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Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind Hardcover – Illustrated, February 10, 2015
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Official U.S. edition with full color illustrations throughout.
New York Times Bestseller
A Summer Reading Pick for President Barack Obama, Bill Gates, and Mark Zuckerberg
From a renowned historian comes a groundbreaking narrative of humanity’s creation and evolution—a #1 international bestseller—that explores the ways in which biology and history have defined us and enhanced our understanding of what it means to be “human.”
One hundred thousand years ago, at least six different species of humans inhabited Earth. Yet today there is only one—homo sapiens. What happened to the others? And what may happen to us?
Most books about the history of humanity pursue either a historical or a biological approach, but Dr. Yuval Noah Harari breaks the mold with this highly original book that begins about 70,000 years ago with the appearance of modern cognition. From examining the role evolving humans have played in the global ecosystem to charting the rise of empires, Sapiens integrates history and science to reconsider accepted narratives, connect past developments with contemporary concerns, and examine specific events within the context of larger ideas.
Dr. Harari also compels us to look ahead, because over the last few decades humans have begun to bend laws of natural selection that have governed life for the past four billion years. We are acquiring the ability to design not only the world around us, but also ourselves. Where is this leading us, and what do we want to become?
Featuring 27 photographs, 6 maps, and 25 illustrations/diagrams, this provocative and insightful work is sure to spark debate and is essential reading for aficionados of Jared Diamond, James Gleick, Matt Ridley, Robert Wright, and Sharon Moalem.
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
“Ambitious and illuminating …the wonderful and terrifying saga of the human species on earth.” — Christian Science Monitor
“[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
“Yuval Noah Harari is an emerging rock-star lecturer at the nexus of history and science…. 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
“Yuval Noah Harari’s full-throated review of our species may have been blurbed by Jared Diamond, but Harari’s conclusions are at once balder and less tendentious than that of his famous colleague.” — New York magazine
“This title is one of the exceptional works of nonfiction that is both highly intellectual and compulsively readable… a fascinating, hearty read.” — Library Journal (starred review)
“An encyclopedic approach from a well-versed scholar who is concise but eloquent, both skeptical and opinionated, and open enough to entertain competing points of view.…The great debates of history aired out with satisfying vigor.” — Kirkus Reviews (starred review)
“Writing with wit and verve, Harari…attempts to explain how Homo sapiens came to be the dominant species on Earth as well as the sole representative of the human genus.… Provocative and entertaining.” — Publishers Weekly
“The most idea-packed work of non-fiction I’ve read in years.” — Dick Meyer, www.abcactionnews.com
“In this sweeping look at the history of humans, Harari offers readers the chance to reconsider, well, everything, from a look at why Homo sapiens endured to a compelling discussion of how society organizes itself through fictions.” — Booklist Best Books of the Year
“It’s not often that a book offers readers the possibility to reconsider, well, everything. But that’s what Harari does in this sweeping look at the history of humans.… Readers of every stripe should put this at the top of their reading lists. Thinking has never been so enjoyable.” — Booklist (starred review)
“The sort of book that sweeps the cobwebs out of your brain…. Harari…is an intellectual acrobat whose logical leaps will have you gasping with admiration.” — John Carey, Sunday Times (London)
“Harari’s account of how we conquered the Earth astonishes with its scope and imagination…. One of those rare books that lives up to the publisher’s blurb...brilliantly clear, witty and erudite.” — Ben Shepard, the Observer (London)
“An absorbing, provocative history of civilization…packed with heretical thinking and surprising facts. This riveting, myth-busting book cannot be summarised…you will simply have to read it.” — John Gray, Financial Times (London)
“Full of…high-perspective, shocking and wondrous stories, as well as strange theories and startling insights.” — Bryan Appleyard, Sunday Times
“Not only is Harari eloquent and humane, he is often wonderfully, mordantly funny” — The Independent (London)
“Engaging and informative…. Extremely interesting.” — Guardian (London)
“Harari can write…really, really write, with wit, clarity, elegance, and a wonderful eye for metaphor.” — The Times (Ireland)
- ASIN : 0062316095
- Publisher : Harper; Illustrated edition (February 10, 2015)
- Language : English
- Hardcover : 464 pages
- ISBN-10 : 9780062316097
- ISBN-13 : 978-0062316097
- Item Weight : 2.66 pounds
- Dimensions : 6 x 1.37 x 9 inches
- Best Sellers Rank: #4,738 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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Warning: I made over 300 notes, as Hariri is an elegant and perceptive thinker and writer. Below, I group my comments or quote Hariri by the book's parts.
Although many points are presented as fact, I think of them as informed opinion. In most cases, I agree with Harari's logic, but that agreement dropped as his narrative approached our contemporary times (skip to the bottom). I think that's less due to the presence of more data than the ever-deepening diversity and complexity of our institutions -- trends that Hariri also acknowledges.
