Published by Harper Collins on Feb. 10, 2015
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For hundreds of thousands of years, humans were just like any other animal. They lived in small groups, foraged for food, hunted, and were prayed upon by larger animals. When homo sapiens was born 200,000 years ago, there was nothing to separate them from other species of humans like neanderthals and homo floresiensis or from our cousins the apes. But 70,000 years ago, things began to change. As sapiens developed language, they underwent a cognitive revolution that set them on the path to global dominion.
In Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, Yuval Noah Harari explores our history, starting with our evolution from primordial organisms and ending with predictions for the future of our species — which may not be as long-lived as many people believe. Obviously, a book covering the 13.5 billion years since matter and energy appeared can’t go too deeply into depth, but Harari circumvents this obstacle by honing in on four main stages in humanity’s development:
- The cognitive revolution, which began 70,000 years ago, when humans first developed language and began spreading across the globe.
- The agricultural revolution, which started 12,000 years ago, when sapiens began to transition from nomadic hunter-gatherers to farmers who settled into permanent villages.
- The unification of humankind by concepts such as religion, nations, and money.
- The scientific revolution, which began just 500 years ago, when humans learned to admit their ignorance and seek knowledge. It continues today, as we rapidly develop new technologies that may, in the not-too-distant future, lead to our evolution into an entirely new species of human.
If you follow my Instagram account, you’ve seen the insane amount of sticky flags I used to mark fascinating passages in this book. I marked so many paragraphs that the flags have lost all usefulness; to go back and re-read the sections I highlighted would basically entail reading the entire book again. Sapiens is a truly fascinating book if you are at all interested in the history of humans. I truly regret not taking any anthropology courses in college because this book rocked my socks right off.
Although 400 pages are awfully few to present the history of humans, I think the limitation worked really well for this book. It enabled Harari to avoid tedium and really focus on the most important concepts and events in our history. He wasn’t able to go over every development or battle, but he gave plenty of examples from different cultures around the world to make this a well-rounded, fleshed-out book.
Sapiens is excellent as a brief history of humankind, and it will leave readers with innumerable fascinating facts to pull out at the dinner table. Did you know that mass extinctions have followed humans everywhere they go? (We have been horrible forces of destruction even as early as 45,000 years ago, when humans arrived on Australia.) Did you know that although most cultures across the globe are patriarchal, there is literally no evidence to suggest how why this happened? Did you know there is no such thing as an “authentic” culture? (Groups of people have always been influenced by neighboring/invading groups, so the Muslim-built Taj Mahal is no more “authentic” than a British-built 19th century train station in Mumbai.) I could go on and on, but it all comes down to this: Sapiens offers a compelling look at our past and a beguiling glimpse into our future, and I want to push a copy into the hands of everyone I know.
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