Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankindby Yuval Noah Harari Published 01 Jan 2014
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100,000 years ago, at least six human species inhabited the earth. Today there is just one. Us. Homo sapiens.
How did our species succeed in the battle for dominance? Why did our foraging ancestors come together to create cities and kingdoms? How did we come to believe in gods, nations and human rights; to trust money, books and laws; and to be enslaved by bureaucracy, timetables and consumerism? And what will our world be like in the millennia to come?
In Sapiens, Dr Yuval Noah Harari spans the whole of human history, from the very first humans to walk the earth to the radical – and sometimes devastating – breakthroughs of the Cognitive, Agricultural and Scientific Revolutions. Drawing on insights from biology, anthropology, paleontology and economics, he explores how the currents of history have shaped our human societies, the animals and plants around us, and even our personalities. Have we become happier as history has unfolded? Can we ever free our behaviour from the heritage of our ancestors? And what, if anything, can we do to influence the course of the centuries to come?
Bold, wide-ranging and provocative, Sapiens challenges everything we thought we knew about being human: our thoughts, our actions, our power ... and our future.
"Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind" Reviews
This book had changed my life, the way I think, the way I precept the world.
I think it should be an obligatory book for everyone on this planet.
I believe I am relatively familiar with history in general, and I'm usually not very excited about reading more about it. But this book was something else.
Beautifully written and easy to read, this book just made me want to know more and more about how the author thinks the world evolved to what it is today. Revolution by revolution, religion by religion, conception by conception, things were simplified and yet still maintained valid points - and it was never boring.
The best thing about it was that it actually made me think.
The author doesn't treat you as ignorant at all - he doesn't assume you know nothing but assume you know a lot and understand a lot, and doesn't lecture about anything, and that attitude makes the book a pleasure to read.
Just read it.
Is there anything more dangerous than dissatisfied and irresponsible gods who don't know what they want?
What a fantastic book. I can see why everyone from Bill Gates to Barack Obama was raving about it. It's an extremely compelling, accessible history - almost like a novelization - of humankind.
I've read a few of these "brief history of the world" books, most notably A History of the World in 100 Objects and Bryson's A Short History of Nearly Everything. I liked both, but neither is as engaging as this book. Also, Harari's book stays vague on the physics, dinosaurs and such, unlike Bryson's work, making this not so much about the whole universe, but specifically about humans. Or, I should clarify, homo sapiens.
Most of all, I like how easy to digest the author makes all this information. I have a lot of respect for authors who can present something complex in simple terms. I've always liked the quote attributed to Einstein “If You Can’t Explain it to a Six Year Old, You Don’t Understand it Yourself”. Anyone with a thesaurus can make something seem more dense and complicated than it is; it's much harder to explain something long and complicated in a way that everyone can enjoy.
And it does read like a really exciting and fascinating novel. Harari takes us through the history of human development and migration, through the Cognitive Revolution [spoilers removed] and Agricultural Revolution. He looks at how currency and coinage developed, the creation of religions, the arrival of imperialism and capitalism, and the history of inequalities and injustices.
I especially like how he presents a relatively unbiased view of events. He focuses on what we know, and is quick to say when something remains a mystery to biologists and anthropologists. When there are conflicting theories, he outlines all the main ones. The only agenda Hariri seems driven by is a desire to present the most accurate view of humanity's history.
This book filled me with a sense of wonder. Wonder at how far we've come in just a few millennia; wonder at all the twisting roads of history; wonder at where we could possibly end up. The final chapters of the book take a peek at the future's possibility, making me even more excited (and a little scared) to read Homo Deus.
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This book is a superficial gloss on human history. Nice try but it excludes too much data in favor of an overarching conceptual view to be deeply interesting. Stopped reading for reasons detailed below at p. 304 of 416.
Considering the outlandishness of some of its claims—the downside of the Agricultural Revolution, the joys of Empire—the book seems weirdly under-sourced. The bibliography is beyond meagre. Don't get me wrong, I like a little informed speculation as much as anyone. Take for example the claim that houses, their advent, "became the psychological hallmark of a much more self-centered creature." (p. 99) I, for one, would be delighted to know how one can discern the psychology of someone who lived more than 9,000 years ago. The apparently relevant note cited is "2 Robert B. Marks, The Origins of the Modern World: A Global and Ecological Narrative". But when one looks up Mr. Marks' book one sees that it pertains only to the 15th to the 21st centuries CE.
