“History” can mean a lot of things. The traditional history book reminds me of history class in high school. There’s some period of American or European history and you are encouraged to memorize a list of naval battles. Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind by Yuval Harari is not a traditional history book.
The thing about history is that there is so much of it. Even in a single year. Think of all the things that happened in 2014. This amount of stuff probably also happened in 1492. We just have decided that we only care about a portion of it. So a normal history ends up being a history of politics. A history of kings, nations, wars, and conquest.
Instead, this book steps back and takes a broader view. What are the three most important events in human history? Harari picks three revolutions: the Cognitive, Agricultural, and Scientific revolutions.
The Cognitive Revolution is when human beings went from being just like other animals to being unique. The key was the ability to spread culture - communication that helped humans coordinate better and learn faster than DNA-based evolution allowed. We usually take it for granted that humans dominate animals but it wasn’t always the case, and it’s interesting to think of verbal communication as a technology of war that let us defeat animals that previously were our predators.
One theme of this book is confronting painful truths. For example, we know from the fossil record that there used to be different species similar to humans, like Neanderthals. What happened to them? Was Homo Sapiens the eventual victor because of our ability to genocidally destroy the other human species? We will never know for sure but it seems like yes.
The Agricultural Revolution was when we started farming. This book makes the case also made in Guns, Germs, and Steel that the invention of farming was actually pretty terrible for the average human. Our lives were worse as farmers. It’s just that farming could feed far more people than hunting and gathering, so the farming way of life won out.
I don’t agree with this argument, because I don’t think individual human happiness is the right metric to aim for. Personally I think the world became a better place with ten million humans than with one million, primarily because it’s pretty cool that those extra nine million get to live. But I can understand how people would disagree here.
Sapiens is similar to Guns, Germs, and Steel in many ways. If you liked one, there’s a good chance you’d like the other. They both look at a broad stretch of human history, disregard the “standard historical important stuff”, and ask what was the real important factors that led to this outcome. Overall, this book is much more willing to come to controversial conclusions. I found it a bit suspicious that Guns, Germs, and Steel came to only conclusions that social science academics would agree with politically.
The best example comes in the discussion of the Scientific Revolution, which Harari describes as about 1500 to the present. The main events in world history during this period are basically Europeans violently taking over the world, and there’s the obvious question of why Europeans?
Framing all of human history as these three revolutions, there are obvious parallels between the three. It seems pretty likely that Homo Sapiens became the only Homo species by killing off the other ones. There is even more evidence in the agricultural era that farming societies were much stronger militarily and frequently wiped out non-agricultural societies. And then a similar thing happened again in the Scientific era, where European cultures got military dominance over the rest of the world, and while they did not actually slaughter everyone they at least spread their culture everywhere. Nowadays every patch of ground is part of a nation-state and all of the leaders wear suits and spend money. So each of these revolutions was not just a revolution in everyday life, but also a revolution in military technology that let the new order violently displace the old.
So why Europeans? Harari basically concludes, there’s no fundamental reason. It’s just the culture that happened to get scientific first. More than science, it’s the idea of “progress” - that society can be improved, by discovering new technology, new lands, new all sorts of things.
Another controversial theme of this book is drawing parallels between different human ideas. For example, Harari classifies many things as “fictions that help societies despite being biologically false”. All religions, ideologies like communism and capitalism, principles like human rights, concepts like nations, everyday conventions like the use of money and the concept of ownership. How much difference is there between believing in a sun god and believing in free markets? How much difference is there between believing your country was destined to rule the world and believing your species was destined to rule the world? Why do we believe what we believe?
Overall I found pondering these questions to be a lot of fun and I would recommend this book to anyone who likes thinking about what it means to be human.