“Sapiens” by Yuval Noah Harari takes readers on a fast-paced journey through the history of Homo sapiens. It explores how the revolutions, breakthroughs, and changes of the past seventy thousand years have shaped the modern world. The book also offers speculations about the future of our species.
While the author occasionally expresses opinions and is not infallible, “Sapiens” is an exhilarating and thought-provoking read that will change the way you perceive the people around you.
If you’re still unsure about whether to read this book, this review will provide you with all the information you need to decide if it’s worth your time. So, let’s dive in without delay.
Table of Contents
Lesson 1: The cognitive revolution provided Homo sapiens with the intellectual and linguistic tools necessary to expand across the globe.
Around 150,000 years ago, Homo sapiens, our species, emerged on the scene. For many millennia, they peacefully inhabited East Africa without producing anything of significant artistic or technical value. However, when the Neanderthals attempted to migrate north, Homo sapiens engaged them in a conflict and emerged victorious. Subsequently, they returned to their homeland, leaving the Middle East to the Neanderthals for another 30,000 years.
Approximately 70,000 years ago, a remarkable shift occurred. Homo sapiens experienced a tremendous leap in their capabilities. They started crafting various objects like vessels, lights, and advanced weapons such as bows and arrows. They also formed larger, more intricate societies and engaged in trade among themselves.
As Homo sapiens developed more efficient hunting techniques, they inadvertently set off a series of extinction events. For instance, about 50,000 years ago, Australia was teeming with sizable land animals like towering sloths and minivan-sized armadillos. Unfortunately, the majority of these creatures vanished within a few thousand years of Homo sapiens’ arrival.
It is believed that our sapien ancestors likely outcompeted other human species, as evidenced by insights from time travel. Once again, after leaving Africa, the Neanderthals and Homo sapiens clashed in a war. This time, the Homo sapiens emerged victorious, conquering not only the Middle East but also eradicating all other human civilizations.
Although the exact evolutionary breakthrough responsible for Homo sapiens’ current dominance over other species, known as the cognitive revolution, remains a mystery, there was a time when our minds were on par with those of the Neanderthals. The prevailing theory suggests that an accidental genetic mutation enhanced our cognitive abilities by rewiring our brains—a fortunate coincidence, indeed!
Understanding the impact of the cognitive revolution may be more crucial than unraveling its origins. Notably, the most significant consequence of this fortuitous genetic mutation was the gift of speech, enabling Homo sapiens to develop complex language—a pivotal factor contributing to their subsequent success.
Lesson 2: The ability to communicate through a complex language has contributed significantly to the success and spread of Homo sapiens.
Did you know that language is a powerful tool that has set humans apart from other species and contributed to our global dominance? In fact, our linguistic abilities are so unique that they have enabled us to work together in large groups, paving the way for human civilization as we know it today.
Animals like bees and chimpanzees also use communication methods to relay important information within their communities. Bees buzz to tell their fellow bees where food is, while chimpanzees have specific calls to warn about approaching dangers. However, their communication systems are far less complex than ours, and this limits their cooperation and adaptability.
Humans, on the other hand, have evolved to communicate in sophisticated ways, sharing crucial details about food, predators, and even potentially untrustworthy group members. This advanced communication gives us a competitive advantage by enabling us to work together and make informed decisions.
While bees can cooperate in large numbers, their social order is quite rigid and struggles to adapt to environmental changes. Chimpanzees have a more flexible cooperation style but are limited to smaller groups due to the time-consuming nature of building trust and understanding among members.
Humans, however, possess a unique ability to cooperate on a large scale and adapt to changes in our environment, thanks to our complex language skills. We can communicate not only about the physical world but also about abstract concepts like religion, history, and human rights.
According to historian Yuval Noah Harari, this ability to create and share “common myths” has been instrumental in human civilization’s development. Our capacity to believe in and act upon shared fictions, such as money, gods, and governments, has allowed us to work together in larger groups and achieve common goals.