Another thing, the book seems all biological determinism—and we know what that sort of thinking led to: the Konzentrationslager. The life of the mind is nothing here, the intellect nothing, all because it has no discernible basis in biology—so reductive and materialist, too. I'm hoping this is just a rhetorical device. Please, let it be. Moreover, the author cherishes a certain sneering and glib tone which I find annoying. Well, yes, now he's changing his tune, isn't he? But not before thoroughly pissing me off. Was that necessary? Ah, now he's starting to celebrate the very social constructs—the law, the state, joint stock corporations, etc.—that he so glibly belittled as "imaginary myths" a few pages back. So his earlier arguments were disingenuous. That's not something I prize in a writer.
Notwithstanding the questionable attempt to raise the reader's hackles, just mentioned, I find myself on p. 170 and 95% of this is material I already know. Granted, the author tries to package it as felicitously as possible, but it's still stuff I know and, no doubt, material my well read GR friends will also know. What I had hoped for on cracking this formidable spine was something far more intellectually challenging, like Naipaul. Still, I find myself nursing a hope that this is just an overly long introduction to a thrilling thesis. At the same time I fear it will turn out to be another tedious read for a far less learned general reader than myself. Am I overqualified for this book? Trepidation abounds. 2.0 stars so far, inauspicious.
Meh. It's really an undergraduate survey course, if that. It's a great review of common knowledge that seeks to find new linkages and epiphanies. It sometimes works. But often the linkages are specious. As when he terms liberal humanism a religion. It isn't, though it's a neat shorthand for his minimalist theories. Now I'm reading about how religions are unifiers. The author certainly has a flair for the obvious, I'll say that much. Here's an example of author Harari's reductiveness, which is inevitable in a book skirting so many vast subjects. On p. 232 we read: "The Aryan race therefore had the potential to turn man into superman." Nietzsche is nowhere mentioned. The statement is wholly lacking in context—the Nazis are glossed but that's all. It really doesn't make coherent sense. Gloss, that's the word that best describes this book. A gloss.
The writer is careless with metaphors. We're told that cultures are "mental parasites," that "history disregards the happiness of individuals" and that "history made its most momentous choice." (p. 243-244). To say such things is to give agency to the non-sentient and adds to the narrative's by now utterly grating superficiality. Here's yet another bizarro statement:
Had the Aztecs and Incas shown a bit more interest in the world surrounding them – and had they known what the Spaniards had done to their neighbors – they might have resisted the Spanish conquest more keenly and successfully. (p.292)
Nonsense. The Spaniards had guns, germs and steel. Reread Jared Diamond and William H. Prescott, Mr. Harari. Foreknowledge would have availed the indigenous peoples little or nothing. The author goes on to admit as much in the paragraphs to follow, but why then wasn't that earlier sentence cut? But it gets better:
If the subject peoples of the Inca Empire had known the fates of the inhabitants of Mexico, they would not have thrown in their lot with the invaders. But they did not now....[Thus] the native peoples of America...[paid] a heavy price for their parochial outlook.
It's astonishing the author should use that ecclesiastical word. For what was the ostensible motivation of the conquerors but the glory of Christendom. Harari is blaming the victims. The world view of the Aztecs and Incas and others was limited. Harari blames them because they had not yet advanced beyond that basic if incomplete awareness. He then goes on to excoriate all of Asia and Africa for not having had the wherewithal to explore the world and conquer others. But these are cultural predilections, not standardized goals applicable to all. This leads to an unseemly West is the Best argument that's right out of Niall Ferguson's Empire: The Rise and Demise of the British World Order.
Is this book popular because it essentially functions as the West's cheering section? It's lovely we have developed science and technology and historiography etc. I'm glad I live in the West. But it's absurd to say that earlier cultures, because they did not develop in a timely manner our own particular brand of curiosity, were deficient. All cultures are blood soaked, our own included. The world is only what it is, not some counter-factual supposition.
