Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind by Yuval Noah Harari – book review


Sapiens is a bold attempt to tell the history of our species in four hundred and sixty pages. It doesn’t quite achieve this but it does provide plenty of interesting stories and is a great introduction to a wide variety of ideas and subjects which the reader could then investigate further.

I started the book expecting to give up on it, I don’t read history books often and I was ready to drop it as soon as I found it boring. Only, I didn’t find it boring at any stage, in fact I found myself pulled into the story and wanting to know more and more about the various subjects covered in the book.

Full of very interesting stories

I loved reading about the theories about the origins of homo-sapiens and why we went from fairly mid-table in terms of the pecking order of all the animal species, to becoming the very top of the food chain.

SPOILER ALERT – Fire was a much bigger reason for sapiens becoming top-dog according to this book. I’m sure I remember being told it was opposable thumbs when I when I was in school but Harari makes a convincing case that our control of fire meant we could make a surge up the hierarchy of animals and take our unexpected place at the top.

The books zips along through the thousands of years we’ve been knocking around on earth. I was fascinated by the section that described how we first arrived in Australia and all the crazy animals that were there to meet us. Sadly we’ve made the bulk of those fascinating creatures extinct, which just proves we can’t be trusted to have anything nice.

The section about intra-subjectivity was another highlight for me. It covers how we’ve managed to construct fictional belief systems that we all buy into and that somehow take on their own form. Currency, limited liability currencies and the nation state were the examples and it’s hard to argue with the logic that these ideas would all crumble if we all collectively stopped believing in them.

Are we destined to become gods?

The final chapter was possibly the most speculative, as it looked at the future direction we could head in as a species. Might our relationship with technology advance to the point where we transcend our fleshy forms and become some sort of digital consciousness?

I’m not sure there is much solid evidence to back up some of the boldest claims but that’s consistent throughout the book, as many sections are often acknowledged as best guesses based on the available information.

It was fun to imagine a future where we become gods, even if it was written as a vague warning that we’d surely be even more dangerous in the future than we are as Sapiens now.

Too broad a subject

My main problem with this book was that it was too broad a subject to cover in any satisfactory way, so it’s lots of little glimpses into a wide selection of history, economics, psychology and sociology. I occasionally felt like I was being pulled away from a subject I was very interested in because the book was moving on to some other stage of homo-sapien history.

This isn’t such a bad thing though, as there’s enough information to give you a flavour of what you could find out about and maybe do some independent research in the areas you’re most interested in.

Overall impression – 84 out 100

Sapiens is a book that covers a wide variety of subjects in a light and engaging style. It’s full of interesting information which is presented in an easy to read style. Some subject areas aren’t covered in a lot of depth and there are sections which represent the author’s opinions rather than undisputable historical fact, but I think this editorial stance makes for an more interesting book.

I’d recommend this book to anyone with a vague interest in the history of homo-sapiens as a species. Even though it’s over four hundred and fifty pages I finished it wanting to know more and look forward to reading more from this author.