Review of “Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind” by Yuval Noah Harari

You know without looking that a book subtitled A Brief History of Humankind is an ambitious undertaking. And when you see the book is only 416 pages long, you suspect the author must paint with a rather broad brush. But that approach might work if you step back far enough and enjoy the view from a great distance. So is such a book worth reading? In the case of Sapiens, I think the answer is an enthusiastic Yes!

The author has a PhD in history for the University of Oxford and now lectures on world history. His organizing principle for this book is that three revolutions greatly affected human history. They were: (1) the cognitive revolution—begun about 70,000 years ago; (2) the agricultural revolution—begun about 12,000 years ago; and (3) the scientific revolution, begun about 500 years ago.

The cognitive revolution probably began when humans began to walk upright instead of shambling along on four limbs like modern day apes. Standing upright allowed sapiens to scan their surroundings for game or enemies. More importantly, it freed their arms for throwing things or signaling and it allowed their hands to develop significant dexterity.

Mastering the use of fire brought some unusual consequences. It was not only a source of heat and light, it was a formidable weapon against larger animals. Harari argues that for most of their existence, men were in the middle of the food chain and only comparatively recently, with the development of weapons, have been able to hunt large game. The ecosystem has not had time to adjust to man’s current food chain primacy. Moreover:

“[h]aving so recently been one of the underdogs of the savannah, we are full of fears and anxieties over our position, which makes us doubly cruel and dangerous. Many historical calamities, from deadly wars to ecological catastrophes, have resulted from this over-hasty jump.”

Most cultural historians point to the invention of agriculture as an event that freed man from some of the vicissitudes of primitive existence and fueled further development of the human brain. Harari disagrees. He argues that the life of a farmer required much more work than that of a hunter-gatherer. Moreover, most early farmers were virtually trapped on their lands in order to protect their crops from marauding scavengers like crows and other humans. The Agricultural Revolution, Harari avers, “left farmers with lives generally more difficult and less satisfying than those of foragers.” Extra food did not translate into a better diet or more leisure, he notes: “Rather, it translated into population explosions and pampered elites.” In other words, he claims, “plants domesticated Homo sapiens, rather than vice versa.”

The aspect of human development that allowed us to take primacy over all other species was the sophistication of our language, a unique feature of which is the ability to transmit information about things that do not exist. This in turn allowed us to create myths, which made collective cooperation possible.

Harari makes numerous interesting observations about the organizing myths of Sapien society. One of his most interesting chapters is about religion. He points out that when animism (the religious belief that objects, places and creatures all possess a distinct spiritual essence) was replaced by polytheism (a belief that the world is controlled by a group of powerful gods), the greatest impact was on mankind’s conception of mankind. He observes:

“Animists thought that humans were just one of many creatures inhabiting the world. Polytheists, on the other hand, increasingly saw the world as a reflection of the relationship between gods and humans. Our prayers, our sacrifices, our sins and our good deeds determined the fate of the entire ecosystem. [emphasis added]”

Then polytheism was replaced by monotheism which Harari doesn’t see as a positive step. He explains that polytheism does recognize a supreme power governing the universe, standing behind all the different gods who take care of day-to-day matters. (In modern parlance, we might understand this as the gods who figure out which football team to favor in a match, which makes more sense than both sides counting on Jesus.)

Pantheon of Roman Gods

Since it is the multitude of lesser gods that are concerned with the mundane cares of humans, the supreme power is devoid of interests and biases. Thus, Harari argues, “polytheism is conducive to far-reaching religious tolerance.” On the other hand:

“Monotheists have tended to be far more fanatical and missionary than polytheists. A religion that recognises the legitimacy of other faiths implies either that its god is not the supreme power of the universe, or that it received from God just part of the universal truth.”

It is necessary, therefore, for monotheists to “strengthen their hand by violently exterminating all competition.”

Unfortunately, monotheists have a bit of problem explaining away evil. Somewhat wryly, Harari contends:

“There is one logical way of solving the riddle [of evil]: to argue that there is a single omnipotent God who created the entire universe – and He’s evil. But nobody in history has had the stomach for such a belief.”

Religious beliefs have limits in other ways too. The Scientific Revolution, which began about 500 years ago, has caused tremendous changes in the way people live and think. Harari maintains that a key to the revolution was the discovery of our ignorance. When man realized that not all knowledge was contained in sacred texts, he began to look elsewhere for knowledge. Then he discovered that he could learn about the world by examining it and challenging prior beliefs.

Galileo

One group of Sapiens, the Europeans, caught on to the implications of the scientific revolution faster than any other group on the planet. Modern science and the institution of capitalism allowed them to dominate the late modern world.

Harari concludes with some dour observations about the fate of our species. He says, “As far as we can tell, from a purely scientific viewpoint, human life has absolutely no meaning.” He warns that we can’t be certain that modern science won’t create a replacement for Homo sapiens by fashioning beings who possess completely different cognitive and emotional worlds. He cautions:

“What we should take seriously is the idea that the next stage of history will include not only technological and organizational transformations, but also fundamental transformations in human consciousness and identity.”

Lastly, Harari wants to make sure we know that we are a danger to ourselves and other species. Harari believes the situation of other animals is deteriorating more rapidly than ever before. He compares our powers to those of ancient gods but grouses that we are directionless. His final sentence is:

“Is there anything more dangerous than dissatisfied and irresponsible gods who don’t know what they want?”

Evaluation: This book is chock full of incisive and trenchant observations and occasional humor, but its concluding mood is pessimistic. His next book, Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow,, attempts to show the way out of the fix in which he leaves us in Sapiens.

Note: The hardback book contains photos, maps, and a timeline. You have to love a timeline that begins 13.5 billion years ago.

Rating: 4/5 stars

Published by HarperCollins, 2015

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