Consider currency: there is no inherent value in money itself. Yet, when people believe in its worth, they can participate in complex exchange systems essential for modern society. Similarly, without shared beliefs in governments and their rules, it would be nearly impossible to unite millions of people to work toward a common goal, such as paying taxes or abiding by laws.
In the early days of human existence, our ancestors gathered in groups of around 150 individuals. However, as our languages and shared mythologies evolved, we were able to expand our communities dramatically, eventually forming cities, nations, and today’s globally connected societies.
Lesson 3: The agricultural revolution resulted in a shift in mankind’s way of life from foraging to farming, leading to a significant increase in population.
Throughout much of human history, Homo sapiens lived a nomadic lifestyle, wandering from place to place in search of food and shelter. They didn’t settle in one spot but followed the food supply as it changed.
Around 12,000 BC, a significant shift occurred as people transitioned from hunting and gathering to agriculture and animal domestication – this transformation is often called the agricultural revolution. In the past ten thousand years, the majority of humanity has embraced farming as a way of life.
This major change in human history is both astonishing and puzzling. It’s hard to comprehend why our ancestors chose agriculture over the comparatively easier lifestyle of hunting and gathering. Farming required much more effort and time, with farmers working long hours in the fields, while a hunter-gatherer could gather sufficient food in just four hours.
Moreover, the quality of food available through early agriculture was inferior. Our ancestors had limited nutritious food options since early crops, like wheat, were difficult to digest and lacked essential nutrients and vitamins. This pales in comparison to the plentiful supply of meat, nuts, fruits, and fish that hunter-gatherers enjoyed. It begs the question: why did we opt for longer working hours and a lower-quality diet?
There are two primary reasons for this shift.
First, the transition to agriculture was a slow, laborious process. With each generation, farming became more deeply rooted in society. By the time people recognized the drawbacks of agriculture, it was too late to revert to the old ways.
Second, despite its downsides, agriculture had one major benefit: it generated far more food per land area. This increased food availability allowed human populations to grow rapidly, as farmers learned to cultivate various edible crops on small plots of land. The agricultural revolution made it possible to support larger populations, albeit under deteriorating conditions.
Lesson 4: Humans developed monetary systems and written languages to streamline trade within large populations.
Before the agricultural revolution, there were fewer complications in people’s daily lives. For example, if your meat supply ran low, you could politely ask your neighbors to share their supplies. Most people would help you if they knew you would help them if they needed it in the future.
However, the growth of agriculture led to the transformation of this quid pro quo based economy into a barter system.
The efficiency of agriculture allowed farmers to provide enough food for their towns. Once they were no longer constantly searching for the next food, some people focused on other skills such as blacksmithing and weaving. They traded their finished products for food with farmers who had a need for them.
However, the barter system quickly became insufficient.
Growing competition in the market made it increasingly difficult to find a buyer for one’s goods and a seller for one’s products. For example, what would you do if the farmer you were bartering with already owned many knives and you wanted a juicy pig in exchange for your knife? Or suppose he needed a knife but did not have a pig on which to practice his butchering skills. He might say that one day he will give you a pig, but what guarantees do you have that he will?
Around 3000 BC, people invented writing and money as a solution to this kind of problem.
The Sumerians in Mesopotamia were the first to use this method. Simple economic symbols were used to record business transactions on clay tablets, which made it possible to record increasingly complicated exchanges. Around the same time, barley money established itself as the predominant form of exchange.
This method allows you to pay the pig farmer in a currency that is freely exchangeable for goods and services. Alternatively, you can record the exchange and use it as evidence if he breaks his promise to deliver you a pig.
Lesson 5: The rise of imperial powers and organized religion facilitated the development of a unified global society.
The evolution of paper currency and written language paved the way for easier business transactions and lessened the likelihood of economic fraud. However, as populations and economies expanded, managing them became increasingly complex.
So, how did ancient societies tackle this issue?
They implemented legal systems and created hierarchical authority structures to regulate citizen behavior. This led to the birth of monarchies and totalitarian states where one individual held supreme power over society.
Today, these ancient monarchies and empires are often criticized. But it’s crucial to acknowledge their invaluable role in ensuring political, social, and economic stability. They established efficient administrative structures that standardized legislation and societal norms.
