Review of Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind by Yuval Noah Harari
Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind
by Yuval Noah Harari
I’ve had Homo Deus, Yuval Noah Harari’s later book, sitting in a box waiting to be read for a couple of years now (because that’s how I roll). My bestie Amanda recently purchased Sapiens on the strength of several recommendations, with someone even suggesting she could use it as a university course textbook. However, she is neck-deep in writing a PhD thesis right now, so I’m subbing in! I do loves me some world history … just not this one.
Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind attempts to chart the development of the human species as it spreads around the world and transforms the world through science, technology, exploration, and war. Harari begins with prehistory and the emergence and survival of Homo sapiens as the sole remaining Homo species on the planet. From there he leads us through ancient history and towards more modern history, all the while ruminating upon how various cultural developments (such as religion, writing, and capitalism) might have been the killer apps of each period. At the end of the book, he allows himself the luxury of speculating where the human species might be heading in the future.
All of this sounds great on the surface, and I definitely see why people would find this book fascinating and enjoyable. Had I read this, say, 7 to 10 years ago, back in my more impressionable university days, maybe I would have been one of them (I used to think Jared Diamond had interesting things to say; what can I say, I was naive). As it is, Sapiens is just making me want to re-read A Short History of Nearly Everything, which I haven’t read in years. I respect that Bill Bryson, who does not have a histor doctorate, doesn’t disguise the fact that his book is basically pop history. Because don’t let the references in the end notes fool you: that’s what Sapiens is too.
At one point, Harari writes, “As the twenty-first century unfolds, nationalism is fast losing ground.” This, from a book originally written in 2011 but updated in 2014, is … puzzling. I’m pretty sure that even as far back as 5 years ago people were sounding the alarm about the rise of nationalism. And now … well, sigh, now where we are.
So, yeah, Sapiens seems a little short-sighted at times?
Also there are lots of diagrams that look like the author created them with Word’s Shape Art on a rainy afternoon when he had nothing better to do.
Such quipping critiques aside, though, really, Sapiens just made me uneasy the whole time I was reading it. A great deal of what Harari says sounds reasonable and interesting. I learned a lot while reading this book, which is why I think many people enjoyed and are endorsing it. Harari is a compelling writer in the sense of how he structures and lays out each chapter. Yet that’s entirely my issue: I feel like I was being lulled into a false sense of security only to have questionable, pseudo-philosophical premises slipped into my brain when I wasn’t paying attention.
For a book with a fair amount of scholarship apparently behind it (given the endnotes), Harari doesn’t ever seem interested in engaging with specific scholars. He prefers to say, “scholars agree” or “some scholars say,” as he addresses various theories. Lining up these broad attributions with specific scholars is an exercise best left with the reader, I guess? Anyway, it’s difficult for the average reader to really understand how well-grounded Harari’s ideas are, except of course if you just take Harari at his word, which is exactly what he wants you to do.
Harari tries to play the eminent rationalist who presents his analysis and arguments without the hindsight fallacy (which he talks about explicitly) or personal bias.
Here’s the thing though: you can’t be unbiased and objective about history. Literally you can’t. If you were, it would be the most boring thing, and also the most useless thing, because if you’re trying to tell a brief history, you’re going to have to cut some things out. And what you cut out reveals your biases, really. So I would much prefer if someone is upfront about their biases and about the perspective they’re using when they look at history. Harari is pretending to a neutrality he cannot have and which would be useless anyway.
Here’s what I’ve unravelled in my reading. Harari likes empires, but not imperialism per se. He thinks empires are the most natural, stable form of human governance, because why else are there so many of them? (Is this not the hindsight fallacy?) He laments how various empires have interacted in ways that might not be so good for Indigenous peoples, but he points out that this just how it goes. And now we’re all one global society anyway, so … yay? Capitalism is great because money is a liquid asset but the peak capitalism of the 20th century is troubling. Overall, Harari just seems quite impressed by how we’ve managed to spread around the world and make fire and Twinkies. (He does not actually mention Twinkies; it’s called subtext, people.)
Just before embarking on a look at the Scientific Revolution, Harari ends a chapter with a particularly egregious passage which is too lengthy for me to want to transcribe here. But basically it’s a shrug of the shoulders and an attempt to say that no one really knows why anything happens in history, and conceivably it all could have turned out differently. Oh, and western Europe had “no important role in history” prior to the Scientific Revolution.
For the most part, Harari actually acknowledges that various Indigenous peoples around the world often had civilizations of equal, if not greater, cultural and technological sophistication than the European invaders who showed up during the so-called Age of Discovery. Nevertheless, I feel like Harari’s viewpoint remains mired within a Western, colonial lens. Specifically, Harari is obsessed with “progress” as a metric by which we measure the success of our species. He doesn’t assign a morality to the Spanish conquest of the Aztec and Inca Empires, of course, because that Is Not Done these days—yet he basically shrugs and says that the Spanish won because … progress. More broadly, Homo sapiens won out over other hominins because … progress?
You can fight me on this but maybe it’s worth acknowledging that even if you personally believe we should be striving for more inventions, more discoveries, etc., that’s not necessarily what every person or every culture wants. The Inca Empire didn’t invent the wheel, of course—and had the Spanish never shown up and the Inca went on for further millennia without wheels, would that be so bad? Colonizers always fall back on the idea that, whatever losses of life happen during the actual conquest period, everything is better now because … progress, brought to you, naturally, by your colonial overlords.
At the end of the day, I’m not giving this book 1 star because it’s still a fairly interesting read, at least until I started getting fed up with it towards the end. Sapiens has a lot of little moments that leave me nodding—I’m definitely receptive to some of what Harari is saying. Overall, however, his style of argument and the way he draws overly broad conclusions leaves me, as a sometime-scholar and occasional academic, quite uneasy. As I’ve told my friend, I’m sure there are way better books to use as textbooks in a course on sustainability.