Sunday, 7 February 2016

'Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind'

Title: 'Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind
Author: Yuval Noah Harari
Genre: Non-fiction history/anthropology/other stuff
No. of pages: 512

"The real difference between us and chimpanzees is the mythical glue that binds together large numbers of individuals, families and groups. This glue has made us the masters of creation."


Sapiens is exactly what it says on the cover - a brief history of the human race. The scope is bigger than any other book of it's kind, stretching from pre-history when humans (and not even Homo Sapiens at that point) started to evolve from animals, to the future of the human race. Unlike other history books, it makes barely any mention of historical personages or events, it takes too much of a god's eye view for that. Instead it talks about the development of humans, through a series of revolutions: the cognitive revolution (when humans started to think, imagine and develop), the agricultural revolution, the scientific revolution and the industrial revolution, then finally to the technological revolution. Some of the usual historical topics are covered briefly, like Sumer/Mesopotamia for its pioneering of the agricultural revolution, European colonisation, and the British Empire and the industrial revolution. Throughout it all though it considers such big questions as 'What are we doing?' and 'Where are we going?'.

While telling our story, the author considers what makes us special, how did we advance so far and so fast when others didn't.

"Ever since the Cognitive Revolution Homo sapiens has been able to revise its behaviour rapidly in accordance with changing needs. This opened a fast lane of cultural evolution, bypassing the traffic jams of genetic evolution. Speeding down this fast lane, Homo sapiens soon far outstripped all other human and animal species in its ability to cooperate"

At times the book has some very astute observations to make:

"One of history’s few iron laws is that luxuries tend to become necessities and to spawn new obligations. Once people get used to a certain luxury, they take it for granted. Then they begin to count on it. Finally they reach a point where they can’t live without it."

In case you thought the author was talking about 21st century modern culture, you'd be wrong. He was talking about early agricultural settlements. Some things are as relevant today as they were 10,000 years ago.

I love this book. It's a near flawless account of humanity, our accomplishments, our failures, our crazy lack of logic, our gross stupidity. The history of how we evolved and developed is excellent. It doesn't talk about individual countries, great kings or decisive battles because in the end, none of it matters. We are one race and this is our history. 

The last part of the book is quite political, not about individual political parties or movements, that is small fry. No, the author turns his gaze to the dominant ideology of our time: capitalism (well, the free market version of capitalism that is dominant today anyway). He has a lot to say about it, and most of it not good. While he is quite critical at times, if you read it you will see that he talks a lot of sense. 

I am giving this book 10/10. It is the most enlightening books I've read in a long time, and while the author doesn't always paint a rosy picture, I finished it feeling strangely optimistic about the future.