Sapiens, a Brief History of Mankind, bottom line:
Let me be blunt: Sapiens is one of those books you must absolutely read, and it’s not like you have a choice. I’m not just making a suggestion here, I’m telling you. Period!
Sapiens, a Brief History of Mankind by Yuval Noah Harari is one of those books everybody has been talking about lately, and there’s a good reason for that.
Sapiens talks about humanity and progress. The book explains what made us, how we shifted from apes to a social construct-dependant and technology-able species. And that story is absolutely fascinating. Eye-opening, mind-blowing, call it the way you want, but that’s the idea.
In fact, Sapiens is such a good book that Harari was commonly described as President Obama’s favorite essayist. Now, what is Sapiens about? Well, if you’re interested in finding out, this book review was written for you.
Book review – Sapiens, a Brief History of Mankind by Yuval Noah Harari.
I’m sure you’ve heard of Yuval Noah Harari already. Perhaps his name doesn’t ring any belt (yet), but he was is often known as Obama’s (and Macron’s) favorite author an essayist. Promising, right?
So Harari has published two big books lately. One is Sapiens, a Brief History of Mankind – and I’ll tell you more about it in a minute. The other is Homo Deus, a Brief History of Tomorrow – and it follows on the former. Both books account for about 500 pages in pocket format so there is a lot of reading to do. Having said that, they team up pretty well and can challenge you in many regards. Have you heard of evolution? Mankind? Progress? Technological revolutions? Well, there you go. Harari’s books are precisely about all that. And they are kinda fascinating.
Note: I’ll focus on the first book Sapiens, a Brief History of Mankind in this post. But also make sure to read my Homo Deus review, it’s also worth your time.
As usual, this post will operate as follows. For starters, a brief book review will tell you what the book is about and what you should know about it. Next, I’m getting into the book’s main themes and arguments in a far more comprehensive way. Finally, you’ll get some food for thought and tips on what else you could read if you want to find out more about that topic. Now, shall we?
As usual, here is what you get on this page:
- A brief overview of the book (that includes my SMART takes).
- A much more comprehensive commentary of what the book is about, with the author's main topics explained in detail.
- The book's main themes, questions and conclusions in bullet points.
- Why the book was worth my time, why it will be valuable to you, and additional reading suggestions if you are interested in the topic!
Harari’s Sapiens: a brief overview, for starters…
Let me start with a brief overview of what the book is about!
Yuval Noah Harari is commonly described as President Obama’s favorite essayists (one of his favorites, at least). But he also has a Ph.D in history and a hell of a skill when it comes to telling stories. Just saying.
In Sapiens, Harari elaborates on the evolution of mankind over the past thousands of years and tells us the story of who we are and how we become just that.
That story starts 13,5 billion years ago and involves four major revolutions: the cognitive revolution (which empowered humans), the agricultural revolution (which changed our attitude towards food), the unification of mankind phase (which helped us spread) and the scientific revolution (which gave us new means… and made us deadly).
The style is very, very, easy to follow. Yes, the book tells us about history. But, no, it doesn’t do it in a boring way. Harari’s writing is clear, fluid, practical and entertaining throughout the book, and that makes it a great read. Whether you plan on reading it with a pen or as a bedtime book is your choice to make, but expect some serious food for thought!
I’m getting into the details with a much more comprehensive book review below (keep reading!), but in short, here is what the book says:
Harari’s Sapiens: the more comprehensive book review.
Sapiens starts with a timeline. Harari begins his story 13,5 billion years go with the ancestors we all heard about at school. And he finishes it with the industrial revolution we hear about a lot these days. Harari’s main argument, overall, is that Sapiens has acted as a caterpillar, changing the world wherever it went. In the author’s words, in fact, changes in mankind evolution have “replaced” family and community by states and markets whilst provoking a “massive extinction of plants and animals ”.
To get there, and as noted before, Sapiens has gone through four revolutions. These revolutions provide four main themes to the book. One is the cognitive revolution (70.000 years ago). Then came agricultural change, (12.000 years ago), a large unification wave and the rise of scientists and technology. Let me explore those themes in turn.
