When I first learned about Sapiens: A Brief History Of Humankind, I knew that I had to get my hands on it immediately. It’s exactly the kind of nonfiction I love the most – with sweeping swaths of history summarized based on overarching trends, while still including enough details to teach me something I didn’t know. I could tell that Homo Deus, on the other hand, would be a departure from my usual nonfiction fare. It’s almost more of a manifesto than the hypothetical set of musings on the future that the author insists it to be.
The two books are clearly portrayed as a set, based on their titles and matching cover styles, but if you loved Sapiens, you’re not at all guaranteed to also enjoy Homo Deus. I’m not surprised to say that though Sapiens has made it up there in the Top 20 or so of my favorite nonfiction titles, Homo Deus was interesting but much less to my taste. To find out why, read my reviews below!
Sapiens: A Brief History Of Humankind by Yuval Noah Harari
Publication Date: 2014 (in English
Publisher: Harvill Secker
Plot Teaser (from Goodreads)
100,000 years ago, at least six human species inhabited the earth. Today there is just one. Us. Homo Sapiens.
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, paleontology 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?
What I Liked
The breadth of information. As I mentioned in the intro, some of my favorite nonfiction titles of all time take the same approach to history that Sapiens does. They cover a lot of ground (in this case hundreds of thousands of years), while tying different historical occurrences together through continuous threads that incorporate theories from biology, economics, sociology, psychology and politics. If you enjoyed Sapiens, you might also enjoy Bill Bryson’s A Short History Of Nearly Everything or his At Home: A Short History Of Private Life. Harari’s Sapiens felt epochal in its span while still bringing each step in humankind’s development down to more accessible level of single tribes, civilizations, countries and individuals to provide specific examples of the themes he discusses. Harari will make you think about what has influenced the development of humans to what we are today, whether he’s discussing the myths or stories on which our societies are built (like money, corporations, religion and other social constructs), or the recent shift from nationalism to individualism (which was interesting to read about because we may be experiencing a partial reversal of this trend back to nationalism in the last decade).
The details. Just as I enjoy the sweeping narrative of books like Sapiens, I also look for the author to provide contextual examples of the themes he addresses, and hopefully ones that are at least in part new to me. I love interspersed unexpected facts or vignettes of human history like the ones Harari offers in this book, from his explanation that chimps and humans are only able to organize in groups of 150 or more before organizational order breaks down to the fact that the U.S. population today actually spends more money on diets than the amount that would be needed to feed all the hungry people in the rest of the world (ugh). Whether these hidden gems of information are thought-provoking, funny, surprising or all three combined, I found a wealth of them in this book that will keep you turning the pages.
It’s broadly accessible. Even if you’ve never read a book on anthropology before or are not a huge history fan, I think that Sapiens can still be a title you would enjoy. There’s nothing more fundamentally important to us as humans than the story of our origins, after all. If you’ve wondered about how civilization has developed the structure and components with which we are familiar today, from family units to nation states, from credit to writing, Sapiens would be an excellent starting point. You don’t really need to have read much beforehand about our origins as humans or similar theoretical concepts as the ones covered in this book. Even if you have strong religious beliefs that may clash with Harari’s staunchly athiest viewpoints, Sapiens will help you explore how those beliefs can still fit within a scientific and historically accurate understanding of where we’ve come from.
What I Didn’t Like
Harari’s agenda showed through his writing. Each time Harari mentions the hunter-gatherer lifestyle of early sapiens or their subsequent agricultural evolution, he ends up going on a ranting rampage about the clear superiority of the first compared to the second. To Harari, early humans traipsed through gorgeous woods a la Red Riding Hood, innocently free of societal restrictions and just enjoying the nice weather (not really), and the bounties of nature. During the agricultural revolution, on the other hand, Harari argues that humans were shackled to their farms, with longer working hours, a depleted diet, aching backs from manual labor and increasing conflicts between tribes due to their newly stationary habits. The reality is that life was also brutal for our ancestors who lived as hunter-gatherers and were subject to famine, the cruelty of nature and the not unlikely risk of being eaten by a lion. Harari seems bent on convincing all of us to go paleo, get some loin cloths and return to our ‘natural state’ in the forest, which of course is a pointless endeavor to dedicate so much ranting to, because here we are.
Aside from the attemps at paleo indoctrination that permeate some sections of the book, I found Sapiens a completely engrossing, encompassing and thought-provoking introduction to our development as humans. Just ignore the paleo-romanticism.
Homo Deus: A Brief History Of Tomorrow by Yuval Noah Harari
Publication Date: February 21st 2017
Plot Teaser (from Goodreads)
Over the past century humankind has managed to do the impossible and rein in famine, plague, and war. What then will replace famine, plague, and war at the top of the human agenda? As the self-made gods of planet earth, what destinies will we set ourselves, and which quests will we undertake? Homo Deus explores the projects, dreams and nightmares that will shape the twenty-first century—from overcoming death to creating artificial life. It asks the fundamental questions: Where do we go from here? And how will we protect this fragile world from our own destructive powers? This is the next stage of evolution. This is Homo Deus.
