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Review: Sapiens by Yuval Noah Harari

by | 27 September, 2018 | Article


Reviewed by Connor Harvey


One of the notable strengths of the PPE degree is the opportunity it affords students to study widely across different disciplines. This goes against the steady trend of increased academic specialisation and promotes big-picture thinking and clarity of thought. It is these latter two qualities that characterise what I think is one of the most challenging and insightful books of recent years. ‘Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind’ is written by Yuval Noah Harari, an Israeli historian with a background in medieval warfare, of all things. It seeks to chart the rise of Sapiens from a lowly member of the genus ‘Homo’, to the dominant species on the planet. If that sounds overly ambitious, take my word for it: Harari pulls it off.

‘Sapiens’ is broadly chronological in approach, with key underlying themes throughout. It begins with an overview of the various species within the Homo genus, and how they all eventually died out with the exception of Sapiens. A key point made here is that Sapiens were not an exceptional species in biological terms; our brains were large, but so were the Neanderthals’. We had discovered fire, but so had Homo Erectus. Harari contends that the great turning point was the ‘Cognitive Revolution’, when Sapiens developed the ability to communicate large amounts of information, to cooperate in large numbers and imagine abstract notions such as gods and myths, which bound tribes together.

Fictions thus emerge as a key feature in the formation of human society. Our ability to create an imagined order, composed of abstract notions like human rights or limited liability companies is a key theme of ‘Sapiens’. As Harari memorably puts it, fictions and myths ‘opened (the) fast lane of cultural evolution, bypassing the traffic jams of genetic evolution.’ They enabled thousands of strangers to cooperate and trust each other on the basis of their shared beliefs, norms and values. Inter-subjective beliefs, according to Harari, are what underpin the social structure.

This structure became increasingly complex with the advent of the Agricultural Revolution. Agriculture facilitated a massive increase in human population, which necessitated new tools and systems for processing information. This led to the invention of writing, mathematics and above all, foundation myths. Harari vividly dissects a line from the US Declaration of Independence, illustrating his discomforting but powerful point that there is no such thing as justice in history; ‘rights’ such as equality and freedom of speech are all socially contrived: ‘We believe in a particular order not because it is objectively true, but because believing in it enables us to cooperate effectively and forge a better society.’

Three great human fictions – money, religion and government – are all examined in depth, and once again, Harari often provides challenging and original insights. For example, it is questionable whether empires have been the tyrannical forces of evil that is presumed by popular belief. Harari offers a compelling account of empires as powerful agents for cultural diffusion and social development. He does not discount the bloody legacies of virtually all empires – nor should he – but the conclusion reached is that all modern societies and cultures have an imperial legacy. Ultimately, it was the rise of the European empires that helped facilitate the development of science; Captain Cook for instance, was leading an ostensibly scientific expedition to record the transit of Venus, when he ‘claimed’ Australia for the British empire. Imperial investment in scientific exploration and technological development, proved crucial to human development and the spreading of culture and ideas.

The role of money too, is inextricably linked to the rise of empires, and the advent of the scientific revolution. In his typically concise and cogent manner, Harari describes the rise of credit and the financial system; he argues that the scientific revolution introduced the notion of the progress and development of human societies, which led to creditors having trust in the future – trust that the economic pie could be grown, and their investments would yield a profit. The virtuous circle of trust in the future, more credit, and the resulting economic growth reinforcing creditors’ trust, remains a fundamental part of the capitalist system. When paired with the inventions of the Industrial Revolution, credit and technology have together fuelled two hundred years of unprecedented economic growth.

But throughout Harari’s work, he maintains a cautionary stance to the power of money. Money has facilitated a balancing act within history;

‘With one hand people willingly destroy the communal dams that held at bay the movement of money and commerce for so long. Yet on the other hand they build new dams to protect society, religion and the environment from enslavement to market forces’.

This is a reference to the collapse of the family as a source of authority, a trend driven by market forces, and sanctioned by the individualism of liberal democracy.

Family and community have been replaced by the powerful centralised state, but will the tide of globalisation and technological development sweep even that aside? And are the awesome powers and unparalleled material living conditions humanity has attained through science, technology and capitalism truly worth it? Are we happier, and do we have any great goals beyond improving the human condition? What future, if any, do we see for the fauna and flora of earth? These great and troubling questions, are what Harari leaves us to ponder with.

So, what makes ‘Sapiens’ so special? Naturally, plenty of the key concepts in this book are already well-developed by past historians; the agricultural and scientific revolutions are well known ideas, but the way in which Harari distils their essence is striking. The Cognitive revolution is about the power of fictions; the scientific revolution summed up as the admitting of human ignorance. These are powerful, yet eminently comprehensible ideas, and they make Sapiens a compelling read.

Perhaps the most fascinating (and challenging) aspect of this book is its treatment of religion. What I found striking was that Harari characterised ideologies such as liberalism, socialism and Nazism as religions. While such a view is bound to be controversial, Harari is not seeking to paint a negative or dismissive view of religious creeds. Like so-called natural rights, he contends that religions have played a critical role in upholding social cohesion; but they are a product of society and culture, and the common denominator between them is not theism, but belief in a ‘superhuman order’. Make of that what you will; personally, I think Harari has found an incisive way of highlighting the functional nature of religions, both past and present.

It is also true though that if we accept Harari’s characterisation of liberal democracy as merely the dominant religion of Western society, it becomes far more difficult to view liberal humanism as an enduring or ideal value system. I’m not sure if Harari is generous enough to the achievements of liberal democracy; while the theory’s key belief in the natural equality and individual worth of all humans is as objectively true as a belief in monotheism, liberal democracy has done what no other religion has done: it has been compatible with science, which asserts that human knowledge is imperfect, and our fundamental belief systems limited by the extent of our empirical knowledge. No other ‘religion’ would tolerate the entirety of scientific inquiry; could Nazism for example, have countenanced scientific research that proved there is no ‘master race’?

Putting his assessment of religion aside, other controversial contentions are less convincing; Harari argues the doctrine of Mutually Assured Destruction was a key element in the relative peacefulness of the post-war years. Perhaps, but I also think Stanley Kubrick’s ‘Dr Strangelove’ offers us a grim picture of the risks associated with being permanently at ‘five minutes to midnight’.

But these are minor quibbles. ‘Sapiens’ is a remarkably ambitious book. Its broad sweep, elegant prose, and novel approach have rightfully made it a bestseller. It is not a dry academic work either; it will delight the armchair scholars amongst you and is accessible to general readers. Ultimately, this is a powerful book and I predict we’ll be talking about it for many years to come.


Connor Harvey is a PPE student and regular contributor to the PPE magazine.


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