Book Review: Sapiens

Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind

by Yuval Noah Harari

2015 Harper Perennial

If you watch a lot of football, the soccer variety, you may hear an announcer say, “that was ambitious!” when describing an especially difficult shot, one from great distance or with an unlikely chance of making it into the net. Yuval Harari’s book Sapiens is “ambitious” in that sense. Reading the book you marvel at his writing skill and the breadth of both his topic and knowledge. Reading it is like admiring an ambitious footballer making an unlikely goal. You admire his technique, marvel at his ability, but typically the descriptor “ambitious” is an indicator that despite all those qualities, the shot missed the goal.

His most interesting thread is the weaving together of the major revolutions of history (Cognitive, Agricultural, & Scientific) with the notion of imagined realities, “something that everyone believes in, and as long as this communal belief persists, the imagined reality exerts force in the world…Ever since the Cognitive Revolution, Sapiens have thus been living in a dual reality. On the one hand, the objective reality of rivers, trees and lions; and on the other hand, the imagined reality of gods, nations, and corporations” (p. 32).

Unfortunately, he is harsh regarding the imagined reality of gods, but not so with the imagined realities of nations and empire, specifically capitalism and imperialism. I felt left wanting some expression of “imagination” on new ways of creating more just, broad imagined realities that would serve Sapiens moving forward.

His chapter on The Discovery of Ignorance is outstanding.

Harari wavers between the descriptive and proscriptive, in a random and unclear fashion. I can’t tell if it is purposeful or simply an indicator of something making him feel the need to moralize. Ultimately this fuzziness of intention in the work fails him in his conclusion where he offers no direction forward, only an oddly dystopian view of extinction with a warning:

“If the curtain is indeed about to drop on Sapiens history, we members of one of its final generations should devote some time to answering one last question: what do we want to become?”

p. 413

“The only thing we can try to do is to influence the direction scientists are taking. But since we might soon be able to engineer our desires too, the real question facing us is not ‘What dow we want to become?’, but ‘What do we want to want?’ Those who are not spooked by this question probably haven’t given it enough thought”

p. 414

“Is there anything more dangerous than dissatisfied and irresponsible gods who don’t know what they want?”

p. 416.

As evidenced by the middle quote above, the book uses “probably” and “might,” & “maybe” too many times. Much of his sweeping viewpoint is subject both to his generalizations about history and his desire to apparently want to write a descriptive book with scattered and random proscriptions that have very little substantive thought as to a way forward. Since this is part of a trilogy, I imagine he spends more time covering this question in Homo Deus, it would have made me want to read that book more if he had left more breadcrumbs in Sapiens.

Overall, I recommend this book. I wish it had been more decisive and clear with regard to the distinction between descriptive passages and proscriptive passages. I was left with a weird mix of feeling really fascinated and hopeful about humanity despite our flaws, to a feeling that he was saying it doesn’t really matter but we better talk about it.

Photo by Hammad Siddiqui on Unsplash

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