Book Review: ‘Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind’ – a story of where we came from and where we might be going

By Ande Jacobson

Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, by Yuval Noah Harari, was first published in the U.S. in 2015, and it took the country by storm. It quickly became a New York Times best seller and is used in numerous history courses around the country. Great Britain saw its English language release a year earlier in 2014, but the author’s countrymen saw it first published in his native Hebrew a few years before that in 2011. Beyond that, the book has been translated into over thirty languages worldwide, and at least the American English version is credited as being translated by Harari, with help from John Purcell and Haim Watzman. Why did Sapiens:… make such a splash around the world? It tells a fascinating story. Harari is an Israeli born historian and a tenured history professor at Hebrew University of Jerusalem with a passion for how every human endeavor affects history and the world.

Harari begins his tale with a prologue containing the following historical, broad-stroke timeline to frame his story. The timeline appears in Sapiens:… under the heading, “Timeline of History” (included here for reference and because it’s rather interesting):

Years Before the Present
13.5 billion Matter and energy appear. Beginning of physics. Atoms and molecules appear. Beginning of chemistry.
4.5 billion Formation of planet Earth.
3.8 billion Emergence of organisms. Beginning of biology.
6 million Last common grandmother of humans and chimpanzees.
2.5 million Evolution of the genus Homo in Africa. First stone tools.
2 million Humans spread from Africa to Eurasia. Evolution of different human species.
500,000 Neanderthals evolve in Europe and the Middle East.
300,000 Daily usage of fire.
200,000 Homo Sapiens evolves in East Africa.
70,000 The Cognitive Revolution. Emergence of fictive language. Beginning of history. Sapiens spread out of Africa.
45,000 Sapiens settle Australia. Extinction of Australian megafauna.
30,000 Extinction of Neanderthals.
16,000 Sapiens settle America. Extinction of American megafauna.
13,000 Extinction of Homo Floresiensis. Homo sapiens the only surviving human species.
12,000 The Agricultural Revolution. Domestication of plants and animals. Permanent settlements.
5,000 First kingdoms, script, and money. Polytheistic religions.
4,250 First empire – the Akkadian Empire of Sargon.
2,500 Invention of coinage – a universal money. The Persian Empire – a universal political order ‘for the benefit of all humans’. Buddhism in India – a universal truth ‘to liberate all beings from suffering’.
2,000 Han Empire in China. Roman Empire in the Mediterranean. Christianity.
1,400 Islam.
500 The Scientific Revolution. Humankind admits its ignorance and begins to acquire unprecedented power. Europeans begin to conquer America and the oceans. The entire planet becomes a single historical arena. The rise of capitalism.
200 The Industrial Revolution. Family and community are replaced by state and market. Massive extinction of plants and animals.
The Present Humans transcend the boundaries of planet Earth. Nuclear weapons threaten the survival of humankind. Organisms are increasingly shaped by intelligent design rather than natural selection.
The Future Intelligent design becomes the basic principle of life? Homo sapiens is replaced by superhumans?

Harari’s timeline provides the framework and compressed timeframe reference for the book that tells the story of the progress of Homo sapiens driven largely by three major revolutions:

  • The Cognitive Revolution
  • The Agricultural Revolution
  • The Scientific Revolution

He recognizes the importance of the Industrial Revolution as well, but he asserts that was more of a steady state condition, expanding The Scientific Revolution and humankind’s scientific progress rather than creating another specific metamorphosis. Harari points out that it did greatly increase Sapiens’ destructive power. Compared to many history textbooks that are rife with names and dates, Harari’s approach is broader. His time references are more in terms of ranges and time either before the present, or in the future in his last couple of chapters as he looks ahead to where humankind might be headed.

Some of Harari’s use of terms in his timeline differ from those that might readily come to mind. One obvious example is his use of the term intelligent design. For many readers the concept that comes to mind when they see that term is religious in nature, not a science reference. Harari’s use of that term in the context provided is specific to our modern day advances in genetic engineering rather than in reference to Creation Theory.