[note: on the industrial revolution, make sure not to miss my food for thought section at the end of this page, you’ll find great books to read on the topic].
As usual, this more comprehensive part of the book review starts with the main themes and questions considered in the book – in bullet points. I’ll then elaborate on the themes more extensively. Let’s dig in!
The book in bullet points
Harari explores these major themes:
- The evolution of Sapiens and Mankind over time
- The various revolutions that have made us what we are
- The importance of social constructs in terms of evolution
He also asks a variety of questions, including:
- Where do we (Sapiens) come from?
- What were the main revolutions for sapiens and humanity?
- How did social constructs such as groups or religions contribute to evolution?
- What created the shift from ape to significant human?
- How did agriculture contribute to Sapiens’ development?
- What was the role of science?
- How did religions contribute?
- What do we mean by ‘religions’?
Sounds interesting, right? Now, let’s get into the details. Just keep reading!
Sapiens, a Brief History of Mankind – Theme #1: The Cognitive Revolution.
The cognitive revolution has affected Sapiens tremendously, turning him from an insignificant ape into a conscious being.
Originally, Sapiens was insignificant because it was not the dominating species. Sapiens was an ape, alongside with the Neanderthal in Europe or the Homo Erectus in Asia.
That point is interesting because it changes our notion of history. I remember hearing that those species lived one after another when I was at school. But Harari tells the opposite! They were around at similar periods, but they existed in different parts of the Planet. All had a big brain and could walk on two legs. All were capable of using their brain to think and perform, and all were part of the food chain.
Fire appeared at some point. Well, it was there already, obviously, but it got domesticated and became an asset to build on. Still, Sapien remained insignificant for a long time. Progressively, however, it ended up spreading and replacing the other species. If you want to find out more, Harari tells that story much better than me! Get the book.
Cognitive change, or the ability to communicate
So change appeared 70.000 years ago when Sapiens shifted from insignificant to a social being. Harari talks a serious gossip theory here (funny thing to read, actually). The idea, here, is to say that while Sapiens learned how to communicate it also learned how to organize itself. With communication came the ability to learn, adapt, and react in a structured manner. The change also brought beliefs, religions, clans, social structures, and the notion of collective conscience.
Collective conscience means several things. It means that communities appeared with a notion of order and tradition. But it also led to creating social constructs that completely reshuffled the cards.
Social constructs appeared because Sapiens started thinking as a group. The group became relevant as soon as individuals admitted its importance. Norms also appeared because individuals understood their role and importance to the group. In short, with social constructs, Sapiens moved from an insignificant ape tie into communities capable of interacting with their environment. Harari actually has an interesting way of summarizing this shift. The cognitive revolution was that “point when history declared independence from biology”.
Dealing with others
Dealing with others thus became a challenge.
For instance, how do you consider the family group? How do you deal with new neighbors? What is the role of a tribe? Should groups abidebyadopt monogamy as a rule?
The cognitive revolution also led to spiritual challenges. Should Sapiens believe in the spirits present in trees and natural elements (animism)? How should they act when those spirits ask something from them? Or, should they believe in unique gods instead? 0h, and how about wars, tribe conflicts and all that?
Sapiens as the enemy
To finish with the cognitive revolution topic (get the rest in the book), a major argument in Harari’s book is that over time, Sapiens (us!!!) eventually developed as the worst enemy to the established natural order. As Harari notes, Sapiens evolved slowly but dramatically, and it was “guilty as charged”. Its impact on the world is “irrefutable”. Sapiens took over the other main species, whether human or animal. Big cats and beasts disappeared. Sapiens behaved like what Harari calls “an ecological killer”.
Sapiens, a Brief History of Mankind – Theme #2: Agriculture had an impact, but which one?
Eventually, Sapiens shifted from a forager and a nomad to a farmer. Hence, as Harari writes it, Sapiens started to invest “time and efforts to manipulating the lives of a few animals and plants”. Second major revolution.
