Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind
By Yuval Noah Harari
Agha Shahriyar Khan
This review was declared winner of the Book Review Competition conducted by World Times Institute
If you are interested in the most intriguing tale of all times: the story of Humankind; if you are curious to know about the events that changed the fate of Sapiens from an insignificant animal to a hegemon of planet Earth; if you want to investigate the factors behind the emergence of language and writing, the arrival of various religions, the establishment and annihilation of empires, the rise of science and industry, then few books can quench your thirst of curiosity and “Sapiens” is one of them. The most intriguing part of this book are the puzzles which author left open for its readers to solve. In short, this book is the perfect food for every curious mind.
This piece presents the comprehensive review of this book by accentuating the important topics that makes ‘Sapiens’ a must read for every person who wants to think differently.
Topics that make Sapiens a must-read
- We were the offspring of insignificant animal called Sapiens
Homo (Human) species first evolved on planet earth about 2.5 million years ago from the earlies genus of apes called “Southern Ape”. Gradually, Homos spread to different continents and evolved under different ecological conditions. Consequently, world became the place of at least six different human species and Sapiens (Wise man) was one of them carrying the earmarks of big brains and upright walking. Humans were weak and less intelligent as compared to other animals. As Harari writes, “Prehistoric humans were insignificant animals with no more impact on their environment than gorillas and jelly fish.”
Now the question arises: why there is only one human species on Earth and what about others? The answer is: Homo sapiens replaced all other human species either by inter-breeding or through genocide.
Puzzle number one: Had this not happened, the world today would have different human species walking on the roads, trading with each other. Quite fascinating, isn’t it?
- Cognitive revolution and human hegemony on earth
About seventy thousand years ago, humans started behaving in a strange manner. They began thinking in an unprecedent way and started exchanging information using a language which was altogether new. How did this happen? No one can answer this question with surety, but scholars connected these cognitive abilities with accidental mutation in Sapiens’ DNA. But the more important thing was that the Sapiens used these abilities to alter their fate: they started making tools, exchanging ideas and carrying out complex tasks. They also exchanged information even about the things which did not exist, like family, tribe, clan, etc. Consequently, human cooperation and social bonding increased manifolds. The author writes, “The real difference between us and chimpanzees is the mythical glue that bonds together large number of individuals, families and groups. This glue has made us the master of creation.”
Puzzle number two: Imagined if humans speak only about the things which exist, like rivers, trees, lions, etc., would there be any difference between us and other animals?
- Agricultural revolution: history’s biggest achievement or history’s biggest fraud?
About 1000 years ago, Homo sapiens started planting wheat and domesticating animals. This was the commencement of agricultural revolution. There are many theories behind this miracle, but all are debatable. The main question is whether this revolution made Homo sapiens more secure and affluent. The author claims that agricultural revolution was a miscalculation; it neither ensured economic security nor guaranteed physical security of humans. The same people who ate every type of animal now became dependent on crops. Hence, changes in climatic conditions and river flows caused famines and plagues. Besides, permanent settlement triggered new diseases and bloody wars. However, there were various advantages of this revolution: emergence of society and culture, safety from wild animals and harsh weather, and subsistence of larger human populations. But author undermines the merits by saying, “This is the essence of agricultural revolution: ability to keep more people under worse conditions.”
Puzzle number three: If conditions were harsh, why humans did not reverse to hunting and gathering?
- Establishment of Imagined orders: a cobweb of fictional stories and contradictions.
When families converted into tribes and tribes into empires, humans needed some order to manage their socio-political affairs. Hence, they created imagined orders and implemented them believing that these were divine laws. For instance, they divided the people into genders, castes, classes and races, and then formed a distinguish set of norms and values for each segment of society. This set of rules brought social order – it was far from perfection, though. Remember, it was all imagination. Nature does not divide humankind into classes, genders and races. Nature does not establish any norms and values. It was all created by humans. Since it was unnatural order, external forces (e.g. police, army, judiciary) were required to implement it.
