The subtitle to the Yuval Noah Harari’s book Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind immediately sets up the discord that often bubbles over in the reviews:
Human beings (members of the genus Homo) have existed for about 2.4m years. Homo sapiens, our own wildly egregious species of great apes, has only existed for 6% of that time – about 150,000 years. So a book whose main title is Sapiens shouldn’t be subtitled “A Brief History of Humankind”.
It divides critics, scientists and historians, sweeping across time as it does, synthesizing the evolution and development of Homo Sapiens to the globally connected society we are today. Harari’s book is Big History writing, a genre made popular by David Christian in his Big History lectures (with support from the Gates Foundation) and Jared Diamond, famously known for Guns, Germs, and Steel. The reviewers pick and prod mostly because of this approach. Praising the narrative with one hand and questioning the factual grounding with another:
Much of Sapiens is extremely interesting, and it is often well expressed. As one reads on, however, the attractive features of the book are overwhelmed by carelessness, exaggeration and sensationalism. Never mind his standard and repeated misuse of the saying “the exception proves the rule” (it means that exceptional or rare cases test and confirm the rule, because the rule turns out to apply even in those cases). There’s a kind of vandalism in Harari’s sweeping judgments, his recklessness about causal connections, his hyper-Procrustean stretchings and loppings of the data.
But “well expressed” it undoubtedly is as every reviewer agrees on the fluidity and verve of the narrative:
Whatever the flaws, Sapiens is compelling. There are unexpected takes on conventional wisdom, astonishing compression to produce impressive synthesis and many tough judgments about our species worth reflection. The prose is tight and clear, the range impressive, the reach across aeons and nations in places brilliant. Others will tell the story differently, but few with such skill.
Sydney Morning Herald
As Harari discusses the progression of man through the lens of different eras, technologies and sociological developments, he focuses on the power of stories and myths. The innate ability of humans to spin tales that act as both the fabric keeping societies together, and the enabler of more advanced groupings of individuals in pursuit of a shared goal:
What’s unique about Harari’s take is that he focuses on the power of stories and myths to bring people together. Baboons, wolves, and other animals also know how to function as a group, of course, but their groups are defined by close social ties that limit their groups to small numbers. Homo sapiens has the special ability to unite millions of strangers around commons myths. Ideas like freedom, human rights, gods, laws, and capitalism exist in our imaginations, yet they can bind us together and motivate us to cooperate on complex tasks.
Happiness is also of great interest to Harari. Great technological leaps forward do not necessarily translate in to great strides in an individuals sense of well-being and happiness. Sometimes this is because the technological leap resulted in decreased living conditions, as with the birth of agriculture Harari contends, but also today as we command more power over biology and nature than ever before. He touches on this point in an interview with NPR:
“In some areas we’ve done amazingly well; in other areas we’ve done amazingly bad,” he tells NPR’s Arun Rath. “Humans are extremely good in acquiring new power, but they are not very good in translating this power into greater happiness, which is why we are far more powerful than ever before but we don’t seem to be much happier.”
NPR: All Things Considered
So despite the sniffy reviews, there is clearly a tangible product produced by Harari, and that product appeals to an audience interested in big ideas gleaned from a big history approach. Harari takes these big ideas and projects forward also, thinking about what is next for our species, discussing the fast-evolving biotechnology industry and the coming of what he terms the post-human. Overall the scope of this book is vast.
But those who dismiss Sapiens as just another installment of “History for Dummies” would be mistaken. Harari’s synthesis is hard-won: He has read widely, even if his citations don’t always reveal this, and his occasional glibness is a calculated strategy. Many of his grand pronouncements are followed by some reassuring version of “In fact, things were never quite that simple.” He intends to entertain, while posing serious questions worth entertaining.
Sapiens, then, can best be appreciated as a quirky essay by a moralist who embraces both Big and Deep History and uses them to raise large and profound questions. Harari accomplishes exactly what Guldi and Armitage recommend in their manifesto for historians: “Renewing the connection between past and future, and using the past to think critically about what is to come.” In this light, his simplifications have a serious purpose and can be thought-provoking.
Adding depth to this position of Harari as an innovative thinker despite his shortcomings I highly recommend an interview on The Edge by the great Daniel Kahneman, the Nobel prize winning author of Thinking Fast and Slow. The entire interview is worth your attention, as Kahneman latches to the same point as the quote above from The Nation on the power of Hurari’s conclusions and analysis:
Kahneman: “I’ve now read your book Sapiens twice and in that book you do something that I found pretty extraordinary. You cover the history of mankind. It seems to be like an invitation for people to dismiss it as superficial, so I read it, and I read it again, because in fact, I found so many ideas that were enriching.”
A contentious read for sure, but one that will no doubt be thought-provoking and entertaining. It goes on my to-read list because of that (and if Kahneman is going to read it twice I can at least read it once!).
Hurari has supported Sapiens with a lecture series on YouTube. Also on his channel see the conversation with Jared Diamond who inspired Hurari to write a book in this Big History style. He also has his own website and I recommend a a couple of interviews he gave, one with the Intelligence Squared podcast and on the BBC’s Meet the Author programme.
Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind
By Yuval Noah Harari
HarperCollins, 443 pages
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