“One of history’s few iron laws is that luxuries tend to become necessities and to spawn new obligations.” [Sapiens 100]
Civilizations rise and fall, thus is history. But what caused civilizations to emerge? Why did humanity discover how to domesticate plants? Why did humans become the most force on the planet? Yuval Noah Harari’s (1976) book Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind will offer answers to these and many other questions.
To address this dilemma, the book examine the grand landscape of history. Harari’s ultimate goal is to recount the tale of humanity’s last 70.000 years. He explains how humans evolved from insignificant creatures somewhere in Africa to a world-dominating god-like entity. He claims that humans are both the planet’s savior and its destruction. He also informs us that for the majority of history, life did not change much, and that we humans just recently, in the last few decades, began to enhance human life situations. However, by constructing industrial-scale farms, we devastate the ecology and make life miserable for animals.
He divided the book into four sections: the first is about the cognitive revolution, the second is about the agrarian revolution, the third is about the unification of mankind, and the fourth is about the scientific revolution. One of my favorite sections was the first, about the cognitive revolution. This chapter explained how humans became humans and how their brains and intellect evolved. This is a fascinating section in which Harari discusses in clear and exact language the many hypotheses as to why human brains evolved and generated new methods of thinking and communicating. I think it is just fascinating to read about how humans created al these languages. He also describes how the capacity to construct imagined things, maybe the greatest innovation ever, works, and how people exploited this ability to create myths, tales, and other nonphysical entities such as corporations and communities.
During this book Harari isn’t shy of giving us his opinion. He says that the agricultural revolution was the greatest deception in history. It brought with it a worse food, longer labor hours, a higher danger of famine, congested living conditions, a considerably increased vulnerability to illness, new kinds of insecurity, and uglier forms of hierarchy. Harari says that humanity would have fared better in the stone age, when we were mostly hunters and gatherers. The only problem is that we can’t go back in time. He refers to this as the luxury trap. Humans invent things to improve living conditions for themselves, yet this results in more humans, which negates the creation. In the end, humanity multiplies and we can’t go back to the easier life since hunting and gathering can’t support so many people.
Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of this book is its discussion of happiness. He informs the reader that a person’s happiness from day to day has nothing to do with their worldly circumstances, and that basic happiness is connected to one’s DNA. He claims that there is a base level that can fluctuate somewhat but always returns to that particular level. Even immortality, he believed, would be a source of fear. He claims that scientists are working on Project Gilgamesh, which aims to discover the key to perpetual life. Yet what if this is successful, and humans are immortal, but still die in accidents? This might eventually lead to the agony of living forever but without a loved one who died in a car crash.
Is it a must read
This book reminds me of Jared Diamond’s (1937) Guns, Germs, and Steel (1997) and Rutger Bregman’s (1988) Humankind: A Hopeful History (2019). Both of these works portray the narrative of mankind on a large scale. Diamonds’ work, like Harari’s, discusses the origins of civilization, agriculture, and empires. He also discusses how some regions of the world, such as Europe, came to dominate the world. Whereas Diamonds focuses on geographical causes, Harari focuses on concepts and methods of thinking.
Then there’s Bregman’s book, in which he attempts to construct a grand narrative about how wonderful people are, how throughout much of human history humans were good, and how the future is bright. This tale may also be found in the final portion of Sapiens, titled Scientific Revolution. This is a pretty uplifting portion describing how humanity created a brighter and better world, although Harari does not ignore the horrendous acts done throughout the last few centuries. Harari balances the good with the bad, demonstrating that there are signals of tremendous hope as well as signs of immense dread. Bregman is a bit more upbeat.
So it is unquestionably a must-read for anybody who like epic narrative history that chronicles the tale of human achievement. This is also a must-read for people who lack fundamental understanding of human history, namely how we arrived to the twenty-first century. Aside from these reasons, the book is very easy to read, and no prior knowledge is required to grasp what Harari writes.
Sapiens; A brief History of Humankind (2012)
Authored by Yuval Noah Harari (1976)
464 pages. Random House UK Ltd.