Book Review: “Sapiens – A Brief History of Humankind” by Yuval Noah Harari

April 28, 2017

By Les Conklin

 

When I finished reading “Sapiens,” I  wanted to write a review and also go vocal and sing its praises. On second thought, I’ll spare my fellow humans and forgo singing. My jubilation aside, I now understand why “Sapiens” has been on the New York Times best seller list, was Amazon’s Book of the Month in February 2015, has sold nearly five million copies, been translated into more than 50 languages, and has been rated as a must-read by Mark Zuckerberg and Bill Gates.

Entertaining, Fast-Paced, Provocative, Brilliant!

Sapiens is captivating from start to finish and beyond. The millions of years covered by this book flew by. And now, weeks after flipping to the last page, I find that at times my mind is held hostage by an  idea from “Sapiens.”

For example, this morning, after finishing an hour of vigorous exercise, I felt so relaxed, so good! Then I thought of “Sapiens”  and Harari’s claim that our body’s need for exercise was passed on in DNA from our distant hunter gatherer ancestors. After all, their survival depended on excelling at daily foraging and physical activity.

Later, I thought about a question posed in the book.  Have all our accomplishments made us humans happier and our lives easier? Think about it, anthropologists have estimated that hunter gatherers only had to “work” four or five hours a day to meet their survival needs. The four parents of my grandchildren all work full-time jobs to support their families and  lead very busy, sometimes frantic,  lifestyles.  Sound familiar?

“Sapiens” is a wide-ranging book, to put it mildly. It covers the entirety human history, from the very first humans to walk the earth to you and me.  How did we humans (Homo Sapiens) evolve from an unexceptional ape descendant living in east Africa to become Earth’s dominant species?  As the author tells the story in his relaxed, wry style, we learn how the DNA of the human species has influenced the development of human history and culture.

Yuval Noah Harari

Yuval Noah Harari. Courtesy Wikipedia.

Harari takes the reader through three “Revolutions” in human development:  Cognitive, Agricultural, and Scientific.    He provides answers to questions. Why did small groups of hunter gatherers come together to create cities, kingdoms, and empires? How did humans come to believe in gods, and nations; to trust money, books, and laws, and live lives marked by timetables, and consumerism? What will human life be like in the future?  You might not agree with all his answers but they will cause most people to think. Harari does not always provide the answers to the questions he poses. It is impressive that when he does not know an answer he says so and provides some possible answers.

Damn, why didn’t Harari write this book in 1984?

I’m 78 and in 1984, after “retiring” from a enjoyable career in the software industry and moving to Scottsdale, I began taking evening courses and reading about archeology, genetics, anthropology, natural history, geography, world history, religions,  etc.

I wish this book was available then. Of course, that was impossible because many of the insights that have been incorporated in the writing were not available in 1984. The idea of identifying and mapping all the genes that make up the human “recipe book” was not supported by the U.S. government until 1984. The instructor  of my genetics class at Scottsdale Community College was a pioneer in that field. He said that it would take 30 or 40 years to complete the project. Fortunately, because of research and advances in technology it took much less time. According to Wikipedia, the Human Genome Project (HGP) was officially launched in 1990 and completed in 2003. It remains the world’s largest collaborative biological project.

HGP is already produced incredible results.  DNA analysis has enabled scientists to study how human bodies developed and function, how to treat a variety of human ailments, to understand how humans have migrated to every corner of the Earth, and have impacted, and sometimes eradicated, other plant and animal species, and more.

If “Sapiens” had been available 33 years ago, it would have provided a great framework for my personal learning.  The good news is that it’s available now, providing a literary foundation for our future discussion and learning.

About Juval Noah Harari

Juval Noah Harari is a history professor at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. He was born in 1976 in Israel and grew up in Haifa as a member of in a Jewish family. From 1993 to 1998, he studied medieval history and military history at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. In 2002, he was awarded a DPhil degree from Jesus College, Oxford, England.

 Harari’s work has been influenced by Jared Diamond, the author of the highly acclaimed “Guns, Germs, and Steel” and “Collapse.” Harari’s latest book “Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow” was published in Hebrew in 2015. In February 2017, an English translation was published in the United States.

 

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Author: Les Conklin

Les Conklin is the editor of A Peek at the Peak publications and the author of Images of America: Pinnacle Peak. He is the president of the Greater Pinnacle Peak Association and the Monte de Paz HOA. He founded Friends of the Scenic Drive and has served on the Scottsdale Pride Commission, McDowell Sonoran Preserve Commission, and on the boards of several local nonprofits. Les is a resident of north Scottsdale and a member of Scottsdale's History Maker Hall of Fame. Les is a volunteer school tour guide at the Musical Instrument Museum.

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