Book Review: Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind by Yuval Noah Harrari

Updated on February 7, 2019

In the modern world, the number of books is growing rapidly. The level of authors whose personality, thoughts and ideas worthy of attention increases every day. Doubtless, one of the most famous scientific works of the last couple years is Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind by Yuval Noah Harari. Currently, this book is on the must read list of every book lover, every college student, who study social sciences, as well as their professors, every person who are really into sociology, politics, economics, anthropology, psychology or history. The Guardian listed Sapiens among the ten «best brainy books of the decade». Concurrently, it has its deserved place on The New York Times best-seller list and won the National Library of China's Wenjin Book Award. Since first publishing in 2011 till nowadays Harari’s work has been translated into more than 40 languages.

Sapiens as a great scientific work, helps to expend personal horizons of world views and perceptions, rise above own convictions, as well as above entourage, social surroundings and country. Acquaintance with this book allows you to look at yourself in a wider context of social transformations and economic changes.

Essentially, in his work Harari considers a history period of 70 000 years and analyzes how such humankind as Sapiens succeeded in evolving «from Animals into Gods». By searching the answer to this question the author approves that the main reason that lead to such a transformation lies into 3 great revolutions in human history.

1. Cognitive revolution. On Harari’s opinion, modern people made the first step in becoming the Lord’s of contemporary world due to their ability to unite into large groups, what became possible by dint of language and propensity to creation of social myths. He pays special attention to the importance of correct interpretation of basic concepts and scientific categories, which are used in his work. In particular, correct understanding of «social myths» as collective beliefs, special ideas. The author outlines the concept of social myth as a story that plays the role of specific social bundle. To these myths he refers religions, ideologies, laws, money etc. That’s important to understand that this notion doesn’t contain negative connotation, it’s simply an idea, which exists on the intersubjective level in the imagination of many people. By the same token, social myths exist as long as a certain number of people believe in them, for example such a myths as a idea of christianity or capitalism.

2. Agrarian revolution. It’s a well known fact that during this particular revolution, people from hunters turned into farmers. To this day in the world there are many points of view and evaluation of the results of this revolution. Besides Harari personally sees mainly negative side of it, at the same time he recognizes that it was a great success from the point of view of evolution, the main criterion of success of which consists in the distribution of as many DNA molecules as possible. As a result of agrarian revolution, human population has significantly increased. Furthermore, the transition to agriculture leaded to the development of writing, languages and arts. From his side, Harari defines this revolution as a colossal, but unavoidable mistake. He writes that perhaps it wasn’t us who domesticated crops, but crops that domesticated us. Also, it’s important to mention that during this historical period the division of labour first made appearance.

3. Scientific revolution. The principal idea of the scientific revolution is the idea of progress. In this part of the book Harari offers the theory, which explains that the main reason why the economy did not develop before the scientific revolution is the lack of people’s faith in the future. For example, such as human invention as a credit is one of the oldest in history, but author assumes that in the past people didn’t use it because they did not believe that their future would be much better than the present. In contrast, with the advent of the idea of progress, faith in the future appeared. In consequence of that people began to take out credits, which led to the development of enterprises and the growth of economies. Harari in this chapter mainly analyzes contemporary economic theories. He refers to Adam Smith’s work «The Wealth of Nations» to explain readers his point of view. This book promotes selfishness as the highest form of altruism, what basically is the principal idea of modern capitalism. Harari insists that nowadays capitalism and consumerism are the most successful world religions. To illustrate it he says: «The capitalist–consumerist ethic is revolutionary in another respect. Most previous ethical systems presented people with a pretty tough deal. They were promised paradise, but only if they cultivated compassion and tolerance, overcame craving and anger, and restrained their selfish interests. This was too tough for most. The history of ethics is a sad tale of wonderful ideals that nobody can live up to. Most Christians did not imitate Christ, most Buddhists failed to follow Buddha, and most Confucians would have caused Confucius a temper tantrum. In contrast, most people today successfully live up to the capitalist–consumerist ideal. The new ethic promises paradise on condition that the rich remain greedy and spend their time making more money and that the masses give free reign to their cravings and passions and buy more and more. This is the first religion in history whose followers actually do what they are asked to do. How though do we know that we'll really get paradise in return? We've seen it on television.»

