Sapiens – Inducing Humans to Rethink Humanity, Reviewed by Noah

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The book Sapiens – A Brief History of Humankind, by Yuval Noah Harari, has won international acclaim in the few short years since it was published. Though Harari is a professor and historian, Sapiens is a popular history, a historical book written for wide consumption by the masses, not just the academic community. Harari begins his novel by dispelling the myth that Sapiens are the only members of the human (Homo) genus, referring to people as “Sapiens” instead of “humans.”[1] After placing Sapiens in the context of our modest origins, he weaves the story that led our species to where we are today. Harari divides his work into four parts, The Cognitive Revolution, The Agricultural Revolution, the Unification of Humankind, and the Scientific Revolution. Looking at our history through an extremely unique lens, Harari offers compelling arguments as to how our species wound its way through time, and how the most major phenomena in our history came to pass. Harari uses strong scientific evidence to chart the path of Sapiens from our humble beginnings to his predictions of our future, and while he makes some untestable hypotheses and grand conjectures, his overall compelling work leads the reader to rethink where we came from, how we got here, and where we are going.

Harari begins with the story of Sapiens’ emergence along with the many other members of our Homo genus. He contextualizes Sapiens among our relatives, providing a very humbling perspective of the roots of humanity. Harari plots the path of Sapiens, alongside our brothers and sisters such as Homo Erectus and Homo Neanderthalus, describing our rapid ascent through the food chain of the animal kingdom. He goes on to chart how Sapiens continued to rise, eventually overcoming the other members of our Homo genus, and ultimately conquering the world. Harari uses scientific evidence, introduces competing scientific theories, and posits many questions regarding the unrivalled ascendance of our species. He concludes that it was due to Sapiens’ “new ways of thinking and communicating” that we were able to conquer the world.[2] Harari defines this as the Cognitive Revolution, and says it took place between 70,000 and 30,000 years ago. From there, he moves on to the Agricultural Revolution, when Sapiens moved from a hunter-gatherer lifestyle to a lifestyle based on agriculture. Whereas generally, this has been described by historians as progress for humankind, Harari argues that “the Agricultural Revolution was a trap”, calling it “history’s biggest fraud”.[3] He claims that life for Sapiens in fact became worse due to the Agricultural Revolution, challenging our ideas of progress. Next, Harari begins analyzing Sapiens society, and how writing and “the imagined order” allowed us to expand and work together.[4] He explains the creation of modern culture and societies, along with analyses of gender and race relations throughout history. The third part of the novel covers “The Unification of Humankind”, focusing on expansion of human societies and globalization.[5] In this section, he discusses the importance of money as a unit of trust, and highlights the rise and fall of empires and religions throughout history, indicating what they contributed to Sapiens society. The fourth and final section of the book begins around the time Columbus landed in the New World, and discusses the Scientific Revolution. Harari cites our willingness to admit ignorance as the most important factor inducing this period. He moves through capitalism, industrialism, and modern inventions in our contemporary society, then turns to questions of happiness and well-being of Sapiens overall throughout history. Harari argues against the notion that over time, Sapiens have become happier. Finally, Harari goes on to predict the future of Sapiens, including possible immortality and the likelihood of soon being overtaken by artificial intelligence.

One of the key novelties in the book Sapiens is Harari’s incorporation of “pre-history” into history by choosing to begin over 70,000 years ago. While this allows for many opportunities in the exploration of early Sapiens history, and permits us to analyze human history from its’ very origins, it also leads to some dilemmas. Harari uses fairly sparse data to make very grand overarching hypotheses. The most notable of these is his claim that Sapiens’ shift from a hunter-gatherer lifestyle to an agricultural lifestyle was “history’s biggest fraud.”[6] Harari argues that the lives of the average Sapiens actually worsened due to the Agricultural Revolution. While he does construct persuasive and unique arguments, such as claiming that wheat actually domesticated us as opposed to the other way around, Harari makes very large speculations using very little data. Many of his hypotheses are entirely untestable, as we are not able to turn back the clock and conduct a side-by-side comparison of the happiness levels of Joe Hunter-Gatherer and Jane Farmer. Evidence limitations aside, Harari’s original perspective does help to uncover silences that modern everyday Sapiens have a habit of ignoring. This begins with Harari providing us with a sobering reminder of our un-spectacular origins in the middle of the food chain, forcing us to acknowledge that we are a part of nature, not above it. In the latter part of the book he hypothesizes that natural selection will soon be replaced by intelligent design. While he uses examples of recent advances to support this prediction, he extrapolates extensively from current research, using the past and present to predict the future, something Hobsbawm warned against.[7] In general, Harari uses strong scientific evidence and inter-disciplinary explanations to draw intelligent and thought provoking conclusions, although at times he tends to speculate and extrapolate too far.

