2015; 415 pages. New Author? : Yes. Genre : Non-Fiction; Anthropology; History; Civilization & Culture. Laurels : National Library of China’s “Wenjin Book Award” for 2015. Overall Rating : 9*/10.
The title says it all. Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind (let’s shorten it to “Sapiens” from here on in) is an ambitious attempt to present the entire history, anthropology, and culture of the human race from the day we distinguished ourselves as Homo Sapiens up through the present, and briefly into the near future.
To do this in just a smidgen over 400 pages is no small undertaking, but Yuval Noah Harari gives us a remarkably concise yet detailed effort, managing to address a wide range of topics from the Neanderthals, “imagined orders”, how science and money worked hand-in-hand with imperialism, and the evolution from polytheism to monotheism.
But be forewarned. Prepare to have your core beliefs assailed on every front, with sacred cows given short shrift and everything you’ve taken for granted being open to question.
And let’s see if, by then end of the book, your prediction for mankind’s future matches up well with Harari’s.
What’s To Like...
Yuval Noah Harari divides Sapiens up into four chronological sections: The Cognitive Revolution (1% Kindle), where we learn to think differently. The Agricultural Revolution (16%), where we stop being hunter-gatherers and start being farmers. The Unification of Mankind (34%), where start banding into larger groups and getting into Imperialism. And the Scientific Revolution (51%), where we start focusing on learning from other cultures in the hopes that it’ll further our aims. As can be seen from the Kindle starting points, the sections are not equal in size, probably because we know a lot more about the last 5 centuries than we do about the time before we learned to farm.
Each of those sections is further broken up into chapters, and frankly, this is the best e-book yet that I’ve found for easy jumping from one chapter to another via the table-of-contents. Even the footnotes and links to bibliographical sources work slickly. I thoroughly appreciated that.
My favorite chapters were :
1.3. A Day in the Life of Adam & Eve. What it was like to be a hunter-gatherer.
2.2. Building Pyramids. Harari introduces the concept of “imagined orders”.
3.4. The Law of Religion. How polytheism evolved into monotheism, dualism, and other isms.
4.4. The Wheels of Industry. Consumerism, energy, and the industrialization of agriculture.
4.6. And They Lived Happily Ever After. Are we happier now than when we were living in caves?
Your faves will probably be different from mine.
The writing is a masterful blend of technical data and the author’s cultural and anthropological opinions. I found it to be kind of a non-fiction version of Stephen Baxter’s masterpiece, Evolution (reviewed here). It’s written in “English”, as opposed to “American”, but that wasn’t a distraction.
But the best part of Sapiens is the literary style. Yuval Noah Harari challenges you to re-examine your belief-systems about history, your fellow humans, and society’s ethics. I think this was deliberate, and among the groups he targets are devout theists, nationalists, bigots, capitalists, communists, Reaganomics adherents, humanists, carnivores, and liberals (in the European sense of the word). Lots of reviewers seemed annoyed by this; I thought it was great.
Sapiens is a relatively recent book (February, 2015), but there has been an incredible response to it. At Amazon, as of this writing, 2,576 people has taken the time to write reviews. Wowza! The Goodreads stats are even more amazing: 43,385 ratings, 4,081 reviews, and an overall rating of 4.36.
The book closes with a couple chapters on Harari’s predictions for the future of Homo Sapiens. He makes no guarantees or firm prophecies, and apparently this serves as a segue for the book’s sequel. See the “Kindle Details” section, below.
The fundamental insight of polytheism, which distinguishes it from monotheism, is that the supreme power governing the world is devoid of interests and biases, and therefore it is unconcerned with the mundane desires, cares and worries of humans. It’s pointless to ask this power for victory in war, for health or for rain, because from its all-encompassing vantage point, it makes no difference whether a particular kingdom wins or loses, whether a particular city prospers or withers, whether a particular person recuperates or dies. The Greeks did not waste any sacrifices on Fate, and Hindus built no temples to Atman. (loc. 3321)
The figures for 2002 are even more surprising. Out of 57 million dead, only 172,000 people died in war and 569,000 died of violent crime (a total of 741,000 victims of human violence). In contrast, 873,000 people committed suicide. It turns out that in the year following the 9/11 attacks, despite all the talk of terrorism and war, the average person was more likely to kill himself than to be killed by a terrorist, a soldier or a drug dealer. (loc. 5738)
Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind sells for $16.99, which seems steep until you realize it’s a top-tier, recently-released, non-fiction book. Yuval Noah Harari has only one other e-book available for the Kindle, Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow (the sequel to Sapiens), and it sells for $17.99.
Is there anything more dangerous than dissatisfied and irresponsible gods who don’t know what they want? (loc. 6535)
There are some quibbles. First, and least-most, there were a bunch of kewl pictures, graphs, and maps, but they were small and didn’t enlarge when you clicked on them. I guess there are still some advantages to reading a non-electronic book.
Also, although the first two sections of Sapiens are fantastic, things did slow down a bit as we got into more modern times, and the writing changed from historical and archaeological to cultural and anthropological. To some degree, this is unavoidable. Discussing economics and corporate business strategy just isn’t as exciting as Neanderthals and Cro-Magnons coming in contact with each other.
Finally, it has to admitted that Harari gets preachy at times, with personal opinions replacing scientific objectivity. Among his pet subjects are Buddhism (he likes it), animal rights (PETA would be proud), and blind religious faith (he minces no words).
But if you don’t mind being prodded into thinking about your beliefs, or about the many “imagined orders” that are drilled into our minds from an early age, you will find Sapiens to be a thought-provoking masterpiece that just might change the way you think about all sorts of things. And very few books can do that.
9 Stars. Subtract 3 stars if you're comfortably numb in your beliefs, and get insecure if/when someone or something disturbs them. Add ½ star if you’re an ancient history fan, and the more ancient, the better. That's me.