Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind Paperback – 30 Apr 2015
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"I would recommend Sapiens to anyone who’s interested in the history and future of our species" (Bill Gates)
"Interesting and provocative… It gives you a sense of how briefly we’ve been on this Earth" (Barack Obama)
"Jaw dropping from the first word to the last… It may be the best book I’ve ever read" (Chris Evans)
"Tackles the biggest questions of history and the modern world… Written in unforgettably vivid language" (Jared Diamond)
"Startling... It changes the way you look at the world" (Simon Mayo)
"Sapiens is a starburst of a book, as enjoyable as it is stimulating" (Sunday Express)
"One of the best books I’ve read recently… Gives an excellent overview of how our species has developed" (Lily Cole)
"Sweeps the cobwebs out of your brain… Radiates power and clarity, making the world strange and new" (Sunday Times)
What makes us brilliant? What makes us deadly? What makes us Sapiens? This bestselling history of our species challenges everything we know about being human.See all Product description
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Harari sees the origin of extensive social organisation in the human ability to handle ‘fiction’ i.e. ‘There are no gods in the universe, no nations, no money, no human rights, no laws and no justice outside the common imagination of human beings’ (P. 29). Isn’t that the development of conceptual thought, based on linking discrete objects by extraction of perceived qualities, leading to such developments?
Beware of the author’s love of statistics (e.g. pages 178, 247 and 366). Today we have computerised ‘bean-counters’ which MAY have a degree of currency; as regards previous periods it’s guesswork. So on P. 247 in 1500 he states ‘ABOUT 500 million’ as the world population who produced an ESTIMATED $250 billion worth (‘today’s dollars’) and ‘consumed about 13 trillion calories of energy per day’. He starts with a guess and extrapolates into dream world. This operates throughout the book e.g. on P. 367 ‘In decentralised kingdoms of medieval Europe, about twenty to forty people were murdered each year for every 100,000 inhabitants’ BUT population estimates vary considerably, with no trustworthy mortality estimates (review studies of the 14th century Black Death for that) and with no proper law enforcement virtually anywhere so you could probably multiply his estimates by 10 in SOME places and SOME years and be just as accurate.
History is an INTERPRETATION of past events / experience of humans. Beware that Harari may appear definite when certainty is impossible – e.g. the chronological relationships between Sapiens and Neanderthal etc. variants. In his descriptions of especially, to use a term he dislikes, ‘Pre-History’ look for the modal verbs (e.g. may, might, could, should, would) and certain adverbs (e.g. perhaps, possibly, maybe) which betray uncertainty; here’s an example: ‘Fishing villages might have appeared on the coasts of Indonesian Islands as early as 45,000 years ago’ (P.48) but can this statement be supported by EVIDENCE?
Often Harari produces stimulating insights– e.g. ‘The real difference between us and chimpanzees is the mythical glue that binds together large numbers of individuals, families and groups. This glue has made us the masters of creation’(P. 38) or ‘Ever since the Cognitive Revolution’, there hasn’t been a single natural way of life for Sapiens’(P.45). He asserts that ‘at the individual level, ancient foragers were the most knowledgeable and skilful people in history’ and is PROBALY right. He rightly says about this period (which he labels the ‘Cognitive Revolution’): ‘It is vital to ask questions for which no answers are available, otherwise we might be tempted to dismiss 60.000 of 70.000 years of human history with the excuse that “the people who lived back then did nothing if importance”’ (P. 61). That is THE key argument in the book: Homo Sapiens has proved most effective (for good or ill!) when challenging the unknown and in the process appears as an ‘ecological serial killer’(P.67). Later he extends this to challenge ‘traditional’ history which concentrates on a ‘tiny minority of elites – kings, government officials, soldiers, priests, artists and thinkers – who fill the history books. History is something that very few people have been doing while everyone else was ploughing fields and carrying water buckets.’(P. 101) and is probably right too but is there an alternative analysis which offers sensible answers?
