Sapiens is the sort of book that sweeps the cobwebs out of your brain. Its author, Yuval Noah Harari, is a young Israeli academic and an intellectual acrobat whose logical leaps have you gasping with admiration. That said, the joy of reading him is not matched by any uplift in his message, which is relentlessly accusatory and dismaying ... Mostly, though, Harari’s writing radiates power and clarity, making the world strange and new. His central argument is that language has not just made us top animal, it has also enmeshed us in fictions ... Humans, Harari observes, are the only animals that believe in vastly powerful entities that they have never seen, touched or smelt, and that is language’s fault ... Harari has his own contradictions. He makes predictions while declaring that prediction is impossible. He argues that history is a 'chaos' while treating it as a system of cause and effect. But such blips should not deter readers from treating themselves to this mind-stirring book.
The fact remains that the history of sapiens – Harari's name for us – is only a very small part of the history of humankind ... Can its full sweep be conveyed in one fell swoop – 400 pages? Not really; it's easier to write a brief history of time – all 14bn years – and Harari also spends many pages on our present and possible future rather than our past. But the deep lines of the story of sapiens are fairly uncontentious, and he sets them out with verve. Harari swashbuckles through...vast and intricate matters in a way that is – at its best – engaging and informative ... 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 There's a kind of vandalism in Harari's sweeping judgments, his recklessness about causal connections, his hyper-Procrustean stretchings and loppings of the data.
Children often still learn history as a tedious parade of names and dates. Sapiens is the antimatter version of this kind of history, all sparkling conceptual schemas and ironic apothegms, with hardly a Henry or Louis or Philip in view ... Nobody can be an expert about everything, and it’s not exactly surprising that Mr. Harari’s sweeping summations are studded with errors—there are always fleas on the lion, as a teacher of mine once told me. The question is whether there is a lion under the fleas. Sapiens is learned, thought-provoking and crisply written. It has plenty of confidence and swagger. But some of its fleas are awfully big ... There’s a whiff of dorm-room bull sessions about the author’s stimulating but often unsourced assertions. Or perhaps I should use a more contemporary simile: Sapiens reminded me occasionally of a discussions on Reddit, where users sound off about supposed iron laws of history. This book is what these Reddit threads would be like if they were written not by adolescent autodidacts but by learned academics with impish senses of humor ... I like the book’s verve and pop but wish it didn’t have all those fleas.
As a historian, Yuval Harari...belongs to the school founded by Jared Diamond...in applying scientific research to every aspect of human history, not just the parts for which no written accounts exist. In truth, Harari uses less science than Diamond. He emphasizes the difficulty of knowing in detail the lives of our remote forebears and is often content to say – of topics that are being urgently investigated by the more forensically inclined – 'frankly, we don't know'. His ideas are mostly not new, being derived from Diamond, but he has a very trenchant way of putting them over ... Not only is Harari eloquent and humane, he is often wonderfully, mordantly funny ... later sections seemed weaker, but in the last chapter the brio returns as Harari considers what humankind – who developed culture to escape the constraints of biology – will became now that it is also a biological creator. Sapiens is a brave and bracing look at a species that is mostly in denial about the long road to now and the crossroads it is rapidly approaching.
... takes readers on a sweeping tour of the history of our species ... Throughout the book, Harari’s formidable intellect sheds light on the biggest breakthroughs in the human story. Yet numerous parts of Sapiens reflect an inner conflict between the author’s freethinking scientific mind and a fuzzier worldview hobbled by political correctness. On the one hand, he champions cultural relativism by arguing that 'history declared its independence from biology' at the time of the prehistoric Cognitive Revolution. On the other hand, he asserts that human behavior is governed by genes and biochemical algorithms...
How humans became human
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By Avi TuschmanMarch 13, 2015
Avi Tuschman is an evolutionary anthropologist and the author of “Our Political Nature: The Evolutionary Origins of What Divides Us.”
A Brief History of Humankind
By Yuval Noah Harari
Harper. 443 pp. $29.99
Yuval Noah Harari is an emerging rock-star lecturer at the nexus of history and science. In a recent talk at Google on “Silicon Prophets,” he stunned the audience by convincing them that the most interesting place in the world today in religious terms is Silicon Valley and that “techno-religions” will replace liberalism’s cult of the individual as big data overwhelmingly surpasses the predictive power of our feelings and intuitions.
Harari’s thinking is amplified in his new book, which has quickly become an international bestseller. “Sapiens” takes readers on a sweeping tour of the history of our species. The author structures this ambitious journey around three momentous events that have irrevocably shaped the destiny of humankind: the Cognitive Revolution, the Agricultural Revolution and the Scientific Revolution.
‘Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind’ by Yuval Noah Harari (Harper)
The Cognitive Revolution arose from the evolution of the massive human brain. Harari ponders the considerable energy cost of maintaining such an expensive thinking organ and the concomitant atrophy of our physical strength compared with other primates’. He correctly points out that it’s not entirely obvious what first spurred the development of our species’s extraordinary intelligence.
On the origins of language, however, Harari is more certain: It evolved as a way for social animals to gossip about other people’s reputations. In addition, language allows people to communicate about abstract concepts such as religion. And religion, in turn, bonds people together and permits cooperation among much larger populations than chimpanzee troops can sustain.
