The very idea that a young Israeli military historian could encapsulate two and a half million years of human history in one volume requires chutzpah. The breathtaking ambition of Professor Yuval Noah Harari’s Sapiens has been crowned with well-deserved acclaim and success. Now an international bestseller, it has been translated from the original Hebrew into over 30 languages. Over 100,000 students all over the world have taken Harari’s massive open online course based on this work.
Harari’s eyes are on the big picture. He plots a succession of revolutions over the course of the 70,000 years it took for homo sapiens to develop from an animal of no significance to the present would-be deity: language, myth, agriculture, industry, money, credit, religion, empire, science.
He argues that following the cognitive revolution, sapiens created the fast lane of culture, and thereafter changed at an accelerating pace. Other species (including our cousins within the human family such as Neanderthals) plodding along at the pace set by evolutionary time, could not adapt, with fatal consequences.
Intriguingly, Harari is sufficiently scientifically equipped to apply facts and methodologies drawn from biology, zooarchaeology, technology, statistics and other academic disciplines to his arguments. No doubt one can find more nuanced and detailed accounts of such topics as mythology and economics, but few as exhilarating. Harari will no doubt encounter defensive turf warfare from academics who will resent a historian intruding upon their specialisms, let alone one who makes large generalisations rather than modest observations. This witty work demonstrates that is a special skill, and a powerful one, to simplify a complex body of knowledge and to venture bold, far-reaching judgments.
Harari’s arguments are often provocative. He challenges many assumptions, such as the naive belief in human progress. So for example he will not accept that the agricultural revolution improved our lot: without sentimentalising the forager lifestyle, he asserts that we defrauded ourselves some 10,000 years ago when we exchanged the roving life (which humans in the wild had pursued for over two million years) for the crushing load of homes, farms, heaps of stuff, the stress of planning for the future, and becoming the indentured slaves of our crops and herds. He asserts that wheat domesticated man, not vice versa.
To understand macro-historical processes Harari enlists large surveys rather than individual stories. That could be a cold and distant – almost inhuman – vantage point, but he typically then pulls focus to show the impact of changes like the industrial revolution and imperial conquests on the happiness and wellbeing of all the sentient creatures affected, not merely Europeans, nor just the elite, nor men only, nor adults only, nor humans only. This is historiography at its most ethical and humane.
Harari acknowledges the limits of our knowledge, and understands how modern science’s admission of ignorance became the engine of creative growth. He is adept at spotting ironies and paradoxes. Looking to the imminent future possibility of sapiens being displaced by genetically designed human beings (for those who can afford enhancement) he comments, “Our late modern world prides itself on recognising, for the first time in history, the basic equality of all humans, yet it might be poised to create the most unequal of all societies.”
Inevitably, the high-octane intellectual rush of this project cannot be sustained at the same level throughout the 400 pages of this magnificent work. Several paragraphs in the last chapters fail to persuade, but – as Harari mordantly remarks – those who are not spooked by some of the questions he raises simply haven’t given them enough thought.
“Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind”, Yuval Noah Harari (London: Harvill Secker, 2014); translated by the author (with help of John Purcell and Haim Watzman) from the Hebrew.
Daniel Eilon is an intellectual property lawyer and former literature lecturer living in London and Jerusalem.
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