Sapiens: A brief history of humankind by Yuval Noah Harari

This is one of the most dense books I’ve read in awhile. It’s not actually that long compared to some other nonfiction history books, but it has a lot of history, ideas, and thoughts. Probably too many ideas.

I really liked the start of the book. After reading the Jean M Auel series, I have been more interested in human kind’s life pre-Agricultural Revolution. This book presents what life could have been like for early hunter gatherers including an exploration of the Cognitive Revolution. Early homo sapiens were not that different from us and genetically the same. They were intelligent and had their own complex system of beliefs, rituals, and relationships. They were clever hunters. The extinction of megafauna coinciding with homo sapiens migration is a sobering reminder of human consumption and survival.

The author posits that human beings likely fell into a luxury trap to start the Agricultural revolution started. Humans wanted to live an easier life with food they could grow, raise, and control, but things in agricultural civilizations were likely harsher than hunter gatherer life. The debate about if the Agricultural Revolution was wholly good for human kind is one I’ve seen in other history books. Harari made a case hunter-gather life could have been more idyllic when compared to a modern low income worker. This goes to the ethics of capitalism and human consumerism. Even now, humans are constantly prey to the luxury trap. We’re socialized to it. However, we can’t really turn back on the Agricultural, Scientific or Industrial Revolutions.

As the book progressed more into modern history, it started to remind me of uni and grad school. I took classes on political science, philosophy, history, and economics. There was some very academic lecturer moments in the books which made it a tad dry as I was more familiar with some of the concepts. On the whole, I think the author did a good job of distilling history and economic theories into more simple accessible stories and examples. It was accessible for the most part.

The book showcased the link between new world exploration, colonialism, and the scientific revolution. Even now, science is often the result of people looking for profits rather than for pure knowledge. It also makes the point that money and modern economic system is about trust. “Money is the most universal and most efficient system of mutual trust ever devised.” For better or for worse, money does not discriminate while human societies have and will continue to have discrimination in some form. It does not mean that money should not have an ethical component. Human beings are the ones who have to question and formulate the ethics around money and capitalism.

The author briefly discusses modern time and the economy of labour and value which was also discussed more in detail in the Bullshit Jobs book. I still think it is odd how human labour is measured this way. As a freelancer and consultant, I am paid more by time than anything else. People do not compete tasks by the hour necessarily either. It’s a funny concept of modern economics.

Overall, I quite like the book. It had a lot of interesting theories and discussions about history. The information was easy to understand. As a historian, he has his own ideas and views. He did offer a couple of less mainstream ones for the reader to consider. That’s a good thing about a history book. The last few chapters of the book were a bit haphazard as the author discusses the idea of human happiness and less concrete ideas of human history. This part of the book seemed aimless and less researched. Still, I thought the book had some thought provoking ideas and discussions.

Read June 3-18, 2020.

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