One hundred thousand years ago, at least six different species of humans inhabited Earth. Yet today there is only one—homo sapiens. What happened to the others? And what may happen to us? Most books about the history of humanity pursue either a historical or a biological approach, but Dr. Yuval Noah Harari breaks the mold with this book that begins about 70,000 years ago with the appearance of modern cognition. From examining the role evolving humans have played in the global ecosystem to charting the rise of empires, Sapiens integrates history and science to reconsider accepted narratives, connect past developments with contemporary concerns, and examine specific events within the context of larger ideas.
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.