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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.
This book will challenge many of the conventional wisdoms you've believed in for probably all your life. Find out why homo sapiens are less like the majestic lions and whales that used to be at the top of the food chain before humans displaced them and more like banana republic dictators. I'll stop here so I don't give away the plot.
A couple of critiques, just to keep it real. Not sure why the author provides the example of force = acceleration divided by mass (p. 255) when the actual formula is f = ma. Perhaps he is just trying to be funny. Not surprisingly, a few other errors have crept into the last section (part 4) "The Scientific Revolution" that did not appear previously. Nothing I consider serious. On page 260 the author uses the word "I" for the first time. I doubt this is intentional, given the commendable effort of having avoided doing so in the previous 2/3rds of the book. Sloppiness that often enters the picture as the book is nearing publication and everyone gets restless. This is especially understandable in a section on "The Scientific Revolution" where things change faster than anyone can type. So, the anxiousness is almost forgivable.
Just a little trivia before I close. There's this fascinating example on pp. 269-270 about Queen Eleanor's 16 births, resulting is just one male hair (Edward) over a period of 29 years (1255-1284). That's just over one child birth every two years. And, before go thinking that's not so bad, recall that this doesn't include probably large number of miscarriages that can be assumed to have occured. So it was pretty much back to back pregnancies. Not an easy life being a queen that doesn't produce a surviving male heir.
The hardcover edition is beautifully produced with heavy weight paper that highlighters (which I use liberally) will nevertheless dry quickly on. Color illustrations add to the pleasure of going through this labor of love.
Read it. You will learn a huge amount. I sure did.