Book Review: Sapiens — A Brief History of Humankind
Who Should Read This Book
This book will make a fascinating read for anybody interested in cultural anthropology, paleoanthropology, human sciences, or human history. It is mainly for curious-minded readers looking for a simple yet profound introduction to the subject. It’s also a great source of knowledge for engineers with little formal training and exposure to social sciences.
Sapiens: A Brief History of Mankind describes our journey as humankind from its cradle in Africa until today. It attempts to explain why history has unfolded in this manner and how our cultures and perceptions came about.
The book is an international bestseller, translated into more than 60 languages.
The book is divided into four parts, depicting the four significant revolutions humans experienced throughout history:
- The Cognitive Revolution around 70,000 BCE
- The Agricultural Revolution, which happened around 10,000 years ago
- The Unification of Humankind, c. 34 CE, as one global political empire
- The Scientific Revolution started around 1543 and ushered in scientific reasoning.
Part 1: The Cognitive Revolution
The book’s first part, titled The Cognitive Revolution, is arguably the most fascinating. It describes how an average animal living in the African Savannah around 70,000 years ago underwent a revolution that allowed them to form religion, commerce, and social structures.
Yuval Harari recounts in marvellous lucidity the changes that occurred in this era. These changes involved our ability to communicate much information about ourselves, our groups, and our environment. Not only that, but it also allowed us to form abstract social constructs such as tribes, nations, and corporations.
As these changes were labelled, the cognitive revolution was necessary for human beings to work and cooperate in large groups. As per the author’s views, this collaboration on the largest scale drove humans to become the sole masters of the planet.
Part 2: The Agricultural Revolution
The Agricultural Revolution started around 10,000 years ago in the Middle East, where a few pioneers successfully domesticated a very tiny number of plants and animals. Soon, this knowledge spread across vast regions of the planet.
Harari argues that the Agricultural Revolution brought more bad than good; humans multiplied exponentially, had more food, less work, safer shelters, more diseases, and a sedentary lifestyle to which they were not accustomed.
Possibly the most exciting idea in Part 2 of this book lies in Chapter 6, entitled Building Pyramids.
In this chapter, Harari argues the case for an entirely imagined social order of myths that shape and control our lives and daily activities. This overarching order is not the fruit of supernatural revelations but materialistic, pragmatic desires resulting from food surpluses made available by the Agricultural Revolution.
Part 3: The Unification of Humankind
As the author describes it, the unification of humankind is owed to empires that conquered and ran the ancient world at one stage of history or another.
Global trade, the invention of money, and imperialistic visions created a universal culture that changed with the creation and demise of every empire.
Chapter 11, Imperial Visions, tells the story of a typical empire that starts as a small group building a large empire, forging an imperial culture, and subjugating smaller nations. As per the author, the story ends when the subjects of the empire demand and obtain equal status, leading the founders to lose their dominance. The new empire continues to develop its culture.
The story of empires and how they have shaped history is fascinating, subtle, and sometimes counterintuitive. The author has unpacked these ideas in great detail and excellent story-telling style.
Part 4: The Scientific Revolution
Another round of controversial and fascinating thoughts is due in Part 4 of this book. This part discusses the scientific revolution, money, economic growth, debt, and capitalism and how they intertwined to shape the modern world.
The ability of financial institutions to generate credit out of thin air to finance conquests and scientific expeditions explains, as per the author, how Western civilisations came to dominate the planet.
This part contains another mind-bending set of ideas making this book a fantastic read.
Has the Book Achieved Its Aim?
Sapiens has delivered on its promise of explaining the history of humanity through the most important events and conditions that shaped it. The breadth and depth of the ideas are just enough to make them worthwhile yet still accessible to the general reader.
The book is well structured, and the four major topics are clearly presented in chronological order, each in its part and corresponding chapters. The ideas flow logically, and the reader will have no issues understanding the author’s narrative.
As the bibliography shows, the book presents vast information derived from massive literature on world history, anthropology, and sociology. Some of the ideas presented are the author’s personal views, but Harari does not seem to have endeavoured to separate the two. It is up to the reader to categorize the information presented in the book and, as such, weigh its merits.
The book reads like a story and a fascinating one indeed. It is aimed at the general public, mainly for entertainment and education. It is never dry, repetitive, or overloaded with facts or figures.
My view is that this book is a must-read for everybody. We all have our conception of the world, its history, and what forces drive it. Most will entertain mainstream ideas on contentious topics like culture, gender, race, history, supremacy, and civilisation. This book will present an alternate perspective of how things can be. Most importantly, in my view, it offers a unified story and explanation of the diverse cultures we currently experience. It also provides a scientific basis (in most cases) for explaining our behaviour and attitude towards collaboration (professional and otherwise) and human interactions. These rules that the book follows make issues we encounter seem less personal, putting us in a better position to solve them.
A topic of such magnitude and breadth cannot be realistically covered in a single volume that is still accessible to the broadest possible audience. This constraint meant that depth, in most cases, needed to be compromised. This is not your book if you want an in-depth analysis of a particular aspect of human history.
Yuval Noah Harari specializes in medieval and military history and has several publications on Big History that are popular among readers of such genres.
The book can be classified under general interest, history in particular.
Topics of social sciences, anthropology, sociology, cognitive psychology, economy, history, and ideology, in particular, can make for a compelling story. This is precisely what happened in this book. The ideas are woven in a fascinating fabric that describes human history over time and space. The style is easy to follow, and the storyline is presented chronologically while jumping between eras whenever required. The style is consistent across the book; it aims to take a broad set of phenomena and attempts to weave them into one whole story built on solid assumptions. I mostly enjoyed how such universal and widely diverging social science ideas can be explained in a single volume in one general and cohesive framework under one title.
The book contains very little technical jargon, and the ideas and concepts presented do not require higher education in relevant fields such as psychology, economics, and statistics. The book is highly accessible to general and erudite readers alike.
Yuval Noah Harari is a historian and a history professor. His works explore free will, consciousness, intelligence, happiness and suffering.
- Renaissance Military Memoirs: War, History and Identity, 1450–1600
- Special Operations in the Age of Chivalry, 1100–1550
- The Ultimate Experience: Battlefield Revelations and the Making of Modern War Culture, 1450–2000
- Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind
- Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow (2016)
- Money: Vintage Minis (select excerpts from Sapiens and Homo Deus
- 21 Lessons for the 21st Century