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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.
Harari focusses on the three great revolutions of human history: Cognitive, Agricultural, and Scientific. He asks how "An Animal of No Significance" managed to become the dominant life form, and whether that animal's learning to produce his own food and then to further harness the natural world to his will through science were boons or setbacks, both for that animal and for the rest of the biosphere. In 20 brilliant chapters Harari asks his readers to consider not only what did happen, but what might have occurred had things turned out slightly differently (the roles of chance and accident are given a lot of attention.) He reveals the mutually agreed upon "stories" that helped shape human societies and questions their validity, not to disillusion but to challenge his readers. At times the tone is unavoidably cynical, but at others there's a real optimistic air (leavened by some cautions here and there). I found Harari's ideas fascinating, especially those in his final chapter "The End of Homo Sapiens" and in his brief but important "Afterword: The Animal That Became a God."
Readers who are looking for detailed chronicles listing, for example, the Emperors of China, Kings and Queens of England, or Presidents of the United States should look elsewhere. But readers who want to be challenged and enlightened will find Sapiens a most enjoyable work. I'm a retired AP World History teacher, and while I was reading there were many moments which made me wish I was back in the classroom so I could share Harari's ideas with my high school students. That's high praise indeed, but Sapiens deserves it and much more.
Harari claims that the Jewish Bible has no references to Satan or other similar evil force. I presume that this means Harari has dismissed the Book of Job from the wisdom writings in the Hebrew scriptures. The "Other" with whom God is betting in Job seems to me to be the predecessor of the evil one in Islam and Christianity. As Judaism often incorrectly claims to be the founder of monotheism, it seems to me that it shares at least some of the blame for the evils that Harari attributes to monotheism.
Similarly, Harari argues that Catholic saints really are demigods. Brigid, an Irish saint, for example is simply the Catholic Church adopting the Irish goddess Brigit. This may be true, but Irish scholars are divided deeply over this. Harai's account of Catholicism adopting local gods and making them protectors of local areas would appear to make Catholicism is polytheistic religion.
Harari also seems to misunderstand how causality works. The Industrial Revolution took place 100 years before the disintegration of the modern family. Surely there are more proximate causes including women's struggle for equal rights, geographic mobility, effective birth control, and women being able to support their children. Harari also attributes "strong individuals" to a weak family, a weak community, and a strong state and capitalist market. In contrast, weak individuals are the product of a strong family and community and a weak state and market. Harari might be correct if he were arguing that individualism grew as family connections declined, but if that is his argument, some evidence would be nice. What clearly is not the case, however, is that weak families lead to strong individuals. Almost all research on the effects of family structure shows that strong families lead to strong individuals and weak families lead to weak individuals.
There are a number of books that cover similar territory and are far superior to Sapiens. Matt Ridley's "The Red Queen," "The Origin of Virtue," and "Nature via Nurture" all are better science and history. Robert Wright's "The Moral Animal" and "The Evolution of God" are far superior accounts of the development of virtue, cooperation, and why the world is becoming less violent. Laurence Tancredi's "Hardwired Behavior: What Neuroscience Reveals about Morality" demonstrates why natural law is not imaginary as Harari claims, but developed from human awareness of ordering in nature and the role of order, reason, and altruism (inherited human preferences) led to the doctrine of natural law. Finally, for those who oppose evolutionary biology, Rose and Rose (eds.) "Alas Poor Darwin" covers many of the topics covered by Harari, but the chapters make more compelling use of science rather than opinion masquerading as science.
Harari writes well and gives plausible, but often incorrect, explanations of the major events in human history and their impacts on the world. His book is strongest when discussing the importance of empires in human history and in showing that the agricultural and industrial revolutions were, at best, mixed blessings.
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