Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind by Yuval Noah Harari

Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind

100,000 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, tim...

Title:Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind
Author:
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Edition Language:English
Number of Pages:443 pages

Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind Reviews

  • Liad Magen

    This book had changed my life, the way I think, the way I precept the world.

    I think it should be an obligatory book for everyone on this planet.

  • Moran

    I believe I am relatively familiar with history in general, and I'm usually not very excited about reading more about it. But this book was something else.

    Beautifully written and easy to read, this book just made me want to know more and more about how the author thinks the world evolved to what it is today. Revolution by revolution, religion by religion, conception by conception, things were simplified and yet still maintained valid points - and it was never boring.

    The best thing about it was

    I believe I am relatively familiar with history in general, and I'm usually not very excited about reading more about it. But this book was something else.

    Beautifully written and easy to read, this book just made me want to know more and more about how the author thinks the world evolved to what it is today. Revolution by revolution, religion by religion, conception by conception, things were simplified and yet still maintained valid points - and it was never boring.

    The best thing about it was that it actually made me think.

    The author doesn't treat you as ignorant at all - he doesn't assume you know nothing but assume you know a lot and understand a lot, and doesn't lecture about anything, and that attitude makes the book a pleasure to read.

    Just read it.

  • Maciek

    is a book bound to appear on a large number of coffee tables and favorite lists, and be picked up even by those who normally would not find the time for reading. It will certainly not be the next

    , which is often named as the world's top unfinished popular bestseller.

    Both

    and

    share a similar, worthy goal - to explain complex issues in a way which can actually be understood and comprehended by most people

    is a book bound to appear on a large number of coffee tables and favorite lists, and be picked up even by those who normally would not find the time for reading. It will certainly not be the next

    , which is often named as the world's top unfinished popular bestseller.

    Both

    and

    share a similar, worthy goal - to explain complex issues in a way which can actually be understood and comprehended by most people. Just as

    aimed at explaining cosmology to a lay audience,

    aims to provide a readable and concise historical summary of the progress of human evolution - all in under 500 pages.

    Is this possible? Of course not - histories of individual countries often take up several volumes, and histories of entire civilizations and ultimately an entire specie would take up hundreds if not thousands of volumes. Because Harari's book is limited to just a single volume (and a relatively short one at that), he has to severely limit his scope to what he considers to be the biggest life-changing developments of our species, which essentially reduces it to a collection of trivia about these events.

    But that's not the true flaw of the book.

    begins strong enough with a very interesting presentation of early human history and development of early human species, which culminated in the rise and eventual dominance of our own - the Homo Sapiens. However, the rest of the book consists largely of author's own musings and thoughts about the human condition and character - while some of these thoughts I find interesting and agreeable (such as our collective belief in the value of money), one thesis he that he put forward struck me as truly bizarre.

    Basically, Harari considers the agricultural revolution to be

    , which instead of improvement left humans who settled down to farm worse off and more miserable than their nomadic, foraging ancestors. To prove his point, Harari waxes poetics about hunter-gatherers and their daily existence: they lived in egalitarian communes where property and love was freely shared, and were much more adept at survival in the wilderness than their descendants who plowed the fields. Hunter-gatherers had to have a much larger knowledge of their surroundings, and possessed vastly superior mental reflexes and physical dexterity which put future generations to shame. Although we have since gained vast knowledge as a collective, Harari argues that on the individual level ancient foragers were

    .

    For Harari, our foraging ancestors were not only mental and physical supermen, but also enjoyed a much more comfortable and rewarding lifestyle than all the subsequent peasants, workers and office clerks. They worked fewer hours and since they had no homes, they also had no household chores; this allowed for plenty of free time to play with one another, tell stories and just hang out. Since foraging necessitated exploration, it also provided plenty of adventure: what better thing to do than explore new places to look for cool plants and other edible things? Because they were always on the move and therefore not dependent on a single source of food, hunter-gatherers enjoyed a superior, multi-nutrient diet and were less likely to suffer from hunger and starvation than subsequent agricultural societies, which often depended on a single crop, and not only were receiving much less nutrients but also suffered heavily from famines when their food source failed. Farming? Bah! Humbug.