What I Liked
It starts off really positive. If you want to feel reassured that we’re doing relatively better today than we were say 500 years ago, the first few chapters of Homo Deus will take care of that. Harari starts off with an extensive discussion of the ways in which humans have eliminatre or are close to eliminating famine, war and plague. Sounds idealistic? The facts support him. You may feel that we always seem at the brink of another war these days, and of course there are current active conflicts in various areas of the war, like the war in Syria. However, for the most part, territorial borders are being respected today in a way in which they simply were not up until relatively recently. You may also feel that people still die at a frightening pace from cancer, diabetes and heart disease, but our expected lifespans have never been longer, child mortality is down dramatically and our medical advances will likely allow us to eradicate many of the aforementioned disease within a reasonable amount of time. Sounds pretty rosy, doesn’t it? Well, wait for the next part.
It made me think. Throughout Homo Deus, Harari provides questions about the direction we are taking as humans and the potential consequences of some of the technological advances that we’ve made in recent decades. For example he asks “How do biotechnology and artificial intelligence threaten humanism”. Cue the Terminator music. In Harari’s opinion, as humans breach new frontiers of immortality and as they develop more advanced technology that can mimic the human mind, they will create beings that are no longer human or at least no longer sapiens. Just like humans control animals in our current world, in a future world, the lesser or original humans (us) may be subjected to these new superior life forms. But Congress can’t even pass a really backwards and reactionary health bill these days (luckily), so should we really be worried that technological advances which could threaten the very nature of humanity could be given free reign within the next 100 years, as Harari postulates? I’m more on board with his alternate theory that dataism may replace humanism or individualism as the new global ideology, a la Black Mirror Season 3 premiere.
What I Didn’t Like
Biased and incomplete arguments. I’m not a very religious person, but I’ve recently shifted from an agnostic viewpoint to a more spiritual one. I’ve never been an atheist, though, and it’s because fundamentally I feel that the level of certainty about the absence of God that is inherent in atheism is actually beyond human capability. What I mean by that is that due to the limited nature of human perception, we can barely be sure of each other’s existence, let alone be able to empirically demonstrate that there is no God. Harari disagrees, however. He’s convinced that ‘God is dead’ and that the absence of God has been factually proven by the discovery of evolution. I find his arguments on the matter to be very limited and flawed and felt the same way about some of the other views he expounds in the book. It seemed to me that in order to make some of his conclusions sound neat and tied up, he disregarded obvious caveats to them which would have contradicted them. He definitely didn’t convince me that there is no God, or no soul, or no human individuality, and not for want of trying.
Tangents that didn’t really advance his arguments. Homo Deus starts with a look at how homo sapiens subjugated animals and whether we are truly a superior life form or just an accidentally more developed mammal. Overall, this was a good introductory segment to Harari’s later arguments on how humans created meaning in our world and what may await us in the future. However, the introductory section also contained a very lengthy diatribe on the cruel treatment of domestic animals on the part of modern humans. Despite the objective correctness of Harari’s arguments on the matter, I felt like he veered far off the central path of the book in a quest to make his opinion known on a very specific agenda. Once again, it seemed like a rant for its own sake, driven by the authors opinion, as in the case of the agricultural revolution in Sapiens. There were a couple other sections in Homo Deus where I similarly felt Harari was getting pretty far away from the point he purportedly was trying to make, and I felt myself glossing over them.
Thought-provoking though biased look at humanity’s present and future. I think it’s highly likely that when we look back on this in 100 to 150 years, it’ll be one of those prediction books we realize were incorrect.
About The Author (see his website)
He was born in Haifa, Israel, in 1976. He received his Ph.D. from the University of Oxford in 2002, and is now a lecturer at the Department of History, the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.
He specialized in World History, medieval history and military history. His current research focuses on macro-historical questions: What is the relation between history and biology? What is the essential difference between Homo sapiens and other animals? Is there justice in history? Does history have a direction? Did people become happier as history unfolded?
Prof. Harari twice won the Polonsky Prize for Creativity and Originality, in 2009 and 2012. In 2011 he won the Society for Military History’s Moncado Award for outstanding articles in military history. In 2012 he was elected to the Young Israeli Academy of Sciences. He has published numerous additional books and articles, including Special Operations in the Age of Chivalry, 1100-1550, and The Ultimate Experience: Battlefield Revelations and the Making of Modern War Culture, 1450-2000, among others.
Have you read either of these nonfiction titles from Yuval Noah Harari? What did you think? Let me know in the comments.
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