Part 1: The cognitive revolution
Humans are born underdeveloped, so they need help growing up. Thus we have strong social potential that can be shaped (language, taste, religion) in many ways.
Our jump to the top of the food chain (due to the advantages of social organization) was sudden. Thus, we lack natural predators or instincts that might limit our exploitation of resources, a problem that's especially acute in the "new world"
Humans are "afraid" in the sense that they do not understand their power. Thus, we might over-react against perceived threats or destroy through ignorance: "The wandering bands of storytelling Sapiens were the most important and most destructive force the animal kingdom had ever produced" [p 62].
Language probably (?) allowed sapiens to dominate and eliminate Neanderthals (and other human species) even though any given Neanderthal individual was stronger and smarter. Language and social organization made it easier for groups of sapiens to dominate Neanderthals via collective action. Aside: Read this fascinating paper on how groups facing extinction (i.e., competition from other groups) will cooperate at much higher levels than groups not facing existential threats. And here's a great description of why sapiens are tribal and how to overcome tribalism in the name of nation, tolerance, etc.
Language allowed abstract thought, planning, story telling and deeper social relations, all of which drove forward the cognitive revolution and dominance of our species.
Gossip made it easier to control bad behavior. The value of a "maximum anthropological unit" is based on the fact that "most people can neither intimately know, nor gossip effectively about, more than 150 human beings" [p 26].
Religion grew out of story telling. Religion, fiction and other communal myths help larger groups cooperate by supporting laws, money, and other institutions.
Telling effective stories is not easy. The difficulty lies not in telling the story, but in convincing everyone else to believe it. Much of history revolves around this question: how does one convince millions of people to believe particular stories about gods, or nations, or limited liability companies? Yet when it succeeds, it gives Sapiens immense power, because it enables millions of strangers to cooperate and work towards common goals.
Story-telling allows cultural evolution to run 1,000x faster than genetic evolution.
Our diverse stories led to "culture" and the events changing culture became "history."
These stories make it possible for sapiens to cooperate in far larger groups than our chimpanzee cousins that are limited to groups of 150.
Part 2: The agricultural revolution
The majority of individuals were far worse off living with domesticated animals and crops. They had worse nutrition, worked harder, suffered from more disease (a key element in Guns Germs and Steel), and lost autonomy to elites who could control property: "This discrepancy between evolutionary success and individual suffering is perhaps the most important lesson we can draw from the Agricultural Revolution" [p. 97].
The agricultural revolution led to larger populations that needed high-density food production systems to survive. Thus, we lost the "exit option" to return to the hunter-gatherer lifestyle. (It's also true that agricultural societies could seize land and territory from hunter-gathers, so all groups were trapped in that equilibrium.) The same "no-return" problem (cf. Logic of Collective Action) makes it hard to reverse an arm-race, educational inflation, imported-water-dependent cities and farms. Likewise, the "luxury trap" has turned email into an incessant job, our "smart" phones into pestering devices.
The agricultural revolution led to required planning, which introduced stress about potential futures that hunter-gathers had never needed to experience. Planning led to bureaucracy, elites and rulers, who have taxed peasant workers (us!) ever since. Those elites funded art, temples, palaces and forts, but those "cultural institutions" were not often available to peasants.
Page 101: "History is something that very few people have been doing while everyone else was ploughing fields and carrying water buckets..." for rulers who often started wars fueled by peasant blood.
Page 111: "If people realise that human rights exist only in the imagination, isn’t there a danger that our society will collapse? Voltaire said about God that ‘there is no God, but don’t tell that to my servant, lest he murder me at night’."
Page 112: "To say that a social order is maintained by military force immediately raises the question: what maintains the military order? It is impossible to organise an army solely by coercion. At least some of the commanders and soldiers must truly believe in something, be it God, honour, motherland, manhood or money... How do you cause people to believe in an imagined order such as Christianity, democracy or capitalism? First, you never admit that the order is imagined. You always insist that the order sustaining society is an objective reality created by the great gods or by the laws of nature. People are unequal, not because Hammurabi said so, but because Enlil and Marduk decreed it. People are equal, not because Thomas Jefferson said so, but because God created them that way. Free markets are the best economic system, not because Adam Smith said so, but because these are the immutable laws of nature."
These beliefs underpin individualism, romantic vacations, consumerism, pick-up basketball, etc.
Page 118: "These imagined orders are inter-subjective, so in order to change them we must simultaneously change the consciousness of billions of people, which is not easy. A change of such magnitude can be accomplished only with the help of a complex organisation, such as a political party, an ideological movement, or a religious cult."
