One hundred thousand years ago, at least six human species inhabited the Earth. Today there is just one. Us. Homo sapiens. How did our species succeed in the battle for dominance? Why did our foraging ancestors come together to create cities and kingdoms? How did we come to believe in gods, nations, and human rights; to trust money, books, and laws; and to be enslaved by bureaucracy, timetables, and consumerism?
Bold, wide ranging, and provocative, Sapiens integrates history and science to challenge everything we thought we knew about being human: our thoughts, our actions, our heritage...and our future.
©2015 Yuval Noah Harari (P)2015 Tantor
I love listening to books when cycling, paddleboarding, etc but I press pause when I need to concentrate. Its safer & I don't lose the plot!
This book kept reminding me of other books I’ve read (or, more often, listened to): Andrew Marr’s History of the World; A History of the World in 6 glasses (Tom Standage); The Alchemy of Air (Thomas Hager); The Third Chimpanzee; Guns, Germs and Steel; Collapse (Jared Diamond); The Language Instinct and The Better Angels of Our Nature (Steven Pinker); Richard Dawkins’ The Selfish Gene and even Bill Bryson’s Short History of Nearly Everything, all of which are really good books and well worth reading, if recommendations are what you’re looking for. If not, it’s probably quite irritating reading this name-drop of books that I’ve read, and you might prefer me to get on with describing this particular book.
OK then. Well, just like it says on the cover, this book is the story of humanity and, like most of these kinds of book, it starts with us as apes and goes on to describe how we got bigger brains, stood on two feet, got clever with our hands, started talking to each other and wiped out the Neanderthals (although we did mate with a few of those before we killed or out-competed the remainder).
It discusses the fact that we generally functioned best in tribes of no more than about 150 people, and then goes on to explain how we transformed from being an animal that likes to be with 149 other kinfolk to being one that functions well in nations or empires of many millions.
This is where it gets really interesting, and where the author shares ideas I hadn’t encountered before. Apparently, the trick to functioning effectively in bigger groups is to have a shared ideology. These aren’t just religions (although religions certainly qualify), they are money, credit, political ideology, nations, the law etc.,etc. He describes how these things are all imaginary constructs which depend for their success on us all buying into them and believing in them, and how they are the glue that binds societies together.
He analyses a lot of ancient and modern phenomena in very interesting and thought-provoking ways, and he doesn’t pull any punches when he discusses our less savoury behaviours (such as the cruel way we treat vast numbers of chickens, pigs and cows). Some of his ideas are possibly controversial, but to me they seem very reasonable and they advanced my understanding of the history of the human race. For me, the book gets two thumbs up.
On Audible since the late 1990s, mostly science fiction, fantasy, history & science. I rarely review 1-2 star books that I can't get through
I was mostly fascinated with this book, though I often disagreed with it. As background, I am a sociologist, with some training in history of science and economics, so Harari's work occasionally overlaps with topics I know very well.
First, the good, and there is a huge amount to admire here: Harari's goal is to write grand macro-history without regard for the details, and at that he succeeds brilliantly. He outdoes Diamond's Guns, Germs, and Steel, by examining the intellectual, as well as biological, factors that have shaped the evolution of societies. Few popular histories manage to do so much, while still being engaging. There are plenty of WHOA moments that are very insightful - re-conceptualizing agriculture from the point-of-view of wheat, some trenchant observations on the idea of progress, contrasts between religion and capitalism, etc. A few fall flat, but there are many interesting ideas and they are all well explained.
The downside, however, is that while the grand history is engaging, many of Harari's observations on the factors underlying society are a bit shallow and misleading, and occasionally even suspect. This is true especially of the most dramatic moments of the book. For example, he calls the agricultural revolution “history’s biggest fraud,” because of a (still controversial) belief that life with agriculture was worst for most people than hunter-gatherer existence. This seems like, at best, an overstatement, given the facts. Similarly, his arguments about the goals of science (extending human life?), the origins of the scientific revolution (imperialism?), and why some countries did not turn to science (in-curiosity?) all seem to be rather unorthodox and, in many cases, wrong. There are other problems as well, including an occasional turn towards unsupported evolutionary psychology and other vague theorizing. Plus, there wasn't any credit given (or references at all) to the work upon which Harari built his arguments upon.
I still recommend the book - it is interesting and exciting. But take the ideas with a grain of salt or too, since the audiobook is more of an argument than a discussion of historical fact.
l'enfer c'est les autres
This book is a masterpiece. I feel fortunate that I discovered it before most other people. I discovered it by reading an extremely negative review for this book in the Wall Street Journal written by a historian. (In his defense, he just didn't understand that this is not a history book, and he had no idea what Harari is getting at).
This book never stops in challenging my understanding of our place in the universe. What we believe in determines what we want to want. Sapiens are distinguished by our ability to believe in fictions. The cognitive revolutions starts with the first set of hypothetical stories we allow ourselves to believe in whether they are true or not. The real importance is that the family, kin, friends, and community share those beliefs.
