[2022-06-30] “Sapiens”

Sapiens” is a book on the history of humankind by Yuval Noah Harari. It tries to show why humans, and not any of the other animals on Earth, came to dominate the planet, sometimes to the detriment of other species on the planet that are driven to extinction. It is a reasonably engaging work of non-fiction, but I am surprised that it has become so popular.

The author attributes the success of humankind to four major “revolutions” in its history: the Cognitive Revolution, the Agricultural Revolution, the Unification Of Humankind, and the Scientific Revolution. The Cognitive Revolution started around 70,000 years ago and allowed humans to develop imagination, to invent language to communicate with each other, and to live in tight-knit communities. The Agricultural Revolution started around 12,000 years ago and made humans give up their nomadic hunter-gatherer ways and permanently settle into larger and larger communities like villages, towns, and cities. The Unification Of Humankind started around 5,000 years ago and made humans invent money, create more sophisticated religions, and build large empires. The Scientific Revolution started around 500 years ago and saw humans make technological leaps to conquer the planet, explode in population, converge on capitalism, and live in nuclear families.

The book is certainly ambitious for the breadth of topics it covers and its wide sweep over history, science, economics, biology, etc. However, for the most part there are no new insights that a modern well-read reader would not have come across otherwise. Where there are bold new claims, there is not much evidence to back them except hand-wavy assertions. For example, it is not at all obvious to me that the lives of the nomadic hunter-gatherers was better than the lives of the later farmers. As another example, it is not that clear that a willingness to admit ignorance among the Europeans is what led to the scientific revolution and the consequent technological progress that made Europe leap-frog other continents in development and reign supreme over them.

The author does not shy from broaching sensitive topics like religion, race, gender, sexuality, colonization, climate-change, etc. while discussing why some set of humans seem to have succeeded more than others. However, they end up discussing these topics in a way that seems to pander more to political-correctness than to having a dispassionate scientific discourse backed by incontrovertible evidence. This was off-putting even when I agreed with the assertions of the author.

The book is much longer than it should have been. The author keeps making the same points again and again in slightly different ways. On the other hand, the book has copious in situ illustrations and photographs that enliven the prose. It also provides bibliographic notes at the end of the book for each chapter in the book so that curious readers can enter their own rabbit-holes of further research. The last chapter of the book is its weakest, with wild speculations about the evolution of humans involving genetics, bionics, artifical intelligence, etc.

In short, I do not get why this book has become so popular and has been praised so much by so many famous people. It is not a bad book, but it is not a great book either. It is an enjoyable read if you do not expect too much from it.

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