Social orders work on a small scale due to evolved social skills (gossip). On a larger scale, they depend on writing and numbers -- abstractions that are harder for sapiens to grasp and use. Both can be helpful in communicating information across time to many people, but both are abused. Writing can be abused via dubious logic (Marx's labor theory of value). Numbers are abused in their abstraction. Many scams depend on "trustworthy people" selling us crap at prices that do not result in value. Think multi-level marketing, Brexit's “£350 million a week,” or Trump's steel policy ("create 33,000 metal-making jobs and destroy 179,000 metal-dependent ones")
Page 136-8: "Time and again people have created order in their societies by classifying the population into imagined categories, such as superiors, commoners and slaves; whites and blacks; patricians and plebeians; Brahmins and Shudras; or rich and poor. These categories have regulated relations between millions of humans by making some people legally, politically or socially superior to others. Hierarchies serve an important function... In most cases the hierarchy originated as the result of a set of accidental historical circumstances and was then perpetuated and refined over many generations as different groups developed vested interests in it."
Page 142-3: "The stigma that labelled blacks as, by nature, unreliable, lazy and less intelligent conspired against him. You might think that people would gradually understand that these stigmas were myth rather than fact and that blacks would be able, over time, to prove themselves just as competent, law-abiding and clean as whites. In fact, the opposite happened – these prejudices became more and more entrenched as time went by. Since all the best jobs were held by whites, it became easier to believe that blacks really are inferior...Such vicious circles can go on for centuries and even millennia, perpetuating an imagined hierarchy that sprang from a chance historical occurrence. Unjust discrimination often gets worse, not better, with time. Money comes to money, and poverty to poverty. Education comes to education, and ignorance to ignorance. Those once victimised by history are likely to be victimised yet again."
Page 145: "Rape, in many legal systems, falls under property violation – in other words, the victim is not the woman who was raped but the male who owns her. This being the case, the legal remedy was the transfer of ownership – the rapist was required to pay a bride price to the woman’s father or brother, upon which she became the rapist’s property."
Page 147: "From a biological perspective, nothing is unnatural. Whatever is possible is by definition also natural. A truly unnatural behaviour, one that goes against the laws of nature, simply cannot exist, so it would need no prohibition. No culture has ever bothered to forbid men to photosynthesise, women to run faster than the speed of light, or negatively charged electrons to be attracted to each other. In truth, our concepts ‘natural’ and ‘unnatural’ are taken not from biology, but from Christian theology. The theological meaning of ‘natural’ is ‘in accordance with the intentions of the God who created nature’."
Page 155: "It is only natural that the chain of power within the species will also be determined by mental and social abilities more than by brute force. It is therefore hard to believe that the most influential and most stable social hierarchy in history is founded on men’s ability physically to coerce women...the greater the number of wars, the greater men’s control of society. This feedback loop explains both the ubiquity of war and the ubiquity of patriarchy."
Men are in power mostly because they are pushier, not because they are better at ruling.
Page 160: "During the last century gender roles have undergone a tremendous revolution. More and more societies today not only give men and women equal legal status, political rights and economic opportunities, but also completely rethink their most basic conceptions of gender and sexuality" ... and the results can be seen in many cultures and countries: not just better lives for women but better lives for men.
Part 3: The unification of humankind
Page 163-4: "Myths and fictions accustomed people, nearly from the moment of birth, to think in certain ways, to behave in accordance with certain standards, to want certain things, and to observe certain rules. They thereby created artificial instincts that enabled millions of strangers to cooperate effectively. This network of artificial instincts is called ‘culture’... every man-made order is packed with internal contradictions. Cultures are constantly trying to reconcile these contradictions, and this process fuels change."
Page 166&172: "Over the millennia, small, simple cultures gradually coalesce into bigger and more complex civilisations...the first universal order to appear was economic: the monetary order. The second universal order was political: the imperial order. The third universal order was religious: the order of universal religions such as Buddhism, Christianity and Islam. Merchants, conquerors and prophets were the first people who managed to transcend the binary evolutionary division, ‘us vs them’, and to foresee the potential unity of humankind."
Page 177: "Money is not coins and banknotes. Money is anything that people are willing to use in order to represent systematically the value of other things for the purpose of exchanging goods and services. Money enables people to compare quickly and easily the value of different commodities (such as apples, shoes and divorces), to easily exchange one thing for another, and to store wealth conveniently."
Page 183: "Counterfeiting is not just cheating – it’s a breach of sovereignty, an act of subversion against the power, privileges and person of the king. The legal term is lese-majesty (violating majesty), and was typically punished by torture and death. As long as people trusted the power and integrity of the king, they trusted his coins."
Good news! "For thousands of years, philosophers, thinkers and prophets have besmirched money and called it the root of all evil. Be that as it may, money is also the apogee of human tolerance. Money is more open-minded than language, state laws, cultural codes, religious beliefs and social habits. Money is the only trust system created by humans that can bridge almost any cultural gap, and that does not discriminate on the basis of religion, gender, race, age or sexual orientation. Thanks to money, even people who don’t know each other and don’t trust each other can nevertheless cooperate effectively" [p 186].
