Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind by Yuval Noah Harari

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Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind by Yuval Noah Harari

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sep 7, 2016, 6:19pm

Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind by Yuval Noah Harari

This is not an easy book to present or review. It dissects so many parts of human life and culture, that it would be complicated to discuss on that basis alone. And yet one comes to feel that Harari addresses history largely in the service of offering deeply-held critiques and challenges that unfold over the course of the book.

Let me just mention that the hardcover first U.S. edition is an admirable physical specimen. Most notable to me is the feel of the paper. I don't know the accurate words to describe it, but it may be a premium glossy high-lustre paper that feels extremely comfortable to handle.

This book fits clearly into the emerging area of historical study some call Big History. It concerns itself with the broad sweep of the human career. Not quite as broad as the view of David Christian who doesn't limit himself to the human part of the story, but broad in that Harari starts with our proto-human ancestry and concludes with a consideration of a potential trans-human future.

Let's be clear: I found no original scholarship here. Harari hews to familiar if wide and inclusive intellectual terrain. He owes a great debt to people like Jared Diamond, David Christian, and numerous authors who have come before. The Cognitive Revolution, the Agricultural Revolution, civilization, modernity. Science and its overthrow of the belief that was no more to discover about the universe. The interplay between science, capital and government. And on.

This is not a criticism. Harari is an articulate and forceful purveyor of ideas. Sometimes he fails to make clear the distiction between scholarship and his own opinions, but for the most part he can be forgiven; his playing fast and-loose can be frustrating (eg. the chapter on the Agricultural Revolution is titled "History's Biggest Fraud"; "having so recently been one of the underdogs of the Savannah we are full of anxieties over our position, which makes us doubly cruel and dangerous"; "the leading project of the Scientific Revolution is to give humankind eternal life"), but it often feels like quibbling in the face of the questions he raises. Or alternatively, one tends to agree but knows inside that there is less certainty in his assertions that he lets on.

Harari spends a lot of time on the notion of human success being due to what he calls inter-subjective phenomena, meaning fictions we agree upon, like money or countries but unlike electrons. He wants to remind us of how much of what we take for granted about ourselves and the world -- and which has resulted in our numerical proliferation and material aggrandizement -- is in a deep sense imaginary. He emphasizes the (familiar) dark side of the Neolithic (and post-Paleolithic in general): longer hours, disease, the false lure of acquisitiveness, etc. He suggests that happiness ought to be the barometer of how we live. Are people happier now than they were before giving up the migrant hunter-gatherer life and becoming sedentary participants in civilization? (Acknowledging however that there's no going back) He is forceful in his criticisms of religion and government. His account of money, capital and banking is especially cogent. He emphasizes repeatedly our insensitivity to the emotional harm our practices have on animals.

This book is meant to challenge, to be a cautionary tale. There is a dark -- but not necessarily unfair -- thread running through the text. About our potential future as powerful beings: "Is there anything more dangerous than dissatisfied and irresponsible gods who don't know what they want?"; and "But since we might soon be able to engineer our desires too, the real question facing us is not 'What do we want to become?', but 'What do we want to want?'. Those who are not spooked by this question probably haven't given it enough thought."

In the end, this is a thought-provoking book. He may not be right about everything, he may blur the lines between scholarship and interpretation, but his critiques are well worth considering. For a thorough introduction to Big History, I prefer David Christian's Maps of Time. For a challenging critique of the human past and future, this book must be reckoned with.

sep 7, 2016, 7:15pm

So does he conclude that people were happier before? If so, what is his evidence?

Redigeret: sep 7, 2016, 9:32pm

>2 SylviaC: No, he's a careful scholar. This is a thoughtful book. He does point to the oft-cited material suggesting that modern hunter-gatherers spend far less of their time in life-maintainance activities and far more in "leisure" than we sedentary folk do. He covers the usual trade-offs we've accepted (to which the usual counter is "modern dentistry"!) He also points to the fragmentation and alienation in modern society vs the satisfactions of family and close community in traditional societies.

He also reviews the difficulties in assessing happiness: methodological challenges; the idea that circumstances and affluence affect happiness, though within constrained limits; the possibility that happiness is largely a matter of neurochemistry, and is only affected to a lesser degree by externals; and the notion that much hardship can be endured happily if only one has a strong sense of meaning and purpose though which to experience it.

Largely, he's asking you to put aside the assumption that the ease and comfort we have brought forth have necessarily increased our happiness. But he doesn't assert that this is so.

sep 7, 2016, 11:18pm

That sounds pretty thoroughly considered, then. Makes it a little more tempting to read.