Let’s consider a case in point. In 1776 BC, Babylonia, the world’s largest empire, boasted a population exceeding a million. King Hammurabi, its ruler, issued a set of guidelines, known as the Code of Hammurabi, to regulate society and bolster his rule.
The Code addressed concerns like theft, murder, and taxation, thus cultivating a common understanding of legal and illegal actions. Within the empire, citizens understood the rules and practices that governed them.
However, merely accepting these laws intellectually didn’t guarantee compliance. Monarchs and emperors often utilized religion to gain the respect of their subjects, which was vital for enforcing laws effectively. King Hammurabi, for instance, claimed divine appointment to legitimize his rule. If people believed their leader was divinely chosen, they were more inclined to respect imperial authority. This shows how myths, widely believed, can bind a large population, even an empire, together.
The religions promoted by these imperial governments also grew in influence and stature as the empires expanded. These empires, acting as melting pots, brought together various ethnic and religious minorities, gradually assimilating them into a few large cultures through a mix of force and gradual integration.
Lesson 6: The Scientific Revolution laid the foundation for the Industrial Revolution, global imperialism, and rapid economic expansion.
During the 16th and 17th centuries, humanity experienced a pivotal shift. The Scientific Revolution transformed Europe, leading people to harness science to shape their future, rather than leave it to fate. They embraced a systematic approach of discovery, observation, and experimentation, leading to ground-breaking advancements in various fields, including medicine, astronomy, and physics.
Take infant mortality, for example. In the past, losing several children in infancy was distressingly common, even for affluent families. Today, due to scientific progress, child mortality is remarkably low, with death at birth occurring in just one out of every thousand instances.
The benefits of scientific research weren’t limited to human health. European governments realized the economic potential of scientific endeavors. Kings and emperors sponsored scientists and researchers, hoping their discoveries could bring prosperity and resources to their nations.
A prime example of this is Christopher Columbus’s historic voyage across the Atlantic. This exploration, supported by the king, yielded immense wealth in gold and silver, sparking a competition among European nations to uncover uncharted territories.
As rulers claimed vast new lands, they recognized that traditional knowledge sources, like Christian scriptures and oral traditions, were insufficient. They needed a wealth of scientific data about these new regions, encompassing geography, culture, language, climate, biodiversity, and history.
This era of discovery and technological progress spurred economic growth in Europe. While imperial expansion led to the demise of many indigenous cultures, it also gave rise to global empires and trade networks, fostering connections between previously isolated societies. This period in history marked a significant leap in our understanding of the world, and its impact continues to resonate today.
1. Unveiling the Power of Belief
Have you ever stopped to question the foundations of our beliefs? Sapiens takes us on a fascinating journey through the intricate web of human evolution and history, exposing the underlying power of our shared fictions.
From religion and natural law to economic theories and government laws, Harari reveals that these belief systems are constructed by humans and gain power through collective acceptance.
It’s a thought-provoking notion that challenges our perception of reality. The collapse of the mortgage market in 2007 serves as a stark reminder of how fragile these fictions can be. By delving into the profound implications of our collective belief systems, Sapiens encourages us to critically examine the narratives that shape our lives.
2. Exploring the Boundaries of Reality and Happiness
The book delves into the realm of spirituality and the nature of human happiness, presenting both sobering and intriguing ideas. Harari challenges our perceptions of reality by questioning the reliability of our senses. He ponders the existence of the color blue, emphasizing the subjective nature of our interpretations.
Sapiens reminds us that our realities are shaped by the power of imagination—a power we can harness to find solace and meaning in our lives. Furthermore, the discussion on human happiness reveals a fundamental paradox.
Our choices and actions often undermine our long-term well-being, raising profound philosophical and ethical questions. These reflections offer a unique perspective on the human condition and provoke deep contemplation.
3. Thought-Provoking Ideas and Microscopic Examples
“Sapiens” is not just a book on history; it offers profound insights into the possibilities of our future. Harari emphasizes that studying history is not about making predictions but about understanding the vast array of potential outcomes. Additionally, the book explores the concept of humans evolving into superhumans and delves into the Agricultural Revolution as history’s biggest fraud. These discussions challenge our preconceived notions and present philosophical and ethical implications that leave a lasting impact.
