Friday, March 10, 2017

Book Review: Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, by Dr. Yuval Noah Harari

Dr. Harari is an Israeli historian and tenured professor at the Department of History of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. He is best known for his international bestseller Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind. It has been translated into more than 30 languages, the book won the National Library of China's Wenjin Book Award for 2015.

For me, this book was like a followup or Volume 2 of Jared Diamond's Guns, Germs and Steel. Interestingly enough Harari even claims that Diamond's book was an inspiration for his book.

I felt like Diamond's book answered a lot of the big questions of the human story. However, his final explanation about why Europe instead of China seemed somewhat lacking to me. The East-West axis of Eurasia included the Middle East, North Africa and India as well as Europe and China. Diamond does attempt to answer this also based on geography, but his explanation doesn't quite satisfy me. Did not China have as many resources in their geographical location as Europe did? So if it boils down to pure geography and available resources then why Europe and not China? Perhaps Mesopotamia's climate had changed, become drier and no longer had the resources it had in earlier times. But weren't there as many resources in India and China as there was in Europe? My gut feeling was that Diamond's advantageous geography was only the first part of the answer. There then had to be something about the culture that gave Europeans the advantage over other areas with similar resources. And I think that Harari has the answer. It was the culture of Europe that boosted it over not just China, but India and Southwest Asia, although he really doesn't call it culture. But for me, Sapiens now seems to complete the full story that began with Diamond's book.

This book, spanning a larger time frame than Diamond's, covers all the way from archaic human species up to the twenty-first century. One of Harari's main points is that humans are the only species capable of cooperating in large numbers. This is primarily due to our ability to  believe in things that exist purely in our own imagination, such as gods, nations, money and human rights. You might think that something like nations or money are real but you need to read his arguments to understand how they really are not. They are basically human created ideas that we all trust and believe in which creates the ability to consider them the same as if they are real.

I like the way he divides human history into four major time periods:
  1. The Cognitive Revolution began when homo sapiens began new ways of thinking and communicating, between 70-30 thousand years ago. This is when they left Africa and began to spread around the world.
  2. The Agricultural Revolution began 10-12 thousand years ago when homo sapiens first learned to cultivate wild grains and domesticate animals.
  3. The Unification of Humanity began long before the discovery of America by Columbus as there was extended trade among the nations of the Old World for hundreds of years. But since about 1500 Globalization began in earnest. Today we often think of Globalization as rather new. But it is a long term trend measured in hundreds or even thousands of years.
  4. The Scientific Revolution is more recent - perhaps only a few hundred years. Once mankind stopped believing that they knew every thing and discovered ignorance as Harari says, they looked for answers and were curious about what was over the horizon or just why things were the way they were. Although some inventions originated in China or Arabia, it was the Europeans who took it even further. Almost all the recent profound scientific inventions came from the West.
When the other large centers of civilization such as the Ottomans or Chinese were uninterested in expanding, nations of Europe had a mindset (which I call a culture) that drove them to explore and conquer. Harari explains how it was in Europe that people were interested in exploration, conquering, colonization, invention, scientific learning and capitalism that brought them to global dominance. After reading the details, I simplify this in my mind to a single word: culture. The culture of the Ottomans and Chinese did not encourage exploration, colonization, invention, etc. You need to read the book to get a clearer understanding of how this all happened.
Sapiens focuses on key processes that shaped humankind and the world around it, such as the advent of agriculture, the creation of money, the spread of religion and the rise of the nation state. Unlike other books of its kind, Sapiens takes a multi-disciplinary approach that bridges the gaps between history, biology, philosophy and economics in a way never done before. Furthermore, taking both the macro and the micro view, Sapiens conveys not only what happened and why, but also how it felt for individuals. [Yuval Harari's personal website:]

Here are some links to help you learn more:

TED Talks by Dr. Yuval Harari:

Cumberland Family Software:

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