A chronicle of human despair with hope for the future
Yuval Harari is a historian and a professor at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. His earlier books (which I haven’t yet read) appear to be on military subjects – “Renaissance Military Memoirs: History and Identity”; “Special Operations in the Age of Chivalry”; and “The Ultimate Experience: Battlefield Revelations and the Making of Modern War Culture”. With Sapiens, Harari has made an ambitious attempt to chronicle the journey that Homo Sapiens has taken over the past 100,000 years.
In Sapiens, Harari suggests that three “revolutions” have played a pivotal role in getting humans to where we are today. The first, the Cognitive Revolution, enabled humans to develop fictive language that allows people to tell stories, and further, believe in “shared delusions” such as God, Human Rights, and Peugeot. The Cognitive Revolution supposedly allowed humans to unite in larger social groups under shared fictions such as religion and national identity to thrive in an environment where competing humanoid species such as Homo Rudolfensis, Homo Erectus, and Homo Neanderthalensis failed. Consequently, it is either through genocide, or winning the contest for shared resources, that Homo Sapiens prevailed and remain the only Human race on the planet.
The second revolution, Harari postulates, is the agricultural revolution, which marked a transition from the forager lifestyle to the creation of human settlements. The consequent food security permitted human energy to be directed to the development of arts, commerce, and science.
The third, the scientific revolution, brought colonization of the entire planet, improved lifespan, and a more integrated global society. Harari tracks how science, politics, religion and business worked hand-in-hand to bring humans together. Despite what the media would have us believe, Harari suggests that we are currently living in the most peaceful and just period in human history.
This book, however, is not a history textbook. Harari points out that while historians have kept track of events, they haven’t really chronicled human happiness. Are we happier? Harari suggests that given the workings of human consciousness, a peasant in the dark ages who believed in heaven may have been happier than a modern atheist trying to amass experiences and achievement before a final oblivion. This thread segues into a subtle plug for the Buddhist practice of mindfulness. A criticism of the cruel treatment of domesticated animals is another key feature of this book.
In his conclusion, Harari stops short of offering a prediction for the future – perhaps his publisher wanted him to save that for the sequel – Homo Deus, which is also on my reading list.
Harari has an easy, immersive style, peppered with witticisms that relieve the intellectual stress for the lay reader. That being said, this book is dense, both in information and insight. Meticulously researched and heavily annotated, Sapiens is a brilliantly written book that I highly recommend.