‘Seventy thousand years ago, Homo sapiens was still an insignificant animal minding its own business in a corner of Africa. In the following millennia it transformed itself into the master of the entire planet and the terror of the ecosystem. Today it stands on the verge of becoming a god, poised to acquire not only eternal youth, but also the divine abilities of creation and destruction.’
The final paragraph of the final chapter offers a fitting summary to Israeli professor Yuval Noah Harari’s magnum opus. ‘Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind’ (2014) traces the human story, from our humble beginnings to our exceptional rise, by identifying a series of key biological, social and technological developments that shaped the world we know today. Harari explains why and how homo sapiens are, illustrating the big picture with pertinent and oft amusing historical anecdotes. In the spirit of Jared Diamond’s ‘Guns, Germs, and Steel’, it provides a scientific perspective on world history.
Sapiens has four parts:
- One: The Cognitive Revolution –sentience and self-awareness, language, hunter-gatherers and our role in the Pleistocene Extinction.
- Two: The Agricultural Revolution – farming, hierarchies and the stories which underpin them, writing, prejudice and injustice.
- Three: The Unification of Humankind – global civilization, money and commerce, empire, religion and ideology.
- Four: The Scientific Revolution – the Scientific and Industrial Revolutions, capitalism, happiness the state of the modern world and our possible future
Harari’s premise is the impact of ‘shared fictions’: societies’ beliefs and values, the way we view the world, the ideologies we share and the stories and myths which uphold them. A corporation, a nation, a higher power or even money itself, is not real in the tangible sense, yet through shared belief in the system, it holds sway over our daily lives, unifies peoples and upholds social structures. In Harari’s view consumerism and liberal humanism – the dominant ideologies of today – are just as much ‘religions’ as Buddhism or Islam, for they shape how we view and interact with the world and our fellow man.
Released in 2011 in Hebrew and 2014 in English, Sapiens was immensely successful. It sold over a million copies and catapulted Harari from an insignificant history professor to one of the world’s leading intellectuals. Barack Obama, Bill Gates, Jared Diamond and Mark Zuckerberg are fans. While Sapiens deals with our human past, his newer books Homo Deus (2016) and 21 Lessons for the 21st Century (2018) deal with the future and present, respectively. I have not yet read them.
Despite his heavy-hitting concepts, Harari writes in an eloquent and accessible manner. His prose is thoughtful, punchy and descriptive, his content insightful and often provocative. This book will change how you view the world.
I don’t think I’ve ever had so many ‘aha’ moments in so short a time. It might be the best nonfiction I’ve ever read.
Yuval Noah Harari is a professor of world history at Hebrew University. He lives with his husband on a cooperative farm near Jerusalem and is an ardent vegan. He meditates for two hours every day.