to developed a reasonable understanding of either or both. Sapiens is a fascinating read for those who want some perspective about our long journey on a planet than has comparatively an exponentially longer and more complex history. But Sapiens also does a bit of disservice by reducing the significance of some of the accomplishments of modern humankind. It dismisses the many benefits of agriculture for some of the obvious challenges such as famine and the rigors of farm life. Nowhere does he concede or even acknowledge that life is hard regardless of how a species is poised. It is only the nature of hardness that changes with time and circumstance.
Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind is an important book of the decade but it is unlikely to make it to the lexicon of classics. The book is undoubtedly contemporary and somewhat relevant but has little academic, scholarly or insightful merits to warrant a place in most of the coveted halls of fame for nonfictions.