‘Progress’ is not always clear cut. After c.10,000 BCE) ‘the average farmer worked harder than the average forager, and got a worse diet in return. The Agricultural Revolution was history’s biggest fraud’(P.79). Why? Harari insists ‘a handful of plant species, including wheat, rice and potatoes... domesticated Homo Sapiens, rather than vice versa’ (P. 80), claiming that, from skeletal evidence, human physiques suffered from agricultural toil. Foragers could move on but farmers could not: farming punished the individual but fostered the community. But he forgets the chicken and the egg – human population had grown so it needed greater stability ergo agriculture (and much later ergo industry). Sometimes he uses the modern world to help explain its predecessor as with humans becoming trapped as ‘luxuries tend to become necessities and to spawn new obligations’(P.87) and such may produce misleading analogies. He may jump to questionable statements – such as the structures at Gobekli Tepe (in Turkey) dated c. 9500 BCE being built by foragers (PP. 89-91) when the illustrations would suggest the skills of a dedicated work-force ill-suited to a hunter-gatherer community?
There’s a lengthy section flitting between HISTORICAL and PHILOSOPHICAL examinations of the ‘human condition’. This starts with comparing Hammurabi’s Code (c. 1800 BCE),with its ‘eye-for-an-eye’ justice in a rigidly differentiated society, and the US Declaration of Human Rights (1776),’ employing the principle of “all men are created equal”’. He criticises both as being merely based on the ‘fertile imagination of Sapiens’(P.109). Does he exaggerate? I might argue that far from liberty only existing in people’s imagination (as he does), it stems from such statements as ‘No man shall be arrested or imprisoned..... except by the lawful judgement of his equals ....”(Magna Carta :Cl. 39 enforced in 1215 and later the basis of Habeas Corpus in 1679) ; in other words, it forms part of that understanding forming the basis of a human society which enjoys a kaleidoscopic existence throughout time and place.
By now the reader might have noticed the inclusion of assertive declarations – e.g. the text accompanying Illustration 19 starts with ‘Kushim..... may be the first individual in history whose name is known to us...’ and ends with ‘The first name in history belongs to an accountant’. In this way Harari covers the introduction of writing and numeracy (c. 3400 BCE onwards) stressing its use in economic and bureaucratic situations. Why? Because he’s obsessed by the ‘objective’, by the ‘biological’ aspect of Homo Sapiens and so other uses of writing - e.g. sacred texts (NB ‘Hieroglyphics’ means ‘Sacred Writing’), stories and poems – are ignored as, being derived from oral delivery, they ‘would have lived on even had writing never been invented’ (P.127). Really? Would we now know as much about classical mythology or Icelandic sagas if they hadn’t been preserved in manuscript form, and how much is known of such aspects of non-literate cultures (even by the indigenous populations) today? Homo Sapiens bothering to write down such material might suggest they’re more than a biological entity.
The author deals with social stratification (mainly through India and the USA) stating that ‘Unfortunately, complex human societies seem to require imagined hierarchies and unjust discrimination’ (P.136) – note both ‘Unfortunately’ and ‘unjust’ (or just) involve value judgements, concepts he might consider invalid re’ a biological entity. So cut them out (plus ‘imagined’) and we have ‘complex human societies seem to require imagined hierarchies and discrimination’ which seems reasonable. Plato in ‘Laws’ wanted to fix citizen numbers to 5040 so all could participate in government. Modern states are far bigger and, just as Harari argues data needs filters to be effective so does power, hence hierarchies and discrimination required for effective functioning – revolutions occurring when such become parasitic or dysfunctional. Throughout these pages Harari slips out of History and into various social sciences (Political Philosophy (or even Ethics), Anthropology, Sociology and Psychology).
Harari turns to that aspect of complex human society called ‘culture’ which he says is a ‘network of artificial instincts’. Surely that’s not right. An instinct is an unlearned response inbuilt in an organism and he’s dealing with LEARNED processes – i.e. norms which should be developed through socialisation. When the author discusses contradictions as being ‘an inseparable part of every human culture’ (P.165) I thought he was about to examine Toynbee’s ‘Challenge and Response’ explanation for the rise and fall of societies, but I was wrong; he was turning to the INDIVIDUALISED problem of cognitive dissonance.