    True, there were some drawbacks, Harari reluctantly agrees. Although some lucky souls made it longer, life expectancy averaged only 30 to 40 years. Children dropped dead like flies, and sometimes wild tigers came out of the bushes and ate you and your whole family and tribe. Not to mention that sometimes you and your band wandered and wandered, and the food

    . Or even worse - the food was there, but so was another tribe which was not exactly keen on sharing their already limited supply. What about this?

    , says the author, though I do not really understand why, since this is exactly what he appeared to be doing,

    Ain't that the truth. Sometimes, life is just hard. Rocks fall, everyone dies.

    But agricultural revolution? It sucked, Harari argues. First, he has unnamed (and presumably fictitious) scholars proclaim the development of agriculture as

    , which

    . But this is not true -

    , he says, as

    . As I mentioned above, Harari states that agricultural revolution made things

    for farmers - it robbed them from excitement of hunting and gathering by forcing them to settle down next to their fields and perform menial farm work, which strained our joints and spine. Although farming provided a surplus of food it did not provide the farmer with a better diet, robbing us of the diversity of meals experienced by a hunter-gatherer. Farming also failed to provide us with economic security - crops can always fail and lead to hunger, whereas hunter-gatherers can always move on and hunt for other types of food (unless, of course, they do not find any and starve to death). Farmers also had to stay and defend their land if attacked by a hostile group, whereas foragers could always escape to another area, look for food there, and survive (they could, of course, end up not being able to escape -who can fight or run on an empty stomach? - or...not find any food, and starve to death).

    So, what exactly has agriculture ever done for us? Since it has taken so much not only from our fathers but also from from our fathers' fathers, what has it ever given us in return? The aqueduct? Sanitation?

    And why have humans not returned to hunting and gathering but stubbornly toiled their fields and broke their miserable backs, while they could be climbing trees and camping in the wilderness? The answer is simple: more food allowed women to have children more often, and even though they still died fairly often this time births outpaced deaths several times. Village population increased, and soon entire generations of people no longer remembered the good old days of running in the forests and looking for berries.

    , Harari writes,

    .

    He goes on to say:

    .Yet, we are wrong in thinking this, because

    (though apparently not when it comes to foraging, which was a blast by all accounts - that is, the author's). Harari neglects to mention the exact reason

    the agricultural revolution took place - farming first arose in places where

    , and in the long run prevailed as the better option. Hunter-gatherers simply did not choose to one day walk out of the woods and start domesticating animals and plants; they were forced to do that because the environment they were living no longer allowed for foraging to remain a viable option. The Younger Dryas interval in ancient Levant is often linked to the adoption of agriculture in the region, as an example of the first deliberate cultivation of plants. People understood that seeds developed into plants at the time when they desperately needed to increase their food supply in order to survive, and linked one with the other.

    It is interesting that Harari does not only romanticize hunting and gathering, but actually looks at the agricultural revolution and its impact

    a hunter and gatherer - that is, focusing on the thing that mattered most to our foraging ancient ancestors: food. Hunter-gatherers spend their lives pursuing food; as Harari admits, because of their nomadic lifestyle they had very few possessions, as they were constantly moving around in search for food to sustain them. Food was their driving force; their lives centered around food, as they never had a steady supply of it and always had to hunt and look for more if they were to survive.

