Saturday, 21 April 2018

SAPIENS: A brief history of humankind by Yuval Noah Harari @harari_yuval

5 GOLD stars

On Amazon UK
On Goodreads

How I discovered this book: Amazon browse; I'd listened to some of the follow-up, Homo Deus, on audio, and knew I had to read this.

Genre: Non-Fiction, anthropology, history, sociology, psychology....

Loved, loved, loved this book.  It is, as per the title, a brief history of humankind, but not just a physical one, ie, how we evolved into Homo Sapiens, but how our cultures evolved, how we group together socially, how the leaders of any society divide and rule by engendering explores our basic xenophobia, the good and evil of empire, how they are born and why they fall, the roots and effects, both positive and negative, of the Agricultural, Scientific and Industrial Revolutions ~ it looks at us, as a species, by standing away and observing.

Most interesting is the Homo Sapiens' invention of such imaginary concepts as religion, individual nations and money, which require the belief of millions of people around the globe to exist at all.  I can't believe I thought economics was such a boring subject when I was younger; the history of how money evolved and the explanation of how capitalism works had me glued to the pages.

There are so many great snippets of historical detail, too ~ have you heard of the ancient Numantians, who lived in small mountain town and resisted Roman invasion far more valiantly than most countries?  No, nor had I.  I never knew exactly how the Dutch became so powerful several hundred years ago, before I read this, what the Mississipi Bubble was and how it led to the French Revolution, or about Henry Rawlinson who first deciphered cuneiform script, that taught us so much about ancient civilisations.  I hadn't known exactly how Buddhism originated or understood its basis, or known how the belief in the superiority of the Aryan race began. 

This is not written in heavy text book fashion, if you're wondering; for such an informative tome, it is remarkably 'easy read', which, I imagine, explains its success.  It made me think about the smallness of seemingly important current events within the great expanse of time (and Bede's famous quote, which I'll put at the end), how each tiny sociological shift, each scientific development may have great effect in the long term, or none at all, and we have no way of knowing which it will be.  'Is the (current) upsurge of montheistic fundamentalism the wave of the future or a local whirlpool of little long-term significance?  Are we heading towards ecological disaster or technological paradise?  There are good arguments to be made for all of these outcomes, but no way of knowing for sure.  In a few decades, people will look back and think that the answers to these questions were obvious'.

Chapters about the present are frightening enough.  The section about how we treat animals in order to fulfil our desires for meat and dairy products should be enough to turn anyone vegan.  Not only that, but:

'Every year the US population spends more money on diets than the amount needed to feed all the hungry people in the world'. 

'Most Christians do not imitate Christ, most Buddhists fail to follow Buddha ... in contrast, most people today successfully live up to the capitalist-consumerist ideal.... It has succeeded.  This is the first religion in history whose followers actually do what they are asked to do.'

But even more worrying is the last chapter, about our possible future in which natural selection may be replaced 'by intelligent design, through biological engineering, cyborg engineering or the engineering of inorganic life'.  It's already starting, but after reading this I'm glad I won't be around to see what happens.

It's a great book.  Everyone should read it.

*Quote by Bede, from The Ecclesiastical History of the English people:

“The present life of man upon earth, O King, seems to me in comparison with that time which is unknown to us like the swift flight of a sparrow through the mead-hall where you sit at supper in winter, with your Ealdormen and thanes, while the fire blazes in the midst and the hall is warmed, but the wintry storms of rain or snow are raging abroad. The sparrow, flying in at one door and immediately out at another, whilst he is within, is safe from the wintry tempest, but after a short space of fair weather, he immediately vanishes out of your sight, passing from winter to winter again. So this life of man appears for a little while, but of what is to follow or what went before we know nothing at all.”


  1. Ooh, I have this! I haven't finished it yet because I tend to get distracted and wander away from audio books that aren't all blood guts gore and buttkicking, but I have this and I've liked what I heard!

    1. I read 30% ages ago then put it down because of writing, and RBRT reviewing, but then I picked it up again last week and read it in just a few days - you'll love it, it gets more and more interesting!

      I tend to fall asleep with audio books, however good they are - it's the bed time story thing, I think!

  2. Looking forward to reading this. Thanks for such an informative review, Terry