Sapiens is a phenomenon. The best seller at the top of every must-read list. Its subtitle, A Brief History of Humankind, sums up the range of the book. It covers the whole of Human history with focus on the Cognitive, Agricultural and Scientific Revolutions.
Author Yuval Noah Harari is an Israeli historian. He studied at Oxford and is now a professor at Hebrew University in Jerusalem.
Harari looks at how homo sapiens used myth and story to build co-operation between individuals that had never met. Science then enabled us to expand across the globe and dominate the natural world. The writing is exceptional and the subject fascinating.
“We study history not to know the future but to broaden our horizons.”
As a history book it’s full of great tales and it’s scope covers the entirety of the human story. He uses great facts throughout. The world’s first empire, the Akkadian had a million subjects. Rome at it’s height could tax 100 million inhabitants.
Sapiens fascinates in the scope and breadth of its view. A chronicle that delves into Science and Sociology and Anthropology and Politics. Harari looks into our beliefs and how they enable us to think about the universe.
Looking at the history of Humankind as a species and how we overcame the other types of Homo that once shared the planet with us. Harari writes a fascinating investigation into the power of story and how myths enabled mass co-operation and the growth of civilisation. Then, he covers the rise of Science and how it enables us to change the world and ourselves.
In Sapiens, myth is the driving force for Homo Sapiens success as a species. Myths allowed us to work together to dominate the natural world, destroy or subsume our fellow species of man and build the world we have today. Harari’s definition of myth is broad and compelling. He includes nation states, companies and money itself as stories. It’s an eye opening way to see things. They aren’t real.
Harari is not a scientist. But this allows him to appreciate the power of science while seeing its limitations. He looks at things through the lens of evolution. The idea that hunter gatherers live a ‘better’ life is intriguing.
“This is the essence of the Agricultural Revolution: the ability to keep more people alive under worse conditions.”
Admitting that we don’t know is the base of science. Religion claims answers, science ignorance. Religion cliamed to know everything but the hope of science is that through observation and mathmematics we can learn new knowledge.
But Science doesn’t set its own priorities. They are always driven by who is funding the research. This ties them back into the culture and the myths that culture is telling to grow and empower itself.
“Modern business-people and lawyers are, in fact, powerful sorcerers. The principal difference between them and tribal shamans is that modern lawyers tell far stranger tales.”
For a non-native speaker, Harari has a magnificent grasp of English. In Sapiens he translated his own work from the Hebrew. There’s a clear-sightedness to his writing that conveys complicated subjects well. I expect a high calibre of writing from an Oxford graduate but I was surprised by his lovely turn of phrase.
He ends with a look at the future and what it may hold for humanity. His next book, Homo Deus is about what lies ahead and it’s at the top of my to-buy list.
Sapiens was one of the most enjoyable and stimulating books I have ever read. The way of looking at history opened my eyes and I am still digesting the book weeks afterward. I look forward to reading it again and recommend it to everybody.
You can buy Sapiens here from Amazon or I’m sure the local library has a few copies.
Have you read Sapiens? What did you think? Let me know in the comments.