Book Review: Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind by Yuval Noah Harrari


A couple of weeks ago a friend messaged me on WhatsApp. “Go on BBC World News right now,” he said, “there’s a guy named Yuval Harrari talking about his book called Sapiens. You will like it.”

Due to some pressing commitments I was unable to catch Mr Harrari’s interview, but later that day I did a bit of googling and decided that Sapiens was a book I really wanted to read. It is indeed a blessing to have friends who know your interests more than you do.

That is how I found myself reading Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind.

Sapiens traces the origins of humankind right from the beginning. Despite not being a big book, the time it covers is vast.

Harrari starts at the very beginning: 13.5 Billion years ago , matter, energy, time and space time came into being in what is known as the Big Bang. 300 000 years later atoms formed and almost 10 billion years after that, about 4 billion years ago, life began to form on earth. Organisms belonging to the species Homo Sapiens started forming cultures 70 000 years ago. This, Harrari says, is the beginning of history.

All of this is on the first page. Indeed Harrari wastes no time, a book covering 14 billion years cannot afford tardiness.

Harrari divides his book- and therefore history- into three important stages. These “revolutions” have shaped our history which began 70 000 years ago with the Cognitive Revolution, followed by the Agricultural Revolution of 12 000 years ago and then finally the “recent” Scientific Revolution.

According to Harrari 2 million years ago humans were like any other animal. There “was nothing special about them” and there were several human species, not only Homo Sapiens. Yet, compared to other mammals, humans had larger brains. Humans however paid dearly for having a large brain, a bigger brain consumes more energy. Thus humans spent more time searching for food and, secondly, their muscles got smaller and we got weaker. Indeed, without weapons, humans are very weak – imagine a human against a chimpanzee or gorilla.

These huge brains – and the fact that humans gradually walked upright thus freeing their hands- ensured that humans developed tools which began a short, brutal and disastrous ascent of the food chain. This, says Harrari, was hastened by the domestication of fire. Fire enabled humans to cook, killing germs and made food easier to digest. Fire also cemented humankind’s position at the top. With fire humans could torch entire forests .
The ancient Homo Sapiens, it appears, were also genocidal. Harrari suspects that we drove our ancient cousins to extinction.

For most of that period Homo Sapiens was living in Africa and the Eurasian landmass. However 45 000 years ago our ancestors managed to reach Australia where they quickly destroyed the majority of the animals of that island. The same happened when Sapiens reached the Americas. Our reputation as destroyers, it appears, is tens of thousands of years old.

This period of between 70 000 and 30 000 years ago is what Harrari calls the Cognitive period. Humans developed speech, and started to form societies. The development of language and complex methods of communicating further empowered humans and led to what Harrari calls “common myths”, perceived realities such as religions, Gods, justice, and more recently, corporations, money and credit. These things allowed our ancestors to work together and form even more complex and bigger societies.

With humour and some frank admissions of ignorance of why some things happened Harrari rushes though the millenias. Humans hunted and made tools for thousands more years until they domesticated wheat.

Or rather, as Harrari says, wheat domesticated us. This second revolution, the Agricultural revolution, resulted in cities as men tended their crops. Yet Harrari says we were duped. The discovery of wheat he says with some wit, was “history’s greatest fraud”. We worked for wheat, we removed stones so wheat could thrive.

In exchange for food we got arthritis, slipped discs and hernia. The Agricultural Revolution if Harrari is to be believed was a trap. Our ancestors worked harder, got more ailments and had less time to relax. This of course is quite contentious.

Despite all the advances humans made they remained separated into relatively small groups minding their own businesses. However three “universal orders” would change all this. These were money, religion and empires.

The author writes about how these forces bound humanity closer to one another from Hernan Cortez in South America to the Arabs bringing the good news of Muhammad to non-believers all over the Middle East and Africa.

Harrari writes that at some point humans discovered ignorance. They realised that they did not know answers to the most important questions. This discovery was actually the discovery of knowledge. It launched, Harrari claims, the Scientific Revolution 500 years ago.

Prior to that philosophers and religious authorities claimed to have all the answers. Where they did not have any answers they reasoned that therefore man was not supposed to know such things. With the admission of ignorance came the scientific method, experimentation and observation with no (or little) preconceived notions.

This knowledge led to even more knowledge, and exploration of distant lands in search of both knowledge and wealth. Even then the search for scientific knowledge remained in the clutches of those who funded it, politicians, religious authorities and businesspeople. In other words scientific enquiry generally proceeded because some people wanted to get political, economic or religious advantages.
By the end of the 19th century humans had another religion: Capitalism. According to Harrari Capitalism succeeded because of yet another imagined reality- credit. This has been important in the spread of capitalism, industry and consumerism across the world.

With renewed flourish Harrari arrives at the present. He argues that we are not much happier than our ancestors and makes a case against  the mistreatment of animals and the increasing environmental damage being done by industrialisation.

Yet it’s not all gloomy, he concedes. He notes that war is now less likely and more people live in peace than at any point in history. This he ascribes to the now astronomical costs of war. In ancient times war meant territories and profits, now it means ruin and losses.

With the verve of a marathon runner approaching the finishing line Harrari concludes by predicting the end of Homo Sapiens. Homo Sapiens will either be destroyed by its environmental mismanagement or it will change itself through bioengineering to something that is not Homo Sapiens. Already, he says, there are projects that aim to make humans “amortal”, whereby in the absence of accidents or violence humans can potentially live forever in the next couple of decades.

Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind is, despite the title, not a brief book. As expected from a book of such ambition and scope, there are areas where it shines and others where it feels underwhelming. Additionally there is the authors frequent , “frankly, we don’t know”, which while quite a welcome change from the usual cocky know-it-all attitude of intellectuals, also leaves some of the inferences made less convincing.

There are many insightful parts and Harrari, who is a professor of history, shows that he is a masterful storyteller particularly in the beginning and near the end. Even the slow parts are laced with wit, clear writing and original humour.

This is not like other history books. Don’t expect to see tales of alexander the Great or Hitler. Even Obama, the world’s most powerful man, only makes a pictorial appearance, and even then only as an example of how modern men dress. I guess when you walk through millennia of history you can’t concern yourself much with petty individual humans

This book is modelled along the same lines as Jared Diamonds Guns, Germs and Steel and Professor Diamond’s influence shows throughout the whole book. Those who liked Diamond’s book will find this one a good read, though less scientifically rigorous.

Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind is a riveting read which will linger in your mind long after the last page. You may find yourself reconsidering whether to eat meat or deciding to do more to prevent the environment. There are places where it will fall short, where the evidence will seem contrived and others where you will disagree with the author but I think that’s to be expected for a book of such scope.

This book, in my opinion, is one of those truly great books which deserve a permanent place in any library.

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