I don’t normally start my reviews with post-reading discussion. I try to find an interesting point and lead into the book-at-hand’s premise or idea. But with Yuvel Noah Harari’s 2014 Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, I think it’s possible to start with the end, particularly one point of discussion I ended up having with my wife. It’s now almost two decades into the 21st century, and scientific research has reached the point where what was a variety of speculation the past couple centuries has slowly coalesced into surety in a lot of areas. There are things we no longer speak about as possible and likely, rather as understood and accepted facts. Certain details of evolution are still being investigated or may not be understood perfectly, but as a general theory it is now the de facto explanation for much of what has brought life on Earth to how it stands today. Only the irrational who don’t want it to be true, dismiss it as entirely false. This blanket of affirmed research is what has allowed Harari to write the grandest overview of humanity’s history to date.
Beginning with pre-historic humanity, and working its way through hunter-gatherer, agricultural, industrial, and scientifically revolutionized humanity, Sapiens describes our transition through known time from a bird’s eye view. A fascinating read, Harari sugar coats nothing. Finding the sweet spot between infotainment and formal research paper, Harari conveys information in a clear, direct manner and adds relevant examples and supporting material to color the proceedings. I daresay one of the reasons the books is so popular is the lucidity and sustained focus of Harari’s writing.
I did not read the afterword, but I would strongly assume that Sapiens does not bring anything novel to the table, rather it aggregates, filters, and summarizes research in the areas of archeology, anthropology, sociology, etc. to create a rolling picture of humanity through the ages for the reader. It feels a consolidation and contextualization of accepted knowledge more than a new, fresh perspective. And these types of books are important. Like John Gray’s Straw Dogs, stepping back and taking account of where we stand based on the fruit of years of research and investigation is an important aspect of quantifying the state of humanity.
But for as academic as the book’s foundations may be, there are still a few points to contest. Perhaps it’s only tone of voice, but there are a few portions that seem to assign humanity a sheep mentality—of blindly following the herd, particularly in the areas of consumerism, employment, etc. And while this is undoubtedly true at the macro level, there still appears space for ego to have its influence at the micro—a space that doesn’t feel fully explored or recognized in the book. Looking at social media, for example, it’s easy to ask: do people participate because others do, or is it a desire for self-expression, to stick out from the herd? For me, the answer is clearly both, yet Harari, it seems, would have it as the former. The example Harari gives is that affluent Westerners travel to exotic locations as media has told them their lives will be better. I travel a fair amount and have to say that thought never crossed my mind. The fact I only live once and want to see this world I live in has, however, crossed my mind several times. Beyond this, there is humanity’s nomadic roots, an idea Harari doesn’t mention. Perhaps the quibble is semantic and Harari is speaking the same language, nevertheless the question remains: does the book assume too much of an en masse mentality when in fact there may be other individual, motivating factors?
For people not well versed in the sciences of anthropology and sociology (like myself), Sapiens contains a number of intriguing ideas. For example, Harari, undoubtedly drawing on a number of viewpoints, posits that the thing separating humanity from the other animals is our ability to create fictional realities. From money to religion, country to culture, lies to novels, none of these things have tangible foundations yet they permeate and drive humanity in its multitude of directions. Seeing the ways which this facet permeates our existence is fascinating.
In the end, Sapiens is a captivating read that contextualizes most of how we live and have lived in a logical, interesting, science-based exposition. As titled, it is a book-length encyclopedia entry, with relevant examples, defining the history and current state of humanity from an external viewpoint based on what we know today, written in highly accessible language. A lot of the material tough to swallow (nobody likes to read that humanity is the worst virus Earth has ever seen), and some contentious (e.g. that humanity had an easier work day as hunter-gatherers than as farmers or businessmen), but perhaps it’s only by facing these ideas head on that humanity can begin to contextualize its existence with the broader universe and start to question its behavior? (No, I don’t expect it either, but it feels good to ask.)