Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind

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Dr. Yuval Noah Harari’s (an Israeli historian) Sapiens is one of the most incise and thorough account of evolution of Homo sapiens and how Homo sapiens succeeded in the battle of dominance. He takes on the daunting challenge of distilling the last 70,000 years of human history into a few thousand words and does so with much ease and simplicity drawing insights from evolutionary biology, anthropology, culture, politics and economics.

He takes us through the whole of human history spanning from the very first humans – at least six existed – that walked earth hundred thousand years ago to today where only one species remains. In his words, humans were ‘an animal of no significance’ until 70,000 years ago when three important revolutions started that shaped the course of human history.

The most significant being the cognitive revolution when human beings learnt the ability to think, conceptualize, communicate with each other, and explain abstract concepts. Homo sapiens are primarily social animals and Harari argues that our ability to gossip has enabled us to cooperate in large numbers which was essential for survival and it was unique to only Homo sapiens.

Personally, one of the most powerful concepts that Harari presents is ‘imagined realities’- the power of common myths and stories that gave unprecedented ability to cooperate and co-exist in large numbers and conduct complex tasks. For the first time we had shared beliefs and ideas such as gods, religion, human rights, freedom, laws, national boundaries and countries, the UN, capitalism, credit, and money. While these are all in our imagination, it is the power of imagined realities that motivated and propelled Homo sapiens to the top of the food chain and now the very survival of earth depends on these imagined entities.

The development in cognitive abilities was followed by the agricultural revolution when Sapiens moved from hunter-gatherer to a lifestyle of domestication based on agriculture. Harari asserts that the Agricultural Revolution was a trap”, calling it ‘history’s biggest fraud’ that brought in longer working hours, a poor diet, risk of starvation, over population and liberty to propagate weaker genes. Harari’s contentious claim about agriculture draws heavily from Jared Diamond’s article entitled ‘Agriculture: the worst mistake in the history of the human race’ wherein he argues along the same lines and asserts that agriculture created a class divide and encouraged slavery, subjugation of women, starvation and diseases among others. I am inclined to disagree with Harari’s claims as it disregards agriculture’s biggest contribution – specialization, arts, new technologies and its contribution to the industrial and scientific revolutions to a certain extent. Additionally, it glorifies the hardships of hunter gatherer lifestyle.

He then delves into the merging of science, empires and the effects of imperialism and contends that the scientific revolution is ‘above all a revolution of ignorance’ and led us on the path of true progress.

Inspite of the insightful analysis, and provocative arguments, Harari makes a lot of sweeping statements, generalizations and simplistic conclusions and connections which may be unavoidable considering the magnitude of the issue and diversity of subjects analyzed.

The book leaves us pondering with questions about happiness, what the future holds for sapiens – will we be over taken and ruled by super humans? have the golden era of sapiens nearing its end?  and will sapiens exist in our current form in the next 100 years?
I would highly recommend this book to anyone who wants to learn about human history in a most concise and engaging manner.

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Tshering Lhamo
Reviewed by on July 14th, 2018