I was half way through reading ‘Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind’ by Yuval Noah Harari on the tube the other week when a fellow commuter asked me what the book is about. Even though I have been writing reviews regularly for over five years, I still don’t enjoy being put on the spot about books I am still reading and mulling over, particularly at 8:15am on a crowded train. My initial response was to say that it’s about, well, pretty much everything. Even though that statement is fairly accurate, the expression on his face suggested that it was also quite unhelpful, so I added that it’s about how and why the human race has developed in the way that it has. This appeared to be a more satisfactory answer, which is just as well because I still can’t think of a better way to summarise its content.
‘Sapiens’ is a big sweeping account exploring everything from biology, justice, anthropology and philosophy and the often surprising ways in which these elements interact with each other. The first part outlines the early beginnings of Homo sapiens around 70,000 years ago and how their unique ability to cooperate flexibly led to the extinction of other human species such as the Neanderthals. Ironically, my brief exchange with a stranger on public transport in London could even be seen as a very small-scale example of the type of cooperation and interaction that has made Homo sapiens such an evolutionary success.
This is followed by three more parts outlining the agricultural revolution which began around 10,000 years ago, the unification of humankind and the scientific revolution up to the present day, and the influence and development of history, money, imperialism, religion and culture amongst many other things. These are huge topics to grasp in a purely academic sense but Harari makes them very accessible. Despite the broad subject matter, Harari finds specific and relevant examples to illustrate his ideas and theories, some of which are quite provocative and controversial. This adds some colour to what could otherwise have been a very dry text.
The non-fiction books I read usually explore relatively specific or niche topics and I tend to find “general” history books run the risk of oversimplifying events and their causes as there is little room for in-depth analysis. Harari thankfully avoids this for the most part although it was inevitable that some aspects were not addressed as thoroughly as I would have expected. However, overall, I think Harari has a great skill in writing a broad narrative with wide appeal and even though there are some aspects of his thesis which I don’t entirely agree with, his ideas are certainly thought-provoking.
It’s easy to see why ‘Sapiens’ has been such an enormous success across the world. It is an engaging and entertaining account which challenges the reader to consider their surroundings, beliefs and interactions in new or different ways. I look forward to reading its sequel ‘Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow’ which addresses the challenges facing human evolution in the future.