A world best-seller, Harari’s Sapiens belongs to the genre that has become known as Big History, a sub-discipline which focuses on the biological, geological, archaeological, ethnographic and ecological evidence that has accumulated over the last 60 years as a result of improved carbon-dating and the discovery of DNA.
Sapiens is a must-read – challenging, exciting and well-written. Harari describes the evolution of trade, money, cities, religion, capitalism, imperialism and much more without ramming ideology down the reader’s throat – gently upsetting our understanding of ourselves. Sapiens is revolutionary insofar as it turns the history of humankind upside down. How else to describe the notion that it was wheat that enslaved humankind rather than Man conquering Wheat?
The main idea of the book is that humans differ from animals in having imagination and using that imagination to creatively adapt to the environment while simultaneously unintentionally destroying it and readapting etc…Will the continual process of seeking to overcome Nature come to an end? Who knows, but Dowlphin can’t help thinking of the Tower of Babbel story where the people sought to build to Heaven – only to be struck down by the Almighty force Who divided humans by making it difficult to communicate with one another.
According to Harari:
“About 2 million years ago our human ancestors were insignificant animals living in a corner of Africa. Their impact on the world was no greater than that of gorillas, zebras, or chickens. Today humans have spread themselves all over the world, and they are the most important animal around. The very future of life on Earth depends on the ideas and behaviour of our species [as]…we have conquered planet Earth… changed our environment, our societies, and our own bodies and minds.”
Harari questions, provokes, enlightens and entertains – integrating science and intuition, evidence and speculation with honesty, clarity, wonder and dread and a keen eye on ethical implications. Dowlphin doesn’t know whether Harari’s story is original or whether he is “merely” a wonderful synthesiser of issues which are increasingly becoming commonplace in the halls of academia, but what does it matter. How are these ideas for starters:
- We rule the world because we are the only animal that can believe in things that exist purely in our own imagination, such as gods, states, money and human rights.
- Humans are ecological serial killers – even with stone-age tools, our ancestors wiped out half the planet’s large terrestrial mammals well before the advent of agriculture.
- The Agricultural Revolution was history’s biggest fraud – wheat domesticated Sapiens rather than the other way around.
- Money is the most universal and pluralistic system of mutual trust ever devised.
- Money is the only thing everyone trusts.
- Empire is the most successful political system humans have invented, and our present era of anti-imperial sentiment is probably a short-lived aberration.
- Capitalism is a religion rather than just an economic theory – and it is the most successful religion to date.
- The treatment of animals in modern agriculture may turn out to be the worst crime in history.
- We are far more powerful than our ancestors, but we aren’t much happier.
- Humans will soon disappear. With the help of novel technologies, within a few centuries or even decades, Humans will upgrade themselves into completely different beings, enjoying godlike qualities and abilities. History began when humans invented gods – and will end when humans become gods.
If there is one book that every non-fiction reader ought to put on their “bucket list” – it is Sapiens. It shows hows how much of the ideology that frames our lives is made up of imagined constructs which take on meaning.