Similarly, the contemporary order is also a set of contradictions. It is also based on myths we consider divine or universal. For instance, the current world order is based on the principle of equality and liberty. But both these terms contradict each other. If you want to establish equality, you have to restrict the liberty of people (e.g. Communism). Similarly, if you give people full liberty, equality will be, then, impossible (e.g. Capitalism). Equality, liberty, etc. all are myths. Human have different DNAs, different capabilities and intelligence.
The author summarizes this argument this by opining, “We believe in particular order not because it is objectively true, but because believing in it, enables us to cooperate, effectively and forge a better society. Imagined orders are not evil conspiracies or use less mirages. Rather, they are the only way large number of humans can cooperate effectively.”
Puzzle number four: If we accept that the current order is fictional, why are following it? Is any alternate possible?
- Arrival of Writing and Money
Between 3500BC and 3000 BC, the Sumerians started writing facts when their memories became overloaded with data. They needed to store the information of land rights, disputes, salaries of servants, number of armed forces, etc. Hence, they started writing it through partial script and then through full script. Gradually, other cultures developed good techniques of archiving, cataloguing and retrieving written records.
Similarly, the humans invented money (in barley, silver or coins) to overcome the limitations of barter. Money enabled them to remember the exchange rate by converting anything to money. This solved the problem. The author writes, “With money as an alchemist, you can turn land into loyalty, justice into health, and violence into knowledge.”
- Autopsy of imperial history
Had all Empires had evil designs? Had they left anything productive? What is imperial cycle? Could we divide the imperial history between good cops and bad cops? And finally, what exactly the nature of empire was, and what constituted it? These are the questions which Harari addresses in this portion of the book in order to do autopsy of 2500-year-long history of Empires.
According to him, two traits constitute an empire: cultural diversity and borders flexibility. Besides, refuting the claim that empires were only the industries of destruction and exploitation, Harari proves that empires left rich and enduring legacies by accentuating cultural feats, architectural wonders, philosophical achievements and development of various languages during their reigns. He writes, “Even if we look beyond elite culture and focus instead on the world of common people, we find imperial legacies in majority of modern culture.”
The author also describes imperial cycle by highlighting its various stages. According to him, the life of an empire begins when a small number of people establish it; like Romans and Europeans established their empires. Consequently, these imperialists forged an empirical culture (i.e. Graeco-Roman or Western culture) which subsequently was adopted by inhabitants. Later, the subjects of the empire demanded equal status in the name of imperial values (e.g. Indians demanded equal status with Europeans). Finally, as the borders stretched, founders of the empires lost their dominance. Harari eloquently summarizes this argument by writing, “There is no justice in history. Most past cultures have sooner or later prey to enemies of some ruthless empire, which they consigned them to oblivion. Empires too, ultimately fall, but they left rich legacies.”
Harari, finally, makes his last point in this debate by writing that it is almost impossible to divide imperial history into good and bad empires. The reason is simple: it is too intricate to divide. For instance, people of modern India view the British imperialists as bad guys and remember their reign as most unjust and oppressive era for Indians. If this metric of bad empire is accepted, then what their behavior should be towards the mighty Mughals. Should they see the Taj Mahal in the similar way: the sign of imperial deigns by looting lower strata of Indians? If yes, then shouldn’t their behaviour be same towards all empires be it Delhi Sultanate or the ancient Mauryan empire? If yes, then who was the good man in this imperial history? It is complex, isn’t it? Therefore, Harari writes, “Simplistically dividing the past into bad and good guys leads (you) nowhere.”
- An interesting tale of religions
The book of history cannot be completed without delineating the interesting story of the religions of the world, and Harari did his best to narrate this beautiful tale in his own remarkable style. This roller-coaster story originated from animalist beliefs and then reached at the doors of polytheism. Subsequently, monotheism brought a major shift in its direction by superseding all other beliefs. Finally, humanity arrived at the corridors of humanistic religions where human, and nothing else, was considered sacrosanct.
