This is one of those books like a pregnant women. When you’re lugging the great lump around, so, it suddenly seems, is everyone else. The thing is everywhere. In the course of one week my son recommended it, my husband was reading it, I met a bloke on a tramp who couldn’t look up at the trees because his head was in the book and his girlfriend said it changed her life. Yeah, yeah. I got a copy.
Sapiens, A Brief History of Humankind is a big book. Lots of pages, yes, but I mean big in the sense that every chapter is packed with some thought provoking perception. I didn’t agree with all Harari’s ideas but they were all interesting enough to make me rest the book on my lap for a while and think…hmmm…maybe he’s right. This is designed to be a life changing book. Bill Gates and Barack Obama both recommend it on the cover. It claims to be the “thrilling account of our extraordinary history—from insignificant apes to rulers of the world,” Quite the thesis.
It’s logically divided into four distinct revolutions of human development: cognitive, agricultural, the unification of humankind, and scientific. Each of these topics delivers an argument that is brilliantly researched, well annotated and packed with examples to support his logic. These, he claims, are the hinges of our evolution.
The first chapters really are terrific and I’ll illustrate just one concept that excited me: the use of stories to define culture, and just how powerful they are. Harari suggests our greatest step forward, that lifted us intellectually above every other living creature, began with imagination. He argues that, about 70,000 years ago, humans began to conceptualise things that do not exist. It may have been caused by a mutation in the wiring of one brain and bang! We were off. Suddenly, humans could gossip, and gossip led to larger and more complicated social groups, with a shared culture of organised behaviour.
As far as we know, only Sapiens can talk about entire kinds of entities that they have never seen, touched or smelled.
70,000 years ago we began inventing fictions and we haven’t stopped. Much of our world is powered by our collective stories. Not just myths and legends and gods, but collective stories like nation states, corporations, human rights, law. None of these things exist outside of our common belief in them. There is an interesting later section on the invention of that imaginary thing—money— and another on why European colonisation took the world by storm. It’s fascinating stuff.
During the modern era Europeans conquered much of the globe under the guise of spreading a superior Western culture. They were so successful that billions of people gradually adopted significant parts of that culture…They began to believe in human rights and the principal of self-determination, and they adopted Western ideologies such as liberalism, capitalism, Communism, feminism and nationalism.
From time to time I got uncomfortable reading Harari. I don’t like being told what to think and I could feel Harari guiding me along in a very compelling way, appealing to me as if I were more intelligent than I really am. He clever and doesn’t stop to draw breath so there is no space for questions. He’s already thought of any question you might ask and given the answer. Evangelical, almost. Stop, my inner bitch critic! Go back to where I said it’s fascinating stuff.
Sapiens is a textbook for the modern age. By defining it through his ideas, Harari is editing our cultural story. I guess I now have to keep up and read Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow, another big tome on where humans are heading. The third in the series: 21 Lessons for the 21st Century, I can do without. I’ll just live through it. Might be quicker.