The author argues that history has seen a drastic reduction in the number of discrete ‘worlds’ occupied by Sapiens, perhaps overplaying the argument. In 1450 he states ‘90% of humans lived in a single mega-world..... Most of Asia, most of Europe and most of Africa .... were already connected by significant cultural, political and economic ties’. However, look how the reactions to the works of Marco Polo (true), Hakluyt (mainly true) and Sir John Mandeville (largely false) throughout Europe betray a continued fragmentation of knowledge. Even so he insists contemporary unity has been secured through economic, military and belief forces.
Harari provides an excellent account of the rise of money – barter, coin or electronic. However, a History should at least mention such slip-ups on the way as the early 16th century inflation deflationary effects of coinage debasement by rulers illustrating how value depended on the actual metallic content of coins in exchange so coins might split legitimately as well as clipped illegally – and the cyclical nature of prosperity by speculation in ‘invisible’ wealth.
He describes the impact of imperialism – with its self-justification and cultural effects –very well, including the absorption of subject peoples into the imperial systems of Rome, China and the caliphates. Empires come and empires go in accordance with the Mandate of Heaven. What he omits is that attitudes to Empire also come and go – e.g. the British Empire in the 19th century was a ‘good thing’( to use Sellar’s term) but in the 20th century became a ‘bad thing’. Then there’ve been ‘trading empires’, such as the 15th century Venetians or 20th century USA (or are they ‘market’ forces), or ‘cultural empires’, such as 18th century French and 20th century Anglo-American or are they ‘belief’ forces . But, to be fair, this is attempting to be a BRIEF History.
Harari stresses the role of religion as a binding force in the march of Sapiens towards unity, adding that polytheism proved far more tolerant than monotheism. However, doesn’t evidence suggest that may been because world most religious activity occurred outside the worship of the main pantheon of gods.
Unfortunately, here again we slip off the path of History on to that of comparative ideologies/ religions . The author starts with Buddhism before dealing with the ‘new natural-law religions, such as liberalism, Communism, capitalism, nationalism and Nazism’ (P. 228) Quite honestly, the only link I can see for Buddhism with that lot is that all end with ‘ISM’. Harari concludes modern biological studies have not identified a soul (ergo it doesn’t exist, but whoever thought it ever could be located?) and wonders ‘how long can we maintain the wall separating the department of biology from the departments of law and political science.’ (236). And we enter fantasy land where we find ‘there seems to be no insurmountable technical barrier preventing as from producing superhumans’ (P.403) to ‘the real potential of future technologies is to change Homo Sapiens itself, including our emotions and desires (P. 411). I might refer Harari to Genesis 11:3-8 but, from the last few pages I think he’s already been there.
Anyway, somehow we recover History albeit MetaHistory in the form of change, distinguishing between ‘how’ and ‘why’. Harari states that ‘Those who have only a superficial knowledge of a certain period tend to focus only on the possibility that was eventually realised. They offer a just-so story to explain with hindsight why that outcome was inevitable, Those more deeply informed about the period are much more cognisant of the roads not taken’ (P. 238). I quite agree. ‘Sapiens’ is a typical ‘just-so story’ stressing how Homo Sapiens finds its destiny through Science – ultimately, as far as what is left of HISTORICAL thought in the rest of the book is concerned, as fostered by State and Market finding the money to tackle the Ignorance challenging the heir of the Cognitive Revolution
What did I find missing in this magnus opus? Humankind is the SPECIES called ‘Sapiens’, part of the GENUS called ‘Homo’ which is a tiny part of the KINGDOM of ‘Animalia’ but there is no simple chart showing the classification stages (e.g. FAMILY) in-between, just to get a sense of perspective. The author quickly jumps to the ‘Cognitive Revolution’ (c. 70,000-30,000 BCE) where Sapiens acquired the basic mastery of his environment. He stresses the brain but ignores the contrapuntal thumb (so essential for the creation and manipulation of tools) or the complex ‘voice-box’ (required for the subtleties of language he lauds as a key component in that revolution). Then in HISTORY feudalism is ignored, a European-American viewpoint is overplayed , and certain key activities glossed over (e.g. deflationary coin debasement by the State, medieval intellectual transmission and the VARYING status of gender, literacy, age in different cultures. In the final sections (and OUTSIDE genuine historical discussions) when stressing the unity of the ‘world’ of Homo Sapiens I think he overlooks ‘electronic multiple-communications’ (to coin an expression) whereby whatever states and markets try to determine through mass communications is being undermined by global emails and social media with both positive and negative effects.
