Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind by Yuval Noah Harari
100,000 years ago, at least six human species inhabited the earth. Today there is just one. Us. Homo Sapiens. How did our species succeed in the battle for dominance? Why did our foraging ancestors come together to create cities and kingdoms? How did we come to believe in God, nations and human rights? And what will our world be like in the millennia to come?
When I first discovered this book, I took the use of the word ‘brief’ in the title very lightly and did not at all expect that it would indeed be very brief. I found myself yearning for more throughout the book but not more of the same, more of something different, more new information that I didn’t actually know about already. Harari’s writing style is incredibly scattered, did not always follow a linear progression and at times was exceedingly difficult to grasp the point he was making. Sure, it’s a narrative account of humankind yet Harari attempts to offer perspectives that lack clarity and I found myself disagreeing with his viewpoints a lot when he did get around to making his case. If you have already genuinely paid attention in history and science classes, then I would not recommend this book to you. Otherwise, you will not be taking away a minefield of new information that you would have hoped to possess by the end of this book.
There are some chapters that are problematic and offensive and there are a few other chapters that will have you googly-eyed with fascination. These are the areas that I want to discuss in this review.
The Fascinating Parts
Harari explains that the reason that we are different from Neanderthals is the Sapiens ability to create fiction, stories and myths. We place a huge importance in these ‘imagined realities’ and have created them in order to establish harmony amongst the Sapiens community. He further explains that gossip was a means of exchanging information that would help us to co-operate, understand who we could get along with and make better and more informed decisions. Just like today, we have newspapers to relate to us the activities of presidents, celebrities, the weather, sports and much more. The need for information has been ever-present. Whatever we do, we collect information on a daily basis.
Much of what I knew about foragers was heavily limited to the roles of hunter-gatherers. Harari portrays foragers in a captivating manner and I was awe-struck by their breadth and knowledge of survival skills. I was mesmerised and began to seriously contemplate learning these skills on a retreat one day. How successful I would be at this is debatable, of course.
It was interesting to note that the agricultural revolution wasn’t necessarily a progression from a forager society. The people of the agricultural revolution worked significantly harder but perhaps not smarter as they slaved away on their farms and despite their efforts, they received a poor diet in return. Foragers were far more knowledgeable about their environments and worked less too which freeing their time to spend with their community. However, in this day and age, it is exceptionally difficult to imagine living like a forager when we have grown accustomed and only ever been exposed to being rooted to a particular place called home. For foragers, their home was their community, their people and not an actual house. Yet, unless we encounter a zombie apocalypse much like the television show The Walking Dead, I cannot imagine Sapiens, nor myself, shifting from these traditions and I do not even consider myself to be strictly traditional.
The chapter on the history and origin of money and its evolution since its invention was by far my favourite part of this book. I almost did not want it to end. Another reason which contributed to my enjoyment of this chapter is because this is a rare instance where Harari outlines a clear train of thought and there is also an absence of erratic writing here.
Harari questions and asks us in the final few chapters what happiness really means. In his opinion, much of our happiness is attributed to our biological chemistry but other sociological and psychological factors play a part too. He, also, makes an interesting and insightful analysis: “Huxley’s vision [A Brave New World] of the future is far more troubling than George Orwell’s 1984. Huxley’s world seems monstrous to most readers, but it is hard to explain why. Everybody is happy all the time – what could be wrong with that?” When I read A Brave New World, it offended every last nerve I possessed inside of me. But why? It’s offensive because it seizes and strips away the essence of who you are. As I explained in a previous post, a “happiness robot” remains a robot and therefore, is not human. It’s false. In spite of the occasional lies the majority of us tell here and there, we humans still value honesty and authenticity. In addition, it is not just about happiness. It is also about purpose. “As Nietzsche put it, if you have a why to live, you can bear almost any how.” However, Harari becomes offensive here and states that to live for the afterlife (Heaven) as a religious person would be delusional. Right. There’s freedom of expression and then there’s being a condescending moron.
The Problematic Parts
Harari often makes needless jabs at Muslims and Islam. Much of his confusion would have been cleared if he had taken the time to do some proper research instead of picking and choosing whichever suits his prejudice. I cannot explain to you how exasperating it is to constantly hear: “If God is real, why is there so much tragedy in this world?” No, Harari, stop blaming God for the actions of human beings. Human beings choose to do the terrible things they do. With regards to natural disasters, we are told to not expect that there will be a future because we can never truly anticipate what will happen. There are odds and probabilities, sure, but even mathematics understand that there will be anomalies. We are forewarned about the inevitability of death, we know death is around the corner and thus, we are told to hasten to prayer and to righteous actions. Harari further states that Muslims imagine that God needs help against the devil. God is omnipotent, and we are humble servants of God so how could we even compare our power to God? God does not need help, rather we are instructed to do good because God likes us to perform good deeds. Harari, it is you who is imagining things. Sit down with a Muslim next time and have a conversation. Start learning and stop assuming. If I had a penny for every time…
As this is written in 2014 and before Trump became President, I will excuse him for this opinion: “The global empire being forged before our eyes is not governed by any particular state or ethnic group.”
Fun & Otherwise Ironic Facts
Kushim is the first named person in writing.
Fritz Haber, a German Jew, invented poison gas to be used in World War I. Ironic that this invention led to the death of millions of Jews during the Holocaust.
For the most part, it was a seriously dull affair and I often found myself wanting to DNF. But… I kept hoping it would get better because I had placed high expectations on this book considering the wildly favourable reviews. Despite this, there are a few wonderful hidden gem chapters in this book. I believe that if Harari employed and increase his use of analogies – mark my words, Harari is highly skilled at drawing metaphors – I would have enjoyed this book more. But only a fair amount more.
On the whole, I’m glad I’m finally finished.
What are your thoughts on Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind? Do you agree or disagree with Harari’s opinions that I have highlighted under Problematic Parts?
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