BOOK REVIEW: Sapiens by Yuval Noah Harari

Describing a book of human history as whimsical is, perhaps, slightly flippant. What on earth could be less quaint or fanciful than the brutal, war-mongering, ecosystem-destroying history of the most dangerous species on earth? And yet as one obsessively flips through the opening pages of Yuval Noah Harari’s Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind they’ll undoubtedly find themselves charmed by the lightly deprecating style and hysterically honest commentary. Even as he unveils the most upsetting of truths about us, Harari ingratiates himself with the reader through subtle humour and his palpable passion for storytelling on a grand scale.

Sapiens is a book of epic ambition. To recount human history in just over 400 pages in no small feat, especially considering the abundance of gaps in the historical record. Harari breaks his study down into the three main “revolutions” Homo sapiens have undergone – the Cognitive Revolution, the Agricultural Revolution and the Scientific Revolution – and explains how each came to pass and what it meant for our species.

Since survival in the snowy forests of northern Europe required different traits than those needed to stay alive in Indonesia’s steaming jungles, human populations evolved in different directions. The result was several distinct species, to each of which scientists have assigned a pompous Latin name.
— Yuval Noah Harari, Sapiens

The beginning of Sapiens is dedicated to explaining why Homo sapiens survived and flourished when other humanoids, including Neanderthals and Homo erectus, went extinct. From there he traces human history through the harnessing of fire to the advent of agriculture (he believes that we did not domesticate wheat, but that wheat domesticated us), and further to the implementation of political systems (which he argues are essentially religions) and use of modern medicine. The final portion of the book looks to the future, exploring the various ways in which technology might take over our lives and questioning whether humans will be able to reverse the damage they have done to Earth.

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Sapiens will leave the reader quite a lot of material to grapple with. Are we happier now as a species than we were 15,000 years ago? Are some humans programmed to be happier than others? Is it possible that income inequality is actually a good thing? It’s hard not to be swayed by Harari’s arguments, particularly because of the eloquence and passion with which he writes. His analytical brilliance makes it difficult to ignore the clarity and comfort of his point of view. For a book that relies almost entirely on mass generalizations about an entire species, Sapiens is impressively inclusive. Harari, a tenured professor at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, does not shy away from boldly voicing opinions on current political tensions regarding immigration and gender relations, but he never overtly tries to alienate a specific group.

What’s so engrossing about Harari’s book is the simplicity with which he explains basic truths about our species, from the reason humans are born with so little ability to the creation of fake limbs. In plain language and with none of the condescension so many people have come to associate with scientific writing, Harari lays bare the significance of seemingly normal moments throughout human evolution which shaped us into the greedy people we are today. You’ll find yourself saying “AHA!” or “ooohhhhh” on several occasions throughout the story, and wondering why no one ever taught you some of the seemingly obvious facts found in Sapiens.

Women walked upright & therefore had to start giving birth earlier into pregnancies because the babies were getting too big for their narrow hips – this is why human babies are born so vulnerable and useless unlike horses... Most mammals emerge from the womb like glazed earthenware emerging from a kiln – any attempt at remoulding will scratch or break them. Humans emerge from the womb like molten glass from a furnace. They can be spun, stretched and shaped with a surprising degree of freedom.
— Yuval Noah Harari, Sapiens

Sapiens is a truly engrossing and exciting book. It will make you feel a bit more knowledgeable and perhaps even spark a desire to learn more about the history of who you are.