When I read non-fiction books these days, I get a nagging feeling that the author could have communicated the idea in a much shorter book. Many books these days, especially in the self-help category, are bloated works converted from one or two blog posts. But very rarely you come across a masterpiece book and wish that it was bigger. Sapiens, A Brief History of Humankind by Yuval Noah Harari is one such book!
Yuval Noah Harari is an Israeli professor of history at Hebrew University of Jerusalem. His free YouTube course "A brief History of Humankind" covering 17 lessons and 62 videos is very popular. He wrote "Sapiens" originally in Hebrew and was later translated to other languages including English.
In less than 500 pages, Harari takes us through an exhilarating journey of human history. The topic of human history is so large, that it is a real challenge to decide what to include and what to ignore. Harari takes a high level view of human life over the centuries, but he also takes us through the perspective of common people when needed. Most of the things that traditional history textbooks usually cover are only very briefly touched upon.
Harari argues that it is our ability to gossip and believe in collective myth that has led to the unprecedented growth of human species. Everything that is the foundation of modern human civilization – money, religion, capitalism, consumerism and democracy is the result of our ability to believe in collective myth. Harari claims that it has enabled us to bypass evolution and even become gods on earth!
I am a huge fan of history and once I started reading it, I couldn’t put it down. The book triggers your imagination and curiosity. Harari tells many interesting stories. The lack of "political correctness" and "relaxed historical accuracy" may annoy or anger some readers! Here is an advice for easily offended readers – treat it as fiction!
Is there anything more dangerous than dissatisfied and irresponsible gods who don’t know what they want?
Summary: Sapiens, A Brief History of Humankind
Sapiens book is organized into 4 main parts covering last 70,000 years of human history,
- The Cognitive Revolution – Harari argues that it is our ability to gossip and believe in collective myth that led to the unprecedented growth of human species. He argues that it is this sudden ability that enabled us to be the only dominant human species on the planet. This part also takes a look at the day to day lives of early humans and explores the link between human growth and extinction of other animal species.
- The Agricultural Revolution – Is agricultural revolution history’s biggest fraud? Harari argues that for the farmers, this revolution manly offered suffering and death. This is an interesting conclusion since we think about agricultural evolution as a major achievement of human species. In more recent times, we have even started romanticizing farming and agriculture. This part also covers the evolution of language and bureaucracy.
- The Unification of Mankind – Harari argues that even though human culture has been in constant flux through the centuries, there has always been a definite direction to where we are going. Humans across the planet now form one large family. This part also explores the roles played by money, religion and imperial vision in unification of mankind.
- The Scientific Revolution – This section explores some of the reasons behind rapid industrial and scientific growth of European nations. Harari argues such a rapid advance is made possible by our acceptance of the fact that we know little about the world around us. It is our acceptance of ignorance that fuelled rapid scientific innovations. This section also explores the unification of the state, business and science. Obviously there are dangers in the marriage of business and science.
Each of the above parts have 4 or 5 chapters dealing with topics related to that era. For example, one chapter looks at the origins of money while another chapter explores why agricultural revolution may be a disaster as far as individuals are concerned. Sometimes you get to hear an interesting story, sometimes you get to see a photograph of historical significance.
After going through the entire human history, finally Harari turns into the philosophical questions of human existence such as the meaning of human life and human happiness. He briefly touches upon the consumerism and its effects on human happiness. He points out that we are on the threshold of becoming the gods on earth!
Review: Sapiens, A Brief History of Humankind
Harari’s Sapiens is an excellent summary of human history. It mainly covers the last 70,000 years of human history. But it is not merely about history as Harari is more interested in the motivations of the people behind history. And it is also full of his own conclusions! He argues that the large-scale cooperation of human beings is what made us the masters of the planet. He also briefly touches on philosophy and the chemical and biological interpretations of our behavior.
For any historian, it is important to at least partially suspend his personal beliefs while explaining historical findings. Harari does a very good job at that. He presents multiple viewpoints and theories of a historical event without actually taking sides. He admits that even today we are ignorant of many things including ancient history which left no evidence for us to study. However when it comes to conclusions, he has his own ideas which are very compelling!
Even though Harari doesn’t take any side in the debate of animal rights and vegetarianism, he paints a grim picture of the plight of domestic animals. There is no doubt that we are very brutal when it comes to industrial handling of animals used for meat and milk. The book contains plenty of horror stories. Historically my own local culture has been much more considerate towards the domestic animals, but money and industrialization is changing that. But here again, we need to be aware of the food requirements of 700 billion people!
One controversial part of the book is where Harari calls the agricultural revolution as history’s biggest fraud! He rightly points out that agricultural life has lead to lot of human suffering – tyranny of the elite classes, the quick spread of deadly diseases etc. Some are critical of this conclusion and argues that he underestimated the challenges faced by the so called happy "hunter-gatherers".
But we need to be aware that it is nearly impossible to make a judgment of history from our current privileged life. Many of the ideas and behaviors of my local community may be unacceptable to someone from a western country. In such a scenario, how can we judge people who lived thousands of years ago?
Towards the end of the book, Harari does a broad analysis of human happiness, looking not just at the philosophical question, but also the chemical and biological findings behind it. This section is sure to leave the reader confused if not completely depressed!
The small stories and intriguing photographs interspersed across the chapters makes the book a memorable read. It made me curious enough to investigate the background of the Lion-man, learn more about Gobekli Tepe and study the Buddhist teachings. And it made me think about what we are doing to our domestic animals bred for meat and milk.
Yuval Noah Harari’s Sapiens, A Brief History of Humankind is a brilliant piece of work. It is full of shocking and thought provoking stories. The vivid, crispy and witty language will dazzle you and its conclusions may even change your perspective on life. This is a masterpiece, get your copy today!
What do we want to want?
My Rating: 9/10
Further Reading/Additional Resources
- Sapiens, A Brief History of Humankind (Amazon US)
- Sapiens, A Brief History of Humankind (Amazon India)
- Harari’s YouTube Course on A Brief History of Humankind
- Photos of Oldest Temple (Gobekli Tepe)
- The Lion Man
- A Look at Cognitive Revolution
- The Last Tasmanian
- The Black War
- The "Earmouse"
- How Commercial Hatchery Works?
August 18, 2016 | Posted in Opinion No Comments » | By Jayson Joseph