Book review of Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind
This is the most important book that I have ever read.
I realize that probably sounds a tad hyperbolic, but I mean it. This book has fundamentally changed the way I look at the world and the human species. And to add something even more over the top, I believe the ideas in this book represent a new ideology for which there isn’t a name yet, but the understanding and adoption of which is required if humanity is to survive as a species. Those who have read this book will recognize that statement is somewhat ironic given what Sapiens is about, but for those of you who haven’t read it, allow me to explain.
The central thesis of this book is that the ability of humans to tell each other stories and to engage in cooperative activity based on those stories is what distinguishes humanity from all other species on earth and has enabled us to dominate all other sentient life-forms. Sounds simple enough, right? Well, it is, at least until you realize the scope of what Mr. Harari considers a story. He presents a compelling argument that almost everything humans consider to be ‘reality’ is nothing more than collectively shared and agreed-upon stories. Corporations. Nations. Money. Religion. To Mr. Harari, these are all equally fictional concepts with far less objective reality to them than a puff of air.
One of the things I found remarkable about this book was the simple, matter-of-fact manner in which the author breaks down the aforementioned entities and exposes them for what they truly are. He starts by showing how the French car company, Peugeot, is really just an idea, even though various attributes such as the cars themselves, the employees, the offices they work in, and so on, are all real. But what binds them all together is just a jointly agreed-upon cognitive construct. There is no actual physical entity Peugeot that exists in nature.
Similarly, he points out that concepts such as “human rights” which are foundational elements of the United States government are not real. In a somewhat amusing if macabre example, he notes that you cannot cut a human being open and find their human rights inside of them. It’s just an idea. However, the shared belief in that and many other ideas form what we call the United States of America, and are the underpinnings of the coordinated behavior of more than 300 million people who are, by and large, complete strangers.
It would be easy to focus on the author’s brilliance in formulating this idea and explaining in such a simple way literally anybody can understand it. But that would obscure what I think is the most important quality of Mr. Harari’s thesis, and that is its intellectual honesty. While Mr. Harari is a historian by education (he has a PhD from Oxford and is a lecturing professor in history at the University of Jerusalem and Israel), this tone of his book is as frank and dispassionate it is as if his training was in anthropology. He affords humans none of the emotional and intellectual favoritism that most observers of human behavior and history grant their subjects because they themselves are humans with years of indoctrination about our uniqueness and importance. Instead, he regards humanity with the dispassionate eye of an alien from a distant world with no particular concern for us other than an innate curiosity about what makes us tick.
In addition, the simple, matter-of-fact tone of Mr. Harari’s writing belies its tremendous impact. Because the implications of the reduction of almost everything we normally view as comprising our day-to-day reality is staggering when you think about it, particularly with respect to the various ideologies that collectively form the backbone of our civilization. Sapiens implicitly dismisses the assertions of any ideology, be it religious, political, social, or economic, as being the most important, most valid, most approved by God, etc., by noting they are all still human ideas rather than incontrovertible facts of nature.
But anti-establishment thinkers should not jump onto the author’s arguments as evidence that whatever “-isms” currently in vogue are a bunch of malarkey. I’ve listened to several podcasts Mr. Harari has been on, and in them he talks about how many of the stories we have created are positive and lead to good outcomes for us and the world. What he stresses is the fundamental importance of never losing sight of what our stories truly are, and the need to ensure that we adapt our stories so that they serve us and the world and not the other way around. That is, we need to update our stories, or replace them with new ones, to attain better results, rather than slavishly adhering to stories that may have been useful decades, centuries, or even millennia ago, but may not be effective now given the much different technological, environmental, and social conditions in which we find ourselves.
There is a lot more to this book than just this central thesis though. It is a wonderfully succinct distillation of human evolution and civilization, going all the way back to the dawn of humanity 2.5 million years ago. Mr. Harari deftly summarizes millions of years of human evolution in just a few pages, and in a way that you can remember and recount to someone else afterward. One of the most fascinating chapters, called History’s Biggest Fraud, explains how, contrary to popular belief, the Agricultural Revolution that happened around 10,000 years ago was not a great leap forward for humankind, but actually made things worse for us! In the vein of Richard Dawkins’ seminal work, The Selfsh Gene, Harari points out that
The currency of evolution is neither hunger nor pain, but rather copies of DNA helixes.
Cultivating wheat provided much more food per unit of territory, and thereby enabled Homo Sapiens to multiply exponentially
This is the case even though human agriculturalists lived under worse conditions than their forager forebears. You’ll have to read the book to learn all the evidence in support of this argument, but it’s knowledge drops like this that left me feeling a lot smarter after reading Sapiens than I did before. As I mentioned at the beginning, this book has fundamentally altered my worldview in many ways, and I’m truly grateful to Mr. Harari for creating such an important and foundational story (ha!).
I joke, but that actually brings up the one area I felt Mr. Harari could have dug into more, and I hope he will in his other writings, Homo Deus and 21 Lessons for the 21st Century, which I plan to read very soon. That area is whether some of our knowledge constitutes more than just stories. For example, an opinion about the nature of God is one thing, but the knowledge of the recipe for how to combine specific ratios of sulfur, charcoal, and saltpeter before applying an open flame to produce an explosion is another. And while it is easy to poke logical and factual holes in stories such as Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, etc., there are, I believe, fundamental truths to be found in them, even if they are buried under a lot of details that, when regarded from a neutral vantage point, can be seen to be no more than vain human attempts to appear more knowledgeable than we really are.
In an age where human beings are struggling to agree with each other on what things are facts and what things are opinions, it seems risky to me to imply that all knowledge can be deconstructed into just “stories.” This would not only be wrong but dangerous, and that is certainly not Mr. Harari’s intent. But it seems clear that some human knowledge can and should be regarded as immutable natural facts, even if the only verifiable occurrences of them require human actors to instantiate them. It would be a great service, in addition to the one he has already rendered in writing this book, if Mr. Harari could break down the difference for us in the same compelling way he so artfully decomposed corporations, nations, and well, pretty much everything else. I’m not kidding when I say that, were he to do so, he might just save humanity from itself.
Science fiction writer