Book review: Sapiens

I just finished listening to Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind by Yuvah Noah Harari. It an interesting look at the history of our species as viewed through the lens of thee revolutions: cognitive, agricultural, and scientific.

Harari takes a detached — and sometimes cynical — view of history. He does not place humanity at the center of the story. Instead, he talks about humans and human systems as part of a broader evolutionary process. For example, he says “we did not domesticate wheat; it domesticated us.”

There is no inevitability

It is a mistake, he argues, to ascribe intent to evolutionary processes. Humanity is not the end goal. It follows, then, that there is no underlying purpose of human life. We exist because we exist. Whatever meaning we give life is a shared myth, as is all of human culture. Our economic, political, religious, and all other systems exist and have power because we agree they exist and have power.

For me, some of the more interesting parts of the book were the descriptions of how various economic systems influenced — or even necessitated — historical outcomes. European colonization and empire from the 15th century to today is not because of any innate nature of Europeans. Environmental factors and accidents of invention gave Europe’s leaders the ability and motivation to conquer the globe. Were we able to replay history a hundred times, how many times would western Europe become the home of global empire rather than, say, the Middle East?

Are you better off than your ancestors?

I was also intrigued by early discussions of the relative quality of life and later discussions of human happiness. For all of the hardships we imagine our ancestors faced, Harari argues that our hunter-gatherer forebears may have had a greater overall standard of living than their post-agricultural-revolution descendants. Nevertheless, the agricultural revolution prompted changes in our societies that made going back all but impossible.

“Happiness” is a difficult concept to explain, let alone measure. Nonetheless, it seems plausible that we are no more happy than our grandparents’ generation, or their grandparents’ generation, or… If happiness has not increased, what was the point of the millennia of changes? Why do we try to increase our wealth, expand our understanding, and conquer disease? What, truly, is the point of anything?

The questions to ask

“What, truly, is the point of anything?” is a question to ask. But it’s a mistake to think any answer find is universal. What we consider as fundamental human rights are only fundamental because we think they are. Perhaps societies many thousand years ago that had little concept of individual well-being and instead focused on the well being of the collective were right? Ah, but what does it mean to even be right? Rightness depends on the cultural context, which in tend depends on the shared myths in that place and time.

Sapiens ends with a look at the future and how our technology puts us in a position to render ourselves obsolete. We are forced to confront the question of “what do we want?” for our future. But that’s not the most pressing question, Harari says. We should be asking ourselves “what do we want to want?”

Should you read this?

Although I found much of the latter part of the book less interesting, the book overall was well worth the time. It was thought-provoking in ways that I did not expect. I may end up re-reading it with the intent of putting it aside to explore the thoughts as they arise.

Sapiens was first published in English in 2015. Although that was less than a decade ago, some parts of it feel out of touch. Harari describes a move away from nationalism. While that may be true in the broader sense, the last few years have bucked that trend — in the US and elsewhere. Similarly, he says that no state can “declare and wage war as it pleases”, yet Russia has done just that. Although it faces international retribution, and indeed may prove to be worse off as a result, it nonetheless is very much waging a war against Ukraine.

It’s a mistake to assume that history is a smooth line. Only time will tell if recent events are the start of a long trend or a ripple in the trajectory of history of homo sapiens.