Book Review: Sapiens

I’m always a bit skeptical of “popular science” books. For every Bill Bryson’s A Short History of Nearly Everything there seems to be a Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers. Not that Gladwell’s books are bad - I find them enjoyable reads and enjoy the anecdotal stories. But that seems to be what most of the conclusions are drawn from - anecdotal evidence that is then percolated around as all-encompassing fact (much like the 1,000 hour rule). Sapiens starts off with a some broad generalizations that suggest it’s headed toward the Gladwell route, but it ended up growing on me quite a bit. I read about two-thirds of this book in a single sitting (though that may have been due to the 7-hour flight from Ireland I was on).

Yuval Noah Harari, the author of Sapiens, iterates through all of “Sapien” history from the soloensis, erectus, ergaster species of the Homo genus through the Cognitive Revolution of 70,000 years ago in which Homo sapiens developed primal tools, language, and myths. He continues to the Agricultural Revolution (more on that in a bit) 12,000 years ago to the Scientific Revolution beginning a mere 500 years ago. Hariri waxes on our modern trends, describing the advent of capitalism and it’s effects on the current state of affairs.

Much of the content of Sapiens I had no prior knowledge about - I don’t completely blame this on my own naviety (although I’m sure that’s a contributor) but that the volume of history this book includes is massive as well as the direction of the knowledge imparted on me throughout my western-centric education. Sapiens attempts to span the entire course of human history. Thus, many details are glossed over for the sake of keeping the book a reasonable size, but Hariri has a knack for zooming in at the right moments and keeping an engrossing cadence through the book. Often I found myself enjoying Hariri’s synopsis of a historical event or trend and noting that I needed to follow up with a deeper investigation independent of this book.

Sapiens seemingly touches on everything, but some of my favorite parts were discussions about the effects of macro trends on various minor trivialities of modern life - for example, exact time keeping was an afterthought in most pre-modern societies. There was often one central location at which time was kept in a community, and communities would often run on their own time - for example, in the late 18th century each British city and town had its own local time which would differ up to 30 minutes from London. When the Industrial Revolution-era steam-powered trains began to operate at longer distances in quicker durations the various local times became quite frustrating for published train schedules. In 1880, the British government finally decreed that all towns must follow Greenwich time, becoming the first country in history to adapt a national time and force all citizens to follow it.

Another one of my favorite insights Harari draws is that simply the admittance of ignorance primed the discovery of scientific technologies and paved way for the age of imperialism in Britain and Western Europe. I took for granted today’s trends for thirst of discovery of new knwledge and the relentless pursuit of improvement, as well as the unyielding hope that tomorrow will be better than today if we work at it. Hariri points out that this is a recent phenomenon - that for most of Common Era people assumed that the best days of history lied behind them, not in the future! The simple observation that religion or other supernatural factors did not provide all the answers prompted scientists and curious citizens to engage in the discovery of new information. Paired with capitalism, Western Europe was primed to expand beyond its borders and embark on a period of engaging and spreading their culture through earth. European’s thirst for knowledge encouraged expansion under the motivation of the noble quest for knowledge. This may explain why western European culture had exclusive focus in the newly discovered lands of the America’s. Other expeditions by the Chinese explorer Admiral Zheng He reached the eastern coast of Africa, but the Chinese had no interest in expanding beyond their local area, much like the rest of Asia and Muslim world.

The human story presented in Sapiens is a diety’s view on all of human history focusing on many of the pivotal changes and individual peculiar events. Harari does a commendable job presenting situations in an objective manner; many of Hariri’s discourses were surprising yet convincing and offered a perspective opposite of mine. Many of the historical instances described I had never heard of, which I attribute to my western- and American-centric education. It’s certainly worth another read, and it’s an incredibly eye-opening look at history as a whole that describes who we were, where we came from, and what direction we’re headed in.