The Israeli scholar Yuval Harari takes on the most basic, yet difficult subjects in his fascinating history Sapiens. An attempt to describe the evolution of homo sapiens before recorded history? Check. An accounting of the evolution of the world’s great religions? Double check. A look at mankind’s cognitive, agricultural, and industrial revolutions? Triple check. Harari then goes on to tackle the issues of science and capitalism. And yes, he even touches on communism. Harari concludes with a look at the future of mankind, and whether we have already begun engineering our successor beings. He leaves almost no stone unturned. Sapiens is an ambitious work, but Harari succeeds in posing the right questions, even if you disagree with his conclusions. Sapiens explores the evolution and journey of homo sapiens from Africa onto the Eurasian landmass and eventually the Americas. Part and parcel of its rise to dominance over other homo species (such as the Neanderthal) was man’s development of the ability to hold two opposing thoughts at once (what we now call cognitive dissonance) and the ability to create myths that people could believe in. This was the so-called cognitive revolution, enabling humans to develop higher thoughts, and hence the ability to organize better than other species. Eventually religion followed. Harari then takes us through the agricultural revolution, which came about because of our superior organizational skills and our ability to keep and track data (leading to writing systems). As opposed to the works of evolutionary biologists (who may or may not claim of the inevitability of man’s rise) or the excellent work by Jared Diamond (Guns, Germs, and Steel), Harari argues that our rise to dominance over the globe was done by the seat of our pants, and that any number of competing variations of a way forward on this planet may have come about, had it not been for various serendipitous events and moments. Another important topic that Harari addresses is the question those studying history or political science in university often come to. Why Europe? How was is it that small states on the fringe of the Eurasian landmass were able to overcome larger, better organized empires to the east, such as the Ottoman Empire or the Ming Dynasty (or the Aztecs and Inca)? In the year 1500, the technology and wealth of these Oriental empires outstripped any one European nation. Harari explains that “the Mentality of Conquest” by the Europeans (beginning with the Spanish and the Portuguese, and continuing with the Dutch and the English) was unlike anything that drove previous empires. In history, most empires conquered to accumulate territory and wealth. But the Europeans, Harari writes, conquered to acquire knowledge (with this came wealth). A stunningly simple explanation, but Harari frames his argument convincingly. Harari goes on to describe the importance of science and capitalism in Europe, as well as the vital role of the rule of just and equitable law. Today, European (or Western) cultures and institutions remain dominant globally. In the last section of the book, Harari takes on philosophical questions such as the issue of man’s happiness. He also describes the turning point we may have reached in the 21st Century, wherein mankind moves from natural selection (the laws of physics, chemistry, and biology) to intelligent design. Will we engineer ourselves into obscurity and cede the dominant position we have acquired through 70,000 years of evolution to new forms of life that we develop through bio-engineering? Harari has a fascinating take on homo sapiens that leaves the reader wondering about existential questions of happiness, well-being, and even the viability of further life on this planet as we have known it since the beginning. Sapiens is a must-read for anyone pondering the reason for our existence and the future fate of our planet.
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