Okay, so I was a bit late with this one. Released in 2014, Sapiens was a sensation. Highly praised by seemingly everyone, including Barack Obama. I was on the fence over getting this for a while. For some reason I had in my head this was more of a science-y book than history – which in some ways it is.
But it is also fascinating, thought provoking and eye-opening.
The book is split into four broad sections, covering humanity’s intellectual awakening, the agricultural revolution, the scientific revolution and a bit of a discussion about where we are headed as a species.
Harari has a fascinating perspective on humanity. Obama describes the book as ‘provocative’, and it’s hard to disagree. Religion is treated clinically and cooly. So are ideas like equality, justice, socialism and communism. These are just ideas, stories told by humans to keep our society in check.
We get some fascinating perspectives on historic events, like the Spanish invasions of the Americas, the spread of religions and the collapse of empires. Harari challenges many preconceptions, and despite the vast scope of the book, there are often intimate stories and narratives scattered throughout.
The ending of the book takes us into more reflective territory. Harari tells us that that the agricultural revolution was perhaps a mistake – that humans were possibly largely happier, healthier and better off as hunter gatherers.
He suggests our modern technology could be a parrelel, as a kind of Pandora’s box that is inescapable now opened, perhaps leading to the misery of our species and ecological disaster. However the book is never pessimistic. Instead, it provides a new lens, a new way of thinking about the world and our place in it.
This is an engrossing, engaging and powerful read, not just for history, or anthropology fans, but for anyone interested in humanity, and how we can improve it. Highly recommended.