Review: Sapiens – Yuval Noah Harari

sapiens100,000 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.

Rating: 4/5

“History is something that very few people have been doing while everyone else was ploughing fields and carrying water buckets.”

This book is well-deserving of the accolades it has been receiving – it’s a truly fascinating read detailing the journey from humanity’s rather humble beginnings. In a way, it reminds me a little of Bill Bryson’s A Short History of Nearly Everything, but with greater analytical depth and a focus on the humanities side of culture, language and history.

“Culture tends to argue that it forbids only that which is unnatural. But from a biological perspective, nothing is unnatural. Whatever is possible is by definition also natural. A truly unnatural behaviour, one that goes against the laws of nature, simply cannot exist, so it would need no prohibition.”

I just wish I had the sheer intellectual knowledge needed to critique and debate some of the ideas presented here. On the whole, I think it’s fairly well-balanced in terms of presenting the existing theories, but the author does have a clear opinion on matters, and justifies his conclusions. In one critical review that I encountered on Goodreads, for instance, the reviewer pointed out the author’s romanticised view of our pre-agricultural ancestors – sure, they weren’t burdened down ploughing fields all day, but there wasn’t much in the way of human progress going on either.

“We did not domesticate wheat. It domesticated us.”

Regardless of your opinions on some of these debates, Sapiens is a truly fascinating book, especially when it looks at the collective fictions and social constructs that have enabled humanity to co-operate – or alternatively, go to war. Like most non-fiction work of this kind, I find you have to read it fairly slowly to be able to digest everything, and possibly alternate it with a fiction read to avoid information overload.

“Biology enables, Culture forbids.”

Possibly my favourite part of the book was the examination of how different human cultures formed their taboos, their social hierarchies, their deeming of what is appropriate and what is not, what constitutes as ‘natural’. There’s so much food for thought here. Plus, while many of the concepts covered require some concentration, the author uses really clear examples to get his points across and simplify the conundrums.

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One thought on “Review: Sapiens – Yuval Noah Harari

  1. I enjoyed the book, it was intresting to trace the steps of what Yuval calls humankind. I think it could have been better had he used more in text citation, but he did have a reference list. I think i’ll read its sequel at some point.

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