Bad news! "When everything is convertible, and when trust depends on anonymous coins and cowry shells, it corrodes local traditions, intimate relations and human values, replacing them with the cold laws of supply and demand. Human communities and families have always been based on belief in ‘priceless’ things, such as honour, loyalty, morality and love. These things lie outside the domain of the market, and they shouldn’t be bought or sold for money. Even if the market offers a good price, certain things just aren’t done. Parents mustn’t sell their children into slavery; a devout Christian must not commit a mortal sin; a loyal knight must never betray his lord; and ancestral tribal lands shall never be sold to foreigners. Money has always tried to break through these barriers, like water seeping through cracks in a dam" [p 186].
Page 187: "As money brings down the dams of community, religion and state, the world is in danger of becoming one big and rather heartless marketplace. Hence the economic history of humankind is a delicate dance. People rely on money to facilitate cooperation with strangers, but they’re afraid it will corrupt human values and intimate relations. With one hand people willingly destroy the communal dams that held at bay the movement of money and commerce for so long. Yet with the other hand they build new dams to protect society, religion and the environment from enslavement to market forces. It is common nowadays to believe that the market always prevails, and that the dams erected by kings, priests and communities cannot long hold back the tides of money. This is naïve."
Page 190: "Cultural diversity and territorial flexibility give empires not only their unique character, but also their central role in history. It’s thanks to these two characteristics that empires have managed to unite diverse ethnic groups and ecological zones under a single political umbrella, thereby fusing together larger and larger segments of the human species and of planet Earth."
Page 195-6: "Cyrus did not see himself as a Persian king ruling over Jews – he was also the king of the Jews, and thus responsible for their welfare. The presumption to rule the entire world for the benefit of all its inhabitants was startling. Evolution has made Homo sapiens, like other social mammals, a xenophobic creature. Sapiens instinctively divide humanity into two parts, ‘we’ and ‘they’ ... [in contrast] imperial ideology from Cyrus onward has tended to be inclusive and all-encompassing. Even though it has often emphasised racial and cultural differences between rulers and ruled, it has still recognised the basic unity of the entire world."
Page 197: "Ideas, people, goods and technology spread more easily within the borders of an empire than in a politically fragmented region. Often enough, it was the empires themselves which deliberately spread ideas, institutions, customs and norms. One reason was to make life easier for themselves. It is difficult to rule an empire in which every little district has its own set of laws, its own form of writing, its own language and its own money. Standardisation was a boon to emperors" -- but not always to individuals.
Page 204: "Many Indians adopted, with the zest of converts, Western ideas such as self-determination and human rights, and were dismayed when the British refused to live up to their own declared values by granting native Indians either equal rights as British subjects or independence. Nevertheless, the modern Indian state is a child of the British Empire," which is a problem when it comes to its centralizing tendency -- a tendency present in many post-colonial countries -- to deny local autonomy and ignore local solutions.
Page 210: "Religion must... espouse a universal superhuman order that is true always and everywhere [and] insist on spreading this belief to everyone. In other words, it must be universal and missionary... People tend to believe that all religions are like them. In fact, the majority of ancient religions were local and exclusive... As far as we know, universal and missionary religions began to appear only in the first millennium BC. Their emergence was one of the most important revolutions in history, and made a vital contribution to the unification of humankind, much like the emergence of universal empires and universal money."
Page 214: "Most Hindus... are sunk deep in the morass of mundane concerns, where Atman [the supreme being] is not much help. For assistance in such matters, Hindus approach the gods with their partial powers. Precisely because their powers are partial rather than all-encompassing, gods such as Ganesha, Lakshmi and Saraswati have interests and biases. Humans can therefore make deals with these partial powers and rely on their help in order to win wars and recuperate from illness."
Page 215-18: "The only god that the Romans long refused to tolerate was the monotheistic and evangelising god of the Christians. The Roman Empire did not require the Christians to give up their beliefs and rituals, but it did expect them to pay respect to the empire’s protector gods and to the divinity of the emperor. This was seen as a declaration of political loyalty. When the Christians vehemently refused to do... polytheistic Romans killed no more than a few thousand Christians. In contrast, over the course of the next 1,500 years, Christians slaughtered Christians by the millions to defend slightly different interpretations of the religion of love and compassion... Since monotheists have usually believed that they are in possession of the entire message of the one and only God, they have been compelled to discredit all other religions. Over the last two millennia, monotheists repeatedly tried to strengthen their hand by violently exterminating all competition."
That said, "The monotheist religions expelled the gods through the front door with a lot of fanfare, only to take them back in through the side window. Christianity, for example, developed its own pantheon of saints, whose cults differed little from those of the polytheistic gods" [p 219].
Page 227: "Buddhism does not deny the existence of gods – they are described as powerful beings who can bring rains and victories – but they have no influence on the law that suffering arises from craving. If the mind of a person is free of all craving, no god can make him miserable. Conversely, once craving arises in a person’s mind, all the gods in the universe cannot save him from suffering."
