Book Review: Sapiens by Yuval Noah Harari

The human race, homo sapiens, is an interesting thing: we’re the only species to have developed a level of sentience and cognition that allows us to reason about the abstract and deal with the theoretical. Sapiens is a gallop through human history, with some interesting deep-dives into religion, economics, community, and oddly a little futurism. But I’m not sure I really liked it.

The problem, I think, is that the book does not seem to have a point. We journey through human history, taking sorties through things like the development of language, currency, mythology, religion, and capitalism, and end with the author’s closing thoughts which amount to “I’d really like to see what comes next”, but there is not a single underlying argument or premise. Take the book “Leonardo Da Vinci” by Walter Isaacson, which I reviewed a couple of months ago: the premise of the book was that Leonardo’s influence on painting was uncharacteristically profound, especially since he finished so few works, and spent so much time pursuing other interests, but that ultimately this influence arose because he pursued so many other interests and was able to bring all his extra knowledge and experience to his painting. Harari, on the other hand, seems more inclined to rant about how horrible the cost of mankind’s progress has been.

Don’t get me wrong, we’ve done some horrible things to our fellow human beings, and those of us of European descent have a lot of skeletons in our ancestral closets, but if this was the premise of the book, there was a whole lot of other content in there that was interesting, but not particularly relevant.

I found some of the digressions quite interesting, particularly those on religion (and the point that none of the world’s popular religions really fit any of the particular categories we use to describe them, or that liberal humanism makes almost no sense in the absence of a supreme moral being). And perhaps the best use for this book is as an overview to help you find subjects that you might be more interested in studying more closely.

On the other hand I found the writing a bit too emotive and opinionated than I like when it comes to history. This is not to say history has to be dry: Dan Carlin does a fantastic job of making history come alive with his podcast Hardcore History, while sticking to the facts and making it clear what is well established, and what is fairly fuzzy, or conjecture. I felt that Sapiens didn’t relate its content back to academic literature quite enough. There are a number of notes for each chapter, but on the whole the book reads much more like the author’s opinion than an overview of what is generally accepted by historians.

I started reading this book a while ago, and I guess I decided to finish it off because I want to actually get through all the books I’ve bought on my Kindle, but I wouldn’t recommend it ahead of books like Why We Sleep, or Leonardo Da Vinci or some good fiction like the Honor Harrington novels, or the Frontiers Saga, although if you’re at an airport and it is a choice between a Richard Branson business book or Sapiens, choose Sapiens.

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