Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind

By Yuval Noah Harari

I was much impressed by the ambition of the topic of the book. The author set out to present a history of the entire species at a level of abstraction so high as to ignore specific people, events, nations, or cultures. It addressed the history of the species as a whole. What a great idea!

Unfortunately, while the author knows a great deal about the subject, he doesn’t know enough to pull it off. For example, the first of four parts, he addresses the Cognitive Revolution that took place roughly 50,000 years ago (other authors use other terms for the phenomenon, such as Cognitive Leap). The Cognitive Revolution was a complicated sequence of events that culminated in the sudden explosion of technological progress and artistic expression around 35,000 years ago. Mr. Harari attributes it all to language, but he seems to think that the only manifestation of language that mattered was storytelling. In truth, there was much more going on. My own analysis of what happened is presented in seven essays elsewhere on this site, with the conclusions presented at the end.

From there he moves on to the Agricultural Revolution, and once again, he falls flat. He claims that the Agricultural Revolution made matters worse, because farmers had to work harder than hunter-gatherers, they didn’t eat as well, and they suffered more from disease. (These facts are determined by analysis of bones from gravesites.) However, the author has missed the most fundamental principle of evolution: the Prime Directive for every living creature is the perpetuation of its genes. In other words, procreation is the most important goal of any creature. And the undeniable fact is that the human population boomed during the Agricultural Revolution. Most humans enjoyed more successful procreation. That’s a huge win, and if a shorter life span was the price paid to achieve it, it’s still a great bargain.

Part Three (“The Unification of Mankind”) is the best of the four parts. It explains how trade, conquest, and evangelism spread good ideas around the world. He still doesn’t seem to grasp the entirety of the issue; for example, he fails to mention the huge impact of Western Hemisphere foods such as tomatoes, corn, and potatoes on the populations of many countries, most notably China.

In Part Four (“The Scientific Revolution”), he goes off the rails again. He doesn’t say much at all about the Scientific Revolution — mostly he talks about the effects of the Industrial Revolution. And his claims about Eastern nations like China and India contributing to science are simply ignorant. It’s apparent from his discussions that he read at most one book about the history of science.

The worst aspect of the book is his frequent digression into political commentary. This is a book about history, but he does not have the intellectual integrity to confine his writing to history. He holds forth on all manner of political issues. He seems particuarly concerned with animal rights. He’s welcome to his opinions, but to tuck them into a book about history is dishonest. I can’t understand why the editors didn’t clean up that mess.

I recommend AGAINST reading this book. It is misleading and will give you a false sense of understanding history.