One hundred thousand 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? Bold, wide ranging, and provocative, Sapiens integrates history and science to challenge everything we thought we knew about being human: our thoughts, our actions, our heritage...and our future.
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This book kept reminding me of other books I’ve read (or, more often, listened to): Andrew Marr’s History of the World; A History of the World in 6 glasses (Tom Standage); The Alchemy of Air (Thomas Hager); The Third Chimpanzee; Guns, Germs and Steel; Collapse (Jared Diamond); The Language Instinct and The Better Angels of Our Nature (Steven Pinker); Richard Dawkins’ The Selfish Gene and even Bill Bryson’s Short History of Nearly Everything, all of which are really good books and well worth reading, if recommendations are what you’re looking for. If not, it’s probably quite irritating reading this name-drop of books that I’ve read, and you might prefer me to get on with describing this particular book.
OK then. Well, just like it says on the cover, this book is the story of humanity and, like most of these kinds of book, it starts with us as apes and goes on to describe how we got bigger brains, stood on two feet, got clever with our hands, started talking to each other and wiped out the Neanderthals (although we did mate with a few of those before we killed or out-competed the remainder).
It discusses the fact that we generally functioned best in tribes of no more than about 150 people, and then goes on to explain how we transformed from being an animal that likes to be with 149 other kinfolk to being one that functions well in nations or empires of many millions.
This is where it gets really interesting, and where the author shares ideas I hadn’t encountered before. Apparently, the trick to functioning effectively in bigger groups is to have a shared ideology. These aren’t just religions (although religions certainly qualify), they are money, credit, political ideology, nations, the law etc.,etc. He describes how these things are all imaginary constructs which depend for their success on us all buying into them and believing in them, and how they are the glue that binds societies together.
He analyses a lot of ancient and modern phenomena in very interesting and thought-provoking ways, and he doesn’t pull any punches when he discusses our less savoury behaviours (such as the cruel way we treat vast numbers of chickens, pigs and cows). Some of his ideas are possibly controversial, but to me they seem very reasonable and they advanced my understanding of the history of the human race. For me, the book gets two thumbs up.
I was mostly fascinated with this book, though I often disagreed with it. As background, I am a sociologist, with some training in history of science and economics, so Harari's work occasionally overlaps with topics I know very well.
First, the good, and there is a huge amount to admire here: Harari's goal is to write grand macro-history without regard for the details, and at that he succeeds brilliantly. He outdoes Diamond's Guns, Germs, and Steel, by examining the intellectual, as well as biological, factors that have shaped the evolution of societies. Few popular histories manage to do so much, while still being engaging. There are plenty of WHOA moments that are very insightful - re-conceptualizing agriculture from the point-of-view of wheat, some trenchant observations on the idea of progress, contrasts between religion and capitalism, etc. A few fall flat, but there are many interesting ideas and they are all well explained.
The downside, however, is that while the grand history is engaging, many of Harari's observations on the factors underlying society are a bit shallow and misleading, and occasionally even suspect. This is true especially of the most dramatic moments of the book. For example, he calls the agricultural revolution “history’s biggest fraud,” because of a (still controversial) belief that life with agriculture was worst for most people than hunter-gatherer existence. This seems like, at best, an overstatement, given the facts. Similarly, his arguments about the goals of science (extending human life?), the origins of the scientific revolution (imperialism?), and why some countries did not turn to science (in-curiosity?) all seem to be rather unorthodox and, in many cases, wrong. There are other problems as well, including an occasional turn towards unsupported evolutionary psychology and other vague theorizing. Plus, there wasn't any credit given (or references at all) to the work upon which Harari built his arguments upon.
I still recommend the book - it is interesting and exciting. But take the ideas with a grain of salt or too, since the audiobook is more of an argument than a discussion of historical fact.