Page 232-4: "The main ambition of the Nazis was to protect humankind from degeneration and encourage its progressive evolution. This is why the Nazis said that the Aryan race, the most advanced form of humanity, had to be protected and fostered, while degenerate kinds of Homo sapiens like Jews, Roma, homosexuals and the mentally ill had to be quarantined and even exterminated... Hitler dug not just his own grave but that of racism in general. When he launched World War Two, he compelled his enemies to make clear distinctions between ‘us’ and ‘them’. Afterwards, precisely because Nazi ideology was so racist, racism became discredited in the West. But the change took time. White supremacy remained a mainstream ideology in American politics at least until the 1960s."
Page 241-3: "So why study history? Unlike physics or economics, history is not a means for making accurate predictions. We study history not to know the future but to widen our horizons, to understand that our present situation is neither natural nor inevitable, and that we consequently have many more possibilities before us than we imagine...There is no basis for thinking that the most successful cultures in history are necessarily the best ones for Homo sapiens. Like evolution, history disregards the happiness of individual organisms. And individual humans, for their part, are usually far too ignorant and weak to influence the course of history to their own advantage."
Part 4: The scientific revolution
Page 251-3: "The great discovery that launched the Scientific Revolution was the discovery that humans do not know the answers to their most important questions. Premodern traditions of knowledge such as Islam, Christianity, Buddhism and Confucianism asserted that everything that is important to know about the world was already known...The willingness to admit ignorance has made modern science more dynamic, supple and inquisitive than any previous tradition of knowledge. This has hugely expanded our capacity to understand how the world works and our ability to invent new technologies. But it presents us with a serious problem that most of our ancestors did not have to cope with. Our current assumption that we do not know everything, and that even the knowledge we possess is tentative, extends to the shared myths that enable millions of strangers to cooperate effectively. If the evidence shows that many of those myths are doubtful, how can we hold society together? How can our communities, countries and international system function?"
Good news! "The notion that humankind could [end wars, famine or death] by discovering new knowledge and inventing new tools was worse than ludicrous – it was hubris. The story of the Tower of Babel, the story of Icarus, the story of the Golem and countless other myths taught people that any attempt to go beyond human limitations would inevitably lead to disappointment and disaster" [p 264].
Bad news! Scientific advancement was not going to "overcome any and every problem by acquiring and applying new knowledge... because it would be funded and directed for the benefit of rulers and empire, not humanity.
Page 282: "What potential did Europe develop in the early modern period that enabled it [rather than the Asian empires generating 80 percent of the world's wealth] to dominate the late modern world? There are two complementary answers to this question: modern science and capitalism. Europeans were used to thinking and behaving in a scientific and capitalist way even before they enjoyed any significant technological advantages."
Superior knowledge made it possible for a ridiculously small number of Britons to control India.
Page 303: "the place of racism in imperial ideology has now been replaced by ‘culturism’... Marine le Pen’s speechwriters would have been shown the door on the spot had they suggested that the leader of France’s Front National party go on television to declare that, ‘We don’t want those inferior Semites to dilute our Aryan blood and spoil our Aryan civilisation.’ Instead, the French Front National, the Dutch Party for Freedom, the Alliance for the Future of Austria and their like tend to argue that Western culture, as it has evolved in Europe, is characterised by democratic values, tolerance and gender equality, whereas Muslim culture, which evolved in the Middle East, is characterised by hierarchical politics, fanaticism and misogyny."
Page 308-11: "You could cut the pie in many different ways, but it never got any bigger. That’s why many cultures concluded that making bundles of money was sinful...If the pie is static, and I have a big part of it, then I must have taken somebody else’s slice... Whoever believes in progress believes that geographical discoveries, technological inventions and organisational developments can increase the sum total of human production, trade and wealth... Smith’s claim that the selfish human urge to increase private profits is the basis for collective wealth is one of the most revolutionary ideas in human history – revolutionary not just from an economic perspective, but even more so from a moral and political perspective."
Harari claims [p 215] that the human economy has been able to grow continuously "thanks only" to scientific discoveries but forgets how fossil fuels have allowed us to consume "millions of years of solar energy" in only a few centuries.
Page 318: "The secret of Dutch success was credit. The Dutch burghers, who had little taste for combat on land, hired mercenary armies to fight the Spanish for them. The Dutch themselves meanwhile took to the sea in ever-larger fleets. Mercenary armies and cannon-brandishing fleets cost a fortune, but the Dutch were able to finance their military expeditions more easily than the mighty Spanish Empire because they secured the trust of the burgeoning European financial system at a time when the Spanish king was carelessly eroding its trust in him. Financiers extended the Dutch enough credit to set up armies and fleets, and these armies and fleets gave the Dutch control of world trade routes, which in turn yielded handsome profits. The profits allowed the Dutch to repay the loans, which strengthened the trust of the financiers."