    In contrast, agricultural revolution provided humans with a steady and regular supply of food, and or the first time in our history allowed humans to take our minds

    food and constant travel. The impact of this is monumental and cannot be stressed enough. Basically, without agricultural revolution, our knowledge would be stagnant - as we would simply not have the luxury of time to develop it. Food surplus and settling down allowed humans to

    more and develop new ideas and technologies, allowing for more efficient farming - which in turn allowed for more time to think and develop even more ideas and technologies. In contrast to general knowledge of our forager ancestors, surplus of food and settler lifestyle allowed for skill specialization, which in turn allowed us to do things beyond their wildest dreams, and become technologically advanced. Basically, I would argue that societies comprised of hunter-gatherers cannot advance and live up to the full human potential - it is impossible to have a truly technologically advanced nomadic society, while it is possible to have a technologically advanced settler society which is able to send some of its members into the world as hunter-gatherers. To put it very simply: hunter-gatherers live in the wilderness, living day to day on what they find or hunt down, while agriculturists discover penicillin, split the atom and fly into space.

    Although the author later brings up valid concerns about our treatment of animals and abuse of collective power, his rant against agriculture is truly bizarre considering that without it he would not be able to write this very book. It's as if he disregarded the very Sapiens which he aimed to describe, and which has defied his thesis by abandoning hunting and gathering to settle down and farm. Still, there are good parts and certain valuable and interesting insights in this book - it's just a shame that it's tainted with such a weird and contrived chapter.

  • Petra Eggs

    The book was too much a basic primer for me, at least to start with, but that's probably because I've read too many books on our origins biologically and culturally. Once the author had us settled into the civilization of cities he waxed romantically (as authors on this subject quite often do) on the life of the hunter gatherer and its perfection. (I've just finished Sebastian Junger's

    and there was more of that.) If it was all so perfect then more of us would

    The book was too much a basic primer for me, at least to start with, but that's probably because I've read too many books on our origins biologically and culturally. Once the author had us settled into the civilization of cities he waxed romantically (as authors on this subject quite often do) on the life of the hunter gatherer and its perfection. (I've just finished Sebastian Junger's

    and there was more of that.) If it was all so perfect then more of us would return to that ancient life style where people had more leisure, freedom and happiness according to Harari and Junger, neither of whom have given up their miserable materialistic lives for stalking around with a spear.

    The book got better. There were some good explanations of why we are as we are and how things developed, Such as human conversation evolving (see below) so we could gossip about our fellow tribes people. I didn't always agree with the author. But I always enjoy books like that to some extent because it gives me a different point of view, different reasons and things to think about. So this was good.

    But then it dragged at the end as the author got preachy and scifi technological about our bionic futures. At some time not in the unimaginable future, robots will think for themselves and be able to feel, and then they will supercede us... Yes well Asimov covered all that more than half a century ago. It's not going to happen we are too complex to duplicate. And anyway I can't see robots gossiping and if they don't do that what have they got to talk about

    that will make them 'human'? If the desire to gossip gave us speech, then the inability to gossip puts us right back into the pre-sapiens world. Robots are retrogression. Bionic bodies though, that might be progress.

    _________

    Written on reading the book. According to the author, basic vocal communication was solved by the primates. And although animals aren't supposed to have theory of mind, green monkeys have been heard calling 'beware there's a lion' when there's no such thing, they just don't want to risk losing or having to share food they've just found.

    Human conversation apparently evolved so we could gossip. As a social animal, we need to know whose screwing who, who ripped off who, and who lives in a really disgusting midden. Maybe the author's right. He also says that we are not a tolerant species. He got that right for true.

  • William1

    This book is a superficial gloss on human history. Nice try but it excludes too much data in favor of an overarching conceptual view to be deeply interesting. Stopped reading for reasons detailed below at p. 304 of 416.

    Considering the outlandishness of some of its claims—the downside of the Agricultural Revolution, the joys of Empire—the book seems weirdly under-sourced. The bibliography is beyond meagre. Don't get me wrong, I like a little informed speculation as much as anyone. Take for exampl

    This book is a superficial gloss on human history. Nice try but it excludes too much data in favor of an overarching conceptual view to be deeply interesting. Stopped reading for reasons detailed below at p. 304 of 416.

