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Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind by Yuval Noah Harari: review

Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind is a book that will show you how your world has been shaped around you.

Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind by Yuval Noah Harari (Amazon) is one of the best books I’ve read.

It covers sociology, history, anthropology, biology and more, but it’s much more than that. It tells the story of how homo sapiens came to be the dominant species on Earth from evolution to present day.

It’s engaging, thought-provoking and entertaining. It answers important questions like what differentiates us from other species to make the world our own. How we surpassed (and probably wiped out) the neanderthals. How, despite not being the biggest or strongest species, we managed to perch ourselves squarely on top of the food chain.

The book provides a macro-view of the important events that shaped the world as it is today. The introduction of nations, money, religion, politics, economics, culture, agriculture, imperialism, science, capitalism, law, history and so on.

Harari breaks the book into four distinct parts. These are key moments in history that shaped where we are today:

1. The Cognitive Revolution

For two million years humans were no different to other animals. We hunted, ate, slept and formed bonds with other humans much like chimps, apes and bonobos.

The only difference is a human brain is extraordinarily large compared with other animals.

Large brains were generally a hindrance in the African Savannah since more energy was required to run it. This energy could instead provide the muscles with more power to run away from predators or catch prey.

It wasn’t until 70,000 years ago that this large brain began to pay off. By Harari’s own admission we still don’t know exactly how the brain developed like it did though we can make various assumptions.

Additional neural networks allowed us to create flint knives and pointed sticks. Human hands allow us to create intricate tools that, say, an animal paw couldn’t.

From a social bonding perspective, human babies are born prematurely compared to other species meaning they are helpless for many years. This creates a strong social bond (important to survive) between child, parents and tribe.

In short, it was a large brain, the use of tools, superior learning abilities and complex social structures that were the basis of homo sapiens ascent to the top of the food chain.

2. The Agricultural Revolution

Although humans have been around for around for 2.5 million years it was only 12,000 years ago that the Agricultural Revolution began. The second of Harari’s key pivotal moments in human history.

In this section, he argues that humans were much healthier and happier when hunter-gatherers over farmers.

Farming made people’s lives more difficult and less satisfying than those of foragers. They worked harder, had less leisure time, their diets were poor and were less mentally stimulated than hunter-gatherers.

Our bodies were made for running, climbing and jumping. They weren’t designed to clear rocks or carry water buckets. Harari says the Agricultural Revolution was “history’s biggest fraud.”

Nevertheless, while the Agricultural Revolution did not benefit many at an individual level it paved the way for homo sapiens to multiply exponentially.

3. The Unification of Human Kind

What separates homo sapiens from other species is our ability to cooperate on a large scale. How do we do that when other species can’t? It’s our ability to believe things that exist in our imagination. Gods, nations, money, culture, human rights and so on are not tangible but rather belief systems.

No other animal has the ability to do this but humans can which unite us. For example, a Christian in the UK may feel an affinity with Christians in Rome, despite never visiting Italy or meeting an Italian.

These man-made orders, Harari says, are full of inconsistencies. Cultures are constantly trying to reconcile these contradictions and this process fuels change.

He gives an example of how people see equality and freedom as fundamental values, yet in reality the two contradict one another.

“Equality can be ensured only by curtailing the freedoms of those who are better off. Guaranteeing that every individual will be free to do as he wishes inevitably short-changes equality.”

Money is based on a promise. Empires were built on culture. Capitalism is a bet on the future. Religion a belief in superhuman order. All which are intangible but nevertheless united (and continue to unite) humans around the world.

4. The Scientific Revolution

Just 500 years ago the Scientific Revolution began and in that short time it has changed the world fundamentally.

If someone in the year 1000 fell asleep for 500 years and woke in the year 1500 very little would have changed. If they fell asleep in 1500 and woke up in the 21st century it would be a strange world beyond comprehension.

In the year 1500 there were around 500 million homo sapiens. Today there are 7.4 billion. In the year 1500 Earth’s total GDP was $250 million in today’s money. Today it is $60 trillion. Cities usually had fewer than 100,000 inhabitants and buildings were constructed of mud and wood.

If one modern day battleship went back to 1500 it could single-handedly sink every ship in each empire. It took three years (and countless lives) to circumnavigate the Earth. Today it takes no more than 48 hours.

Harari’s premise is the reason why the world has changed so much (and continues to change exponentially) is down to three things:

  • Humans’ ability to admit ignorance and that we do not know everything. Our curiosity is what drives innovation
  • Observation and mathematics. Having admitted ignorance humans (by way of science) aims to obtain new knowledge
  • The acquisition of new powers. Knowledge is power and not just theoretical power but technological power also

Woven in among this section of the book is how science fuelled imperialism, capitalism and industry and Harari touches on how science will impact the future of humanity.

If you want to understand his thoughts on the future then it’s worth reading his a follow-up book, Home Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow.

As stated, Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind is one of the best books I’ve read.

If you want to understand how we evolved to present day or how cultures and other social constructs shape us there is no better book than Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind.

Sapiens is written in an engaging style and unlike most books of this nature is not dry. The sheer amount of research that has gone into writing it means it will stand the test of time.

There are no fillers, repetition or mundane parts to this book. Each paragraph engages you and every chapter elaborate further on the previous.

The book provides a macro-view of our total history. It is meant to stimulate you to further research each of the wide topics covered in it.

I know I intend to. There were times I’d finish a chapter and have to put the book down to meditate on it for a while.

So far I’ve read it just once and in hindsight I should have made notes as I was working my way through it.

I intend to read the book again since it contains a vast amount of information and some of its points can shake your world view.

Which of course is what good books are meant to do.

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