Book Review: Sapiens- A Brief History Of Humankind

Book Title: Sapiens- A Brief History Of Humankind

Author: Yuval Noah Harari

Publisher: McClelland & Stewart, Penguin Random House Canada 

Harari’s Sapiens is one of those books that would leave you in splits & in want of answers to questions that have eluded generations of humans. The Non-fiction genre has never appealed to the larger community of avid readers who’ve stuck to novels & stories. The complaint is near universal; Non-fictions are plain boring & mundane. There’s nothing exciting that makes one a perfect page turner like Rowling’s Harry Potter series or Dan Brown’s Langdon thrillers.

This book certainly demolishes all those petty complaints in a single stroke. Welcome to the world of an action-packed thriller spanning over humanity’s entire journey from an inconsequential tribe in East Africa to the brink of post-modernism.

The book begins by outlining how humans were just another species of great-apes firmly perched at the middle of the food chain hunting, foraging & scavenging for vast majority of their existence. It’s disconcerting for many among us that “humans” weren’t the only humans on Earth. We competed with other species like Erectus & Neanderthals as recently as 30,000 years ago.  There was nothing special about humans or sapiens as Harari addresses them throughout the book. Our impact on the larger environment wasn’t any different than beetles, hyenas or foxes. We hunted as well as we were hunted.  As the author narrates the ordinarity of sapiens you can almost feel the vanity of our species today that’ve no qualms in thinking that we’re the zenith of evolutionary design & are in a league of our own.

The author outlines three important epochs in the history of humanity; the cognitive revolution 70,000 years ago, the agricultural revolution nearly 10,000 years ago & finally the still unfolding scientific revolution that took roots 500 years back. Although any such demarcation is bound to be fraught with inadequacies but, the author reasons that from the vantage point of our existence there weren’t any occurrences as consequential as the ones just mentioned.

The cognitive revolution changed the way our ancestors thought, communicated & cooperated. A small mutation in the wiring of our neurons some 70,000 years ago gave humans the ability to communicate through complex languages. The single mutation permanently changed our position in the pecking order of the food chain. That we could communicate at extended lengths through complex languages meant sapiens could band together better in larger groups. When other great-apes like chimpanzees needed longer grooming sessions to even begin trusting each other sapiens developed intimate relations simply by communicating & passing on valuable information to others in their tribes. In a single stroke of the brush, our species turned the apex-predator.

Large bands of sapiens coalesced & collaborated. Stone tools improved & sapiens had bow & arrow at their disposal. The domestication of fire gave them superhuman abilities. What was an impassable forest could be burnt to ashes in a matter of hours & games as big as the majestic woolly mammoth was hunted down by tribes of sapiens who were thriving in the Siberian lands. One of the impacts of our species new found ingenuity; macro-fauna across every continent was cut down in a matter of few thousand years; mammoths, giant sloths, American lions to name a few.

From here on the book turns to the independent rise of agricultural societies around 9000BC in Levant, South America, China & possibly even South India.  As the author sees it, domestication of an inconsequential grass; wheat upended the very ethos of human society. Sapiens who were programmed to be hunter-gatherers permanently settled around farms.  Although, wheat couldn’t compensate for the rich & varied diet of the forager bands still the excess produce meant sapiens could easily feed larger populations.

As the author says, agricultural revolution was an evolutionary success, humans were procreating & millions of copies of sapiens-genome existed simultaneously .Thus, unfolded population growth at a pace never seen before. Whether the price paid in the loss of freedom, quality of life (it could be argued that agricultural revolution led to worse living conditions for individuals in crammed & disease infested settlements) was worth it, we don’t know. Possibly, it was history’s biggest fraud where individual liberty was sacrificed at the altar of evolutionary success.

In the following chapters the author takes you on a roller-coaster ride of the rise of religions, money & the mercantile economy. It all began when people started believing in shared myths of religion, the existence of money & credit allowing millions of people to co-operate having never known others.  Take the example of credit system. It only exists on our shared belief that eventually people are going to pay it back which in turn is based upon the shared myth that a colorful paper or some digital data on a remote server actually allows us to buy & sell anything of our choice. Without such shared myths, modern societies would come crashing down within minutes. The author calls them inter-subjective realities & as you sift these pages you’d suddenly realize the vast majorities of ideas like equality, liberty, human rights & rule of law that we so fervently believe in are mere shared myths.

Harari’s bestseller; Sapiens is an unnerving tale of humanity’s giant leap as the master race of the planet Earth. The fascinating narrative, the alternate reasoning & perplexing questions that the book raises makes it a perfect page-turner. Take my advice; grab it now. You won’t regret the deal!

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