Sapiens covers a lot of ground in its 400+ pages, and author Yuval Noah Harari makes it readable. The title’s subheading, “A Brief History of Humankind,” is telling but incomplete. There’s much more than just history here. At the same time, Harari makes clear in the beginning that humankind was originally much more than just Homo Sapiens. But we can’t read a history of those other species, because they didn’t survive the rise of Sapiens.
The book’s parts follow the historic revolutions—cognitive, agricultural, and scientific. A fourth part, titled The Unification of Humankind discusses worldwide issues such as money systems, religions, and empires. He also talks about the kinds of Sapiens 2.0 research being done today. So Harari spends time with both what makes us different and what makes us the same. It’s an interesting juxtaposition.
One thing I appreciated was Harari’s explanation of how species evolve genetically versus the cultural changes that occur over time. If I understand his theory correctly, the large mammals who disappeared from Earth couldn’t genetically evolve quickly enough to keep up with Sapiens cultural changes like language and fire / cooking. It was language that set Sapiens apart from the other humans, and from its predators. Language allowed for information transfer, as well as planning. Both things led to destruction of other species.
I remember when Sapiens was released, and many friends were discussing its merits. The reviews are glowing. For me, it was just so-so. Harari makes the dense history, biology, and genetics topics interesting. But it didn’t captivate me as I’d hoped.
Although he discusses worldwide issues, the book is still quite European-centric. Harari will mention an Asian empire or leader, but only delve into the details of another more Western empire. And the five years since publication in 2014 have changed the world enough that his description of a “world at peace” didn’t sit well with me. While I understand we aren’t in a state of whole-world war, but there’s enough major conflict in non-European parts of the world that calling this a peaceful period seems a stretch.
I started reading the ebook version of this book, but switched to audiobook after about 20%. It seemed easier in audio because of my own focus issues. However, it wasn’t an easy book in either format.
Nevertheless, if you’re a fan of history, anthropology, or even archaeology, you like this book.