Book review: Sapiens (by Yuval Noah Harari)

Title: Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind
Author: Yuval Noah Harari
Page count: 466 pages (paperback)
Rating: 2.5/5 stars

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Goodreads summary: 

100,000 years ago, at least six human species inhabited the earth. Today there is just one. Us. Homo sapiens.

How did our species succeed in the battle for dominance? Why did our foraging ancestors come together to create cities and kingdoms? How did we come to believe in gods, nations and human rights; to trust money, books and laws; and to be enslaved by bureaucracy, timetables and consumerism? And what will our world be like in the millennia to come?

In Sapiens, Dr Yuval Noah Harari spans the whole of human history, from the very first humans to walk the earth to the radical – and sometimes devastating – breakthroughs of the Cognitive, Agricultural and Scientific Revolutions. Drawing on insights from biology, anthropology, palaeontology and economics, he explores how the currents of history have shaped our human societies, the animals and plants around us, and even our personalities. Have we become happier as history has unfolded? Can we ever free our behaviour from the heritage of our ancestors? And what, if anything, can we do to influence the course of the centuries to come?

Bold, wide-ranging and provocative, Sapiens challenges everything we thought we knew about being human: our thoughts, our actions, our power … and our future.

My own Goodreads review:

Not quite as ‘thrilling’, ‘enjoyable’ and ‘brilliant’ as it says on the cover, but more depressing and cynical. Is the author right to be cynical? I’d say a hesitant yes. Do I agree with everything in this book? No. While I did read the whole thing and there were definitely good points made and there were things I agreed with, all in all I find this a dire and exhausting book, rather than entertaining.

Still, it made me think and feel about things, and that’s always a good sign to me. A better and longer review will come up on my blog, but for now: only read this if you can handle losing all faith in humanity.

Although I think I managed to sum up my opinion pretty nicely on Goodreads, I’m still going to elaborate on it somewhat. Because if Yuval Noah Harari can write almost 500 pages of very few facts and a lot of opinions, then I can write a proper, long review (it won’t be 500 pages, don’t worry).

Now, I went into reading Sapiens quite excited. I was under the impression, based on the “brief history of humankind” part, that this was going to be, you know. A brief history of humankind. And it started off nicely! You start with the very beginning of Homo Sapiens, and its journey out of Africa, meeting Neanderthals, and going into the whole wide world.

I should’ve guessed right at this point that I wasn’t going to like this book a lot. Because basically, every part of “sapiens reached this new place” is followed by “and then everything was destroyed and we lost almost all big wildlife and a lot of small ones”.

This pretty much sets the tone for the entire book. To be honest, it’s not nearly as much a scientific, factual history of humankind, as more of a commentary on everything the author thinks we did wrong as a species (which is everything, by the way. Apparently we shouldn’t have progressed beyond flint weapons and hunting and gathering and wandering around.)

I still had good hope after the first few chapters (the Cognitive Revolution part, about how we developed into proper smart animals), and going into the Agricultural Revolution, that the book would follow a linear progression throughout history and describe how humanity as a species developed.

Instead, the book started going on more and more detours into rants about companies, religion, science, you name it. Still not a single good word about humanity’s deeds. The book goes back and forth between history, sociology, politics, and between past and current events. It doesn’t get confusing, but it does get annoying at some point that every piece of interesting history is immediately followed by a depressing rant about humanity’s faults and mistakes.

Don’t get me wrong: to some extent I agree that on a whole we’re a pretty terrible species that’s ruining earth and life for other inhabitants – and ourselves. We’re pretty gross, to be honest. I know. Trust me, I know. But that doesn’t mean I want it detailed to me in 466 pages. I could’ve figured it all out myself (and have done so, in fact!) in way less.

And it’s not like I disagree with the author on every topic. I do want to talk more someday about the idea of culturism vs racism, which I think was a very interesting and valid point that’s very relevant to my interests. Besides, there were some interesting topics, and I do feel like I’ve grown in a way from reading this book.

I’ve also been in a bad mood since roughly the last chapters of the book, so make of that what you will.

All in all, while this book had its interesting parts, I didn’t like the sheer amount of negativity. I did like how it made me think, but in all honesty? I also find this book to be really depressing, and I recommend you avoid this book if you have a tendency towards pessimism (or if you want to keep a sense of faith in our species). I gave it 2.5 stars out of 5 because of the interesting parts and because I definitely learned some new things, but I don’t think I’ll ever reread this book (or even keep it on my shelves, for that matter).

For now, I am going to need a couple of really good feelgood books to make me feel better about humanity. If any of you have any recommendations, let me know. I can use it.

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3 Responses to Book review: Sapiens (by Yuval Noah Harari)

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