Yuval Noah Harari 2011. Sapiens. A brief history of humankind. London: Vintage Books, 498 pp.

Perhaps one of the main points the author wants to make with this book is that the Agricultural Revolution wasn’t an unqualified benefit to humanity, opening up our future prosperity, cultural and technological developments. Harari the romantic doesn’t think it a benefit at all, instead it was the watershed, where we left a “hunter-gatherers in tune with nature” lifestyle for a future of farming grains, cereals and domestic animals - tasks for which our bodies were never adapted. Nor does the resulting diet suit us. (Later in the book, similar line of argument is raised to qualify the industrial revolution and capitalism.) Long arduous working days of the farmer replaced the easier, shorter days of the hunter-gatherer. The additional food produced by the 90% of humanity labouring in the fields supported an elite of rulers, soldiers, priests, artists, philosophers, scientists (and Harari himself, of course, as well as his book). Thus, he can say (p. 114):

History is something that very few people have been doing while everyone else was ploughing fields and carrying water buckets

Oversimplification is a risk, or even a requirement, of a high level overview like this, which covers so many fields no one author can be authoritative. For example Harari has an outdated definition of species (the interbreeding one). Leads me to wonder what other incorrect oversimplification errors I am not picking up on. Perhaps this unreferenced statement (p. 29)?

… most people can neither intimately know, nor effectively gossip about, more than 150 human beings

With this as his starting point, Harari addresses the question how did Homo sapiens form cities and nations of millions: “probably the appearance of fiction”! He is at least attempting an answer to the question of why easily disproven theistic world views are of such pervasive power in human history. Turning a disadvantage (being fictitious, = false) into a positive is a brave gambit by Harari, but he fails to explain to me why a the spread of a factual and thus a useful idea wouldn’t be more successful. Even now, scientific explanations, despite being demonstrably the most useful explanation of reality and the most practical, are nevertheless rejected by many humans world wide. Perhaps most. Why?

There are very many wild statements like this, for example “archaic humans did not initiate any revolutions”. By “archaic humans” Harari means species preceding Homo sapiens. But what about tool use, burials in Neanderthals, for example; wasn’t that a revolutionary idea by some visionary Neanderthal?

Harari doesn’t like the term prehistory, preferring to call this the time ruled by biological evolution, not cultural.

this is one of a multitude of images online, none apparently acknowledge the source

I was glad to learn about the ivory lion-man (or lioness-woman?) from Stadel cave in Germany, a marker, at ~32,000 years ago, for the first evidence of abstract thought (figure on p. 25).

Chapters on development of money, spread of religion, writing, arithmetic and language and various inequalities of race, culture, gender revisit issues of many other authors including David Graeber, Jared Diamond, Kenneth Clarke and many others. All interesting.

The treatment of Buddhism and the journey to a philosophy of acceptance by Siddhartha Guatama about 500 BC (pp. 249-253) was memorable. (Socrates was a near contemporary of Guatama and although I am a novice in these fields it seems there are elements common to both philosophies. None of the early Greek philosophers seem to have been explicitly aware of Buddhism but there is evidence of cross-fertilisation.)

The last part of the book is about imperial expansion, colonisation, genocide of native peoples world wide. Nothing much original in this except that a layer is added by Harari: unlike earlier exploratopry travels, of Chinese fleets for example, European expansion was driven by a desire for new knowledge (for example testing astronomical theories by observing eclipses; Darwin’s and Wallace’s theory of natural selection was another such result, even though not sought).

The last few chapters flirt with themes surrounding the future of humanity, that are more fully developed in his second book, Homo Deus.

A lingering impression is that despite the subtitle “A brief history of humankind”, there is nevertheless a decided bias: not much on the East. A more accurate subtitle would have been “A brief history of humanity in the West”. The Biblical nature of the early chapters is further evidence that Harari has his own prism through which he views the emergence of humankind: “The tree of knowledge”, “A day in the life of Adam and Eve”, “The flood”.