Our hunter-gatherer ancestors were not always cooperative, though. Harari stays well-balanced by citing the high level of violence among prehistoric populations and present-day foragers such as the Aché of Paraguay. He also admonishes readers not to take the romanticized view that our ancestors lived in harmony with nature, because we have been, since our earliest days, “the deadliest species in the annals of biology.” Within only 2,000 years of humanity’s arrival in the New World, indigenous peoples drove to extinction 84 of the Americas’ 107 genera of large mammals — all before the invention of the wheel, writing or iron tools.
Next, Harari walks readers through the Agricultural Revolution. About 10,000 years ago, our ancestors began to spend nearly all their time domesticating a few plant and animal species. Like Michael Pollan, Harari argues that these plants manipulated people into dramatically expanding their habitats and multiplying their genes. In return, these species did the same for sapiens, although monoculture produced unhealthy diets, sedentarism and farm animals spawned more infectious diseases, and most people had to engage in back-breaking labor at the bottom of a steeply hierarchical social pyramid. Thus, Harari wittily describes the Agricultural Revolution as “history’s biggest fraud.”
With pith and awe, the author defines the Scientific Revolution as the point in history when “humankind admits its ignorance and begins to acquire unprecedented power.” This scientific progress, he asserts, was fueled by the twin forces of imperialism and capitalism. Rather than conquering only neighboring territories as did imperialists past, Europeans broke with convention by setting out for distant shores to conquer uncharted land and gain knowledge. The British, for example, not only surveyed the natural resources of India but also “took the trouble to collect information about rare Indian spiders, to catalogue colorful butterflies, to trace the ancient origins of extinct Indian languages, and to dig up forgotten ruins.”
Harari recounts, with more wonder than moralization, how the “military-industrial-scientific complex and technological wizardry” led to a period of European dominance, followed by the globalization of science and its power. He puts into perspective the truly awesome feats that humans have accomplished over the 500 years since the Scientific Revolution, such as discovering microorganisms, splitting the atom and landing on the moon.
Harari then muses on where our species is headed. He considers genetic engineering, artificial intelligence and the possibility of the “singularity,” when technology may intimately integrate with or overtake us. This clear-sighted section foresees a future that will surely challenge our notion of humanity. In an especially insightful moment, the author wonders whether the story of Frankenstein, and its moral that natural humans are obviously superior to any cyborg, may be simply a comforting myth.
Throughout the book, Harari’s formidable intellect sheds light on the biggest breakthroughs in the human story. Yet numerous parts of “Sapiens” reflect an inner conflict between the author’s freethinking scientific mind and a fuzzier worldview hobbled by political correctness. On the one hand, he champions cultural relativism by arguing that “history declared its independence from biology” at the time of the prehistoric Cognitive Revolution. On the other hand, he asserts that human behavior is governed by genes and biochemical algorithms...This confusion resurfaces numerous times ... Much like some of the new-atheist science writers, he disregards how individual differences in religious practice significantly affect fertility rates and reproductive patterns. For those of us taking evolutionary approaches to the social sciences, Harari underestimates how intimately our genes and physiology influence our moral emotions. His cultural relativism also leaves him unable to explain why gender inequality has changed substantially over the course of human history, even though the important phenomenon has predictable causes ... important reading for serious-minded, self-reflective sapiens.
Despite publishers’ initial skepticism toward Sapiens, its success can’t be called a fluke. Readers have long exhibited an appetite for sweeping surveys of world history ... Sapiens appeals to this old-fashioned appetite even as it revamps the genre to address the dreams and fears of a 21st-century audience ... Harari...makes an unsettlingly nervy, cerebral successor to Clark’s suave Oxbridge accent and Bronowski’s grandfatherly bristling silver eyebrows. He has come not to congratulate us for our achievements, but to deliver some inconvenient truths ... Unlike... serenely authoritative 20th-century history summarizers, he’s frank, even humble, about what the available data can’t tell us. This makes him seem more scrupulously scientific and less like someone selling a party line ... Chastened by the spectacle of social media and big data mobilized to manipulate voters and sow tribal division, Harari now sounds the alarm ... Whether he can sway the tech moguls and Hollywood types who adore him to take greater responsibility for their actions is hard to say, but at least he’s trying and, at least for now, they’re listening.
...entices the readers from the first page and flows well, connecting lots of information in an interesting way ... I appreciated Harari’s willingness to be speculative where others generally are not ... Sapiens is different than a traditional history book in the way that it seeks to explain history through the lens of different significant ideologies and concepts rather than events. It asks why things happened in relation to various forces and questions them thoroughly rather than merely saying that they happened ... Harari shows the reader that human history is, perhaps, chaos. There’s no real answer to anything or any way that things are supposed to be; it’s really how you see it all that matters.
Writing with wit and verve ... Harari questions whether human progress has led to increased human happiness, concluding that it’s nearly impossible to show that it has. Harari is provocative and entertaining but his expansive scope only allows him to skim the surface.
Educators who argue that students need more than ever to see a global all-encompassing history might applaud the publication of Sapiens or they might condemn it as too abbreviated. The prose sometimes does come across as too casual, simplistic, and even flippant. Harari writes with terse, modern, simple, short paragraphs suitable to Internet-era attention span. The author does present the important ideas punctuated with brief, relevant examples given ... Sapiens can produces thought on the things that matter and in manageable bytes to anyone. Although designed for a popular audience Sapiens is also for the new student of the broadest history imaginable. The accidental as well as the deliberate reader will have to think—and that means much in the 21st century.