The interesting thing is, that here again Harari takes a stand against what we normally hear about evolution. Scholars commonly say that agriculture was the biggest progress ever. But to him, the agricultural revolution is “history’s biggest fraud”. And there’s one reason for that! Agriculture didn’t make Sapiens safer. Foraging provided diversity and freedom. Agriculture created shortages, immobilizing density, social complexity and so on. In sum, the luxury of food soon became a necessity. And when it did, it also became a trap. From there-on, evolution thus became a matter of growth, a matter of producing more and more, a matter of planning for future developments. An unexpected idea, but if you think about it…
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Planning and building pyramids.
So agriculture forced Sapiens into planning and forced cooperation. Here, Harari talks about trade quite obviously, but he also explains the apparition of laws, starting for instance with the construction of Babylon.
The point also leads to the issue of equality between individuals. Something George Orwell used to describe as “all animals are equals but perhaps some are more equal than others”. Equality and natural orders also lead to other social constructs such as Christianity and religions in which all individuals believe. Hence, religions also include major social constructs like democracy, socialism and capitalism, not to forget consumerism.
Writing and all that.
Of course, these developments took place thanks to the emergence of various forms of writing. Drawings first, then symbols and numbers used for administrative purposes. From there appeared more developments such as bureaucracy and justice. But justice is yet another construct with various definitions and beliefs. Justice by god, justice by kings empowered by gods, justice by law, but also segregation, apartheid, casts and other forms of social structures leading to the apparition of fairness as perhaps another construct.
Harari’s arguments are again very challenging and fascinating. They push you to think, to reconsider whhow you see things, to question why you think one way or another. As he writes, “a good rule of thumb is “biology enables, culture forbids”. Interesting, isn’t it?
Sapiens, a Brief History of Mankind – Theme #3: Stronger together.
Then comes unification. If revolutions have led to creating the basis of our societies, they have also complexified human interactions. Hence, Sapiens has found ways to unify mankind.
Sapiens worked on creating equitable societies with a variety of hierarchical principles. As an easy example, think democracy, or consider the idea of individual freedoms nowadays dear to Republicans. In any case, social constructs created unity at various scales without creating one single system. Here, Harari talks about “globalization with ethnic cuisine and, again, his arguments are very interesting to read. Seriously, what are you waiting for? Get the book!
Harari makes another point, though. The greatest tools for unification were money, empires and religions.
Money eventually appeared as a way of exchanging goods by creating a value standard. But again money is a social construct. Shells, salt, cigarettes or coins, and notes, you name it. Still, money allowed Sapiens to store and exchange value through a common standard recognized by all individuals, despite cultures and frontiers. “Transnational and transcultural”, as Harari puts it.
Empires are a cultural and territorial way of unifying populations. Again, empires are social constructs which exist as long as the collective recognizes them. But empires are also a way to spread ideas, beliefs, and norms to others.
We mentioned religions already, but Harari also describes them as a key unification factor. These create what Harari calls a “superhuman order” but as for empires, they spread the word.
Sapiens has moved beyond religions though. The law of nature for instance suggests that some things happen with or without gods. As some guy said in a brilliant youtube video, listening to a Christian radio in your car won’t prevent you from bumping into a tree if you don’t pay attention to your speed. You see the idea.
Hence, Sapiens alternatively admitted the law of men and a variety of social constructs such as secularism (ask the French), liberalism, capitalism, nationalism, communism or nazism. Again, Harari’s logic is very interesting and you should get his book if that the idea challenges you!
Sapiens, a Brief History of Mankind – Theme #4: Sapiens and the impact of science.
The fourth theme in Harari’s book is the impact of the scientific revolution. And that topic comes with more very interesting ideas.
That point is one of my discoveries and big takes: Sapiens began to evolve when it accepted its ignorance. There are two options if you think about it.
One, you don’t know why something happens but you don’t question it because someone tells you not to bother too much about it. God wants it, for some reason, so this is happening, let’s move on. Two, you don’t know, but then you admit that you don’t know and you look for an answer.
The first option leads to religions taking the lead. The second leads to science, research, and all that. Ask Galileo about it… Nowadays we often hear that knowledge is power. But how do you get knowledge in the first place?
The status of science
That theme leads to more interesting questions. For instance, does science become a sort of religion? Or, how did science help empires and evolution from a very practical perspective? Here, think egyptology, think cartography, think conquest and technology. And get the book because that’s where you’ll get the ideas you want to read for yourself. Just saying!