Harari writes from a historical perspective, and employs results and theories from science to amplify his narrative. His notes section in the back of the book serves as a chapter by chapter bibliography providing a wealth of scientific and historical references for his assertions. He also provides a clear and reasonably comprehensive index to allow readers to quickly find particular topics of interest.

Although the book is written as a history textbook, the prose is gripping, and it can be read in novel fashion as well. It keeps a reader’s interest telling a story that is at once riveting and certainly relevant across age, educational, and regional boundaries.

After the timeline, the text of the book is written in four parts including the three major revolutions along with a part discussing the unification of our species before the Scientific Revolution. Each part is several chapters long, pulling from the timeline as the story builds. Although Harari occasionally jumps forward with an example of how some past occurrence is reflected in modern times, the overall flow is logical and very easy to follow. He also sometimes uses a bit of hyperbole or humor to make a point. At times, this serves to make some of his more complex science or cultural references a bit more accessible to a wider audience. In those cases, some purists might potentially take offense.

Throughout the course of his chronicle, Harari presents multiple, often contradictory, theories surrounding various events, particularly in cases where no definitive answer has yet been determined. At times, while no one theory completely explains a given historical phenomenon, Harari poses an interesting combination of explanations allowing the aggregation of various theories to come close.

Today, a discussion of biological classification can be found in any high school or college biology textbook. The names are Latin, but they are neither pompous nor capricious. They are based on specific criteria at each level of classification facilitating clarity to help scientists in understanding the biological world. Harari is very aware of the science surrounding the historical record, even if he occasionally makes light of it or is a bit loose with some of the specifics.

Sapiens:… is a history textbook, not a biology textbook, so with respect to the biological classification, Harari doesn’t refer to the entire taxonomy. He instead refers to only the parts immediately pertinent to his narrative. In that context, he colloquially references the family of great apes (family – Hominidae), and he refers to humans (or humankind) as generic way to identify any species under the genus Homo; whereas, his use of the term Sapiens as a proper noun refers specifically to Homo sapiens, as opposed to Homo neanderthalensis, Homo erectus, or any of our other sister species. Based on scientific evidence, he further states that at one point in history there were at least six different species of humans, and our current exclusivity is both peculiar and portentous.

As a side note, for the purposes of reflecting consistency between the discussion in this review and the prose in Harari’s text, I employ the following conventions:

  • Homo sapiens refers to the specific species.
  • Sapiens: … is used as a shortcut to refer to the title of the book since the full title, Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, was defined in the first paragraph and would be rather cumbersome to keep restating in full.
  • Sapiens (not italicized) is used as a proper noun to reference the species Homo sapiens in the same way that the proper noun Neandertathals refers to the species Homo neanderthalensis.

As an example of how Harari often discusses competing theories of a given event or artifact, he briefly presents two opposing theories (Interbreeding Theory and Replacement Theory) of how Sapiens became the solo human species (at least for the present).

Harari, not being afraid of potential controversy, forges ahead to first argue the merits of the Replacement Theory using Sapiens’ legendary, and historically documented, intolerance. In support of this thesis, Harari points to the weight that modern members of our species put on even small differences such as skin color, language, or religion often being the motivation behind innumerable horrors. Given that propensity, Harari suggests that it’s unlikely that ancient Sapiens would have been more tolerant toward other human species. Instead, he suggests, per the Replacement Theory, that it’s far more likely that Sapiens saw them as a threat.

He then reverses course and citing recent advances in the Human Genome Project, concedes that the Interbreeding Theory would apply. He ends his discussion conceding that the full answer probably lies with some combination of the two theories, even though on the surface, they seem to be mutually exclusive.