    Considering the outlandishness of some of its claims—the downside of the Agricultural Revolution, the joys of Empire—the book seems weirdly under-sourced. The bibliography is beyond meagre. Don't get me wrong, I like a little informed speculation as much as anyone. Take for example the claim that houses, their advent, "became the psychological hallmark of a much more self-centered creature." (p. 99) I'd like to know how we can discern the psychology of someone who lived 9,000 years ago. The apparently relevant note cited is "2 Robert B. Marks,

    ". But when one looks up Mr. Marks' book one sees that it pertains only to the 15th to the 21st centuries CE.

    Another thing, the book seems all biological determinism—and we know what that sort of thinking led to: the Konzentrationslager. The life of the mind is nothing here, the intellect nothing, all because it has no discernible basis in biology—so reductive and materialist, too. I'm hoping this is just a rhetorical device. Please, let it be. Moreover, the author cherishes a certain sneering and glib tone which I find annoying. Well, yes, now he's changing his tune, isn't he? But not before thoroughly pissing me off. Was that necessary? Ah, now he's starting to celebrate the very social constructs—the law, the state, joint stock corporations, etc.—that he so glibly belittled as "imaginary myths" a few pages back. So his earlier arguments were disingenuous. That's not something I prize in a writer.

    Notwithstanding the questionable attempt to raise the reader's hackles, just mentioned, I find myself on p. 170 and 95% of this is material I already know. Granted, the author tries to package it as felicitously as possible, but it's still stuff I know and, no doubt, material my well read GR friends will also know. What I had hoped for on cracking this formidable spine was something far more intellectually challenging, like

    . Still, I find myself nursing a hope that this is just an overly long introduction to a thrilling thesis. At the same time I fear it will turn out to be another tedious read for a far less learned general reader than myself. Am I overqualified for this book? Trepidation abounds. 2.0 stars so far, inauspicious.

    Meh. It's really an undergraduate survey course, if that. It's a great review of common knowledge that seeks to find new linkages and epiphanies. It sometimes works. But often the linkages are specious. As when he terms liberal humanism a religion. It isn't, though it's a neat shorthand for his minimalist theories. Now I'm reading about how religions are unifiers. The author certainly has a flair for the obvious, I'll say that much. Here's an example of author Harari's reductiveness, which is inevitable in a book skirting so many vast subjects. On p. 232 we read: "The Aryan race therefore had the potential to turn man into superman." Nietzsche is nowhere mentioned. The statement is wholly lacking in context—the Nazis are glossed but that's all. It really doesn't make coherent sense. Gloss, that's the word that best describes this book. A gloss.

    The writer is careless with metaphors. We're told that cultures are "mental parasites," that "history disregards the happiness of individuals" and that "history made its most momentous choice." (p. 243-244). To say such things is to give agency to the non-sentient and adds to the narrative's by now utterly grating superficiality. Here's yet another bizarro statement:

    Nonsense. The Spaniards had guns, germs and steel. Reread

    and

    , Mr. Harari. Foreknowledge would have availed the indigenous peoples little or nothing. The author goes on to admit as much in the paragraphs to follow, but why then wasn't that earlier sentence cut? But it gets better:

    It's astonishing the author should use that ecclesiastical word. For what was the ostensible motivation of the conquerors but the glory of Christendom. Harari is blaming the victims. The world view of the Aztecs and Incas and others was limited. Harari blames them because they had not yet advanced beyond that basic if incomplete awareness. He then goes on to excoriate all of Asia and Africa for not having had the wherewithal to explore the world and conquer others. But these are cultural predilections, not standardized goals applicable to all. This leads to an unseemly West is the Best argument that's right out of Niall Ferguson's

    .

    Is this book popular because it essentially functions as the West's cheering section? It's lovely we have developed science and technology and historiography etc. I'm glad I live in the West. But it's absurd to say that earlier cultures, because they did not develop in a timely manner our own particular brand of curiosity, were deficient. All cultures are blood soaked, our own included. The world is only what it is, not some counter-factual supposition.


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