Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind by Yuval Noah Harari
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
There are some books which are so breathtakingly clear, honest and courageous that they instantly leap into the canon of ‘must-reads’ which will abide for decades to come. Peter Frankopan’s history book ‘The Silk Roads’ is one such example. Yuval Noah Harari’s ‘Sapiens’ has joined that same group – not just for me but for many others too judging by the book sales and reviews.
The scope of Harari’s text is astounding: from the beginning of time, through to the ascent of man or, more specifically, one breed of man through on to history as we know it, but told through different lenses – economics, scientific discovery and so on. Despite calling on biology, physics, history, psychology and theology to posit theories and frame historical events, somehow Harari makes these disparate streams of academia work together as one. You never feel he rambles or loses focus. His writing is, instead, concise, clear and (for a surprising amount of the time) witty.
For myself, I found this book both illuminating and comforting. Although much of the text is bleak or at least highly challenging, I found myself in agreement even with things I didn’t know I was thinking until that moment. Harari has the ability to present clearly some of the very things you were ruminating over yourself albeit in a muddled way. You come out thinking “Yes! That’s what I always thought too!”
There were some nice eye-openers however. I loved being convinced how the human race has been enslaved and domesticated by a single plant and why (and I ranted about it to anyone who would listen as well as those who wouldn’t for days). I enjoyed the argument of how greed and selfishness is good for us as a whole. And I was intrigued by the concept that we are now intelligent designers and, as such, are on the verge of changing what is meant by ‘human’, ‘life’ and indeed to begin creating new lifeforms in a myriad of ways which we simply can’t imagine at present. We are, in a sense, ‘Gods who admit they don’t know’.
Again, like Frankopan’s book, I liked the fact that these surprising and often controversial ideas are presented without recourse to outlandish theories with no backing and flimsy evidence. In a sense, there is nothing new here, certainly no conspiracy theory-like suggestions. Harari simply presents that which you can go and check up for yourself and offers ways to look at it again in some unifying way which makes sense not just of the topic itself but its place in history and why it occurred.
He does so with humility and with palms open wide, freely admitting where specialists really do not know why major event took place and offering several (often competing) theories. He manages to tackle controversial topics (such as religion) without a Dawkins-like diatribe. Instead, he is gentle and honest – indeed almost at times he is apologetic and can second guess where readers might be a little upset with his view.
If I have any criticism it is but a small one: he’s not as accurate with his descriptions of religions as he could be. For instance, his stance that monotheists have taken up polytheistic ritual has validity but when he cites Christians as praying to ‘The Saints’ as one example he oversteps the mark. That works, at most, for Roman Catholics but certainly not for protestant Christian faiths. There are other issues beside this and it’s a shame as it spoils the otherwise excellent quality of his research. I even found myself newly attracted to Buddhist philosophy from his two descriptions of the faith system – but I would feel the need to ask an educated Buddhist if they were fair summaries before embracing them wholly.
Nonetheless, this is a small quibble. Overall, the book is an epic work which should be required reading for any students of religion, philosophy or the ethics of science. One can’t help but come away from this book with a sense that humanity is far from the pinnacle of all the universe can achieve. Harari begins with our propensity to destroy – we have been an ecological disaster from the beginning – and moves on to demonstrate that every single thing we hold dear is a myth – religions, states, morals and even the idea of money itself.
In short, we are monsters who lie to ourselves every single day. Beautiful, creative, superlative creatures – yes – but monsters nonetheless. Paradoxically, it is our most monstrous moments in thousands of years of history which have been our best in terms of ‘best for the species’. This takes some guts to read, absorb and come to terms with; but it’s absolutely essential that we do.
Social Entrepreneur, writer and journalist D K Powell is the author of the bestselling collection of literary short stories “The Old Man on the Beach“. His first book, ‘Sonali’ is a photo-memoir journal of life in Bangladesh and has been highly praised by the Bangladeshi diaspora worldwide. Students learning the Bengali language have also valued the English/Bengali translations on every page. Ken has two new books coming out soon – don’t miss them!
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Both ‘The Old Man on the Beach’ and ‘Sonali’ are available on Amazon for kindle and paperback. Published by Shopno Sriti Media.
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2 thoughts on “Book Review – Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind by Yuval Noah Harari”
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