Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind by Yuval Noah Harari is a great big book. It’s one of those books that covers an awful lot of ground. The closest relative I can think of is Guns, Germs and Steel by Jared Diamond.
I knew this book was going to be a great, big read when my friend Stephen Lynch recommended it to me. Stephen is a wonderful source of ideas about what books to read. He’s one of the smartest people I know, and one of the best readers. When Stephen recommended the book as something I’d like and mentioned that he was “working through it,” I knew I was in for a big adventure.
Sapiens is a long book. I found that it was best for me to read part of the book and let what I had learned bounce around in my head before I read the next part. When I tried reading it the way I read most books, right straight through, I just missed too much.
The author says that he is writing a brief history of humankind, I’m not sure what it is brief in relation to. The timeline begins 13.5 billion years ago, when matter and energy appear, runs through the present and out on into the future.
He divides that timeline into four parts. The first one he calls “The Cognitive Revolution.” Next comes “The Agricultural Revolution,” which he also refers to as “History’s Biggest Fraud.” Part three is all about the “Unification of Humankind.” And the book wraps up with “The Scientific Revolution.” That section begins with “The Discovery of Ignorance” and runs through “The End of Homo Sapiens.”
There is no way that any review can do justice to either the breadth or the depth of this book. Nevertheless, let me share a couple of things that my notes tell me were most striking to me.
I learned that for a long time, there wasn’t just one human species, there were several, just the way it is with most species today. The fact that there is only one human species today is the exception, not the rule.
The book reinforced some things that I already knew. The author tells us that the maximum natural size of a group bonded by gossip is about 150 individuals. That same number with a slightly different definition is referred to as Dunbar’s number, and indicates the maximum size of a group where people can know each other and maintain stable relationships.
According to Harari, the Cognitive Revolution was a big deal because it freed humans from the need to depend on biology for adaptive change. That’s why we don’t have one way that humans live, but we do have lots of cultural choices.
In part two, the author talks a lot about the brain and intelligence. One of his insights is that in the brain, all data is freely associated but that once it leaves the brain, thinking happens in different ways. Writing not only changes what we can remember but the way we think. In a particularly insightful place, for me, he says that mathematics is a system of writing and “the world’s most dominant language.”
Another either restatement or additional proof for something that I already knew occurs in chapter thirteen, “The Secret of Success.” There the author says “It is an iron rule of history that what looks inevitable in hindsight is far from obvious at the time.”
Part four, “The Scientific Revolution,” is about the way we are now and the way Harari thinks we will be. One of the most fascinating predictions is that by 2050, some scholars think that some humans will become a-mortal. That word means that because of medical or other interventions, the only thing that would kill an a-mortal human would be a fatal accident.
If you like big, “brain stretcher” books, you will probably love Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind. The range is broad, and the learning on display is deep and varied. If you’re looking for a quick summary of anything, this will not be a book you want to read.