Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind – a book by Yuval Noah Harari
Review and Synopsis
History is often taught with a tedious parade of dates and names. Contrary to this is Yuval Noah Harari’s book “Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind,” which is a grand historical narrative that sheds light on a riveting question: “How did an animal of no significance eventually become a god, or should I say god-like?” with all conceptual schemas and hardly any Napoleon, Henry, Genghis, or Elizabeth in view. Harari breaks apart this journey of evolution from an animal to a being of higher intellect into three distinctive quests, viz., the cognitive revolution, the agricultural revolution, and the scientific revolution, in a way that is a sweeping summation of the last 200,000 years or so. Like the moon, this book has many dark spots. Harari has often made stimulating but unsourced assertions that would better suit a Reddit thread or discussion forum if they were not written by a learned academician and a public intellectual. Despite these flaws, the silver lining is that the logical leaps that the author makes during the aforementioned quests leave you gasping with admiration. It is arguably the most mind-stirring, thought-provoking, and crisply written book that one must probably read, keeping some of its shortcomings aside.
Harari asserts that human beliefs and stories have shaped our history and continue to shape our present. He argues that the ability to believe in non-existent, abstract things such as gods, nations, and money has been a major factor in the success of human beings as a species. This belief system enables us to cooperate and exist in a larger group. Harari even attributes this human ability to carry communal thought to globalization. This made humans able to build complex societies and achieve feats that would have been impossible for smaller groups to accomplish on their own. The growth and expansion of religion and the progressive extinction of polytheism by more or less noxious monotheisms are two related developments. Following is the development of money and, more importantly, credit, allowing the emergence of the capitalist economy. The growth of capitalism is linked to the spread of empires and commerce. However, Harari also points out the drawbacks of these beliefs, which have led to war, injustice, and even self-destruction. This belief system has been used in a Machiavellian way from time to time to justify war and persecution throughout history. Similarly, he points out that the capitalistic belief system has encouraged financial polarization, environmental destruction, and imbalance in the natural ecosystem. Additionally, Harari tries to cover the evolution of human beings, not only from the intellectual perspective, but he elucidates the causality of the present scenario from the biological perspective as well. He discusses various aspects of human evolution, which include the emergence of Homo sapiens among all other species in the genus Homo and the subsequent development of agriculture, which eventually led to the growth of various civilizations. Harari goes so far as to say that the agricultural revolution was the largest scam in human history because it caused us to abandon our close relationship with nature in favor of selfishness and alienation, which is eventually weighing heavily on us. He suggests that we may have had it better back in the stone age than we do now. With all of these, Harari concludes that modern agriculture may very well be the biggest historical crime. At last, Harari discusses the Gilgamesh project, which is the leading project of the scientific revolution that gives eons to human life. He is skeptical about the good that leaps like these have to do for humanity. He argues that even if we become immortal, there is no guarantee that humanity will be happier. He draws on the well-known research that shows that a person’s happiness has little to do with material circumstances. This book’s recurring topic is happiness. Despite all the advancements and leaps that humanity has achieved, Harari persists in asserting that the hunter-gatherer lifestyles of our ancestors may have been better than the ones we lead now.
With the discussion moving from the past to the present, Harari concludes the book with a discussion about the future of the human race. He speculates that the potential impact of emerging technologies such as artificial intelligence and biogenetic engineering may change the way we live and interact. Finally, he talks about the possible emergence of new engineered life forms and the social and ethical implications of such a development.