Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind | Yuval Noah Harari | Nonfiction, History | 2015
Because I’m a little behind on reviews, I’m going to write these next few ones on the short side (unless I get carried away, of course). I’m a tad embarrassed I haven’t read much over the past year and a half, and now that I’ve finally finished my MBA I’ve tried to make up for it by finishing four books I’ve had on my list for a while. So let’s get going!
I’d been looking for an educational read for a while, something that’d improve my general knowledge (non-business) and make me feel smart just by reading it. Sapiens was that plus more. Although it took me quite some time to complete, I enjoyed reading Sapiens and the bird’s eye view it gives of our comparatively short existence of our time on this planet.
As the title implies, Sapiens offers an overview of the history of mankind; our growth from a single-celled organism, to the biologically complex beings we are today. In addition to covering our physical and psychological changes, Harari discusses various socio and economic phenomena that have influenced the chain of events that is our history.
This book offers a lot, and it’s not something you want to power through. You can break it up chapter by chapter, but I wouldn’t recommend going any shorter than that. Each chapter is themed and draws from interconnected ideas; if your memory tends to leave you as mine does, try to at least finish a chapter in one go. Sapiens is well-written and presents different topics on humankind in a way that probably hasn’t been done as neatly before, and I can see why it’s a best-seller.
I’ve noticed that Harari is really good at presenting information and coming to a conclusion. In some of the non-fiction books I read I get a lot of information thrown at me and am left to synthesize it myself. Whilst I don’t mind doing that, I appreciated how clearly Harari made his conclusions and I knew exactly what the key takeaways were for each section.
There were several times when I came across something really interesting that I wanted to make sure I kept (I really should have written these down as I went along!), and the organiser within me admires the way it’s all presented. When we study history in school we learn about different events, how to avoid past mistakes, blah blah blah, but this book did a really good job of tying everything, the entire existence of humans, together, and showing how something seemingly harmless and unrelated has altered the course which we had taken. A lot of how we’ve evolved has happened by the environment and random occurrence, etc., but there’s a pattern of change that can be seen, which makes the future all the more exciting.
Some of the information was just mind-blowing, for example, the increasing rarity of the next world war, how more people seem to have died for religion (holy wars, crusades) than for any other reason (funny, because so many religions advocate peace), and how ocean-locked country’s aboriginals came to their particular land by being lost at sea, simply floating on bits of wood though the ocean.
I really enjoyed the philosophical twists that Harari seemed to add to each of his lectures. For many, many years, decades, centuries, people have pondered ‘happiness’ and how to attain it. Harari presents research-backed evidence that happiness is less about what you have, and more about your attitude, i.e. being content with what you have. I thought this was an interesting point to make because being happy with what you have can stunt long term growth. What if all of history’s greatest inventors had been happy with the way things and processes were done, and decided not to improve on them? Could happiness be tied to complacency?
One thing’s for sure, there were many challenging ideas in Sapiens and as with most things, you should read with an open mind and be sure to both question the material and be comfortable with having your own beliefs challenged.
Is it for you?
I really enjoyed this book and have recommended it to several of my friends, family members, and colleagues. For the lack of a better, non-buzzword, Sapiens was thought-provoking and an overall good read. I still think about some of the concepts today, and as someone who’s interested in psychology and human nature, I’ve learnt so much about how our history as sapiens has influenced our thinking, culture, society, and how it will continue to do so in the future.