Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind (Review)

sapiensSapiens: A Brief History of Humankind was not the book I expected to read, and the title seems to misrepresent the book. There is history here, sure, but it is more a philosophical treatise than an historical one. Author Yuval Harari suggests, among other things, that:

  • Humans are inherently bad for the planet, having driven animals to extinction well before recorded history began.
  • Even extinction is a better fate for animals than being domesticated, save a few (cats and dogs) kept as pets and a few more (sheep, no other examples) who manage to have decent lives while still being exploited for their resources.
  • The agricultural revolution was terrible for humanity. He even suggests that wheat domesticated humanity vs. the other way around.
  • Human Rights are among the fictions we create, like gods and corporations.
  • Money is the one true religion.

Any reader is likely to find something here to be challenged by, perhaps even outraged by, if so inclined. I found it rather interesting and provocative, even if Professor Harari (it is hard to think of him as anything but a professor, the sort of iconoclastic one who divides classes into ardent admirers and petitioners who want him fired) might overhammer a few nails. In fact, his tendency to go back and remind you what he just said six times is part of his professorial wont.

In particular I keep thinking about his description/indictment of “romantic consumerism,” as the prevailing western ideology, one which unites people across the political and religious spectrum. He puts this in terms where most people who do not consider themselves to be materialistic would still be very much on the hook: the idea of betterment through travel and the arts, for example. It feels true on a visceral level and gives a vocabulary to thoughts I’ve had and could not articulate.

He also describes the myth/misconception of meritocracy, which is also compelling and important. I think that even progressives who know the statistics of success will attribute their own fortunes to their virtues, even if they magnanimously decline to blame the failures of others on their character flaws.  These are mere fictions used to support a hierarchy. I would say an “unjust hierarchy,” except that justice itself is, by Harari’s explicit reasoning, a fiction.

The religious and the idealistic will find little quarter given, but I don’t I would describe him as misanthropic. Sapiens definitely holds up some unpleasant truths about our particular species that might be easier to dismiss than think about.

I would recommend this book to anyone wanting a little brain food. I enjoyed having it as an audiobook; it was like having a pedantic but interesting passenger as I toodled around town.


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