Review | Sapiens – Yuval Noah Harari

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I first became interested in reading Sapiens because of its polarising reviews; readers seemed divided over whether it was one of the greatest books in existence or one of the most pretentious. With my curiosity piqued, Sapiens jumped to the top of my to-buy list.

As I haven’t studied much biology or early history, I expected that Sapiens might be a challenging read. However, I was surprised by Yuval Harari’s clear writing style- Harari generally restricts his use of jargon, and uses conversational language rather than adding unnecessary complexity. The challenge in reading Sapiens comes from its ideas , not its communication.

“imagined orders are not evil conspiracies or useless mirages. Rather, they are the only way large numbers of humans can cooperate effectively”

“This is why today monogamous relationships and nuclear familes are the norm in the vast majority of cultures, why men and women tend to be possessive of their partners and children, and why even in modern states such as North Korea and Syria political authority passes from father to son” .

One flaw I spotted early on was how (comparatively) rarely Harari links to other work. Harari has a PhD in history, so is sure to possess a deep understanding of history. However, the book’s scope and breadth show its basis in a long chain of previous thought and research, a progression which should be made more accessible and verifiable. Although Harari does cite other authors, he leaves many dramatic statements uncited. I’m reminded of the quote “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence”- Sapiens provides claims, but not always evidence.

In early chapters, at the start of the cognitive revolution section, Harari makes a point of clarifying when there is not one standard definition of a phenomenon and providing short examples of multiple explanations. Being pedantic, I would have appreciated more precision on how strongly competing ideas are supported. To use extreme examples, knowing that two theories are supported roughly equally is different from knowing that one theory is supported by 99% of experts and another by 1%.

Similarly, Harari’s reluctance to bring in other thinkers can make it hard to tell when Harari is interacting with current conversations about a topic, or inventing his own language. Sapiens relies on the idea of “inter-subjective realities” – concepts which exist because large groups of people consistenly believe in their value, such as money. While intersubjectivity is a pre-exisiting social science term, Harari developed the concept of “inter-subjective realities” himself. Although that doesn’t negate the concept’s value or necessity, Harari using the term as if it was common knowledge rather than solely his seemed disingenuous.

In these oldest sections, Harari usually makes his points precisely. But later chapters, which concentrate on social orders and sweeping patterns, lose their focus and clarity. When Harari moves from old history to the present and recent past, the tone of Sapiens changes. Harari’s statements become less nuanced and more general, leaving more room for error or misrepresentation.

I often enjoy books and thinkers who take an “anthropologist on Mars” approach; those who take a detached perspective, cast aside normality, and show just how odd, irrational, and accidental humans can be. Harari takes this approach, and initially it works well. However, Harari can sometimes be so blunt and cynical that his words border upon intentional shock value.

“…the polytheistic Romans killed no more than a few thousand Christians. In contrast, over the course of the next 1500 years, Christians slaughtered Christians by the millions to defends slightly different interpretations of love and compassion”.

Although Harari decries the belief that we have created a near-dystopian present for ourselves, he occasionally seems to fall into this belief. The section discussing how a standard time developed contains views of the world which could have been lifted from an internet entrepreneur’s self-help book:

“An alarm clock wakes us up at 7am, we heat our frozen bagel in the microwave for exactly 50 seconds… sit down at the TV at 7pm to watch our favourite show, get interrupted at preordained moments by commercials that cost $1000 per second, and unload all our angst on a therapist who restricts our prattle to the now-standard 50-minute hour.”

After discussing the present, Sapiens ends with ideas of what may happen in the future, both optimistic and pessimistic, touching on recent scientific breakthroughs and future proposed research. As this is by necessity informed speculation rather than evidence, how much authority and certainty Harari has here isn’t clear.

Conclusion

When reading nonfiction books, everything comes down to trust. The ultimate question is; can I trust that the author is giving me factual information which reflects current practice or the current best understanding? With Sapiens, I’m not sure if I can say yes. Although my lack of in-depth prior knowledge might be to blame here, other reviews have given me the impression that Sapiens can stun a novice but fall apart when given to an expert.

Overall, Sapiens is a sweeping and sprawling book which attempts to cover alarmingly wide ground. In terms of early human history, Sapiens is a clear, accessible, and well-explained resource. However, Harari’s explanations of the present and (possible) future require greater scrutiny than his understanding of the past.

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