Book Review: Sapiens by Yuval Noah Harari

Reading Time: 2 minutes

One thing this book is not, is a brief history of humankind. It is a beautiful in depth look at humanity, specifically us homosapiens, from the times of the stone age through to the 21st century, and even a consideration of where we might end up looking into the future. Harari bases much of his theory on evolutionary biology through science, whilst entangling this with our social and cultural behaviours, to paint a tapestry of humanity throughout the ages.

The book is divided into four main sections:

  1. The Cognitive Revolution (70,000 BC when we evolved imagination)
  2. The Agricultural Revolution (10,000 BC the development of agriculture)
  3. The Unification of Humankind (the gradual consolidation of political organisations)
  4. The Scientific Revolution (1500 AD to today, with the emergence of objective science)

Harari’s main theory is that Sapiens came to dominate the world because we are the only animals who can cooperate flexibly in large numbers. Initially living in small tribes of around thirty persons, expanding into villages, towns, countries and to where we are today, a supposed global species and race.

He also clearly points out that we are to blame for much of the downfall of many species and fauna. Once humans engineered the ability to travel, with each new frontier reached, historical signs clearly show that indigenous populations, whether it be other human tribes or animals, were quickly made extinct shortly after Sapiens arrival.

Imagined Creations

It was the first time I had heard this saying, and is one of the focus arguments Harari uses to explain how Sapiens became ever more dominant. With our ability to cooperate in large numbers, the only thing stopping us from cooperating closer, was the lack of trust or belief in other tribes or villages. We therefore developed imagined creations to give all humans something to believe in.

Harari claims that all large scale human cooperation systems are imagined creations, and when you think about this, you realise how correct he is. From nations to religion, political structures to legal institutions, trade networks to economic systems, and even the businesses many of us work in today are all imagined creations. They do not actually physically exist. They only exist because we have decided these are the frameworks we will use for modern civilisations. 

But it is this ability to think in terms of fiction, to use our imaginations to consider things which we cannot see, which has led humanity to be the dominant species of today. Without that cognitive capacity to imagine and create fiction, Sapiens could still be tribal, or more likely regional, and we would not have developed into the technological revolution we see today.

Conclusion

This is a wonderfully written book, which opened my mind into directions I had never before considered. 

As modern day humans, we spend much of our time in the present contemplating the future, with the past often forgotten without due consideration given to our ancestors. The ability to thrive in Hong Kong is based on an evolutionary theory of how our ancestors behaved. Combined with an insatiable curiosity and drive to be the best versions of myself, it seemed logical to learn about where we came from, and how we have developed into the species we are today.

Sapien’s uses historical biological science, combined with the author’s theory of our cultural evolution, to paint a logical picture of human history. One which is fascinating, thought provoking, and entertaining to read. A highly recommended book for anybody with the slightest interest as to who, what or why we are the animals we are today.

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