Book Review: SAPIENS by Yuval Noah Harari

If you follow me on Instagram, you know that I really loved the book Sapiens and recommended it to everyone! I’ve talked about it even more at home with my husband. He’s not really interested in books like this, but I made sure I talked to him about it all! 😀 Now he pretty much knows the whole book through me and didn’t even have to read it! I honestly think he’s so lucky but he would beg to differ haha! I couldn’t help it. Sapiens had me totally hooked from the start! I have never read such a thrilling account of humans that covers all the nerdy topics that I love: history, religions, philosophy, psychology, humanities, science and technology!

I wanted to write this post to summarize some parts of the book that really stood out to me. I think you will find them interesting too. Harari (the author) has attempted to summarize 100,000 years of human history in 400 pages. He sets out to demonstrate how homo-sapiens have come to dominate Planet Earth and where they are headed as a species. Just a warning – the book is written from a neutral/atheist point of view so it didn’t always sound “politically correct” for a religious person. Personally, I’m fine with that. I believe what I believe and I’m not bothered by someone presenting their ideas.

The book challenges the belief that most of us grew up with. We are taught that human beings are the best of God’s creations. We believe that we have always ruled this planet and have been at the top of the food chain. But Harari says that there was actually a time when humans were like any other animal. They hunted and foraged for food while living among and competing with other species in the natural eco-system. Much like a mouse or a deer, humans had to constantly remain very aware of their surroundings, listening for the sound of a gliding snake or the cries of a pack of wolves. Often times, humans sucked bone marrow from the lion’s leftover meal. They also spent very active lives, climbing trees to pick apples and moving from place to place as directed by weather and hunger. Harari also goes on to say that just as there are different types of cats – ranging from friendly little ones to huge, violent ones like tigers, there were different types of humans as well. However, as evolution and natural selection would have it, only the strongest and most resilient humans – homo sapiens – managed to survive over thousands of years.

So how did Homo Sapiens become so strong that they went from being unremarkable beings living in jungles, to having eradicated forests, killing animals, and built cities like New York? Well, it’s all thanks firstly to the human brain’s cognitive revolution that took place some 70,000 years ago. Humans developed the best communication skills on the planet and other ingenious ways of carrying out their daily lives. They used these skills not only to survive better, but to create and share stories, which in turn helped them cooperate with each other and unite as large societies. Take some myths from today for example – we have strong beliefs in the system of capitalism, the value of gold, nationalism and freedom of speech, as if these things truly exist. Eagles or whales don’t believe in any concepts. All they do is interact with the physical world around them as they see it. They go about their daily activities, hunting and killing prey and not thinking twice about their actions. But humans, on the other hand, tell tales of super-natural powers, and give shape to non-material notions. They tell each other how they ought to act and behave. If you were to cut open a human body, you wouldn’t see any human rights inside. But recently, we have all convinced ourselves that every single one of us has something called human rights. It is collective beliefs like these that are necessary for homo sapiens to function effectively as societies.

The hunters next went through what’s called the agricultural revolution about 11,000 years ago, which the author believes was one of the biggest mistakes in human history. When humans were hunters, they were more true to their natural self, moving from place to place in search of fresh food. When they became farmers though, they started to live in one spot. They created houses by their farms since they had to spend all their time looking after crops. They then began to domesticate animals for help on the farms, which not only made the animals’ lives miserable (till today), but also introduced new diseases in human populations. Because of farming, humans started to eat too many carbohydrates, and lost their nutrient-rich and diverse diet that used to come from their natural environment. Moreover, humans were a lot more mobile before farming. There was no time for owning lands, collecting wealth, or having material possessions because everyone had to constantly be on the go to survive. So it was with farms and agricultural societies that feudal systems were created. There were thefts and raids on personal property, and for the first time ever, people were divided into rich and poor. Humans also started to have large families and increased in population, but their quality of life decreased in many ways.

After the agricultural revolution, we had the scientific revolution (500 years ago), followed by the industrial revolution (250 years ago). How each of these came about and how they turned the course of human societies is so interesting that you will find it hard to put the book down. I honestly don’t know how to even begin to summarize these parts. Harari talks about why Europeans were the ones to create global empires, and not the Indian or the Chinese. Were the Chinese just not capable of such a large-scale feat, or did they simply have other interests and priorities? Had they taken over the world and not the Birtish, I could have been writing this blogpost in the global language of Mandarin. Harari talks about the discovery of America, the universal power of money, and the rise of monotheism. Then came the unprecedented use of credit, the power of global companies that operated with private armies, and the incredible advancements that took place in human medicine. It’s amazing to learn how much our societies today are shaped by these historical events that happened, sometimes by accident, centuries ago.

The final section of the book left me very scared for the future. We are currently in the midst of the information revolution and heading swiftly towards biotechnological revolution. Harari says that humans are in denial as to how fast technology is taking over their lives. There was a time when diseases such as small pox were simply accepted as deadly, and a serious wound in the arm could only be treated through amputation. Today, these are unknown ideas. Will the sapiens of tomorrow look back at heart attacks and cancer as diseases of the past, while they enjoy much healthier or perhaps almost robotic lives with average life expectancy reaching 120 years or more? Scientists haven’t even begun to fully explore genetic engineering, and nano-technology. Could these help us advance so much that some humans become immortal unless hit by impact? If so, what happens to the concept of life after death? Underlying these ideas are the ethical and religious debates that stem from modifying human genetics, the concept of happiness, and how far one can go to achieve it. I honestly wish I can come back to Planet Earth in the year 2200 just to see what’s up, because Harari presented some very strong arguments and left me very curious for the future!

Harari reminds us that when nuclear technology was developed towards the end of WWII, it was predicted that the entire world would soon be using nuclear power as its main energy source. That never happened. What happened instead was the internet. No one saw it coming, but it has completely changed our lives, and now we cannot live without it. We already use our smart phones as extensions of our brains, and they’ve hardly been around for a decade. So who is to say that technology won’t completely take us over in the next 100 years? Just compare our lives to those living 100 years ago in 1917 and almost nothing will look the same. So we cannot even imagine life in 2117.

Are our future generations going to look like robots and be okay with it? Will they think of us like we think of hunting societies today? Are Homo Sapiens about to self-annihilate themselves?




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