Sapiens was not a book of my choice. It was assigned as the next tome in our couples’ book club. Often I approach these assigned works reluctantly and so, too, this one. My resistance, however, quickly gave way to enthusiasm. Sapiens is an engaging, challenging, sometimes vexing gallop through the past 70,000 years of human history. Yes, according to Harari, human history began more than 70,000 years ago. More conventional historians might suggest our history began when humans first left deliberately written records. That was only about 5,000 years ago. Harari is not a conventional historian, and this academic squabble is not the most interesting controversy in his book Sapiens.
Before joining the fray, however, I’m going to sketch the mind-boggling dimensions and scope of this work. Harari chose the title Sapiens to help differentiate Homo sapiens from all the other Homo (humans) that have existed, the most famous of which, after us—Homo sapiens—was Homo neanderthalensis, Neanderthal Man. In biological terms, Homo is the species and neanderthalensis or sapiens is the genus. Members of the same species can have procreative sex with one another which explains in a global sense why I am composed of about 3 percent Neanderthal DNA according to 23andMe testing results. An intriguing question is then: why did Sapiens come to dominate, and in most cases extinguish, all other Homo(s)? You have to read the book.
Harai divides the last 70,000 years of human history into three “revolutions,” namely: the Cognitive Revolution, the Agricultural Revolution about 10,000 B.C.E. and the Industrial Revolution, beginning about 1700 C.E. He isn’t entirely sanguine about the arc of human history. He acknowledges the possibility that we might survive for some additional generations but not for another 70,000 years.
His interesting and highly personal discussions of these three revolutions go far to explain why Sapiens, originally written in Hebrew, has been translated into about twenty languages. Why Hebrew? Harari is a history professor at Hebrew University in Jerusalem. I don’t know if he is a native English speaker or not, but he did get a DPhil at Oxford. Consequently, Harari writes academic and colloquial English with verve and clarity. Early in his career, he specialized in the most recent .5 percent of Sapiens’ history, but lately, he has branched out into world history of the past seventy millennia. He has nothing if not chutzpah.
Some of what Harari writes is clearly intended to shock the reader. For instance, he writes that all cultures and their belief systems are founded and maintained by believing in agreed-upon myths. Fundamentalists of all persuasions take heed: “much of history revolves around this question: how does one convince millions of people to believe particular stories about gods, nations, or . . . ?” He is not being critical or judgmental, however. Instead, he is practicing skeptical empiricism, similar to Voltaire who observed that if a peacock believed in the soul, he would certainly think it resided in its tail.
Harai has a purpose beyond sticking his finger in true believers’ eyes. In this instance, Sapiens’ myth-making proclivities are fundamental to our emergence from our Great Ape ancestry. The ability to make, hold, and apply myths is the crucial feature of the Cognitive Revolution. In addition to allowing groups of sapiens to form cohesive social organizations, myth-making also permitted Sapiens to be infinitely adaptable thus escaping the biological determinism that binds all other animals.
These are heady ideas, and the book is full of such far-reaching contentions. The evidence for some of his intellectual leaps and claims is thin. Nevertheless, if you want a book that will make you think and question at least one of your cherished beliefs, consider Sapiens by Yuval Noah Harari. – Neal Ferguson
Also available by Yuval Noah Harari: Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow; The Ultimate Experience; Special Operations in the Age of Chivalry, 1100-1550; Jewish Magic Before the Rise of Kabbalah.