Reviewed in the United States on September 11, 2017
“Tolerance is not a Sapiens trademark.”
Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, by Yuval Noah Harari is one of the most entertaining and informative books I’ve read in a long time. It usually takes me longer to get through nonfiction than fiction, but I blew through this book despite it being a bit of a tome. In fact I didn’t even notice how long it was until I saw the paper version later. It’s that accessible and so much fun to read.
I learned so much about history, social culture, and the human race from Sapiens. For instance, this following idea blew me away: gossip, not physical strength or military cunning, is what makes leaders and binds communities and nations. It seems we developed language just to talk about each other, not for trade or power or more.
I loved how Mr. Harari the word “fiction” (aka common myths) to describe the concepts that let large numbers of strangers cooperate across space and time: “There are no gods in the universe, no nations, no money, no human rights, no laws, and no justice outside the common imagination of human beings.” This is kind of terrifying, but also quite true if you stop to think about it.
I also found it darkly amusing and irreverent how he talks about philosophies and hate groups and religions and economic models, all in the same breath: “Some religions, such as Christianity and Nazism, have killed millions out of burning hatred… Capitalism has killed millions out of cold indifference coupled with greed.”
I got a crash course in mega fauna, those giant animals that existed on earth for thousands of years until humans killed them off in a matter of decades: the giant diprotodon, a 2.5 ton wombat, dragon-like lizards, snakes seven feet long, a 450 pound six foot kangaroo, a marsupial lion as massive as the modern tiger, a flightless elephant bird, ten feet tall and half a ton (the largest bird in the world), and the giant lemur (earth’s largest primate).
“Don’t believe our ancestors lived in harmony with nature. Homo sapiens hold the record among all organisms for driving the most plant and animal species to their extinctions. We have dubious distinction of being the deadliest species in the annals of biology.”
Mr. Harari trashes the Agricultural Revolution: “This is the essence of the Agricultural Revolution: the ability to keep more people alive under worse conditions.” Nor does he spare the Scientific Revolution: “The Scientific Revolution and modern imperialism were inseparable.” Naturally, religion doesn’t stand a chance, especially the monotheist ones of today which are described as far more fanatical and missionary than the more tolerant open-minded polytheist religions of old. Only Buddhism seems to get a bit of a pass.
Each concept and chapter of human history is explained with compelling examples, from economics to history to biology to psychology and so on. In some ways, it seems we’re heading forward, with less violence than ever before, new forms of consciousness, life continuing as we could not imagine it, but continuing all the same. For e.g., Mr. Harari explains that ecological degradation is not the same as resource scarcity, and that in fact, our resources (solar and wind power, man made materials, etc) are constantly increasing, and are likely to continue to do so. The environment on the other hand…
But in more ways, Sapiens is an indictment. It is undeniable that “a significant proportion of humanity’s cultural achievements owe their existence to the exploitation of conquered populations,” that “there is no justice in history” and that perhaps happiness is the act of “synchronizing one’s personal delusions of meaning with the prevailing collective delusions.”
The parts about animal husbandry are incendiary. From age old practices to modern slaughterhouses, “tens of billions of animals have been subjected to a regime of industrial exploitation whose cruelty has no precedent in the annals of planet Earth. If we accept a mere tenth of what animal rights activists are claiming, then modern industrial agriculture might well be the greatest crime in history.” The descriptions of some of these practices are chilling, perhaps enough to persuade you towards vegetarianism.
I found it strangely comforting, in these bad sad days of war and terrorism and misogyny and hatred, to be reminded that this phase we’re in where we work as urban labourers and office workers has only lasted a couple hundred years. The 10,000 years before that, we were farmers and herders, and even that is a vanishing second compared to the tens of thousands of years of human hunters and gatherers. We have a long way to go and much more to learn. And anyway, the nihilists have always known that “from a purely scientific viewpoint, human life has absolutely no meaning.”
If you’re tender about things like religion, capitalism, or even human rights, Sapiens won’t give you a break. But it is one rollicking relevant read.