Sunday, 17 September 2017

Review: Sapiens by Yuval Noah Harari

Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind was a travel book; I bought it in London's Gatwick Airport for the plane home, and read it again ten days later on the plane to Prague and through Prague's underground. 

It's, I suppose, a history book, but on a very unusual scale, what I'd probably call macrohistory. This history rarely mentions individual people or individual towns, but instead traces the story of homo sapiens from the beginning of the universe, spending a brief period on the evolution of humans and then transitioning from biology to history. It covers revolutions including the Cognitive Revolution, where homo sapiens became sapient and set itself apart from the other human species inhabiting the planet, and began to live in hunter-gatherer communities; the Agricultural Revolution, when humans settled down into farming communities, the revolutions of money, language, religion, imperialism and science, and the future of humanity with increased technological advancement. 


Sapiens covered quite a lot, and I wasn't left feeling like very much was lacking, even though by its nature it had to stay zoomed-out the majority of the time. It seemed to cover the themes of human history rather than the people, so for example it took a brief look at gender inequality in ancient history, using the ancient Babylonian Hammurabi code as an example, which held that rape of a woman was a property crime against her husband or father (a pattern that continued -- the sort of thing where, according to this, the builder's son could be killed if the house he built collapsed and killed the owner of the house's son). Sapiens asks why women were discriminated against to start with and tackles some of the usual explanations, like "men are naturally stronger so they were better at the most important jobs in ancient society", which it counters by saying that physical strength wasn't required for many prestigious positions like the priesthood, but women were still excluded from those. So, like The Meaning of Science and Superintelligence, I got the vibe that the author had put a lot of thought into it. 

Fresh Voice 

The author wrote with what was, at least to me, a novel perspective. One thing he brought up was whether the Agricultural Revolution was actually a good thing, as we tend to think it is because we think the arrow of time always arcs towards progress. He described how living conditions actually in many ways got worse, and about the Malthusian principle in which an increase in food just led to an increase in population so everyone was still living horrible lives in poverty, highly susceptible to diseases and blights. 

He also said some things that were unpleasant surprises, like when he moved on from talking about religion to talk about the different types of humanism, and said liberal humanism implicitly relies on a god to give humans a special spirit that sets us apart from animals, so one of the humanisms left is evolutionary humanism, which I liked the sound of (yay biology) until he said "btw that's what the Nazis used". 


Sapiens had loads of interesting stories, like that of the Numantians being under siege from the Romans for 13 months and, when food ran out, deciding to burn down their city and die free rather than becoming slaves. I learned about the Dutch settlement of New Amsterdam, later renamed New York, and why countries like the Netherlands depended on their strong banking systems and less tyrannical monarchies for their success at exploration. I learned that the first name written down in history is the signature (we think) of some random accountant recording a transaction/writing a financial statement, not a general or hero.

Favourite Parts

I liked that it had a whole chapter or two on science, though it did seem to mix science up with technology somewhat. It had a chapter on the Marriage of Science and Empire, which was an interesting perspective. It talked about how much European science gained from the colonies e.g. new lands to explore, new flowers to catalog -- but it also talked about how science helped empire, saying that the reason the British conquered the world instead of the very powerful Chinese is that they used science and acknowledged ignorance, leaving blank spaces on maps to be filled in and taking an interest in what was around them. I'm sure it's an over-simplistic explanation but it was pretty interesting. 

It was a good book overall, and I'm impressed that a history book kept my interest because I'm not a history fan. Four stars. 

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