What makes “Sapiens” truly engaging is the author’s skillful ability to seamlessly transition between macroscopic principles and detailed microscopic examples.
Whether it’s examining the Code of Hammurabi and the Declaration of Independence to illustrate the imagined nature of social orders, recounting the Roman Empire’s siege of Numantia to explore the complexities of imperial legacies, or concocting fictional tales like McDoughnut, Stone, and Greedy to explain the emergence of credit, Harari masterfully weaves together compelling narratives.
The book is replete with vivid and explicit examples, ranging from a mathematical equation representing our cognitive abilities to an ingredient list of a hand cream symbolizing modern industrial sophistication.
1. Lack of Balanced Perspectives
One notable drawback of Sapiens is its tendency to present a predominantly one-sided view of complex issues. While the book is thought-provoking and offers unique insights, it often fails to provide a balanced exploration of different perspectives. Harari’s strong opinions and biases can overshadow alternative viewpoints, leaving readers with a limited understanding of the multifaceted nature of the topics discussed.
Throughout the book, Harari offers sweeping statements and generalizations without adequately addressing counterarguments or acknowledging the complexities inherent in the subjects under scrutiny. This lack of balance can lead to a skewed interpretation of historical events and contemporary issues, leaving readers without a comprehensive understanding of the nuances involved.
2. Hesitation to Draw Conclusions
While Sapiens presents a wealth of fascinating insights, one major drawback is Harari’s reluctance to draw firm conclusions. He delves into the realms of religion, agriculture, and corporations, challenging long-held beliefs and exposing the myths that shape our societies.
However, he stops short of offering a definitive stance on these issues, leaving readers with unanswered questions. By shying away from taking a decisive position, Harari misses an opportunity to engage readers in robust debate and provide a clear framework for further exploration.
3. Emotional Arguments and Overreaching Claims
As the book ventures beyond the realm of history, Harari’s arguments begin to lose their strength and rely more heavily on emotion rather than sound reasoning. His comments on humanism, for instance, can veer into the realm of the ludicrous, undermining the credibility of his broader assertions.
Furthermore, the inclusion of “Project Gilgamesh” feels like conspiracy theorizing, and it has unfortunately attracted adherents who believe in secret elite agendas. These sensationalized elements detract from the book’s overall impact and make it difficult to separate fact from speculation.
Yuval Noah Harari’s Sapiens offers a compelling and ambitious exploration of the entire history of humankind. Harari takes readers on a journey through the various revolutions that have shaped our species, from the cognitive and agricultural revolutions to the scientific, industrial, and information revolutions. He speculates on the potential of the biotechnological revolution to transform us into post-humans, while also delving into the impact of language, trade, and empires on human development.
Harari’s ability to present such a broad view of history allows us to see how our ancestral minds, evolved for the savannah, have adapted to the complexities of modern life. He challenges the notion that progress equates to happiness, highlighting research that reveals material wealth does not necessarily lead to contentment. He questions the prevailing narrative of human history and encourages us to consider alternative perspectives on our species’ journey.
While some may find fault with Harari’s tendency to make sweeping statements and present opinions as facts, his thought-provoking approach invites readers to think differently about history and our place in it. Sapiens, along with other works of “big history,” challenges us to look beyond the details of wars and empires and delve into the core of our human existence.
Despite potential quibbles and differences of opinion, embarking on this intellectual journey with Harari is a worthwhile endeavor. Sapiens invites us to contemplate the broader patterns of our evolution and question who we truly are as a species. It encourages us to transcend the confines of national histories and embrace a deeper understanding of our shared human story.
Yuval Noah Harari earned his PhD from the University of Oxford in 2002 and currently works as a lecturer in the Department of History at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.
He is an accomplished author, having written several books and articles, such as “Special Operations in the Age of Chivalry, 1100-1550” and “The Ultimate Experience.” To learn more about his work, you can visit his website at ynharari.com.
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