Modern stuff and the next step for mankind
Science helped to conquer the world, but it still is a key element of our evolution and development. Science comes with knowledge, but it needs funding. So, nowadays science is tied to capitalism and again Harari’s book is a mine if you are looking for some constructive ways to challenge yourself. That would include thoughts on free markets, thoughts on industrial progress, ideas on productivity, shopping and so on.
The bridge between insignificant apes and shopping-addicted humans is large, obviously. But Harari’s book does a great job of explaining it. It also goes further, though. Harari also asks what comes next for Sapiens. That leads to a discussion on natural disasters, not to forget the ‘Pax atomica’ and the creation of bionic life – not to forget what that means for us in terms of conscience and free will. These issues, however, are explored in Harari’s other book Homo Deus!
Sapiens: The main conclusions
Harari comes to the following conclusions.
- Humanity and Sapiens come from very far. A major evolution took place, considering that Sapiens was originally one ape amongst others.
- Sapiens and humanity went through several revolutions. That includes a cognitive revolution (working with tools, together). Then came agriculture, unification of mankind, and science.
- Humanity evolved when Sapiens realized it could cooperate and live better with others, but since then Sapiens has overpowered every other species, thus becoming an ecological serial-killer.
- The agricultural revolution is a fraud. Abundance never stayed a matter of abundance. It soon became a necessity and a pressure when mankind got used to it. However, agriculture brought development through writing, members, administration and so on.
- Evolutions were overall made possible thanks to a series of social constructs (religions, communities, rules, money, etc.) accepted by large groups.
- Science empowered humanity when Sapiens realized that questioning helped to solve problems. Science then created progress.
- Nowadays “religions” is a generic word that described a variety of social constructs such as capitalism, nationalism and other logics humans agree to believe in and to abide by.
Sapiens: Food for thought!
I’m sure these comments on Harari’s book have given you plenty of food for thought already as well as clues as to why President Obama thinks highly of the author. Yet, as promised earlier, there’s more to add.
Sapiens, A Brief History of Mankind is written so well that it reads as a novel. But it really has lots of things to make you think about. Where do we come from? How did we evolve from apes to what we are? What are our societies built on? What are our social constructs worth? In fact, have you ever considered your life in terms of social constructs and social norm acceptance? Chance are that you haven’t,
More books to read: Revolutions
Now, if you are interested in the evolution topic, there are more books to read. In fact, Sapiens refers to so many topics that it is very easy to extend the discussion.
For instance, if you are into revolutions of all sorts, you could have a look at Klaus Schwab’s book on The Fourth Industrial Revolution (click to read my book review). That book talks about challenges and progress, so it would be a very complementary read.
Related to that, very obviously, is Homo Deus by Harari again. As mentioned just before, Homo Deus is the follow-up on Sapiens and it elaborates on what comes next for Sapiens.
Another complementary read here would be Alec Ross’ book The Industries of the Future (click for the book review), which discusses future technological evolutions with a very pragmatic and business-related approach.
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More books to read: Social Constructs
If you are rather interested in exploring social constructs, there are two other books really worth reading.
One is Politics by David Runciman.
I haven’t written the book review yet, but the book is well written and worth your time if you want to explore what politics are about and where they come from.
The other book is Capitalism, Socialism, and Democracy by Joseph Schumpeter (click here for the book review). These concepts were mentioned earlier because Harari treats them as religious collective constructs in his book. So if you want to explore the topic, Schumpeter is also a great source.
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In my opinion...
A must-read book if you are curious about where you come from as a human and/or if you want to challenge your vision of modern societies!
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Your turn now, get the book!
That’s it for now, but don’t stop here! My reading notes are meant to give you a very comprehensive overview of the books I read and some food for thought for the month. That’s why I’ll Make You Think SMART is the Kick-Ass Book Reviews blog after all!
Having said that, the next step for you is to keep digging! Remember, books are a cheap way to learn new things and to benefit from the experience of others at no cost. Not to mention the stories you’ll be able to tell after a good read!
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