Sapiens adds an exceptional amount to our understanding of our species’ history; Harari causes us to rethink not only where we came from, but where we are today and where we are heading in the future. By starting with Sapiens’ humble beginnings as an ordinary member of the animal kingdom and Homo genus, Harari re-contextualizes Sapiens among our roots. This serves to remind us that we are much less unique than we believe and is a poignant reminder that we must work harder to respect the ecosystems around us. On that same vein, Harari tells of mass extinctions which occurred when Sapiens initially conquered the world, providing a dire warning about our current destructive environmental tendencies. Harari also forces his readers to look at many other aspects of our history through a new lens, from rethinking the Agricultural Revolution, to rethinking the global narrative of empires and imperialism, to unique theories of culture, capitalism, money, religion, and more. By looking at each of these major aspects of Sapiens society through a new perspective, one begins to rethink their understandings of our present society and the history that molded it. While Harari’s predictions for the future ought to be viewed with skepticism, they indisputably raise questions which we must all consider regarding the present and the direction in which our species is headed. He also questions theories of progress, arguing that overall, Sapiens have not become happier over time. Much like Hayden White, Harari suggests that history has not actually been a story of human progress, that is merely the narrative we choose to mold our history into.[8]

Yuval Noah Harari takes on the challenging task of educating everyday people about the complex nature of our species’ history. Beginning around 70,000 years ago, Harari follows the winding road that Sapiens took to reach the point we have today, from an unremarkable species in the middle of the food chain to the almighty conquerors of mother nature. Harari looks at our history through an exceptionally unique lens, drawing on science and multiple disciplines such as psychology, sociology, and biology to draw his deftly constructed conclusions. While at times his arguments are too broad for the facts at hand, overall, Harari’s arguments are concise and compelling. Sapiens is a work that will unquestionably cause one to rethink the origins of humanity, perceive much of history as well as present phenomena in a new light, and lead one to consider many questions regarding our future.

 


[1] Harari, Yuval Noah. Sapiens – A Brief History of Humankind. McClelland and Stewart, 2014. 5.

[2] Ibid. 21.

[3] Ibid. 79.

[4] Ibid. 112.

[5] Ibid. 162.

[6] Ibid. 79.

[7] Hobsbawm, E. J. On History. London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1997.

[8] White, Hayden. “The Value of Narrativity in the Representation of Reality.” Critical Inquiry 7, no. 1 (1980)

2 responses to “Sapiens – Inducing Humans to Rethink Humanity, Reviewed by Noah”

  1. Bernard Maftei says:

    Noah, your post regarding the book Sapiens – A Brief History of Humankind, by Yuval Noah Harari, is very insightful and encourages me to embark upon the task of reading Harari’s work as well. Your description of how the agricultural revolution was actually the downfall of the sapiens is not only counter intuitive but also challenges the conventional narrative. However, I would have enjoyed a lengthier description regarding the reasons provided by the author to support his hypothesis. You briefly mention how wheat actually domesticated humankind and not the other way around, an explanation which lacks a deeper empirical analysis.
    Furthermore, I particularly enjoyed your application of Hobsbawm’s argumentation to criticize Harari’s reliance on historical evidence for predicting the future of the sapiens. Although you mention that many of the hypotheses provided in the book cannot be verified due to the limited amount of historical evidence that is available, the incorporation of a passage relating to how you perceive this lack of historical justification to affect the credibility of the author’s argumentation would considerably strengthen your critique. Overall, your review does a good job at summarizing the content of the book and explores an interesting aspect of historical study, which is the discipline’s claims of predictability and the shortfalls associated with it.

  2. Tristan Hughes says:

    Thanks for your post. There was one thing I thought you could have explored more, namely, what is the usage of mixing biology and history together in an analysis? It is intriguing to me that this Author, Harrari, writes with the intention to prove that since humanities fall from the ‘garden of Eden,’ i.e. our putative preternatural hunter-gatherer state, we have become increasingly unhappy owing to urbanization. Often times, human pre-history––even if scientifically studied––has served as a space where thinkers can project their various fantasies for what society ought to be, or what humans might have been like when they were truly happy. Biology, in other words, can equally serve as a forum for the satisfaction of various fantasies. I wonder if the historian should be more careful about using natural biology as a tool of historical investigation, or at least sensitive to how biological pre-history is subject to such romantic contortion. I also wonder what the effects of such a longue duree history is––does it make the narrative structure more ‘happy’ or tragic through such an overt historicization? It sounds like this garden of Eden style narration takes the form of a much more tragic narrative.

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