Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind (Book Review)

Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind (Book Review)

Sapiens got me from the first page. Having been very well recommended by a friend, the bar was set high from the start, but it's easy to understand why. Yuval Noah Harari describes the compelling, eloquent, sometimes harsh but always fascinating journey of the evolution of Homo Sapiens as a biological species - how it has spread, dominating virtually all the planet - ending today, where we stand.

The timeline of History in the first page reads like a travelling guide before going to some country for the first time. By getting to know how our ancestors lived thousands of years ago, we can understand the (many) similarities we share with them, the decisions we made in our evolutionary steps and how we have (or haven't) learnt from the mistakes we made.

Sapiens travels throughout the history of Humankind, highlighting three main events:

The Cognitive Revolution

“There are no gods, no nations, no money and no human rights, except in our collective imagination.”

Yuval Noah Harari, Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind

The first big event in the lifespan of Homo Sapiens was the Cognitive Revolution - how the evolution of imagination enabled complete strangers to cooperate effectively based on the belief in imagined entities.

Harari defends that our species dominates the planet because it is the only one able to cooperate effectively in large numbers. This rises from the unique ability of believing in things that exist only in our collective imagination - such as gods, money, nations or human rights.

This revolution happened ~70 thousand years ago and kicked off Sapiens' domination over the other existing Homo gender species (Neanderthals, for instance) as well as the further conquest of all Earth's species.

The Agricultural Revolution

“This is the essence of the Agricultural Revolution: the ability to keep more people alive under worse conditions.”

Yuval Noah Harari, Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind

The Agricultural Revolution is tightly connected to the evolution of farming. The domestication of animals or the experience on crops and plantations triggered an explosion in population growth, which lead to the appearance of cities, kingdoms and empires.

As stated in the quote, this revolution allowed the survival of more beings under much worse conditions than their ancestors: foragers and nomadic specimens were free to eat what they wanted, walk where they felt like and had no obligations towards imagined entities, whereas agricultural settlers ate always the same food, were restricted to their city/kingdom/empire's territory, paid taxes, prayed to their gods and sometimes even enslaved themselves for "greater values".

This exponential growth encouraged the development of social hierarchies (many of them still playing an important role in today's society), as well as the appearance of concepts as religions, empires or coinage, as mechanisms that helped Homo Sapiens dealing with this growth - not always in the best way possible.

The Scientific Revolution

“The Scientific Revolution has not been a revolution of knowledge. It has been above all a revolution of ignorance. The great discovery that launched the Scientific Revolution was the discovery that humans do not know the answers to their most important questions.”

Yuval Noah Harari, Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind

During many years, humans lived alone, or in small communities, unaware of the spread of their own species. When two empires met, they usually fought and the winner would take the other empire's territory, vanishing the cultural reminiscences of the first - Darwin's survival of the fittest principle at its maximum power.

Living many years under the same principles and stimuli, human beings began to nurture a feeling that they knew much about the world. With the main source of knowledge being the wisdom of the eldest books and traditions, it could perhaps seem unreasonable to think that those books and traditions would be missing any piece of knowledge, or that the planet could yet have secrets to reveal.

The Scientific Revolution came to change this way of thinking. Having been triggered around 1500 AC by the two most powerful empires in the world at the time (the Spanish and the Portuguese), it brought a simple change to the human mindset - "we don't know everything". This simple assumption was the basis of Colombus or Vasco da Gama's travels, and launched the human species into a spiral of discoveries and inventions have made the Homo Sapiens evolve more in the last 500 years rather than in the 75000 years before that.

Where we go from here

“Is there anything more dangerous than dissatisfied and irresponsible gods who don’t know what they want?”

Yuval Noah Harari, Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind

The spiraling crescendo that the human species has been experiencing over the last years has taken Homo Sapiens to a whole new level. We are more and more able to control the environments and the circumstances surrounding us, empowering each being with the possibility of changing the world (be it for the best or the worst reasons).

The most important lesson that I take from reading Sapiens is the importance of considering the historical perspective in every situation. This book has certainly made me want to find my place within society and within the Humankind and History in general, as well as taking advantage of the cultural revolution that we live nowadays. If we learn from our past mistakes, we certainly have reasons to smile towards what the future holds.

If you found Sapiens interesting, you might also be interested in its follow up, Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow. I know I am! Hope you liked this post, see you next time!

Henrique Pacheco