Thursday, February 23, 2017

Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind by Yuval Harari: A review.

Browsing around at Steimatzky's bookstore at the Ben Gurion airport, I came across a book by Yuval Harari, Sapiens: A brief history of humankind.  I considered it for a bit and then decided that it looked interesting.  I have to say, I made a great choice.

Sapiens is an incredible book.  It is a 400 page journey through the history of humankind.  It is well written, thought provoking and chock full of fascinating information.  Harari, a history professor at Hebrew University in Jerusalem, sets out to paint a grand picture of the history of humanity in a concise offering.  The book touches on a variety of disciplines with nods to biology, anthropology, philosophy, social history and many other disciplines, each of which could take up thousands of volumes.  Nevertheless, Harari succeeds beautifully in tying everything together on a multi-layered canvass.

The book progresses from revolution to revolution - the stages used as reference points.  From the "cognitive revolution" by which sapiens developed consciousness to the agricultural revolution, the scientific revolution and, still later, the technological revolution.  Fundamentally, Harari is inspired by science and the scientific method.  Where he examines historical events and cannot come to a set conclusion, he sets out competing theories with underpinning facts and details.  Sometimes he concludes that there is overwhelming evidence in support of one theory or another.  On other occasions, he concludes that the answer is unknown.  The key is the lack of arrogance.  Harari repeatedly insists on the importance of human beings being prepared to admit ignorance, to go back to the drawing board with theories and to assess and reassess their perceived knowledge base.

He uses anecdotal and historical micro examples to illustrate broad ideas.  Although many topics are not dealt with in great detail, they are raised, considered and addressed at different levels.  The range is breathtaking.  The development of different religious movements, monotheism, polytheism and animism, to name a few are discussed.  The development of currency, agricultural methods, mobility, empires and nation states are all topics that Harari covers.  He also deals with slavery and racism, gender equality, homosexuality, treatment of animals and a range of other social issues.  So much ground is covered that the book really does leave the reader filled with questions, topics for discussion and new thoughts.

One example of a really interesting topic for me - compare and contrast the behaviour and development of the British Empire with the Spanish Empire.   Certainly, Israelis often conclude that the British made a big mess in so many areas of the world, the Middle East being a prime example.  Harari's take is a much more forgiving one.  It is contrasted with the often genocidal behaviour of the Spanish.

Unquestionably, in any book like this, there are arguments that can be challenged.  There are topics that are not addressed at all.  For example, Harari barely mentions art, theatre or the role of sport in society, to name but a few.  Then again, this is not a social history, per se.  Sometimes, a great amount of attention is devoted to something that might ultimately be viewed as relatively insignificant, like one small island off the coast of Indonesia.  But all of these comments would necessarily be applicable for any book attempting to provide a macro view of human history in such a short volume.  In fact, Harari is exceptionally skilled at picking out human interest stories to illustrate broad historical concepts.

Harari's thrust is a scientific and technological one - that it is the scientists and inventors who will continue to lead world development in so many areas - providing new sources of energy, nourishment, medical advancement, and who will even change humans as we know them today.  Maybe, as Harari suggests, they will one day succeed in Ponce de Leon's quest to find the "fountain of youth," even if it is a proverbial and scientifically developed fountain.

There is little discussion about the philosophy behind some of these decisions - about how we decide which avenues to pursue and which priorities to support.  Perhaps that is due to the fact that Harari is clearly not a theist and has little time for imagined supernatural entities, as he might put it.  Not only does he downplay many aspects of the various major religions themselves, but he devotes little time to the ideas advanced by these religions.  I find that a bit ironic in a way, since Harari spends a chapter or so putting forward his own belief in the power of some age old Buddhist inspired meditation methods.

Where Harari tries to define human "happiness" and discusses different theories of it - he seems to suggest a version of Buddhism as holding one of the plausible answers to the question.  The ironic thing about that - is that he is so dismissive of other religious viewpoints and philosophies.  His chapter on Buddhist inspired meditation would not stand up to his own rigorously applied scientific standards that he uses to assess (and denigrate) so many other ideas.

Nevertheless, I greatly enjoyed this book.  After reading it, I had a look to see what type of critical reception it has received.  I discovered that it has been highly acclaimed by a wide variety of sources.  Bill Gates has written about it, President Obama gave an interview about his take on the book and Chapters-Indigo president Heather Reisman has recommended it.  I also found out that my son has been reading the original version in Hebrew.

Most interestingly, I note that professor Harari has made available, at no charge, his entire history course in 26 segments on YouTube, each 90 minutes in length. They are of course all in Hebrew, but the first segment, at least, follows the outline of the first part of the book.  I have only had time to watch a chunk of one of the lectures, but it was terrific.

Professor Harari has also made available several interviews, lectures and discussions in English as well, all of which can be found on YouTube, for example this Ted Talks discussion on how human beings came to control the world.

But the starting point has to be the book, which is really a tremendous work.  And I would imagine that anyone who reads it will be all set for hours of provocative discussion and argument about many of Harari's observations.  I am, as always, happy to join in for those conversations.

1 comment:

  1. Glad you liked the book.
    -Steimatzky employee at Ben Gurion Airport