Book review: Sapiens

“Sapiens: A brief history of humankind” by Yuval Noah Harari has gotten mostly outstanding reviews. It’s also received praise from such well-known people as Barack Obama, the android Mark Zuckerberg and Bill Gates. I just finished reading it and I agree with most people that it is a fascinating read. Despite that, I am not convinced that “Sapiens” lives up to the hype. Want to know why? Read my book review: Sapiens, a brief history of humankind.

The good stuff

Cover of Sapiens: A brief history of humankind
Cover of Sapiens: A brief history of humankind

Harari is an accomplished historian with a PhD from Jesus College, Oxford. He is also a professor of history at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. He writes using a very accessible style that appeals to many people. His style makes history interesting for a lot of people and that is a good thing. Or is it?

Sapiens is certainly a thought-provoking read. Harari skillfully constructs his main points, drawing parallels and connections to support his own views on the development and rise of Homo Sapiens.

But despite the endorsements of Gates, Zuck and Obama, I have a number of objections to Harari’s approach which I’ll explain below.

Objection, your honor!

My objections to Sapiens: A brief history of humankind actually begin with the title. I don’t think that this is a history book in the strict sense of the word. Yes, it deals with human history but Harari makes it hard to distinguish between historical fact, consensus among historians, his own interpretations and speculations. Instead it is all presented in a similar way, as if these are simply the facts. Harari weaves a grand story of our species without revealing which part is simply that: a story.

Just a story

This is especially apparent with one of the central points of the book. Harari offers the hypothesis that the main way in which Homo Sapiens differed from the other members of the Homo genus is our ability to create stories, myths. These stories or inter-subjective realities as Harari calls them, act as a social lubricant, allowing large groups of Homo Sapiens to work together. This ability gave our early ancestors a critical advantage which allowed us to move from being only a marginal species on the planes of Africa to being the dominant species on the globe. While this is an interesting hypothesis, the book offers little more than anecdotal evidence to support it.

Harari offers no information as to how he formulated this hypothesis, what sources he examined and which models (if any) he used or created. It’s possible he is at least partially correct but we have no way to examine his claims. Because of that, the inter-subjective reality hypothesis remains just that: an interesting hypothesis.

Oversimplification

When writing a brief history of humankind, it’s impossible to explore things in depth. After all, we are dealing with millennia of history condensed into a book that is just over 400 pages. To use Harari’s own metaphor: it’s not a spy-plane view, it’s more of a satellite view. This necessarily means that important details will be lost and only the very major events will show up. That wouldn’t be so bad if it weren’t for the fact that Harari oversimplifies matters and even gets some of his facts wrong. I’ll give you a few examples:

The development of the caste system in India and the character of humanism are both considerably more complex than Harari suggests and the story of the NASA astronauts receiving a message for the moon from Navajo people is from a joke and didn’t actually happen. The way he describes the dissolution of the Soviet Union as a process that was largely peaceful is an oversimplification as well.

Not new

This objection is less significant than the previous two objections. Still, it’s worth mentioning that most of what Harari writes, isn’t new to people with an interest in history. The negative side effects of the Neolithic Revolution, the trilateral forces driving European imperialism or our possible responsibility for the extinction of the Holocene megafauna certainly weren’t new to me. You could be forgiven to conclude that Harari’s only contribution is his narrative, which is pretty speculative.

Sapiens, the conclusion

Negative points aside, if you keep in mind that Harari is telling you his own interpretation of how our history unfolded, Sapiens makes for an interesting read. Harari manages to offer thought-provoking ideas. The idea that our ability to imagine inter-subjective realities made our ascendancy possible, is a compelling one. It would be nice if Harari managed to support this hypothesis further.