Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind is definitely not a work of history. If you want a short outline of events that leads up to now, you are in the wrong place. Yuval Noah Harari is much more interested in the history of ideas that made humans what they are. That said, his narratives, though they may be based on fact ( I use the word ‘may’ as his bibliography is patchy at times) are definitely not facts themselves.
In fact, when I first read an interview with Harari, I decided I probably wouldn’t like his book. His tone was that of an evangelizing fanatic, determined to contradict those who thought the Agricultural Revolution benefitted mankind. He is convinced that Homo Sapiens were healthier and happier as hunter-gatherers. He calls the agricultural revolution ‘history’s biggest fraud’, a victory of DNA spreading over human happiness. He calls out Homo Sapiens for causing most large mammals and all the other human species to go extinct.
If you don’t end up feeling terribly guilty for existing after reading the first few chapters of his book, then I will be deeply impressed with you.
But if you think about it carefully – there is no way of actually measuring human happiness when they were hunter-gatherers and after. We can make assumptions about human health according to the archeological finds we have, but these may be scarce – many burial sites for hunter-gatherers would naturally be spread about a wider area, rather than a single burial place, so the data we have may well be partial. There is also no way of proving that humans were the main factor in causing the Neanderthals to go extinct. Sure, they definitely were a factor, and probably a very important one. But they needn’t have been the deciding factor – in fact, they seem to have mated with Neanderthals more than once.
My point is not that Harari is wrong. My point is just that it’s incredibly difficult to prove him either wrong or right. So his writing is less a historical account rather than a complex speculation on the subject matter. It most reminds me of Rousseau’s Discourse on the Origin and Basis of Inequality Among Men – not only with it’s somewhat sketchy historical accuracy, but also through its idealization of hunter-gatherers (equality, lack of material possessions, variety of diet and of landscape are all features of the idealized hunter-gatherer’s life for both Rousseau and Harari).
The whole book is more of a work of philosophy than history – it postulates certain imaginative orders which allow mankind to function : comparing, for example, the imaginative order of code of Hammurabi to the imaginative order of the US constitution. Harari is a complete relativist – he will remind you multiple times that ‘human rights’ do not exist. I often found myself wishing I could setup Socrates or Plato next to him and watch the showdown.
An unpleasant aspect of Harari’s thesis that is hard to contradict is his affirmation of the links between science and imperialism – linking all of 19th century discoveries to the wish to conquer and vanquish. In a gross simplification, all human societies according to Harari are dependent on the three delusions: money, power (empire) and religion.
Sometimes he makes arguments that are easier to dismiss out of hand. When he notes that most societies are patriarchal and we’ve still to discover why – he tentatively suggests that men might be better collaborators then women. Seriously? I would like to remind him that matriarchal bonobo monkeys are far more famous for their collaborative skills than the patriarchal chimpanzees.
His description of the capitalist order and the industrial revolution focuses on humankind’s constant need for growth, and our growing independence (yes, you read that right) from natural resources. Harari argues that there is no reason why with genetic alterations or uploading brains onto computers, humans should not become immortal. He then talks a great deal about the implications of this. And I assume he has a great deal more to say, as he has written a sequel to the book, entitle Homo Deus.
He also has a bizarre section trying to compare human happiness now, to happiness in the past. Given his extremely relativist stance, it is perhaps unsurprising that his approach to happiness is utilitarian. He really wants to ‘know’ whether humans were happier overall before the industrial revolution. As if there was any real logical way of knowing that.
He is very keen on animal welfare and writes at length about the horrible conditions experienced by animals in farms. It did not surprise me to learn, during the research for this review, that he is a vegan.
As you have gathered, this is a book of big ideas. And whether you agree with it or not, I think it’s worth reading. Given its massive popularity ( 1 million copies sold) and multiple celebrity endorsements (Barack Obama, Mark Zuckerberg, Bill Gates) it’s a good indicator on what our time’s received wisdom on human history of ideas is.
The book is written very clearly and is very accessible. I enjoyed it a lot, despite my misgivings. It made me think, which is always a good thing. Just please don’t treat all of Harari’s theses as facts, because they aren’t.