“We have advanced from canoes to galleys to steam ships to space shuttles—but nobody knows where we’re going.” — Yuval Noah Harari (From Animals Into Gods: A Brief History of Humankind, draft edition 2012)
Harari is Professor of History at the Hebrew University of Israel. This review is of a prepublication draft of his book, titled “From Animals into Gods,” which I bought on Kindle at the time. He subsequently renamed it on publication in 2015. A cursory examination suggests the two are functionally identical. For simplicity, I present it as “Sapiens,” but I read the former.
To begin, I wouldn’t say Sapiens is a profound book, but it is unquestionably useful and insightful, perhaps more so than any I have read. It reflects an ability on the part of Mr. Harari to think holistically and synthetically across many disciplines. In today’s stovepiped academia, this is a rare and commendable trait. Only someone with extraordinary intellectual perspective could have produced this work. It has its faults, enough that I almost put it down. But as I gradually saw disparate disciplines woven into a story, I became hooked. I’d consider Sapiens required reading for anyone wishing to offer meaningful comment on our modern world.
The author might have subtitled his work, “A Unified Theory of Civilization.” He treats biology, cognition, culture, religion, history, economics, science, psychology and politics as interrelated drivers of human development. In various ways, he states or implies feedback mechanisms, some positive and some negative, that shaped and propelled global civilization to its current state. And he makes no bones about where we are: Whether or not we like what we have become, there is no turning back.
The beauty of this book is also its greatest flaw: the presentation is simple, straightforward and eminently readable. The huge amount of detail and complex research across multiple disciplines is not in evidence (including in the references and endnotes, which seem a bit thin for such a work). Rather it’s presented in simple language and matter-of-factly as “…scientists agree” or “there are conflicting theories, but…”. Through this approach, the book comes off as a series of stories or vignettes that gradually take on a constant thread. This makes it readable and easy to take in small pieces.
On the other hand, the casual, storytelling approach results in extensive speculation, also frequent inferences presented as factual. As someone trained to science, I resented this at first and almost abandoned the book. But eventually I realized such shortcoming was irrelevant to the entire story and, in fact, made it more readable. I’m glad I stayed with it. That said, this is a book that needs to be read from front to back, not skipping around. Doing otherwise would compromise it’s greatest strength, the story.
In brief, Harari presents human history and our current state as a sequence of three revolutions: cognitive, agricultural and scientific. A foundational element of the first was development of our fictive language and ability to think in abstractions. This allowed us to create common mythologies like religions, corporations, money, and human rights. Such myths are held upright by some combination of culture, law, trust and maybe blind faith. But they bind us and enable us to live and cooperate in groups far larger than would otherwise be natural to our species.
The agricultural revolution led us to concentrate in larger numbers, as well as enabled us to support those numbers. It was also, in Harari’s argument, a fraud that led us to a far more complex, work-oriented, and tenuous way of life. Perhaps most importantly, it created a cultural break that virtually closed the door on any return to the past, a possibility lost within a few generations. And finally, the scientific revolution, which began about 500 years ago, stemmed from our admission of ignorance, the idea that we didn’t already know all that was worth knowing. Coupled with advancing mathematics and new ways of asking questions, it opened up entirely new frontiers of power and our ability to reshape the earth…even to our own potential destruction.
Harari creates a narrative around these three concepts, highlighting the often surprising roles of Christianity and Catholicism, colonialism, capitalism and money, science and industrialism, among others. In doing so, he subtly profiles the modern state of mankind and the world we’ve crafted. I won’t give away his final conclusions, but the opening quote suggests his outlook.
Sapiens brings to mind two other books. Niall Ferguson’s “Civilization: The West and the Rest” (2012) explores why Western culture has come to world dominance since the Middle Ages. And in “Guns, Germs and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies” (1999), Jared Diamond proposes a backstory of the modern world based on geography, environment and circumstance. But for sheer breadth, Harari has them both beat. Indeed, that breadth makes it difficult to review. Other than the aforementioned “unifying theory,” there is no singular hook on which to hang a description. Personally, I didn’t appreciate the work’s worth until I had nearly finished it. But having done so, I’d say unequivocally it deserves a read.