Sapiens

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It has been quiet on the reading front. I was preoccupied with Sapiens by Yuval Noah Harari, and its subtitle explains what the book is about: A brief history of humankind. He makes this distinction because, as a species, we have overrun the earth, but we are only part of the larger history of humankind. We don’t spend any time thinking about other species of human beings, and this is one of the many things that the author presents for our consideration.

He divides our time on this planet into three significant periods: the cognitive revolution which opened up new ways of thinking, the agricultural revolution which he argues was what enslaved us, and the scientific revolution which continues to explore previously unimaginable realms.

I had never thought of the agricultural revolution in the way it is explained in this book. We did not domesticate wheat. It domesticated us. The author keeps going back to the idea that we may have lived better lives when we were foragers and hunter-gatherers. The agricultural economy, he argues, gave us poor diet, starvation, disease, and systems of inequality.

There are several passages that can be mentioned here. I particularly liked those describing how language came to be, and religions, culture, the concept of money, empires. Here is a cheeky excerpt on the unique ability of human beings to believe in fictitious things, which sets us apart from other mammals similar to us:

It’s relatively easy to agree that only Homo sapiens can speak about things that don’t really exist, and believe six impossible things before breakfast. You could never convince a monkey to give you a banana by promising him limitless bananas after death in monkey heaven.

Sapiens is not the kind of book I usually read. But it was more engaging than I expected it to be, the writing is frequently funny and not pedantic. It is epic in its scope, sweeping us along as it looks at history with a biological lens, and finally wondering where we are headed as a species. Cyborgs? Inorganic life?

In spite of all this intellectual flexing, even Harari seems unable to explain to us in a convincing manner why women have been treated unfairly over millennia.

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2 thoughts on “Sapiens

  1. I had underlined that quote in my copy. It made me chuckle and it made me nod.

    I have noticed that male writers do highlight the unfairness in which women have been treated and still are. But they do not spend as much time thinking about it as we do. They remark on it in passing and move on.

    I notice that Harari’s compassion for animals shines through the text in several places. Wiki confirms he is vegan.

    Partly he informs us stuff knowing about, then he raises points we’d love to meditate upon. It is surely a book I will return to in a couple of years.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Maybe for male writers the plight of women is just another point of observation and not something that consumes much of their mind’s bandwidth, which is an illustration of the point by itself. 😬

      It doesn’t surprise me that he is vegan! His critique of industrial farming of animals was very strong.

      I did read later that there are some factual inconsistencies in the book, like the part about the Battle of Navarino. And the opinion that the author tends to make sweeping generalizations. I’m not sure about this, and knowing this later hasn’t taken away the pleasure I felt while reading the book.

      Like

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