'Sapiens' Takes the Long View on the History of Humanity

by Will Day-Brosnan

13 August 2015

Yuval Noah Harari's book is a brilliant exercise in counterfactuals: what could, might and should’ve been.
cover art

Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind

Yuval Noah Harari

(Vintage)
US: Apr 2015

Sapiens is a vigorous and exciting new history of the human species. It reads as a series of punchy and provocative essays on fascinating subjects from the collective myth-making of religion and political ideology, to the universal acid of money (dissolving alternative forms of meaning), and a meta-historical look at science and empire. (Harari runs out of steam, a little bit, towards the end but on the whole it remains tremendously interesting).

The entire book is a brilliant exercise in counterfactuals: what could, might and should’ve been. Harari constantly seeks to destabilise our notion of what is natural— and what with hindsight seems like historical inevitability. His account of human nature and history seem to be a rejoinder to the geographical determinism of a Jared Diamond or the evolutionary-psychological approach of a Steven Pinker (who posits a consistent human nature to explain societal arrangement and prejudice).

Instead of a straightforward linear history of human events, however, Sapiens is a history of ideas. Specifically, Harari is interested in the discovery of new intellectual technologies and how these have shaped the lives of Homo Sapiens. There’s a sprinkling of Niall Ferguson’s ‘apps’ approach to his historical explanation, but thankfully, little of Ferguson’s triumphalism. Collective imagination emerges, in fact, as the most potent force in Harari’s account our history.

Steven Pinker’s masterful recent account of human history in The Better Angels of Our Nature suggested a gradual decrease in human violence over historical time from pre-state peoples to the present day. This conclusion, however, is implicitly questioned by Harari, who has damning things to say both about our exploitation of animals (on an industrial scale) and the misery engendered by a transition from a foraging nomadic lifestyle to a settled agricultural one. Was the nasty, brutish and short life of people living in feudal civilisations worth it for our 15 minutes of happiness in the 21st century? Harari is ambivalent.

One thing he repeatedly stresses is the importance of not drawing overhasty conclusions from short time-frames. His long-view of empire, and his willingness to see both horror and achievement in it, is admirable, as well as politically interesting in the contemporary climate. This raises important questions; for example, to those who decry the British rule in India (which undoubtedly committed atrocities), Harari points out that many of the civilisations that preceded it were also empires or invaders. Furthermore, the language and conceptual framework of nation states, democracy and individualist human rights are (arguably) Western constructs. In some sense, then, the West bequeathed both a explicit notion of empire, as well as the means to critique it.

This long view of history makes it more difficult to allocate either praise or blame to historical actors, which is simultaneously a strength and a weakness of the writing. On the one hand, it makes glib or expedient conclusions difficult to uphold. On the other, by casting the net so wide, it seems to advance a kind of apolitical attitude.

Elsewhere, I wondered the extent to which Harari was projecting an idealistic (even Rousseauian) vision of a noble savage on pre-state peoples. His depiction of a foraging lifestyle (‘A Day in the Life of Adam and Eve’) unencumbered by the complexities and worries of civilisational living could be read as reactionary atavism. In this section, the bibliography and citations are also problematic, Harari makes claims for which it is difficult to trace a source. For example, he affirms that ‘loneliness and privacy were rare [amongst hunter gatherers]’; that the human population ‘was smaller than that of today’s Cairo’; that the ‘average ancient forager could turn a flint stone into a spear point within minutes’; and that ‘hunter gatherers living today… work on average for just thirty five to forty five hours a week’ (52-6). If sources for these claims exist, they are very difficult to correlate with the text.

Occasionally, there’s also a problem with terminology and conceptual apparatus. The use of the word ‘myth’, for example, is used to conflate different forms of religious, political and economic phenomena, and suggest some sort of equivalence. Lack of clarity also obscures Harari’s comparison of liberal humanism with organised religion (one infers he’s talking about Protestantism). The suggestion that liberal humanism is unthinkable without religion feels specious and is confused by terminological inexactitude.

It’s a testament to the polemical character of the writing, however, that such questions even arise. There’s a great pleasure in reading this book purely for the provocation, as you find yourself agreeing or disagreeing with arguments Harari presents. Sapiens is a true exemplar of the popular history genre.

Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind

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