Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind (Book Review)

Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind (2014) by Yuval Noah Harari is a bold, panoramic, and subversive book about the history of mankind. The sprawling book starts with the advent of man on the historic arena as ‘an animal of no significance’ and the book ends with Homo sapiens standing ‘on the verge of becoming a god, poised to acquire not only eternal youth, but also the divine abilities of creation and destruction.’ In writing this book, Harari has acknowledged the influence of another original book, Guns, Germs and Steel: The Fates Of Human Societies (1997) by Jared Diamond.

According to Harari, four different signposts mark the human history: the Cognitive Revolution, the Agricultural revolution, the Unification of Mankind, and the Scientific Revolution. The Cognitive Revolution which began about 70,000 years ago made human history free of biology. Our language evolved and we started talking and imagining things that do not exist in reality, like Nation and Religion. Telling stories about unreal things that millions believe in: religion, corporations, nations, is what has given Sapiens immense power. Language helped achieve cooperation between total strangers to build cities, nations, religions, & corporations. Sapiens wiped out the other species of humans including the Neanderthals in the first instances of ethnic cleansing. After all tolerance was never the hallmark of the wise man, the sapiens.

About 12,000 years ago, sapiens moved from hunter-gatherer to the farmer stage. The agricultural revolution stopped our nomadic existence but gave us a vast ‘cornucopia of psychological complexes’.  Man domesticated animals and plants, but in turn was domesticated by them. Harari calls Agricultural Revolution as history’s biggest fraud, a Faustian bargain because farming made our lives miserable. It led to violence and cruelty towards the domesticated animals; and it caused exploitation of the farmers and the consequent anxieties and neuroses.

On the backbreaking labour of the farmers and the domesticated beasts started the long process of unification of mankind and colonization of the Earth. Military power, wars, bureaucracies, organized religions were some of the ways by which mankind was unified into nations and religions. Religion, empires and money were the three great unifiers of humankind. The process of unification was based on imagined hierarchies and unjust discrimination.

About 500 years ago, the scientific revolution began. It is based on the dictum Knowledge is power as stated by Francis Bacon .  Modern science is dynamic, supple and inquisitive because it acknowledges collective ignorance and seeks to find answers. Science, capitalism and empire are intertwined. The dominance of Europeans after 1850 was due to their military–industrial–scientific complex and technological wizardry. The future according to Harari is bleak and unpredictable with man’s quest to become god by seeking immortality, through Genetic engineering. It is like playing Dr Frankenstein.

Harari calls nations as borders drawn haphazardly in sand. What is happiness? What do we want to become? What do we want to want? Harari asks us to think about these questions. He says we are living in an era of peace. But this present age is the one where the capitalist-consumerist ethic dominates. This is the age where man is indifferent towards the cruelty of meat and farm industry and the rampant ecological degradation. We’ve become slaves of time and perhaps on the verge of becoming a-mortal cyborgs. Yet, future of sapiens remains unpredictable in these revolutionary times.

Harari paints the entire history and the diverse concerns of mankind in this important book. The book is characterized by epigrammatic terseness and lucidity of thoughts. The first half of the book, where he paints the vast primeval arena with its genocide of the other human species, the conquering of the elements, extinction of the Australasia megafauna, the comparison of various religions, and the life and thoughts of Buddha is audacious and lyrical. The second half of the book reflects the bias and opinion of Harari, and at times appears repetitious. Religion, capitalism, sexuality, gender, humanism, biology, science, nations, corporations, culture, economics, farming, history – from the topics traversed by the book it appears sometimes that Harari has taken far too wide a canvas to paint, and the brush is too broad to paint the delicate details.

Yet, the book is a must read for all the puzzles and polemics, the thoughts and visions delineated virtuoso-like by the writer. It is a book meant for reflection in these uncertain times, when terrorism, nuclear Armageddon, and intolerance dominate the global discourse.

More Books Like this:

  1. Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow
  2. Mastering Modern World History
  3. The Clash of Civilization and the Remaking of World Order
  4. Guns, Germs and Steel: The Fates Of Human Societies

© 2017 Bhupendra Singh


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