From around here (1800) forward, Harari's narrative is (more) vulnerable to critique, probably due to a combination of his over-reliance on a given trend that might ignore other trends or an over-simplified version of a concept (capitalism, for example).
He says [p 329] "there simply is no such thing as a market free of all political bias," but that's obvious when you remember that political institutions (e.g., property rights or regulation) determine the form and regulate the operation of the market.
The sad thing is that he -- by underestimating the importance of institutions -- lays too much credit/blame on the economy, i.e., "much like the Agricultural Revolution, so too the growth of the modern economy might turn out to be a colossal fraud. The human species and the global economy may well keep growing, but many more individuals may live in hunger and want." This claim might be justified by looking at the number of people living below the "$1.90 per day line" (11 percent, or 800 million), but "hunger" is often the outcome of failed political structures (politicians favoring themselves over their citizens [pdf]), and "want" should be blamed on our desires (see Buddha, above) rather than the "new ethic of consumerism" that "appears" as a means of rescuing capitalists from their overproduction [p 347].
This claim -- besides appearing in the passive tense, as if handed down by god -- is naive.
I see many of these market developments as good and many of the problems of inequality as the result of political decisions, but perhaps he's upset at "the collapse of the family and the local community and their replacement by the state and the market" [p 355] because he prefers the pre-market world where "the community offered help on the basis of local traditions and an economy of favours, which often differed greatly from the supply and demand laws of the free market" [p 356]. That nostalgia in the present day might echo his ancestor's nostalgia for the the life of a hunter gatherer after the agricultural revolution, but I do not agree on the parallel.
First, it's unlikely that a community-oriented society will be invaded and colonized by a capitalist-oriented society in the same way that hunter-gathers were displaced by farmers.
Second, it's much easier for anyone to "go back" to a community lifestyle and spend less time in the market economy. We have the technology and productivity to make it possible for someone to work less and enjoy a decent standard of living. (After-tax wages in the Netherlands are probably half the level of those in the US, but the quality of life is better here for most people -- due to communal and market reasons.)
Third, Harari assumes that people are hapless victims -- "many of us now bewail the loss of strong families and communities and feel alienated and threatened by the power the impersonal state and market wield over our lives" [p 360] -- assertions of dependency that I would not make for most people in middle and upper-income countries. (Neither would Mr Money Mustache.) Are the poor people in the world with limited agency? Absolutely. But many other people are more trapped by their decisions (college debt, opioids, pregnancies) than "the impersonal state and market." (That said, I'll allow for the power of marketing propaganda.)
Fourth, Harari seems to have a nostalgia for an imagined paradise: "The intimate communities fulfilled the emotional needs of their members and were essential for everyone’s survival and welfare. In the last two centuries, the intimate communities have withered, leaving imagined communities to fill in the emotional vacuum" [p 362]. In my experience of the recent history of ex-communisst countries, there was indeed a loss of community when people gained the freedom to earn more and buy goods and services they had previously traded with friends, but v
In addition to reading, I also listened to the audiobook narrated by Derek Perkins - also highly recommended.
The book focuses on "big" history, i.e., macroscopic historical patterns and principles, rather than individual or microscopic historical events and processes. Examples include the three major unification forces of human cultures (money, empires and religions) and the interactions between science, imperialism and capitalism that buttress Western empires' dominion since 1750. Each chapter is organized around these themes, rather than around individual historical regions, eras or institutions (eg, empires and religions) which seems to be the approach of most traditional history textbooks or even university curricula (as judged from for example the course offerings in the History Department of my university: https://classes.cornell.edu/browse/roster/FA15/subject/HIST).
[This paragraph contains some personally thoughts only marginally relevant to the book under review; feel free to skip it] Personally, I am utterly enthusiastic about the author’s approach while enormously frustrated about the traditional approach: the traditional approach is like stamp collecting, analogous to providing a long list of mechanical devices without teaching Newton's laws in the case of mechanics, or displaying a wonderful array of organismal diversity without mentioning the unifying principle of evolution in the case of biology, turns people into "scholars" rather than "thinkers" and defeats the overall purpose of our intellectual endeavors. IF there is some element of truth to my impression of history research and education as traditionally practiced having fallen to a lamentable state of stamp collecting, why so? As an outsider of the field I don’t know, and I am speculating that the major reason is we simply don’t know the principles with a level of certainty like that in mechanics or biology, and the minor reason is there is a culture of stamp collecting. In any case, I admire and support the author’s effort which helps to establish the “big history” approach.
Once in a while, the author jumped out of any historical context altogether and provided some sweeping accounts on some central questions of history whose relevance holds for history as a whole. Examples include justice in history (Chapter 8), the arrow of history (Chapter 9) and the secret of cultural success (Chapter 13). My personal favorite on this is the chapter on happiness (Chapter 19), which examines the following question: are we getting happier as history rolls along and our power accumulates? By the end of an informative and thought-provoking discussion, the author claimed that the subject has traditionally been shunned by historians despite its central importance and he was trying to fill the gap; I personally believe the claim and think it attests to the author’s courage and intellectual prowess.
