Sapiens – A Brief History of Humankind – Yuval Noah Harari


“Back in the snail-mail era, people usually only wrote letters when they had something important to relate. Rather than writing the first thing that came into their heads, they considered carefully what they wanted to say and how to phrase it. They expected to receive a similarly considered answer. Most people wrote and received no more than a handful of letters a month and seldom felt compelled to reply immediately. Today I receive dozens of emails each day, all from people who expect a prompt reply. We thought we were saving time; instead we revved up the treadmill of life to ten times its former speed and made our days more anxious and agitated.”

Yuval Harari is a grumpy young man, with a mild to medium pessimistic streak that rarely lets him see progress as positive. He is also a sharp thinker, a fine storyteller, and a polished presenter of stimulating and thoughtful ideas. In short, he’s a leading candidate for the ideal dinner party guest. Unless you are serving meat…

Sapiens is a broad brush history, plotting the rise of homo sapiens, and the development of its culture and habits; from small groups of semi-nomads, to settled civilizations. At each stage, something happens – though the reason may not be known or clear – and homo sapiens makes a change. For example, settling down and establishing farms. Rarely does the author see it as for the good of all mankind. There’s a definite class struggle theme at the back end of his thoughts, and capitalism gets a regular spanking. However, though his theories are often subjective, and his coverage occasionally discloses some lack of knowledge, on the whole this is a good and challenging read.

The plus points are boosted by his writing style which is clear, smooth, and entertaining. So, his challenging ideas and interpretations come across well. His predictions about the future of mankind have added weight. He darts about from economics to military history; from politics to religion (he’s not a believer); and from psychology to sociology, and back again. You name it, and it gets a mention as part of his entertaining explanation of who we are, and how we got here. His recurring theme of joint human imagination and consent, for example when it comes to explaining how money works, and the greed for precious metals, deserves its own book length analysis.

The not so plus points include that his knowledge is not as encyclopedic as he might pretend, and sometimes you get the impression that the has not fully grasped the idea or the consequences of his approach. For example, on military command he struggles to make a case for female generals. He is way out of his depth. And his coverage of the battle of Navarino is twisted out of all recognition to fit his theme – of a banker driven conquest.

More significantly perhaps, for most of the book he is dispassionate, reasoned, and logical. When it comes to two areas of great personal interest to him – vegetarianism and homosexuality – there’s a distinct difference in the writing. It’s clearly personal. And while that might be personal, it does him no favors in my eyes. I get that these things are personally important to him – they are fundamentals of his lifestyle – but they do not benefit from his special treatment.

This book is something of a viral success, and I can see why. It has some terrific ideas and some great writing. It is well worth reading, and will probably give you much food for thought. I recommend it, highly.

[Thanks to Hannah for the recommendation. I normally shy away from blogging about the non-fiction I read – or you would be flooded with military history book reviews – but thought this one deserved a mention. It’s fresh, often fun, often shocking, and often challenging.]