Review: Sapiens – A Brief History of Humankind

sapiens

We aren’t the only humans.

Well, we are now, says author Yuval Noah Harari, but that hasn’t always been true. The word ‘human’ he explains, means ‘an animal belonging to the genus Homo‘. Other humans throughout history have included Homo rudolfensisHomo erectus, and of course, Homo neanderthalensis.

How did it come to be that a lone human species – Homo sapiens – went from the underdog to the only surviving species in just 100,000 short (by evolutionary standards) years? What is it about US that made us more successful than THEM?

In tackling what could be a very dry subject,  Harari expertly navigates the waters of education, humour, and interest. Throughout the book he discusses theories, facts, and reframes history in ways that make you question the basic tenets of our species. In an early example in the book, Harari posits that humans didn’t domesticate wheat – wheat actually domesticated humans.

“Think for a moment about the Agricultural Revolution from the viewpoint of wheat. Ten thousand years ago wheat was just a wild grass, one of many, confined to a small range in the Middle East. Suddenly, within just a few short millennia, it was growing all over the world. According to the basic evolutionary criteria of survival and reproduction, wheat has become one of the most successful plants in the history of the world.”

“How did this grass turn from insignificant to ubiquitous?”

“Wheat did it by manipulating Homo Sapiens to its advantage. This ape had been living a fairly comfortable life hunting and gathering until about 10,000 years ago, but then began to invest more and more effort in cultivating wheat.. Within a couple of millennia, humans in many parts of the world were doing little from dawn to dusk other than taking care of wheat plants. It wasn’t easy. Wheat demanded a lot of them. Wheat didn’t like rocks and pebbles, so Sapiens broke their backs clearing fields. Wheat didn’t like sharing its space, water and nutrients with other plants, so men and women laboured long days weeding under the scorching sun. Wheat got sick, so Sapiens had to keep watch out for worms and blight. Wheat was defenseless against other organisms that liked to eat it, from rabbits to locust swarms, so the farmers had to guard and protect it. Wheat was thirsty, so humans lugged water from springs and streams to water it. Its hunger even impelled Sapiens to collect animal faeces to nourish the ground in which wheat grew.”

In Sapiens, Harari covers the entire history of our species, from our early days foraging on the African plain to a theoretical future of genetically engineered humans that may even grow beyond Homo sapiens. The book is broken up into four parts: The Cognitive Revolution, The Agricultural Revolution, The Unification of Humankind, and The Scientific Revolution. As he travels through time, he discusses our transformation from hunter-gatherers to agrarian societies and then from the village to the empire, and finally, as masters of the atom.

This is a history book, of sorts. Harari discusses the factors that unified humankind (money, imperialism, and religion) and the revelations that kicked off our greatest age of discovery and led us to launch sapiens to the moon and then theorizes where our species may be heading into the future. Each of these sections is enhanced with real, entertaining stories from history. Sapiens has the feel of an academic text, but is as entertaining as a novel. As I read the book I often burst out to those around me “Listen to this! I had no idea!” You may not agree with all of his conclusions, but they will certainly spark interesting conversations.

Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind doesn’t get bogged down with the trivial details that made your anthropology textbook so dull. Harari weaves together a rich story that will make you question many of the things that you thought you knew about your own species, while also helping to make sense of some of the more unusual things that we all deal with on a day to day basis.

This book is a must read. I came across it because it was on a few reading lists (including Bill Gates’ list) and I’m very happy to add it to my bookshelf. I suspect that I will be buying multiple copies of the book to give to friends as we discuss the ideas and conclusions that Harari lays out over the course of 416 pages.