Had I stopped reading after the first section, I’d have given this a five stars and whined that the Goodreads platform doesn’t aloe reviewers to go higher. But I didn’t stop. I kept reading, . . . until it got so bad, I found myself unable to do more than skim, and eventually, to just skipping large chunks.
It starts out as a fascinating discussion of the development and rise of our species, homo sapiens. But starting in the second section on the Agricultural Revolution, Harari shift gears and drops any pretense of an scholarly work. From that point on, it’s all personal bias all the time. This guy absolutely hates human beings and society. It seems that he is completely stuck in the idea that the world would have been better off had humanity simply stayed put in the hunter-gatherer stage.It seems all the countless billions of humans who lived since then are deluded and don't get it, and that only he understands. Yeah, right!
OK. There are worse sins than personal bias. Many great writers have it and let it show. But unlike Harari, the good ones work to try to justify the positions they take. Harari, on the other hand just bombards readers with one opinion after another and treats them as proven fact, even though what he says is often debatable or out and out wrong. That’s one of the reasons I gave up on a close reading as I progressed into the second half. Even when it seemed as if Harari was selling me something I didn’t know (which did not occur often), I simply did not trust him. An author can choose to forego many things. Credibility and trust are not among them.
Perhaps the best way to illustrate this mess is through a conversation I once had among people who liked to discuss philosophy. Somehow or other, though, this conversation veered off into a set of irritating rants on how western society sucks. The thing that sticks out most in my memory is how the host went off on a diatribe about the greatness of nature and Native Americans and about how he was fine being a non-vegetarian because the cows understood human need for meat and were happy to offer themselves as a precious spiritual gift to humanity. My reply: “That conclusion is based on interviews with how many cows?” The conversation abruptly ended. That is exactly the way I reacted to the self-serving gibberish offered by Harari under the guise of scholarly presentation.
It is again unpopular opinion time! It seems it becomes a rule for me not to enjoy a book that everyone seems to love. Well, someone has to. Here we go with the review. Prepare your tomatoes and raw eggs (someone actually threw a raw egg at me once for fun but it bounced from my bum )
Sapiens’ beginning was fantastic. I loved the author’s voice and the information about the early days of the human kind was fascinating. I did not read any non-fiction about the origin of humans so I was excited to understand our origins better. I could not stop highlighting interesting passages to include in my review or to read later. Here are some of the ones that picked my interest.
“It’s relatively easy to agree that only Homo sapiens can speak about things that don’t really exist, and believe six impossible things before breakfast. You could never convince a monkey to give you a banana by promising him limitless bananas after death in monkey heaven.”
“Telling effective stories is not easy. The difficulty lies not in telling the story, but in convincing everyone else to believe it. Much of history revolves around this question: how does one convince millions of people to believe particular stories about gods, or nations, or limited liability companies? Yet when it succeeds, it gives Sapiens immense power, because it enables millions of strangers to cooperate and work towards common goals.”
However, everything started to go downhill from somewhere in the middle of Part II. From an eager and excited reader I slowly became pissed off, disappointed and struggled to finish. I had several problems that plagued my reading experience and I plan to exemplify them below.
First of all, I soon grew tired of the author’s ironic and condescending humor. His ego was transpiring from all his words and his personal opinions and the way he tried to enforce them annoyed me more and more.
Secondly, I felt like many of his assumptions and extrapolations had no proof and they only represent the author’s personal opinion. For example, the way he supported for the whole book that humans were better of as hunter-gathers without bringing no real arguments to support his opinion.
Finally, I had a problem with the scope of Sapiens. As the titles suggests, the book tries to be A Brief History of Humankind. I believe he did not succeed very well to do that and the reason is that it is quite impossible to do what the author planned in less than 500 pages. The task is too vast. The result is mix of everything with no structure, jumping from one subject to another and confusing the reader. The information was too vague, too general, it all resembled a set of interesting trivia.
When reading other negative reviews of Sapiens I stumbled repeatedly on a recommendation: Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies. The book was already on my TBR so it is going to be the next read on the subject. I hope it will be better.