Sapiens Book Review

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By Yuval Noah Harari

This book was recommended to me by my colleague Greg Smith. Unlike most recommendations I acted on this one quickly and read it almost immediately during our last family holiday. It’s a pretty hefty book (over 400 pages) and took me a good chunk of our two-week trip to get through.

 

It’s author Yuval Noah Harari is described by the Times as a “publishing phenomenon. He has sold millions of copies of this and his follow up Homo Deus. World leaders such as Barack Obama and Emmanuel Macron are on record as fans. After reading this, his first book, I can see why.

 

This book provides a detailed account of our past, present, and postulates on our future as a race. It is fascinating reading and I found myself learning all sorts of things. While doing so, I was often struck by the thought, “I should know this already”.Sadly, I was ignorant to much of the information found within the book. I’d venture you would be in a similar position when you read it so, go and grab a copy and see how much you know about humans.

 

As a teaser, here are some highlights from the book…

 

Humans have existed for about 2.4million years. Homo sapiens (that’s you and me) have only existed for about 150,000 years. A fraction over 6% of the time humans have roamed the earth.

 

The book is sub-divided into the three main “revolutions” which have shaped us. These are:

 

1.     The Cognitive Revolution

2.     The Agricultural Revolution

3.     The Scientific Revolution

 

All three of these are terms I have heard before, but never given much thought to. When examined they provide a thought provoking analysis of how we all ended up where we are now.

 

To put this three-step revolution process into perspective, roughly 70,000 years ago the cognitive revolution took place. Up to that point humans were not much different to other animal species. For about half of our existence as homo sapiens! We didn’t have an innate higher functioning ability like I believed. Instead we began to think more creatively, imaginatively, tell stories, utilise the power of these stories, and work together in groups. We began to gossip. Which it turns out is essential to our “success” as a species. Throughout this time, we uncovered ingenious ways to spread to far flung parts of the world which had previously been left untouched by humanities footprint.

 

Then, 11,000 years ago the agricultural revelation took place. We shifted from hunter gatherers to farmers.

 

More recently, the scientific revolution took place. This began approximately 500 years ago. Within this particular process we have sub-sections such as, the industrial revolution (250 years ago), and the information technology revolution of the past 50 years.

 

Before reading this book, if you had asked me if these revolutions were positive I would have emphatically and categorically answered yes. Having read the book, I am not so sure. Thinking back to the simpler lives of the past I can’t help feeling that the average human was probably happier than his 21stcentury counterpart. Content with their lot. They didn’t have to do artificially created jobs so earn ends meet. They weren’t worried if their neighbours had a bigger garden or nicer car. There wasn’t social media for them to publish their highlight reel to, compare lives with others, or to suffer cyber bullying.

 

Throughout the book Harari questions the wisdom in many of our current wider viewpoints, and the decisions made in the past which so heavily influence us today. A few choice quotes to illustrate this point…

 

“The agricultural revolution was history’s biggest fraud.” To further this thought process, consider another quote, “We did not domesticate wheat. It domesticated us.”

 

Another interesting topic for exploration is the fact that despite the agricultural and scientific revolutions our brains operate in much the same way they have done ever since the cognitive revolution. As such, we are just a bunch of hunter gatherers armed with smart-phones, trying to navigate the modern world we have created. As he puts it. “…our DNA still thinks we are living in the savannah.”

 

Towards the end of the book Harari turns his attention to our future. The possibility that medical science is progressing at such a vast rate that we might soon be able to create a form of “amortality” is exciting and terrifying all at the same time. After all, as he points out, even if medical science can cure diseases, an act of violence or tragic accident could still kill. In this as would we all become risk-averse hermits too afraid to leave the house?

 

To discover this and the other concepts Harari raises within the book further you will need to read it for yourself. I highly recommend you do. It will get you thinking. It will also get you questioning what you thought you knew. Never a bad thing!

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