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Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind Hardcover – February 10, 2015
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An Amazon Best Book of the Month for February 2015: Yuval Noah Harari has some questions. Among the biggest: How did Homo sapiens (or Homo sapiens sapiens , if you’re feeling especially wise today) evolve from an unexceptional savannah-dwelling primate to become the dominant force on the planet, emerging as the lone survivor out of six distinct, competing hominid species? He also has some answers, and they’re not what you’d expect. Tackling evolutionary concepts from a historian’s perspective, Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, describes human development through a framework of three not-necessarily-orthodox “Revolutions”: the Cognitive, the Agricultural, and the Scientific. His ideas are interesting and often amusing: Why have humans managed to build astonishingly large populations when other primate groups top out at 150 individuals? Because our talent for gossip allows us to build networks in societies too large for personal relationships between everyone, and our universally accepted “imagined realities”--such as money, religion, and Limited Liability Corporations—keep us in line. Who cultivated whom, humans or wheat?. Wheat. Though the concepts are unusual and sometimes heavy (as is the book, literally) Harari’s deft prose and wry, subversive humor make quick work of material prone to academic tedium. He’s written a book of popular nonfiction (it was a bestseller overseas, no doubt in part because his conclusions draw controversy) landing somewhere in the middle of a Venn diagram of genetics, sociology, and history. Throughout, Harari returns frequently to another question: Does all this progress make us happier, our lives easier? The answer might disappoint you. --Jon Foro
“Sapiens tackles the biggest questions of history and of the modern world, and it is written in unforgettably vivid language.” (Jared Diamond, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Guns, Germs, and Steel, Collapse, and The World until Yesterday)
“Sapiens is learned, thought-provoking and crisply written…. Fascinating.” (Wall Street Journal)
“In Sapiens, Harari delves deep into our history as a species to help us understand who we are and what made us this way. An engrossing read.” (Dan Ariely, New York Times Bestselling author of Predictably Irrational, The Upside of Irrationality, and The Honest Truth About Dishonesty)
“Yuval Noah Harari’s celebrated Sapiens does for human evolution what Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time did for physics.… He does a superb job of outlining our slow emergence and eventual domination of the planet.” (Forbes)
“[I]nteresting and provocative…It gives you a sense of perspective on how briefly we’ve been on this earth, how short things like agriculture and science have been around, and why it makes sense for us to not take them for granted.” (President Barack Obama)
“I would recommend this book to anyone interested in a fun, engaging look at early human history…you’ll have a hard time putting it down.” (Bill Gates)
“Thank God someone finally wrote [this] exact book.” (Sebastian Junger)
“Sapiens takes readers on a sweeping tour of the history of our species…. Harari’s formidable intellect sheds light on the biggest breakthroughs in the human story…important reading for serious-minded, self-reflective sapiens.” (Washington Post)
“It is one of the best accounts by a Homo sapiens of the unlikely story of our violent, accomplished species.…It is one hell of a story. And it has seldom been told better…. Compulsively readable and impossibly learned.” (Michael Gerson, Washington Post)
“This was the most surprising and thought-provoking book I read this year.” (Atlantic.com)
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Something I found really different and pleasing was his discussion of things where he had no real answer. In the case of all cultures being patriarchal he gives three or four possible reasons. That's good enough for me as there is still no real answer. I find that fair and enlightening. He also does something different as he uses the pronoun "she" throughout the book instead of the previously required male pronoun. Finally he keeps touching on the fact that animals have paid a terrible price for the rise of sapiens. From hunter-gatherer days to the factory farms of today they have suffered. He's right. Incidentally our family has a farm background and I eat no chicken, turkey, pork, or beef. Ever been in a confinement barn?
Now I didn't give the book five stars because he makes positive references to the misguided but widely read Jared Diamond. He borrows a fair amount from Diamond, for example, in that hunter-gatherers were happier than folks today. Let me emphasize that on this snowy March day the cat and I are both glad we don't need to go out and scavenge something off the frozen earth.
Finally, beware of the paper back edition. It has incredibly cheap paper and tiny print. If you purchase the book look for a hard cover. I now consign this review to oblivion. . .still I liked the book.
It not only merges into moral philosophy but it also merges into the realms of religion replacing religion with science. That is not uncommon, but when you get a sharp thinker and writer like Harari it is much more convincing.
Maybe my biggest fault with the book is that it reaffirmed by own biases too much so it is hard for me to tell if the reasoning is as good as I think it is or whether the reasoning only seems really good because its reaffirming my own biases. For example I became a vegetarian in my early 20's for moral reasons (I didn't like the way animals were treated). I felt like the author agreed with me. In the end I felt like the author just a slightly smarter version of myself who gave me better arguments to substantiate the beliefs I already have so I have a natural bias for this book.