There has been a great deal of speculation through the ages about what makes Sapiens such a dominant force in the Animal Kingdom, and Harari makes a strong case for the Cognitive Revolution being the crucial start of Sapiens moving from the middle of the pack to the top. He maintains that the key distinguishing Sapiens development was its use of fictive language. He points out that there are numerous tool makers in the animal kingdom, as well as many other species with opposable thumbs, but he asserts that none of the others have demonstrated the ability to imagine.

The historical record suggests that the Cognitive Revolution was also the start of the Sapiens spread from Africa. Harari points out, somewhat heavy handedly, that wherever Sapiens went, the ecology changed, and some number of other species ceased to exist. He supports his conjecture with fossil evidence from Australia where the appearance of Sapiens caused the megafauna to die off in short order. Here he employs a bit of poetic license to suggest a colorful sequence of events that fits the data, but whether it happened the way he suggests or some other way, it’s pretty clear that Sapiens certainly had a part in that ecological change.

One fascinating concept that Harari describes in detail is that of a common myth, which of course is predicated on the Sapiens ability to conceptualize and to fictionalize. In the modern world, there are innumerable common myths to which we ascribe. National boundaries are common myths. Corporations and governments are common myths. Religions are common myths. These constructs are imaginary in nature, but societies (or subsets thereof) collectively accept them as real, and it’s this type of cognitive acceptance that allows large numbers of outright strangers to cooperate.

Harari’s contention is that the second major metamorphosis that shaped Sapiens history was the Agricultural Revolution that occurred about 12,000 years ago. Prior to that point, Sapiens relied on hunting and gathering to sustain themselves, without taking any definitive actions to alter the course of nature to shape its available banquet. On the surface, domestication of a small set of plants and animals seems like a leap forward. Harari contends that in many ways, the advent of farming made the average Sapiens’ life more difficult, and forced them to work harder. As Harari shows throughout the book, he welcomes controversy. While describing the events that transpired surrounding the Agricultural Revolution, he again steps forcefully into another debate – suggesting that Sapiens didn’t actually domesticate the plants. Instead, a small number of plants (e.g., wheat, rice, potatoes) domesticated Sapiens.

Harari goes on to describe in some detail various facets of this revolution and its effects on the history of humankind. The net, in his view, is that the Agricultural Revolution afforded Sapiens an evolutionary advantage. From that perspective, the only thing that matters is that the number of members of a given species is maximized, or in biological terms, the number of copies of their DNA increases. The Agricultural Revolution, bringing with it permanent settlements, money, religion, increased violence and disease within their settlements, and worse conditions (quality of life) for the vast majority of individuals, still allowed them to increase their overall population faster, and as such, allowed Sapiens to become more evolutionarily successful.

According to Harari’s narrative, the fate of the animals that Sapiens domesticated through the Agricultural Revolution ranged from being pampered to persecuted. A specific animal’s lot in life hinged on whether they were raised to play, to work, or as food. Portions of that part of the story are rather grisly, but they are entirely plausible, as well as observable in modern society.

The effects of the Agricultural Revolution are shown to be far reaching, and Harari continues with a discussion surrounding the ebb and flow of civilizations growing out of Sapiens’ new found stability. He illustrates how the spread of imperial rule, the development of the written word, commerce, and religion bring about even greater spans of influence and control than were possible before.

Harari’s discussion of religion again plunges the story headlong into controversy. He first describes the rise of polytheism as somewhat innocuous. His interpretation of the cultural evidence is that there were numerous polytheistic beliefs that tended to be regional. Each population assumed their pantheon of gods applied only to them, and as such, there was no reason or benefit in attempting to force neighboring populations to either acknowledge or submit to them. He acknowledges that there were some exceptions, but overall, he contends that this tended to be the case. He then illustrates that as missionary monotheistic beliefs began to take hold, the story changed.

With the rise of missionary monotheism, Harari claims there was a commensurate rise in religious wars, and history is rife with examples of religious persecution. He segregates missionary monotheistic beliefs from non-missionary practices like Judaism because he claims that if proselytizing isn’t part of the culture, there’s no imperial benefit.

