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!