Harari did not end this tale here. He has tried to answer many ‘whys’ of this story: Why did people move from animalism to polytheism? Why and how did monotheism supersede other religious doctrines? And why have we converted the flesh-bound humans into something special?
The real intriguing part of this story lies in Harari’s efforts to discover the true nature of god: good or evil. According to Harari, if the god is good, then why there is so much chaos, conflict, calamities, massacre, bloodshed, hunger, poverty and inequality in this world. On the other hand, if there were any evil force working against god, why there is an order in this universe. Harari writes, “Monotheism explains order, but it is mystified by evil. Dualism explains evil but it is puzzled by order”. It is confusing, isn’t it?
Puzzle number five: Then, what is the exact nature of God?
- Dawn of the modern world
The sun of the modern world rose when humans accepted their ignorance and began doubting every universal truth. This triggered the scientific revolution. Hitherto, people considered that whatever the wiser gods or wiser people of past did not bother to tell us was unimportant. Science had changed this way of thinking. Consequently, humans unearthed the mysteries of cosmos, invented the miracles, and discovered the hidden treasures of the Earth. Science also materialized the prediction of Francis Bacon: “Knowledge is power”. Science provided the technological fodder to imperialism and, in return, imperialists supported scientific projects and spread scientific thinking to far center of the world. Capitalism and industrialization were the two other earmarks of modern era which evolved owing to imperialism to some extent and human intelligence to larger extent. This had changed the world forever.
- Are human beings happier today than they were in their hunting-gathering societies?
After discussing the feasts of modern world, Harari raises the most important question of this book: Are we happier than our hunter-gatherer forefathers? To answer this question, he raises the debate about the subject of happiness: What is the exact nature of happiness? How can we tell that we are happy or sad? How do we count happiness?
In this perspective, Harari explores many venues. For instance, if we take happiness in its objective sense, we measure it on the basis of property, wealth, self-determination. But, for many people, family and community give more happiness and money. Others value love more than anything. So, we can say that happiness is the correlation between objective conditions and subjective expectations. Harari, writes: “When things improve, expectations balloon, and consequently even dramatic improvements in objective conditions can leave us dissatisfied. When things deteriorate, expectations shrink, and consequently even a severe illness might leave you pretty happy as much as happy as you are before.”
Similarly, he measures happiness from the prism of meaning of life. This begs the question what the meaning of life is. Different religions and social orders define it differently. For instance, for liberalism, knowing thyself is the ultimate meaning of life and real source of happiness. Similarly, for Buddhism, the meaning of life is to accept your feelings just the way they are, and stop craving about anything. In short, Harari explores various approaches, and tries to unearth the basic question: Are we really happy?
- Homo Sapiens become Homo Deus
In the last part of book, Harari analyzes the contemporary socio-political and technological dynamics and predicts the future. According to him, biological engineering, cyborg technology and engineering of inorganic life will capacitate the Homo sapiens to upgrade their muscles, intelligence, cognition, speed, vision and other abilities. In short, this technological evolution will turn them into super humans who will control everything. But the question is, with all that godly characteristics, will we decrease the amount of suffering this world? Will we control our lust for power? The prospects are grimmer. Harari writes, “[I]s there anything more dangerous than dissatisfied and irresponsible gods who don’t know what they want?”
In a nutshell, the book Sapiens does not narrate only the history of mankind, it also pushes its readers to think, to ponder and to analyze the facts, and answer some basic questions. This book takes its readers by hand and shows them the landmarks of the past. It has great personal appeal for the readers: man calling to men, the living knowing the dead, the present seeing the past. Therefore, it is a must read for anyone who wants to learn how to think critically. As the author says, “We study history not to know the future, but to widen our horizons, to understand that our present situation is neither natural nor inevitable, and that we consequently have many more possibilities before us than we imagine.”
The author is a CSS 2019 qualifier and an industrial and manufacturing engineer. He can be reached at: