Book Review: Sapiens by Yuval Noah Harari

Book Review: Sapiens by Yuval Noah Harari

If you follow me on Goodreads, then you may have seen the painstakingly slow journey I have been on in the past months with Yuval Noah Harari’s nonfiction bestseller Sapiens. It felt a bit like a textbook at times, which contributed to it being a pretty slow read. But it was definitely something that I wanted to read all the way through, because most of its readers have been raving about it since its publication in 2015.

I first heard of Sapiens in this video, called “one of the greatest books of all time”. These rave reviews were echoed through the couple years since I saw that video until I started reading the book for myself two months ago. The positive press was boosted by the reviews featured on the book by Barack Obama, who said “Interesting and provocative. . . . It gives you a sense of perspective on how briefly we’ve been on this earth, how short things like agriculture and science have been around, and why it makes sense for us to not take them for granted,” and Bill Gates, who remarked, “I would recommend this book to anyone interested in a fun, engaging look at early human history. . . . You’ll have a hard time putting it down.”

I did not have a hard time putting it down. This wasn’t because it was bad, but this book is very, very dense. Think studying-all-of-human-history-from-the-beginning-to-the-present-in-one-semester kind of dense. And Harari isn’t one for brief summaries. One thing I admire about him as a writer is that he really wants to share what he knows with us and he doesn’t want to miss any crucial information.

Being the evolution-fascinated atheist that I am, I was drawn to this book because it would be a chance for me to learn more details about human evolution and origins—that is, after all, my favorite topic within biological evolution. I suppose I was under the impression that more of this book would be dedicated to the origin of the human race than it was, but that was only about a quarter of the book. It fascinated me while it lasted: learning why Harari thinks that the physically inferior Homo sapiens (as opposed to other human species who were also within the genus Homo) may have outwitted their ancient brother and sister species, or how they almost instantaneously wiped out the majority of species living on every continent they touched.

But mixed into these beginning chapters was the first instance of Harari’s seeming “Wake up, sheeple!” mindset. He claimed that technically, corporations don’t exist; they are only within our minds. Think of Walmart. What is—what actually is—Walmart? Is it its nearest employee? Not really, that’s just Dave. Is it the box of cereal sitting on the shelf? No, that’s cereal. Is it the building? Nope, that building could be turned into a megachurch one day, and the megachurch isn’t Walmart. That was Harari’s general argument. And I definitely understood it. I saw it as a little weird, but not technically wrong, I suppose.

He extended this to other concepts that exist only within the collective human consciousness, like rights, freedom, and equality. I still felt as though this was “correct, I guess, but just a little weird” until I saw it from a different perspective. Harari was showing us the history of humankind through the lens of remembering that Homo sapiens is just another species of mammal, an animal that for most of its history, was insignificant. And we are an animal who makes mountains of molehills that no other animal even acknowledged. I understood this when he “[tried] to translate the most famous line of the American Declaration of Independence into biological terms.” The line, as we can all recognize, is:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

What he ended up with was this:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men evolved differently, that they are born with certain mutable characteristics, and that among these are life and the pursuit of pleasure.

I wouldn’t go so far as to say that Harari’s translation is wrong, but it is definitely a downer. His conspiratorial tone through the rest of the book feels very much like “I know something that you don’t, and everything you think you know is a lie!” The other three main sections of the book focus on the Agricultural Revolution, the Unification of Humankind, and The Scientific Revolution.

Harari tells several fascinating stories throughout this expedition through history, like the beginning of money, the meaning of Buddhism, and why humankind gained an insatiable thirst for scientific knowledge so suddenly and so recently.

Before reading this book, I had seen some Amazon reviews for it, and most of those reviewers just thought that Harari was doing little more than making a case that humans had better lives as hunter-gatherers or foragers. I thought that certainly such a highly acclaimed book would not have such a hipster-sounding bias, but this book certainly does. Time and time again, Harari revels at the daily life, rich diets, and social lives that ancient Sapiens must have had in their close communities as they wandered, hunted mammoths, and snacked on wild mushrooms. He seems to regret that they ever discovered farming, and I may even say that he believes we’ve gone downhill from there.

Have you read Sapiens or any of Harari’s other books? What were your thoughts on them? Let me know and stay tuned for more reviews!

