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Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind Hardcover – Illustrated, 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 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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Ho goes so far as to declare that America, or any other country is a myth! Come on… Tell this to a pack of wolves who call their territory Wolfland.
For me, Harari is one of those authors who come up with sensationalist and outrageous claims in order to sell his book, and judging by the ratings, he largely succeeds. But so do fake news.
So, Harari goes on to attempt to tear down just about every human institution of the last few thousand years as being fictional or "imaginary". Well, sure, they were all invented by humans. But invention is not fiction. Neither it is a myth.
Starting with a conclusion and only proposing evidence that fits with said conclusion bored me and I stopped reading it about a quarter of the way through.
I really gave it a try, but this book is one of the most pretentious and pompous books I've ever read.
I love good clear authors. Harari is not one of them. Can hardly get through a paragraph of his without being irritated by his generalization without support, constant non-sequiters and presentation of opinion as fact. And when he feels he’s gone too far, he says “Most scientists agree.” Go check it out.
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.
Top international reviews
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.
What I loved about the book:
-I've really been looking for answers to many questions (about life, about evolution, about - why it happened this way and not that), things, and events (such a Britain, how it was able to rule over such big empires, etc.) I never understood. Having all it combined and presented in such a wonderful way was a treat to read.
- Not only this book gives a history of how it all happened, it does open up many avenues and offers some logical reasoning about things and why they happened that way and not in any other way. The good part is, it does that in an exploring way and not just throwing some facts on your face to deal with. It explores various options and slowly, gently, how we came about to be what we are, who we are, and why we are.
- The book, although I may not totally be satisfied with some of the reasoning or thought processes of the author on certain issues (And I still give 5 stars!! haha), offers some wonderful windows into perspectives I never thought of.
- I loved the way how the author deals with the future. Again, I may not agree with everything there, but it did give me some points to think about, some aspects I never considered worth the thought.
- The book not only deals with laws of nature, actually, it doesn't at all - it offers some eye-opening reasoning of why everything is the way it is.
What I did not enjoy that much:
-Well, this could be an individual choice, but somewhere in the middle, I found the book somewhat stretched on Capitalism and Industrial Revolution. I did get to understand and learn some things there too, but that was where I would have rated the book 4/5.
But by the time I ended the book, well, I was able to ignore having being bored for some time, for what all perspective I gained from the book.
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.
Its unbelievable how author put forth history/future of humankind in such an never ending enthusiastic manner.
loved both the books
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.
- You do not need to be a science, nature, biology, history geek to enjoy this book
- The way it is written makes it attractive for a very large audience
- The writing style is simple, yet you feel like you are learning something every page
- Insightful and applicable to humankind today
- I do not agree with everything in the book, I think some of the statements are vague, however, this doesn't mean that you will not enjoy the book. It's ok to disagree.
Hovewer, majority of the book consists of things of which the author has no clue about, but maybe read some "blog post" or "book" on it. The major problem is in the phrases such as "We dont know". I think it is unethical that the author speaks in "We" and not in "I".
Additionally there is a lot of jumping on 1000 different topics which is the illness of 21th centry. Maybe thats why the book is so successfull. People get the impression that they "learned" something.
The book is equivalent of a video with a title "100 interesting facts in 10 minutes". The facts are exagerated, misinformed and sometimes false. But at least they are interesting.
Learning history from Yuval Harari is like relying on Facebook feed as your only source of news, you get hooked by the content easily, albeit it's mostly disinformation.
It's not a history - it's "Pop History." Superficial with lots of bold assertions without any corroborating evidence. With five minutes on Google you can discover that some of the most outlandish stories are false. At many times in the book I felt the author departed from what scientific evidence/research supports and instead conveyed a more political/biased view of things.
I would have liked to have him bring his educated opinions, emotions and humanity into the book more directly and openly, with facts and ideas that show how he arrived at these beliefs, rather than disguise his emotions as science and cherry pick a few facts to support himself. It cheapened what could otherwise have been a very good, thought provoking and otherwise well written book.
Given his next book is about the future, I am going to avoid it. In the middle of the book, I even wanted to give it up. Towards the end I had to push myself through the book.
Harari succeeds at drawing you into his own colorful and unique perspective on our humble origins in the plains of East Africa to our transition to farmers in the Agricultural Revolution and eventually rising all the way to the top. This book should not be treated as an academic and comprehensive thesis on anthropology, to treat it as such is to miss the point in my opinion. It is instead if you go into it with an open mind and a keen interest in the topic, is a fascinating and deeply thought-provoking take on ourselves as a species and what we have achieved, but also inevitably the price paid for our newfound supremacy. It's enlightening as well as sobering, and Harari toes that delicate line of acknowledging and even exalting our obvious accomplishments as a species (of which they are many) but also tempering that with the careful and measured hindsight of someone who is under no illusions. It's a balanced and fair assessment for the most part, even if at times he does resort to sensationalizing and leaning too much on his own subjective feelings at times as opposed to the facts objectively.
I'd highly recommend this book to all my fellow sapiens. It will shock you as well as inform you.