Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind
By Yuval Noah Harari
464 pp. Harper Perennial. $25.
This was really, really good. This is the sort of book that many of us have, it looks great on the shelf!, but that most of us put off reading because we think it will be dry and something of a slog to get through.
I’m really delighted to say that that is not the case with “Sapiens” at all. Despite the topic at hand, which is to say, us, it does not read at any point like the very long scholarly journal article I once feared it would be. Harari has done a great job of writing a readable, I’d even say relatively fast-moving, account of homo-sapiens.
The way “Sapiens” takes important issues and weaves them together is masterful. In some sense, this feels like many books in one — Harari writes more insightfully about ideology, money, capitalism, religion, tribalism, the cognitive revolution, the agicultural revolution, etc etc etc, better than many books on these subjects have managed to — and yet they all mesh perfectly into one.
I’m not interested in summarizing the general ideas here, or in reciting many of the excellent points the authors makes — you should read the book, or another review, for that — but what I can say is that the notes one could take from the interesting points Harari raises could easily fill a medium-sized notebook.
The bottom line, as I found it, is that homo-sapiens are primarily unique in that we are united around myths. We’ve all heard this before, but this idea hits you as newly revelatory after Harari has delved exhaustively into all the curious details of our species. It gave me a new appreciation for art and for storytelling, without which we really would be no different than the other animals.
“Sapiens” definitely gives one pause when contemplating whether or not our species is actually a force for good in our world. While many of the genocides our species has committed may be behind us, Harari gave me a new appreciation for the tragedies we may currently be engaged in committing, both in regard to environmental destruction, but also animal abuse in the form of things like factory farming.
This is essential reading for our species. Understanding how we got here must certainly be key to understanding how we move forward to a better future.