0 thoughts on “Book Review: Sapiens by Yuval Noah Harari

  • June 16, 2019 at 12:11 pm

    Harrari’s book was a surprise, but the surprising parts rang true to me. He echos the expulsion of Adam and Eve from the garden, which can be seen as an analogy about the transition from hunter-gatherer to agriculture: Genesis 3:17-19 17 To Adam he said, … “Cursed is the ground because of you; through painful toil you will eat food from it all the days of your life. 18 It will produce thorns and thistles for you, and you will eat the plants of the field. 19 By the sweat of your brow you will eat your food until you return to the ground, since from it you were taken; for dust you are and to dust you will return.” It could well be true that we were happier as hunter-gatherers. My four decades working in Corporate America were Hell, I can tell you that! I’m much happier in retirement foraging in my back yard garden.
    And of course, countries, corporations, all human institutions exist only because we agree that they do. We collectively develop rules to create and maintain them. What does this say about hard determinism? Institutions we create are another emergent characteristic of human society, which emerges from consciousness, which emerges from the physical brain, which emerges from life, which emerges and evolves from inanimate matter. Each level operates under its own rules, which are different than rules of pure inanimate matter. This, to me, makes untenable the notion that everything is determined since the Big Bank. There are too many variables.
    Back to Harrari: One statement rubbed me the wrong way: that humanists worship humanity. What bull! He apparently has never met one of us.

  • June 16, 2019 at 2:04 pm

    I found this book enlightening and infuriating. From time to time the author … well, let me give you an example.
    He was pointing out that no one has natural rights, which is why we claim they come from some god or other. He quotes Voltaire (“There is no God, but do not tell my servant lest he murder me at night.”) and others as to the role religion plays in controlling the masses. He goes on to quote Talleyrand on why physical coercion alone won’t be enough to control people (“You can do many things with bayonettes, but it is rather uncomfortable to sit on them.” and “A single priest does the work of a hundred soldiers, far more cheaply and effectively.”) and that religion is as or more useful that physical threat. Yuval concludes that some beliefs/memes, etc. are needed to keep people functioning as soldiers, e.g. honor, country, manhood, God (On our side!), motherhood, etc. and by extension as participating members of a stable society.
    But then he goes on to consider the people at the top of the pyramid, the elites. He asks: “Why should they wish to enforce an imagined order if they themselves do not believe in it?” Okay, now we are cooking! He continues in the next sentence: “It is quite common to argue that the elite may do so out of cynical greed.”
    Bingo … but …
    Yuval then continues to dismiss this statement implicitly by perversely arguing that it could not be cynical because the Cynic philosophers had no ambition, and the elites do. This has to be willful obtuseness on the author’s part. Any dictionary would have told him that when ordinary people use the word cynical they are referring to it being “contemptuously distrustful of human nature and motives,” not some harkening to the Greek philosophical school of the Cynics. He then goes on to conclude that the elites have to have their beliefs, too.
    The key word in “cynical greed” is greed, not cynical. And he sloughs off the greed aspect because, well, what? Getting too close to criticizing the elites can be dangerous? Why? He just leaves it hanging.

  • June 16, 2019 at 2:16 pm

    I have not read it and doubt that I will. I don’t see the quote you mentioned as a downer and I am curious as to why you do. Have you read any Steven Pinker?

  • June 16, 2019 at 7:58 pm

    I got given this book for Christmas. Read through the first 60 pages or so, it was interesting from what I read, but yeah it’s not an easy book to read. I’ll definitely try and finish this book later.
    When reading this book though, it is easy to get the impression that perhaps the author is a scientist with a background in paleontology or biology, when he is neither (he is a historian). This should probably be taken into account. I’m not saying I think he’s wrong, but that his claims shouldn’t be accepted without using critical thinking or further investigation. It is easy to overlook that because he does write very well.

  • June 17, 2019 at 10:31 am

    Thanks for the review. I had just checked this book out from the library as an audiobook, to listen to on my commute, so now I’m looking forward to it even more. (I just have to finish up the book I am listening to now, which is War and Peace!)

  • August 5, 2019 at 8:02 pm

    Currently I am reading it and it is an informative book. I will post about it after I finish my reading!


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