Our fictions allow us to cooperate. They gives us the imaginary order that is necessary for societies to act together. Corporations are not people, they do not exist in reality. One can not point to a corporation. It's not the buildings, or the executives or any other physical entities that make the corporation, but it is our belief that makes them real. The author notes that the word for corporation comes from the Latin, corpus, the same as in the body (corpus) of Christ within the transubstantiation.
Religion gives us comfort from the absurd and comforts us to accept death. Science (and its offshoot, technology) does the opposite. It gives us knowledge leading to life extension and makes our time alive more comfortable. The Gilgamesh Project of life extension is a major character is this book.
The myths we create can never be logically consistent without contradictions. Perfect liberty will always conflict with perfect equality. Knowledge about the real world can never be 'universal, necessary, and certain', but we only get glimpses of reality by considering the 'particular, contingent, and probable'. Our myths give us comfort and subjective well being, but they are never without contradictions.
The acceptance of our myths give us our commonality. He'll even say that because of the myths we chose to believe in they determine our progress. When cultures (imaginary orders) collectively know Truth, they have no reason to proceed. Biology enables us, cultures forbid us. The most important words necessary for progress are "I don't know, but I want to find out". He connects Imperialism with Capitalism leading to seeking knowledge (and developing science). Only those who do not believe they know everything need to search.
If I were to have ever written a book (which fortunately for the reading public, I save all my writing only for book reviews!) this is the book I would have written. I believe this will be a classic in the future and am glad I discovered it. The author has written this book to make sure we do everything in our power to understand that the things we belief in will determine who we will be going forward. The myths we chose to believe in will determine what we become.
Don't expect anything remotely resembling a typical history book. It is more of evolutionary psychology and philosophy/the meaning of life. I find it very intriguing and will read or listen to more on these matters.
I have not yet read the book, but listening to this Audiobook kept me reaching for my non-existent hard copy. The story is compelling on its own and the narrator is superb but there are hundreds of passages that I wanted to quote. I will probably buy the book to keep for reference material.
I felt like a participant in an intimate seminar. I absorbed it as conversation rather than the lecture it is.
He is completely in control of the information and delivers the story in a manner arresting the listeners attention.
I will listen to the entire recording again from start to finish and recommend it to my friends. This is the book that I wish I had written but it is an order of magnitude beyond my capability.
Maybe it was just me. I started out fascinated. But then had a hard time staying involved. I found that stuff just wasn't registering and I'd have to replay sections. Maybe this is one of those books that is better read than listened to. Or maybe it was just me.
Amazing book told in a way that keeps you glued to the reading as if listening to a thriller. Challenges all our beliefs and shows us history from a more honest scientific point of view. Like the book "Lies My Teacher Told Me" it has shaken my world view. Great book and reader but beware it might blow away some of your most treasured fantasies.
I know that judging a book by its cover is bad, but judging a book by its description should be better. I bought this because I thought it was about anthropology and genetic history of sapiens. But as it says in the book there isn't much information behind the "iron curtain" or before written history. So instead of going deeper into what we know about genes and being summarizing findings that we do have, he summarizes all of human history. This is where the book looses focus, and while it is a good read, it is far too general. In one chapter it tries to answer what happiness is, in the next it tries to speculate as to the future of humanity. It's just to much for one book. I feel the book needs to be either much longer or several books. Or perhaps a different title, like "the future and past of humanity" or "what is humanity?". Truely the majority of the book is philosophy and history, rather than science.
While Harari acknowledges Jared Diamond's "big picture" in "Guns, Germs and Steel" as an inspiration, that study focused on the Melanesian context and traditional societies. "Sapiens" takes the panoramic view of a narrative akin more to David Graeber's "Debt: The First 5000 Years" in its approach, although Harari integrates many ideas compared to Graeber's focus on one central theme.
His British accent and refined delivery sharpen Harari's wit and you can hear the author's style reflected engagingly, as Perkins takes pains to enliven the scholarly material for us.
Contemplating that nationalism, human rights, communism, humanism, and liberal pieties have no more or less inherent existence than the claims of Judaism, Nazis, Islam, pagans, or Christians, say, is sobering. Harari shows how human existence and our supposed self-importance matters nothing to the universe around us, and he refuses to take comfort in platitudes, demonstrating how we treat animals today as our ancestors did slaves, largely indifferent to the suffering we cause, in an order that seems perfectly reasonable to rulers.
Harari's book is less "a brief history of humankind" and more a tour of how imagined orders imprison us, and how they cannot be escaped except to build new walls around us. This pattern making appears endemic within humanity. When our latest attempts to transcend this may lead to the end of homo sapiens as we try to become super-natural, this does not excite so much as chill those who may read this narrative, however disjointed parts may be, through to its conclusion. I soon obtained a Kindle version as I wanted to mark there the bookmarks on Audible, as they accumulated--the Venn diagrams and illustrations in the print version aid comprehension. This study will spark debate wherever his readers meet.
The discussion of neanderthals and and their interaction with homo sapiens was excellent. The discussion of how homo sapiens went through the last couple hundred years droned on in some parts.
He kept even the droning parts of the book moving along as best he could.
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