The great achievement – and, arguably, the purpose – of Yuval Noah Harari’s Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind is that it makes you feel smart. The 466-page book is so brimming with fun facts and statistics from across time that, combined with an authoritative yet somewhat colloquial prose, it is impossible for anyone to put it down and not think some variation of, ‘wow, look at all this k n o w l e d g e’. If you seek the ability to pepper largely-meaningless historical factoids into all of your social interactions then Sapiens is the book for you.
Did you know that humans consume as much energy in a year as the Earth receives from the Sun in 90 minutes? Or that the 24-hour clock derives from the Sumerians, the first people to develop writing? Betcha didn’t.
More broadly, though, Harari provides a delightful overview of the entirety of human history, from our microscopic origins to the tantalising – and terrifying – future which could await us, as we continue marching along the (r)evolutionary trail. The book balances the fine line between grounded relatability and sweeping detachment; as Barack Obama’s blurb quote says, it “gives you a sense of perspective on how briefly we’ve been on this Earth.” One cannot help but feel small against the vast curtain of the world, comprising billions upon billions of souls past, present and future, all equally as important as we take ourselves to be. Yet, Sapiens would not have been such a big hit if it weren’t for its rootedness, always backing up points through common examples and situations. Homo sapiens are a collective, yes, but the collective cannot exist without the individual.
Indeed, Sapiens is an incredibly important book for our times. The current iteration of Homo sapiens believe in the individual supremacy; the past few hundred years have spat out numerous political ideologies (or, as Harari calls them, religions) which have had an indisputable impact on the face of our planet. They all, along with the more ancient religions, seek to place humanity at the centre of the universe, insisting on our inherent inimitability. Sapiens seeks to challenge this; while the book is dedicated to explaining human history, Harari takes great pains to establish that many of our greatest moments occurred by chance. As the book notes, Islam could just have easily become the world’s dominant religion, and Jesus Christ relegated to the fringes of folklore. There is no predetermined course of humanity – merely a sequence of random events. It is not our job to warp our journey into an individualist narrative, but rather to take stock and figure out where we’re going next.
That being said, to avoid utilizing narrative when recapping the entirety of human history is essentially impossible. The road from a microscopic organism to apex predator is a fascinating one, and Sapiens does implicitly buy into the idea that humans are special for being the only beings on Earth to achieve such a feat.
Nonetheless, pick up a copy of Sapiens for your normative introduction to anthropology, sit back, and let Yuval Noah Harari lead you into a world of pure imagination (since that’s what comprises much of humanity, apparently).