While the book’s discussion of religion provides a glaring example, and religion’s influence on Sapiens is later revisited in a chapter entitled “The Law of Religion,” there are other examples of just how unjust history can be. Harari includes a chapter entitled “There is No Justice in History” to explore various facets of life being unfair throughout humankind’s development following the Agricultural Revolution. There are ample examples to fuel his discussion, but he boils it down to a simple concept that grew out of the Cognitive Revolution – “humans created imagined orders and devised scripts.” In other words, they made up imaginary rules and hierarchies to cover the gaps where biology and instinct fell short.

Among the hierarchies, the gender divide is one that is particularly touchy, and Harari provides an interesting look at potential reasons why, since the Agricultural Revolution, most Sapiens societies tend to be patriarchal, and how this is ostensibly to Sapiens’ detriment. He asserts that women are inherently more cooperative than men, and as a species, Sapiens need to cooperate in order to survive, so a patriarchal structure would be suboptimal. The potential justifications he explores include: muscle power, aggression, and patriarchal genes. He doesn’t answer the question, but he poses some interesting material to contemplate.

After a thorough look at the effects of the Agricultural Revolution, Harari then explores how humankind unified over time. This bridges a number of events leading through ever larger civilizations, and shows the means to cooperation and conflict on an even larger scale.

Harari then explores the next major metamorphosis which came through the Scientific Revolution. In the course of human history, this was relatively recent, beginning only about 500 years ago. Although humankind has sought to understand the universe in which it lives since the Cognitive Revolution, the big change that sparked the Scientific Revolution was that Sapiens as a species was finally able to admit its ignorance. Harari’s story goes on to point out some details of the scientific method, articulate the importance of mathematics and observation, and most importantly, supports the idea that a key result of the Scientific Revolution was to open human cultures to view progress as an ideal to work toward.

One interesting point that comes out in Harari’s text is that exploration and conquest were instrumental in furthering the pursuit of scientific knowledge. In fact, Harari conjectures that if not for the audacity of the European explorers, the Scientific Revolution might not have occurred.

After a lengthy discussion of numerous contributing events, Harari then explores how the Scientific Revolution made the Industrial Revolution possible. He doesn’t claim that the Industrial Revolution is another key historical branch, more that it is the steady state extension made possible by the Scientific Revolution. He notes that in modern times, while Sapiens have shown a remarkable, and an almost unlimited capacity to mold nature to their needs, they have become subject to the whims of industry and government.

Harari presents a detailed discussion of possible causes, impacts, and realities of modern life including whether all of Sapiens’ achievements make them happier now than they were much earlier in their development (something which clearly cannot be formally ascertained). Based on what has come before, Harari ends his narrative speculating on a number of potential futures humankind might experience, some enchanting, some predicting its demise. One interesting point is that Harari contends that it is possible, through the course of evolution, that Sapiens may not always be the only human species. Multiple members of the genus Homo once existed, and though the same ones might not reappear, he suggests there is the potential that new ones could eventually assert themselves, or Sapiens could even invent them through techniques that are currently the fodder of science fiction.

Even if a reader discounts many of Harari’s assertions, the story he weaves is a fascinating and compelling read. The book is also refreshing in offering several theories of how this history unfolded. Harari doesn’t claim to have all the answers, only the insight to put the events together into a coherent story, and to ask the questions that he and others have pondered.

References:
Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, Harper, by Yuval Noah Harari
Summary: Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind

Also by Yuval Noah Harari:
Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow, Harper, by Yuval Noah Harari

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One thought on “Book Review: ‘Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind’ – a story of where we came from and where we might be going

  1. […] Book Review: ‘Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind’ – a story of where we came from and where… Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, Harper, by Yuval Noah Harari Summary: Sapiens: A Brief […]

    This follow-on article includes a deeper discussion of Harari’s concept of “common myths” and how they have become so integral to human society. Our ability to tell stories is central to our potential for cooperation, and it will also determine our long term success or failure.

    Like

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