2015 Reading Journey: Sapiens

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Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind by Yuval Harari

24042563The full title is important. Covering the entire history of the human species in a single book is ambitious and can’t be done if you spent too much time in one spot, chronologically.

But this isn’t just a history book. It’s also a book filled with opinions that often seem stated in order to provoke controversy or at least discussion. Some examples:

  • ecological destruction is the human way
  • there must be a reason for male dominated cultures, but the 20th and early 21st century women’s rights movements and accomplishments blew every theory out of the water
  • communism, capitalism, and so on, are effectively religions, insofar as they provide strong belief systems and structures
  • theist religions are dying
  • humanism = the worship of homo sapiens
  • colonialism wasn’t all bad, though people certainly suffered

Now, whether these are actually opinions of the author or questions designed to provoke the reader into emotional responses leading to thought and discussion, well, I’d probably suggest the truth is a mixture of the two. Harari does a good job of dragging the emotional response from us and the thought quickly follows, whether we agree with him or not. And he does present evidence and source material to help us think deeper.

We’ve gone through three revolutions as a species, according to the author: Cognitive, Agricultural, and Scientific. In between the latter two, we experience the “Unification of Humankind”, just not in the way you think.

The author shows us a heavy link between scientific advancement and European imperialism, how the ever-starving for growth beast of capitalism makes the world go around, how and why stock markets came to be, how a completely free market is a bad thing (but communism is worse), how the industrialization of agriculture creates incredible suffering, how the social fabric of society has shifted over time, and a variety of other things.

Mainly, he shows us how we’ve evolved as a species, physically and genetically at first, but mainly socially. And he’s very careful to say evolved instead of advanced. The author’s opinions shine through that he doesn’t always believe that’s the case.

There is plenty of history here, but there’s also plenty of interpretation. Whether the author has the correct interpretation of any given event, milestone, or movement is certainly up for debate, which he comes very close to admitting a number of times throughout the book, but his interpretations are uniformly interesting and thought provoking. And often worded to be deliberately controversial.

That doesn’t change even in the final paragraphs of the book. If the last chapter is a futurist view of things that may be shortly coming down the medical and technological pipelines, a look at how we are about to become our own designers, then the afterword, “The Animal that Became a God”, is a potentially controversial cap on the book. We’ve moulded the whole planet to suit ourselves, to varying degrees, but have yet to accept any responsibility for the moulding and still don’t have a clear idea of what we should be doing or grow into.

And Mr. Harari wonders if we’re more dangerous than ever. It’s a reasonable question.

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