In the end I reminded myself of one phrase Harari uses on P.61 - ‘no answers are available’ and decided this applied to much of the book –others would disagree. It’s crammed full with interesting details, illustrations, speculations and arguments. It’s easy reading and thought provoking and I’d recommend it. But it misuses statistics, omits lots of relevant material while including pages of IRRELEVANT details and remains caught within its credo that Homo Sapiens is a biological entity. Initially I would have awarded it 5 stars (largely on the breadth and vigour of its treatment) but then I cut the assessment down to 4 stars (due to omissions and irrelevancies) but finally the warnings given above force me to give it only 3 stars.
There are many, many errors, so I will confine myself to illustrating the problems across only 3 or 4 specific pages (70% in on my Kindle). He says "There are many types of steam engine but they all share one common principle. You burn some kind of fuel, such as coal, and use the resulting heat to boil water, producing steam. As the steam expands it pushes a piston." Except not all steam engines work this way, specifically the first steam engines about which he is talking. These worked (for good reasons) by condensation vacuum instead. He goes on the explain that the availability of steam engines 'revolutionised textile production'. Textile production was revolutionised almost entirely using water power (pre-1800 more then 90% of mills were run from water power), contradicting the exact point he is making. Next page 'Henceforth, people became obsessed with the idea that machines and engines could be used to convert one type of energy to another" Eh? A weird idea, unconnected with any 19th century obsession.
So I'm cross. He talks such utter rubbish in areas I know about it is only safe to presume he does so in other areas (and I have found plenty more such errors, just from general knowledge) so I have wasted my time completely in reading this book and may also now recall something later, thinking I got it from a reliable source but be mistaken because I got it reading this waste of space. An utter waste of time to be avoided.
However, in fairness to at least one of the critics, the Guardian's reviewer, Galen Strawson, had the following to say: "Much of Sapiens is extremely interesting, and it is often well expressed. As one reads on, however, the attractive features of the book are overwhelmed by carelessness, exaggeration and sensationalism. Never mind his standard and repeated misuse of the saying "the exception proves the rule" (it means that exceptional or rare cases test and confirm the rule, because the rule turns out to apply even in those cases). There's a kind of vandalism in Harari's sweeping judgements, his recklessness about causal connections, his hyper-Procrustean stretchings and loppings of the data." I'm glad someone mentioned this, rather than just propagandising this book.
For quite some time I was very much looking forward to reading this book, particularly from the way it was described and reviewed it sounded like it would be an excellent read and a good overview of the history of humanity, however I have never picked up a book and felt so disappointed as I have reading this one. I confess, I was not able to finish reading it because I couldn't bear it, for the reasons stated above. As other reviewers on this page have pointed out the book contains poor English and very lazy explanations of topics on which the author clearly lacks an in-depth understanding - it is most definitely a bad sign when a well-read reader with a general interest (i.e. someone without a PhD in History from Oxford or background as a professional academic specialising in world history, like the author) can spot elementary mistakes in the author's own explanations. Throughout this book the author's narrative arrogantly conveys a sense that he thinks he knows everything, because he is a 'specialist' in such a broad field, but I suppose if it demonstrates anything it's that 'a jack of all trades is a master of none'.
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