Aside from this central idea of Harari’s work, there are a whole bunch of author’s thoughts, ideas and explanations, which merit the reader’s attention. Harari offers his thoughts on a very wide spectrum of things such as biological justification of social phenomena, money ontology, ideas of empire and eurocentrism, world religions, essence of history and its determination, chaotic systems of the first and second level, cultures and globalization, modern Game Theory, concept of happiness, consequences of western colonization of the world, major weaknesses of capitalism, patriotism and constant variability of modern society, liberal politics and the influence of many historical events on the formation of the realities in which we live today.

Among that wide range of ideas and concepts, which «Sapiens» contains, special attention deserve author’s reasonings about money more like psychological conception, but not like a material reality as is customary believed. Yuval Harari claims that money usually works by converting matter into consciousness. And as far as people believe in the outcome of their collective imagination, faith is the basic material from which all varieties of money are carbed. Author is sure that by its nature, money is inherently the system of collective faith and it is the most universal and the most effective system of faith invented in the entire history of humankind, it is the most universal and most efficient system of mutual trust ever devised. The creation of this particular trust is based on rather complex and long-term networks of political, social and economic relations. Then scientist raises logical question: why do people believe in the dollar? After what he gives a simple answer to it − because their neighbors believe in it. Later on, Harari compares human’s faith in money with faith in God among the major world religions. In conclusion, he says that Christians and Muslims who could not agree on religious beliefs could nevertheless easily agree on a monetary belief, because whereas religion asks us to believe in something, money asks us to believe that other people believe in something. He also is concerned with the ontology of money: «For thousands of years, philosophers, thinkers and prophets have besmirched money and called it the root of all evil. Be that as it may, money is also the apogee of human tolerance. Money is more open-minded than language, state laws, cultural codes, religious beliefs and social habits. Money is the only trust system created by humans that can bridge almost any cultural gap, and that does not discriminate on the basis of religion, gender, race, age or sexual orientation.»

Another interesting phenomena Harari analyses, is the modern Game Theory, which explains how, in a multi-participant system, attitudes and behaviors that are harmful to all players manage to spread. Here he references to a well-known example − the arm race. Many states participating in the race of the armed forces go broke, but did not achieve a change in the balance of power. As a noteworthy example, Pakistan buys new generation of aircrafts - India, too. India builds nuclear weapons - Pakistan is not far behind. Pakistan is increasing its fleet - India responds by kicking back. As a result, the balance of power has been maintained, but billions of dollars have been spent not on health care and education, but on weapons instead. The question here is: how didn't the Indians and Pakistanis immediately understand this? Of course, they understood everything since very beginning. But as Harari says the dynamics of this competition can never be broken. «Arms race» is a type of behavior that, like a viral infection, is transmitted from country to country, without bringing benefit to anyone but itself.

In Sapiens it's also interesting to observe how the author find out the disadvantages of capitalism. Finally, the author came with the conclusion that when some religions, such as Christianity or Nazism, have killed millions out of burning hatred. Capitalism has killed millions out of cold indifference coupled with greed. He writes that the transatlantic slave trade hasn’t increased with racist hatred for Africans. Individuals who bought stocks, brokers who sold, and managers of slave companies generally rarely thought about them, as well as the owners of sugar plantations. Capitalism is mainly based on indifference and nothing more.

Summarizing the above, Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind by Yuval Noah Harari is a book, which deals with big themes. Unequivocally, this book will lead everyone to their own thoughts and make you think about many things about our world order.

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    © 2019 Anna Veduta

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      • Volodymyr Buchanevych profile image

        Volodymyr Buchanevych 

        7 months ago

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