Have you ever wondered about humans? Why is it that one species has managed to conquer the world? How did we get to this point? What makes us different?
All these questions and more have been answered in Dr Yuval Noah Harari’s Sapiens: A brief history of humankind – a best seller recommended by the likes of Barack Obama and Bill Gates.
I have always enjoyed a non-fiction book to read alongside a novel. I think it’s important to continue learning and developing your knowledge. I decided to start my 2019 reading year with a book that would widen my knowledge in a variety of areas but in this book I found so much more.
Sapiens is a book that spans the history of humankind, from the very first humans to walk the Earth to us today.
But this is not a simple narrative history of humans, this book answers big questions – how did an insignificant species come to dominate the planet? Why did we create cities and kingdoms? How did we come to believe in Gods, human rights and nations? How did we develop and trust money, laws, timetables and consumerism? And what does the future hold for homo sapiens?
Sapiens is split into sections based on the three major revolutions that pushed human development through the ages – the Cognitive revolution, the Agricultural revolution and the Scientific revolution.
As a history graduate I have read some dense, dry history books in my time, this book was not one of them. Sapiens is, of course, academic in its roots, but it’s accessible – I believe that almost anyone could read and enjoy it.
We begin 2.5 million years ago when the first humans evolved in Africa, and from then till around 100,000 years ago around 6 different subspecies of humans walked the Earth together. During this period of time, humans were fairly insignificant, very much in the middle of the food chain. The book explores how homo sapiens jumped to the top of the food chain and what happened to our human cousins – hint hint we happened.
From then we explore the Cognitive revolution which took place 70,000 to 30,000 years ago. This revolution allowed for the development of a new level of language and communication – the ability to discuss ideas that are not part of the physical world, i.e. imagination. This ability is what separated homo sapiens from the rest of the animal kingdom and allowed us to develop and collaborate in much larger societies.
One interesting piece of information this section taught me was that as far as we know humans 30,000 years ago had the same physical, emotional and intellectual capabilities we have today, evolutionary psychologists believe most of our psychology developed in this period and has not changed since. I suppose it is modern arrogance to assume we are more intellectual beings than our ancestors but according to science we are the same, separated only by time.
We then delve into the Agricultural revolution which completely changed the way humans lived. The advent of agriculture allowed humans to collect more food per unit area and so the overall population began to expand exponentially. Although, as Dr Harari points out, the agricultural revolution didn’t actually make the life of the average human better, in many cases it actually made life harder. In fact, at many points in Sapiens we are asked questions about happiness.
Since the Agricultural revolution Dr Harari claims that humankind has gradually been consolidating its organisations leading towards one global empire.
As human history progressed we developed numbers and writing, money, empires and religions – many of these concepts I have always been intrigued about. Sapiens argues that these are the principal drivers for the human trend towards unification and political & economic interdependence. His explanation of empires and the development of culture was particularly interesting to me.
Finally, we move onto the Scientific revolution that happened around 500 years ago. This revolution saw the emergence of objective science and the ability to admit ignorance. With this revolution we saw a massive expansion in scientific knowledge.
(One of my favourite little facts from this section was that, before we had a standard time based on Greenwich mean time, different places around the UK could be up to half an hour apart in time – I have bored my family and friends to death with little facts I learnt through reading Sapiens.)
However, Sapiens points out there has been little change in our knowledge and understanding of happiness; and asks the question are we happier now with all our technology and knowledge than our hunter-gatherer ancestors?
Dr Harari ends the book by looking briefly into the future, he considers modern technology and the future of our species. And asks what will become of us?
I found it fascinating to learn not only how humans and human society developed but more importantly why they developed. The why is often the place we learn most about ourselves and the world around us. Dr Harari manages to navigate global history, religions, complex theories and human emotions with an impartial and logical voice.
Reading this book opened my eyes to just how amazing – and terrible – humankind can be. There was so much information in this book, you could read it again and again and learn more and more each time.
Learning and expanding our knowledge is important in its own right but there are so many lessons to be found in history. By looking back we can learn from our predecessors’ mistakes and triumphs, and then work to change our future based on those lessons – after all knowledge is power.
I believe Sapiens: A brief history of humankind is a must-read for anyone who wants to understand the world we live in today, but even more for anyone who wants to understand how to make a difference for the future.
You can buy Sapiens: A brief history of humankind here:
Dr. Yuval Noah Harari has written two other books in this ‘series’.
- Homo Deus: A brief history of tomorrow
Sapiens shows us where we came from. Homo Deus shows us where we’re going.
- 21 Lessons for the 21st Century
Sapiens showed us where we came from. Homo Deus looked to the future. 21 Lessons for the 21st Century explores the present.
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