Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind by Yuval Noah Harari

Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind by Yuval Noah Harari
Humanity, eh?

This bestseller by Israeli historian Yuval Noah Harari launched in 2011 in his home country, before hitting the rest of the world in 2014. Wouldn’t you know it, the extensive history book examines human history from roughly 100,000 years ago up until right here and right now. Back then, there were six human species around. Six! Now there only remains homo sapiens.

What happened during such an evolutionary rush for survival? This is, as the title states, a brief history of all of it wrapped into one 450 page book. We found it to be like the adult version of E.H. Gombrich’s memorable A Little History of the World (1935), but with more science bits and big words the layperson will be able to wrap their tiny minds around. What more could you want?

Sapiens – A Brief History of Humankind

There’s a neat little summary video above, but to really get the most out of this topic (and to learn a thing or two about human history), we’d highly advise getting the book and reading the whole thing. This is an accessible and highly enjoyable account of human activities to date, starting with the cognitive revolution (circa 70,000 BCE) which provided us with a big advantage over our hairy counterparts.

Prior to this, around 2.5 million years back, humans evolved from a species of ape called Australopithecus (this is based on the findings of archaeologists and paleontologists). By modern estimates, there were at least seven species of humans around at the time, such as the brilliantly named homo erectus (duh huh huh huuuuh!) and the famous neanderthals. The former was extinct by 140,000 years ago, whilst the latter waved goodbye a mere 40,000 years back (a blink of an eye in terms of the history of the Earth).

What happened to these dudes, then? Why are homo sapiens the only species of humans still around? Harari gets round to that soon enough, but off topic, if you ever wondered, the term “homo sapiens” is Latin and stands for “wise man” (well, that’s sexist!) – it was introduced in 1758 by Carl Linnaeus. In effect, this guy named his own species which, of course, hasn’t happened to any others in history (except giraffes).

Anyway, our historian sets the scene with lively prose for these early years of humanity (and he does use “humankind” on the front cover, which is a positive step) and lays forth the arguments for our success (it’s thanks to our brains, basically). This is followed by analysis of the agricultural revolution (12,000 BCE), human unification, and the scientific revolution (1,500 BCE).

In short, he examines the scientific arguments for why humans have come to structure the world around them in the way we do; political beliefs, nationalism, human rights, religion, and culture – what has this provided us with and, more importantly, what is the future for the species?

Provocatively, he suggests homo sapiens will be extinct within 1,000 years. We’re not raging misanthropes here, but as tyrannical humans have a propensity to ascend to power through demagogues and corruption, coupled with the damage big business is wreaking on the globe, it does mean things don’t look bright and shiny. However, don’t let this put you off reading this excellent book – it’ll provide you with plenty of hope thanks to the achievements of intelligent humans who dug up all these astonishing facts about our history.

Yuval Noah Harari

Highly active in the cultural and scientific communities, Harari has since written Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow (2016). It’s that uncanny, and quite rare, ability to turn complex topics into page turning, bestselling material that makes him stand out. Right now, Carlo Rovelli is doing the same thing in the world of physics with books such as Seven Brief Lessons on Physics and Reality Isn’t What It Seems.

Despite some accusing him of being contradictory at times, and a Guardian review of the book accused him of sensationalism, he is always interesting to listen to (as you can hear in his interesting comments in the clip above). More recently, in April 2018, he stated sugar to be more deadly than gunpowder. What do you think?

There’s also been an adaptation of Harari’s book to the stage (rather impressively, we must admit). It started off its run in Edinburgh last year and is now showing in London, where it’s met with strong reviews. We’re not sure if it’ll be going further afield, so folks from non-UK nations (or whatever the nomenclature is) may just have to make do with the book. Enjoy.

4 comments

  1. I just bought ‘Sapiens’! Today. Have been meaning to get around to buying and reading it for a while – your post convinced me I should get cracking. Man, I wish I could write a book like it. You know, million seller and all that (actually it’s writing a book with the ‘million seller’ bit, as opposed to any specific subject matter, that appeals to me…)

    Liked by 1 person

    • Oh good, yeah I think you’ll like it. You know a lot more about this than I do, but from my perspective, as a layperson, I discovered a lot of new facts and just really enjoyed it.

      Well, I think it’s great something like this became a bestseller. Much better than 50 Shades being up there! But, obviously, every writer wants to see themselves up there at #1 on the book stands, but it happens to the very few and a lot of the time, I should imagine, it’s quite unexpected.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Yes, getting a best-seller is like winning the lottery, only more unlikely. The trick is breaking out of the usual readership into the general public, which 50 Shades managed (unfortunately) as did The Of Vinci Code (also unfortunately…) The secret to exactly how remains unknown even to publishers. I’ve had a couple of my titles end up in the top five in the NZ non-fic lists – one, weirdly, on engineering – but that’s rare (it didn’t get to No. 1, a slot occupied exclusively here by cookbooks and sports biographies). My publishers, Random House, sent me a bottle of bubbly. Oddly, my best-selling book ever, an illustrated history of New Zealand, never did much in the best-selling lists but has been a steady plodder since 2004 – now into its second edition and publisher.

        Liked by 1 person

        • It does seem to happen at random. I sometimes get the impression publishers don’t really know what’s going to sell well and they’re nervous. Anyway, getting a literary agent is my first goal!

          I mean it’s astonishing 50 Shades became the phenomenon it did, given it’s pretty dreadful as well. I can understand a series like Harry Potter making it, though, but did anyone predict Sapiens was going to be a smash hit?

          Sounds great on your work, I hope there’s more success ahead! The key is to keep writing really, isn’t it? Very enjoyable process as it is, plus it can be highly rewarding.

          Like

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