Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind

Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind is the first book that I have picked to review it for the site. Sapiens makes it to one of my top reads in 2018 and  is also on of my all-time favourite book.

I always thought History is boring. Only after reading Sapiens I realised that my school text books were boring and not the History. Dr. Hariri’s elegant, crisp and clear writing shows how History can be just as interesting and engaging as any other genere.

Without trying to sounds pretentious, I found book quite existential at some level and made me think quite deeply about certain aspect life I thought I knew and the future. How? Read on.

As the name of the book suggest, Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, it is an engaging account of Human history, covering all aspects; evolution, anthropology, geography, psychology, religion, ideologies, and the future of humans.

So it all started about  200,000 years ago. On the continent we now know as Africa, something was happening. A new species of animal was evolving – emerging from the womb of Nature and slowly beginning to look around at the world in which it found itself. The event wasn’t significant immediately – many species had come and gone from Nature’s cradle before, and new ones were being born and were dying every day.

So what was different about this one?

130,000 years later, the answer was slowly starting to take shape, for it was then that this fledgeling species was becoming self-aware. It was beginning to express its thoughts and feelings through sounds that didn’t yet seem very different from the grunts and roars and screeches of other animals around it.

But all that would change. Over the course of the next 50,000 years this species, the Homo sapien, would exterminate all its near cousins and start its journey as the dominant life form on planet Earth.

Dr. Yuval Noah Harari’s 2014 best-seller book Sapiens – A Brief History of Humankind offers a compelling account of how and why this happened.

To understand the book, it is important to understand the difference between ‘genus’ and ‘species’ – genus is a larger taxonomic group ‘homo’ (Latin for ‘human’) within which different kinds of humans are included, of which the species ‘sapien’ is one (the word ‘sapien’ basically means ‘wise’, so a ‘homo sapien’ is literally ‘wise human’), The book explains how, at one point, there were different kinds of human beings, all existing at the same time in different parts of the world, and why one type of human rose above them all, to the point where all other types were exterminated.

For me, i.e. someone interested in understanding myself and my species better, the experience of reading this book was very enjoyable, and an eye opener of sorts. At one level, I enjoyed the way Harari tells the story of human evolution. His language is simple and unassuming, and he is able to explain complex ideas without sounding like a textbook. I think it is impressive how he, while explaining how our mastery over ‘collective imagination’ allowed us to leap ahead of all other types of humans, uses the formation of limited liability companies as an example. The car manufacturing giant, Peugeot is a ‘limited liability company’, he says, that

limited liability company is a figment of our imagination…It can’t be pointed at; it is not a physical object. But it exists as a legal entity. Just like you or me…It can open a bank account and own property. It pays taxes, and can be sued and even prosecuted separately from any of the people who own or work for it.”

But it is this figment of imagination that brings all Peugeot employees together around the world to work towards a common goal day after day – manufacturing and selling Peugeot cars.

Add to this ‘collective imagination’ the power of the unique human language (spoken and written) that has enabled Homo sapiens to cooperate with each other in large numbers and become the dominant species on the planet. Other human species such as the Homo rudolfensis (Man from Lake Rudolf), Homo ergaster (Working Man), Homo soloensis (Man From The Solo Valley), Homo neanderthalensis (Man from the Neander Valley) and Homo erectus (Upright Man) had other abilities. For example, the Neanderthals were physically much stronger than Homo sapiens, but this did not help them to work towards a common goal in large numbers, and that’s why they were eventually defeated and exterminated by Homo sapiens.

Interestingly, this theory finds an echo in one of the all time favorite sci-fi works – 2001 A Space Odyssey. Those of you who have read the book and/or watched the movie will remember that this power of imagination is precisely what enables the prehistoric man called Moonwalker to figure out that a dead leopard’s bone can be used very effectively as a lethal weapon. Ultimately, it is this crude weapon that enables Moonwalker’s tribe to gain absolute victory over a rival tribe.

What I also loved is Harari’s wry sense of humor, for example, when he gently mocks the way in which we have arrogantly called ourselves ‘wise man’ but many of our actions prove otherwise (think: nuclear weapons)

The amount of information I learned from the book was fascinating to me. I apologize if I sound especially ignorant here, but I had absolutely no idea that there were several species of humans existing on different continents at the same time. I’d always assumed that human evolution happened in a straight line, one after the other, but the truth, as always, is much stranger. I also had no idea that we have been driving many different species to extinction pretty much since prehistoric times. In addition to other species of humans, it seems likely that we may have killed off mammoths (massive furry elephants), a type of giant wombat called diprotodon, prehistoric kangaroos and marsupial lions (lions that had baby pouches like kangaroos).

Sapiens is the sort of book one reads several times, if only because it makes for an enjoyable read. There is also just too much information to make sense of in one reading. 

For anyone interested in understanding how the human society came to be the way it is, and what it could possibly be heading towards, this book is a goldmine. But even if history, sociology or anthropology have never interested you, Sapiens is still, at the very least, a well-told story that keeps you entertained and keeps you going. As I’ve said before, the book is brimming with information that makes for engaging conversation and debate. You can even use some of this knowledge to impress your date 🙂

Before I finish, a caveat – Dr.Harari talks at some length about the cruelty inflicted upon animals by the meat and dairy industries. The information is hard hitting, and from other articles I’ve read on this topic, I’m fairly sure Harari isn’t exaggerating. We, shamefully, do do those nasty things to those creatures on a daily basis. If you’re a meat-eater, you’ll probably have a tough time going through those passages in the book, and may  feel quite guilty about what your eating habits are doing to other living things. I am a vegetarian and passage on dairy products is now pushing me to consider Vegan lifestyle 🙂

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