Book Review: Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind

Sapiens Cover Image

Yuval Harari’s Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind was known to me for a while as a book of interest, but I hadn’t given it a serious look. I generally avoid the droning, long and tedious history books in favor for more recent and topical themes. After finishing The Disaster Artist, I was looking for my next read, and Sapiens was staring me face to face at an airport bookstore. Now that I’ve finished, I’ll offer some of my thoughts.

Harari split the evolution of human history into the following four very sweeping revolutions or eras (per Wikipedia):

  1. The Cognitive Revolution (c. 70,000 BCE, when Sapiens evolved imagination).
  2. The Agricultural Revolution (c. 12,000 BCE, the development of farming).
  3. The unification of humankind (the gradual consolidation of human political organisations towards one global empire).
  4. The Scientific Revolution (c. 1500 CE, the emergence of objective science).

Sapiens is written in very easy-to-read prose. I can imagine Harari speaking these words and punching up the many jokes he’s peppered through the text. This isn’t meant to be a long, dry, meandering trip through our long history. In fact, as I read, I found that Brief History’s presentation of our own past flows quite smoothly through the different eras and changes he describes about the subject: Us, Homo Sapiens. For those that aren’t planning to read 3,000 page volumes on the settlement of “X” country, Sapiens offers a very accessible entry point to understanding some of our fundamental history.

The book is perhaps its own worst enemy. There are several sweeping generalizations, and much of the history presented gets passed over very quickly. I have read other reviewers note how facts are often false or presented in a misleading way, but I haven’t seen any clear examples of that (yet). Others say the book is simply “unserious” or not “intellectual”. I also expect some of the ideas in this book will not age well, but it may just be the nature of this ever-changing topic of history. Some of the claims are clearly over-generalized or even at odds with other ideas (he states that early Sapiens were best with a variety of dietary needs and later implies how our flesh-eating may be a bad thing).

I also know Harari himself is a vegetarian. When reading the book, he set himself up well for positioning the vegetarian argument, but did not hit us over the head with it. Much appreciated also was the lack of choosing sides religiously or regarding specific conflicts. He describes God as a myth many times, and if you’re a religious person, this alone may be an affront. The details offered here don’t shoot down or prop up any particular religion or state view directly though.

But, what Harari does manage to do is open our eyes to the modern world that rarely look at, much less view it in the way he presents. This, for many, will be a real eye opener; for that sake I won’t spoil the fun. But, I can be sure you’ll consider that one of the book’s bigger positives. For Harari’s easy writing, we’re treated to a new way of looking at our world, and that’s worthwhile. In the extremes, Sapiens may set you on a path to existential reflection, and that too is worthwhile.

As indicated by the many glowing reviews on Amazon; people love this book. It’s a bestseller, and it speaks to us in some ways that maybe Harari hadn’t intended. One of the more interesting lessons of the book leads us closer to “real” things, and further away from “imagined” ones. What this means to you might vary, but the lesson is no less strong throughout the book’s theme.

I had purchased the book in Ireland, and it perhaps was the European edition. When I found the same book in Canada, I noted passages that were different in some parts, added or removed in others. It appears as though the book has gone through a re-edit to make it tighter, and others longer and clearer. Since the original was written in Hebrew, this might have just been a different translation.

Is Sapiens worth your time? Yes, I recommend it in fact. I look forward to reading his next book too, Homo Deus. It’s sitting right here on my growing bookshelf.