Sapiens: A Brief History Of Humankind by Yuval Noah Harari is a momentous masterpiece that spans the origin of our lucky and some would argue self-destructive species all the way to the possible post-human future. We’ve been roaming, or rather members of the genus Homo, aimlessly on our home we call planet earth for approximately 2.4 million years. Our own branch of the Homo family, Homo Sapiens, were quite late to the party, exiting for about 150,000 years. Although the history of homo sapiens only forms a small chapter in the history of humankind, 150,000 is still a huge span of time to cover in one book, but Harari does a pretty good job of it.
At the start of time…
Or at least the start of our time as a species, we were quite unremarkable. Harari opens Sapiens and indeed dedicates the first third of Sapiens to our early development and progression towards the ‘cognitive revolution’. This is our progression from unremarkable apes to something as more recognisably ‘human’. although our reasons for doing so are unknown.
This part of the book in particular feels based on a lot of guesswork or at least guestimates. Very little is known for certain about the early sapiens, and there is limited evidence behind the claims about our ancestors. More than once, Harari generalises that ‘most historians’, ‘most scientists’ and the like attest to a certain theory about the lives of our animalistic predecessors. It could do with some more precise figures or more in-depth explanations about recent discoveries instead of vague references to some of the latest evidence available.
But the title of the book is Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, not Sapiens: An In-Depth And Meticulous History of Humankind. If Harari was going to do a completely thorough job, Sapiens would have to be divided up into a series of books with extensive footnotes probably making up half of each book.
From the cognitive revolution, we move to the agricultural revolution when about 11,000 years ago were started the irreversible transition from foraging to farming. From there, Harari goes on to explore the progress from simple farming civilisations to empires and nation-states, to the (almost) globalised world of today. It’s a mighty timeline to cover, so you can’t fault his ambition to cover our history in one book.
Get over yourself
As a species, we are quite an arrogant and self-important bunch. Our religious, political and social beliefs are held with vehemence and have been the cause or catalyst for many a war, conquest or social revolution. Harari unapologetically shows how all of our ideas and ideologies are mere imaginary constructions, stories we tell ourselves to justify the ends we seek or society we live in. I think him and Seth Godin would get on quite well.
He breaks down all human progression to mere ideas built one on top of the other. What is particularly enlightening is the connections Harari makes between religious ideologies and the political ideas of Marxism and Communism. Or how the fairly modern idea of individual rights and the unique personality of every individual is the child of Christianity and the belief in an all-powerful God creating each of his children differently from the other.
At times, Harari personal biases are all too visible in his more scathing moments, particularly the at times sharp criticism of religion and its ideologies. But overall, Harari offers a fresh look at the ideas which underpin our culture, something that made me examine the ideologies that I myself believe in and how much of it is a construction that I take for granted.
No one likes a waffler
Although the main focus of the book is our past, Harari dedicates quite a lot of page space at the end of Sapiens to discussing our potential future. This is arguably going off on a tangent at the end of his ambitious book, and I would certainly have liked a more focussed ending to wrap up the previous 350 pages. If the reason is to give the reader a taste for his sequel, Homo Deus: A Brief History Of Tomorrow.