I read Sapiens for the first meeting of my new book club, and it was definitely a work that lent itself to discussion. Packed with great quotes and insights into human experience, this is not your typical, dry history book. The author, Yuval Noah Harari, goes beyond an explanation of how we reached this particular point in human history—he digs deeper and tries to analyze the biological precedents that created contemporary human life.
To accomplish this aim, he draws on a wide range of research from across the humanities and the sciences. But his overall perspective is that culture has overrun and overwritten the natural conditions of human existence—and he doesn’t necessarily think this is a “good thing”, as many others might argue.
“Biology enables, culture forbids,” Harari accuses.
Yuval Noah Harari is a professor of World History at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, and it’s clear from the title alone that Harris’ interest in history extends far beyond the constraints of a particular era or epoch. Sapiens is an ambitious attempt to survey the full breadth of human history, as well as the course of humanity’s cultural evolution. The work bears striking similarity, in both style and subject matter, to Jared Diamond’s Pulitzer Prize-winning masterpiece Guns, Germs and Steel. Indeed, the back cover is graced by a quote from Diamond himself, singing the book’s praises.
Sapiens is divided into four sections, tackling four eras in human history: (1) the Cognitive Revolution of early homo sapiens, (2) the Agricultural Revolution of ancient human civilizations, (3) the modern unification of humankind through colonialism and mercantilism, and, finally, (4) the Scientific Revolution that continues into the present day. Across these sections, Harari engages topics as diverse as the discovery of fire and the role of social gossip, the institution of marriage and the invention of money.
The most interesting and insightful section of Sapiens is undoubtedly the first 75 pages on early human societies. The narrative opens with a discussion of how homo sapiens came to eradicate other hunter-gatherer societies, like the Neanderthals and the Denisovans, that were once our distant cousins: the “first and most significant ethnic-cleansing campaign in history”, as Harari calls it. The reason for our dominance, Harari explains, lies in our ability to construct narratives and myths for ourselves—something no other sub-species of homo was able to do.
Despite his respect for humankind’s unique abilities, Harari is also keen to expose the great misconceptions of history. He calls the Agricultural Revolution “history’s biggest fraud”. He suggests that ancient communes were a better model for child-raising than marriage. And he argues convincingly that money acts as a “universal truth”, which is able to anchor civil society on a global level—the best counter-argument to Marxism that I’ve ever heard. But nothing exemplifies Harari’ radical perspective on human life better than the following quote:
“Nothing in the comfortable lives of the urban middle class can approach the wild excitement and sheer joy experienced by a forager band on a successful mammoth hunt. Every new invention puts another mile between us and the Garden of Eden.”
Whether Harari is onto something, or simply spends too much time living in the annals of history, is up to the reader. But his concluding question, “what do we want to want [in the future]?” places the outcome of humankind’s story firmly in our own hands and I have to agree with that emphasis. The internal configuration of human desires is not a simple matter and it deserves all of our attention.
“Those who are not spooked by this question probably haven’t given it enough thought,” Harari concludes. I am definitely spooked. Are you? If not, then you should probably read the whole book.
Find it here.