Also how did this book get over 3000 reviews? Seriously! It is well argued and interesting, but its not a polemic designed to enflame one side and laud another side so I have no idea how 3000 people were motivated enough to write a review.
Everything from myth to religion to nations to moral codes to money are inter-subjective realities according to Harari. They have force in the physical world as long as people believe them, and cease to exist the moment people no longer believe them. This explains how people could cooperate in groups larger than 150, giving them a military and security advantage, and encouraging specialization which eventually gave them a technological advantage.
Moreover, Harari claims (assumes) all these later sapiens were genetically identical, and that the variations in societies are purely cultural, i.e. inter-subjective realities. He presents history as an erratic evolution toward global unity, which is essentially demanded by the nature of inter-subjective realities, requiring belief of all those in mutual frequent contact, but he doesn't say how.
In fact, Harari presents only anecdotal evidence for his claim. He presents no empirical studies regarding the flexibility of humans toward inter-subjective realities, and no mathematical models of its development, evolutionary advantage, or stability. He describes the scientific method as an important development, and requires it to include both mathematical models and verification of them. But he does not use either in his treatise. Thus he presents an important and interesting hypothesis, but not in a scientific manner. He makes not even suggestions as to how to further formulate or verify it as a scientific theory. Perhaps he is trapped in the inter-subjective reality of history as liberal arts, not science.
The term "intersubjective" does exist in the literature of psychology and philosophy, primarily as a synonym for "agreement," but there is no agreement about its definition (Gillespie and Cornish 2009, Journal for Theory of Social Behavior) state:
"The concept of intersubjectivity is used widely, but with varying meanings. Broadly speaking, we take intersubjectivity to refer to the variety of possible relations between people’s perspectives. If we take social life to be founded on interactions then intersubjectivity should be a core concept for the social sciences in general and understanding social behaviour in particular. Perhaps because of this broad relevancy research has been fragmented and at least six definitions are in circulation. Most simplistically, intersubjectivity has been used
to refer to agreement in the sense of having a shared definition of an object."
The biggest complaint I have about Harari is that he does not distinguish between his opinion and facts, nor explain the background of how he arrived at the theory of inter-subjectivity. The study of the evolution of cooperation is a hot topic, with political scientists, biologists, mathematicians and even physicists all having theories, and much data collected and many math models developed. It is apparent Harari is aware of this, but does not tell us how his theory fits in. I can only conclude he finds his powers of popular persuasion greater than his powers of scientific persuasion and critical analysis, so he writes a long book instead of a focused research paper.
By the way, you can find excellent video summaries and reviews of this book on the web, and even a "summary" for sale as an eBook. I originally got interested from the video summary.
Near the end Harari reports on happiness research. In this section of the book he takes exception to his usual approach, giving us descriptions of studies and names of researchers so we can trace where these conclusions come from. The book is worth reading for this section.
Occasionally Harari gets facts wrong. You won't realize this unless you have investigated the matter separately. I noticed it because his description of the origin of the caste system in India was wrong, according to current research.
Harari tries to present himself as outside modern factions (or inter-subjective realities), such as nature vs. nurture, liberalism vs. conservatism, etc. But without conscious explication, he suffuses his book with the assumption that any modern human if taken from birth is equally at home in any of the current or historical inter-subjective realities. He does not propose or even consider experiments to determine culture-vs-genetics. So he proposes this important genetic ability evolved in a small population on a single continent between 130kya and 70kya, but that no differentiating evolution has occurred since then.
The question of whether the degree or style of inter-subjectivity is as universal as he implies is important for several reasons. Harari proposes the world is "different" since 1945, with no war between major powers, no more empires expanding by territorial acquisition. He suggests some reasons for this (cost of nuclear war, for example) which are unverified. His book was completed in 2014 before Russia claimed parts of Ukraine and China claimed the entire South China Sea. If inter-subjective capacity is universal, then this situation is likely unstable. People could quit believing it at any moment, and the world could return to any state that it has been in historically. If inter-subjective capacity is not identical in everyone, then it might make a great deal of difference which cultures dominate, even if through historical accident. See for example Boyd and Richerson 2009 Culture and the Evolution of Human Cooperation.
So, it is a book full of powerful ideas, often with carefully balanced arguments on both sides, but beware of accepting the background assumptions without critical thinking, or you will just fall into the latest meme.