Staying at the “big history” level, the book contains many thought-provoking ideas. Examples include the point of studying history is not to make predictions but to understand the vast possibilities of our future (in Chapter 13), and we Homo sapiens about to turn into superhumans (in Chapter 20). My personal favorite on this is Agricultural Revolution as history’s biggest fraud (Chapter 5) and the nature of human happiness and how to achieve it (Chapter 19). Connected, the two discussions tell me that humans’ choices and actions may sometimes be fundamentally antithetical and counterproductive to their long-term happiness, which holds profound philosophical and ethical implications to me.
The exposition of the book is lucid and the flow natural. To supplement and concretize the discussions on macroscopic principles, the author provided many detailed (microscopic) examples, and here he exhibited great skills in zooming in and out between the two levels and choosing most telling microscopic examples. Examples fall into several categories. In demonstrating that social orders are of an imagined nature, he carefully chose the CASES of the Code of Hammurabi and the Declaration of Independence, and the result is an informative and intriguing comparison (Chapter 6). In showing that in fact the conquered are usually part of the imperial legacies despite their sometimes great reluctance in admitting so, he drew the STORY of siege of Numantia by the Roman Empire (Chapter 11). In explaining the emergence of credit, he concocted a TALE of the fictional characters McDoughnut, Stone and Greedy (Chapter 16). Moreover, the book is scattered with examples down to the more vivid and explicit level, such as a mathematical equation of Relativity to exemplify our mathematical cognition (Chapter 7) and an ingredient list of a hand cream to illustrate the modern industrial sophistication (Chapter 17).
Occasionally for some difficult topics in the book it seems a clearer exposition would make it easier for me to understand the author’s argument (eg, on how language enabled us to enjoy competitive advantage over other Homo species and ultimately drive them to extinction (Chapter 2), and the sequence of events that got us trapped in agriculture (Chapter 5)), but having not thoroughly gone through those difficult parts a few times, I understand that it might actually be my understanding deficiency. Moreover, I am aware of some complaints over the potential handwaviness of some of the author’s arguments as exemplified by his overuse of the phrase “exceptions that prove the rule” (eg, http://www.theguardian.com/books/2014/sep/11/sapiens-brief-history-humankind-yuval-noah-harari-review). In this my thought is the following: I see an AUTHOR’s primary duty as to provoke readers’ own thinking rather than to produce bulletproof arguments (this secondary duty of an author would be the primary duty of a SCIENTIST); in other words, if the author is writing an academic paper, he might need to tighten up his arguments, and since he is now writing a general history book, I think he has succeeded in his primary duty superbly.
Lastly, I think it is hard to read through the book without noticing its literary appeal. This book is apparently an English translation that the author did himself from the original Hebrew version. The beautiful and idiomatic language adds much to the exhilarating reading experience.
The book affects me nontrivially at a personal level. Aside from the philosophical and ethical implications from history on the relationship between our decisions and long-term happiness as mentioned above, the broad spectrum of social norms described in the book broadens my ethical outlook and makes me less dogmatic about whatever ideas I used to hold as absolute principles and cherish unwaveringly (a positive change I think), echoing the point of studying history which in the author’s opinion is to understand the myriad of possibilities (also mentioned above). I feel sincerely grateful to the author and the book in this. It is in part my wish of extending this positive impact of reading this book and understanding history in general to other people that prompted me to write this review.
I can think of some minor improvements for the book. Aside from the potential refinements on the exposition and argument mentioned above, I think the book can be supplemented with more data and plots of them, to inject a more quantitative sense to the matters under study. Lastly, I think the Table of Contents should also include sections of each chapter, which I think would help us grasp the overall structure of the discourse and I provide below for the convenience of other readers. For example, with a listing of the sections of Chapter 12 on religion, one can easily see that the discussions go from the transition from animism to god-based religions, polytheism, monotheism, dualism, Buddhism and Humanism.
Table of Sections
I. The Cognitive Revolution
1. An animal of no significance
a. Skeletons in the closest
b. The cost of thinking
c. A race of cooks
d. Our brothers’ keepers
2. The Tree of Knowledge
a. The legend of Peugeot
b. Bypassing the genome
c. History and Biology
3. A day in the life of Adam and Eve
a. The original affluent society
b. Talking ghosts
c. Peace or war?
d. The curtain of silence
4. The Flood
a. Guilty as charged
b. The end of sloth
c. Noah’s Ark
II. The Agricultural Revolution
5. History’s biggest fraud
a. The luxury trap
b. Divine intervention
c. Victims of the revolution
6. Building pyramids
a. The coming of the future
b. An imagined order
c. True believers
d. The prison walls
7. Memory overload
a. Signed, Kushim
b. The wonders of bureaucracy
c. The language of numbers
8. There is no justice in history
a. The vicious cycle
b. Purity in America
c. He and she
d. Sex and gender
e. What’s so good about men?
