Book notes: Sapiens
This is part four in a project to review/respond to one book per week (er, couple months). By and large it will only include books I am reading or have read recently enough that they’re still stacked in a currently-reading-pile. Everything will be high level, mostly first impression, and hastily written. This one I read a few months back, but as it happens I wrote most of this then, too.
This week’s book: Yuval Noah Harari’s “Sapiens”.
I picked this up at the airport waiting for a long-haul international flight. It’s a book I’d heard mentioned in various circles, including a few podcasts. AngelList founder Naval Ravikant has gone so far as to call it a life-changing book. It’s a good book, a perspective changing book, even, but I wonder what kind of life one has to have for this book to change it so significantly.
Reading it reminded me of my experience watching several Marvel movies though, specifically Guardians of the Galaxy and Black Panther. Both were hyped by numerous fans and critics as being spectacular movies, some saying the best in the “Marvel Cinematic Universe” for each, respectively, or for some folks their favorite movie. And each was… fine. I probably would have enjoyed them more without the unwarranted expectations.
Let me be clear, this is a good book, a better book than either Guardians of the Galaxy or Black Panther is a movie.
Sapiens is a survey of the history of Homo sapiens from start to finish, er, from start to possible future. It’s most interesting, and read more informatively and authoritatively (apologies to anthropologists everywhere) covering the earlier part of this history. Ironically this is the part we know less about.
- Slavery was made possible not due to malice but because people never gave it a thought. From consumers who merely wanted sugar to distant plantation owners who looked only at accounts, no one cared or wanted to think about the element of slavery in the supply chain.
- Our use or abuse of animals in agriculture is a parallel.
- Harari repeatedly invokes various “myths” humans have created, e.g. “equality” and “liberty”. The description of many of these values as myths is valuable insofar as it describes how we follow things we’ve constructed as “just so” but it often seemed like an excuse to patly dismiss ideas without engaging with any of their justification.
- There’s a great interplay between language and thought, and language not only serves as a springboard for ideas it also serves to constrain them. This isn’t original here, for what it’s worth.
- His highlighting of how backwards Western/Northern Europe were for so long, especially in comparison to societies stretching from the Middle East across Asia, is something that our nouveau white supremacists might be benefited in reading.
- Thesis then for how W/N Europe surpassed these advanced empires was a “scientific mindset”, i.e. not accepting on face value the cultural myths and dictums that explain away the otherwise un or under explained. It’s compelling, and possibly true, but I don’t remember thinking there was “conviction level” evidence provided.
What I would have liked to see more of
- The co-evolution of humans and the domestic dog. It seems to me that this is a non-trivial thread in the story of humanity.
- How did our diverse physical characteristics develop and evolve? From differences in height to melanin content, and hair patterns to facial structures I’d be interested to learn what the genomic record tells us of when various changes developed (if it can - that may show my naiveté), and how different conditions and events (e.g. migrations) affected them
Ultimately, however, this book isn’t so much a survey of human history as it is a story about several revolutions as inflection points in human history.