To write a brief but comprehensive history of mankind is no mean feat. Which thousand years of development do you leave out? Will you miss something if you skip over 30,000 – 20,000 BCE? Which offshoot of Homo do you leave by the way side in your journey to delve into Homo Sapiens?
Finding that balance seems on the surface to be a herculean task but Yuval Noah Harari makes it look simple in his debut work, Sapiens.
To make such a vast period of history readable and condensable, Harari breaks it up into four distinct parts, the Cognitive, Agricultural, and Scientific Revolutions, and the Unification of Humankind. In each of these he takes us bounding through history and the key moments that made humans who we are today.
Of course, given such scope Harari is limited in which topics he can delve deeply into, however the choices he makes drive the narrative of his book forward at a pace that is usually found only in fiction.
From the get go Harari makes it clear that whilst every claim in his book is backed by robust sources, there are some things that he, and science, just don’t know. In my mind this is a key appeal of the book. Harari isn’t interested in making claims that aren’t supported and this decision lends credibility to the book, and to the claims he does make.
In fact, this is an argument presented in the book for the Scientific Revolution, or as Harari puts it, the ‘revolution of ignorance’. The reason the scientific method has come to dominate almost every society around the world is due, in part, to the fact it can admit it doesn’t know everything. It can admit that it can be wrong and instead of railing against that fact, it uses it to move forward and investigate further to find the objective truth.
Harari delves into this distinction in detail and with a fervor that infects the reader, pulling them along through a topic that they may have never previously displayed interest in, but now, under the skilled guiding hand of Harari, it fascinates them.
Harari can be guilty of using some examples to justify claims, that whilst backed up by sources and are technically correct, lose all nuance and context with the speed that he flies past on his way to his next point. Perhaps this can be forgiven with the scale of the topic he has chosen, Harari can hardly stop and explain in detail every subject he touches on, but it does occasionally leave a sour taste in the mouth of the reader.
And as with all writing, the authors beliefs and preferences do bleed through and Harari is no exception. There are times when Harari will offer an opinion, or make a joke, that could potentially be off putting for readers whose beliefs do not align with his. But these instances are rare and I would implore anyone reading this review to pick up Sapiens anyway as the benefits of reading it far out way any minute annoyances throughout.
One of the benefits is a broader perspective of humans and our place, not just on earth, but in the universe. Harari touches on the science of consciousness, and whilst he delves deeper into that topic in his follow up book, Homo Deus, it is clear that Sapiens was, in part, one persons quest to try and figure out their place, and the place of humanity in the cosmos.
This search for place and purpose that pervades the book invites the reader to journey with Harari and from the ‘trap’ that was the birth of agriculture to the intricate workings of economics and the basics of religion, the almost longing sensation for purpose pulls you forward, until the end.
And what will you be left with?
Perhaps not an answer to the ultimate question of life, the Universe, and everything, but you will put down Sapiens with a greater and broader understanding of humanity as a whole, how we got to where we are today, where we are going, and perhaps even, why we are here.