f. Muscle power
g. The scum of Society
h. Patriarchal genes
III. The unification of humankind
9. The arrow of history
a. The spy satellite
b. The global vision
10. The scent of money
a. How much is it?
b. Shells and cigarettes
c. How does money work?
d. The Gospel of gold
e. The price of money
11. Imperial Visions
a. What is an empire?
b. Evil empires
c. It’s for your own good
d. When they become us
e. Good guys and bad buys in history
f. The new global empire
12. The law of religion
a. Silencing the lamb
b. The benefits of idolatry
c. God is one
d. The battle of good and evil
e. The law of nature
f. The worship of man
g. Humanist religions – religions that worship humanity
13. The secret of success
a. The hindsight fallacy
b. The blind clio
IV. The Scientific Revolution
14. The discovery of ignorance
b. The scientific dogma
c. Knowledge is power
d. The ideal of progress
e. The Gilgamesh Project
f. The sugar daddy of science
15. The marriage of science and empire
a. Why Europe?
b. The mentality of conquest
c. Empty maps
d. Invasion from outer space
e. Rare spiders and forgotten scripts
16. The Capitalist creed
a. A growing pie
b. Columbus searches for an investor
c. In the name of capital
d. The cult of the free market
e. The Capitalist hell
17. The wheels of industry
a. The secret in the kitchen
b. An ocean of energy
c. Life on the conveyor belt
d. The age of shopping
18. A permanent revolution
a. Modern time
b. The collapse of the family and the community
c. Imagined community
d. Perpetuum mobile
e. Peace in our time
f. Imperial retirement
g. Pax Atomica
19. And they lived happily ever after
a. Counting happiness
b. Chemical happiness
c. The meaning of life
d. Know Thyself
20. The end of Homo Sapiens
a. Of mice and men
b. The return of the Neanderthals
c. Bionic life
d. Another life
e. The singularity
f. The Frankenstein prophecy
Top reviews from other countries
Unfortunately, this enormous task is the book's own undoing. There is no room for any indepth discussions about the various complex issues, and no room to discuss the evidence. The book is filled with assertion after assertion, and virtually nothing to back them up. I looked in the reference section and I was shocked to see how few citations there were. Such a massive subject derserves ten times more citations. If you think you're getting a good scientific description of the facts, don't buy this book. This book is essentially his opinions, and not much else.
Any person who has strong knowledge within any of the subjects in the book will quickly realise that Harari is not an expert on much of what he writes about. He does not just make many claims. He makes many wrong claims. And many, many more misleading ones. It's one of those books that are popular with the layman, but not so much with the expert.
When he leaves the topic of evolutionary biology, premodern history, and starts talking about modern history the book gets slighter better. Or is that just because I'm not as well-versed in those topics? Do I just not see his errors there, just like a layperson would not see his errors in his account of evolutionary biology, intelligence research, and more? I won't know. The problem is I can't put much trust in him, because there are so many things wrong or misleading stuff elsewhere. And he doesn't provide sufficient evidence.
Even in the better parts of the book, it is ultimately somewhat dull. Not much new to learn for me, unfortunately. There are so many books about humans, many of them much better than this.
I wouldn't claim that this is the worst book ever, obviously. But to say that it is overhyped is to put it mildly. If you want to read a story, then perhaps you might find it interesting. If you want a factual account that is supported by an honest look at the available evidence, then go somewhere else.
Reviewed in India 🇮🇳 on September 6, 2018
Unfortunately, I also have to agree with many of the one star reviewers, that the books downfall is the almost constant speculation he engages in, without providing further evidence.
As an example, he states 'the creators of the cave paintings at Chauvet, Lascaux and Altmira almost certainly intended them to last for generations.'
This kind of statement is endemic of the sloppy thinking he engages in, where he will assume something for the sake of the narrative.
This wouldn't be a problem if it were in isolation, but it is a pattern repeated throughout the book, where he will base a conclusion off an assumption, then proceed to build a whole story off it. This relegates the book to a speculation rather than a historical account.
I would also advice Christians that he is rather condescending about religion in general and Christianity in particular. He describes Christianity as a 'myth' to be put in the same category as belief in Odin or in Wood Spirits. AS a Non-Christian I was annoyed over his presumptive anti-theism so I have no doubt that many believers will find him infuriating.
To sum up, this is an interesting and infuriating speculation of the humankind. Take it all with a shaker of salt.
I mean, you wrote a book about it, so I think people have a pretty good idea on where you stand, but the author smacks it in your face, and that ruined the book, which is a shame because it had the potential to be a great book, don't get me wrong, this was a good book, but not a great one.