Title: Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind
Author: Yuval Noah Harari
Category: Nonfiction, history
10-word summary: We have come a long way, but at what cost?
Sapiens is a book about the history of our species. But this is not a book that merely presents events, figures and dates. In his signature style, Harari presents us with important historical events and trends and then proceeds to question and explain them. He ponders on our past, asks great questions and tries to answer some of them.
Reading this book will definitely make you question what you believe to be true about human history and human nature. Harari’s unparalleled ability to change your perspective on fundamental ideas or to offer you a different perspective on what you think is obvious is bound to captivate your interest.
Even though I found some parts of the book much more interesting than others, I do believe that Sapiens is one of the best books of our times. While I do not agree with everything he says and I question some of his statements, I think Harari is one of the best thinkers of our time. His ability to question what seems obvious, to see through our myths and assumptions, and to clearly present a great analysis is truly astounding!
What I like about Sapiens
1. It offers on overview of human history and human nature
Harari presents our human history in an interesting and unique way. He focuses on certain events, changes or trends that shaped our species such as agriculture, justice systems, hierarchies, slavery and so much more. And Harari does more than state facts. He also tries to understand how and why certain factors influenced history.
He tells the story of our species in an interesting, captivating and insightful way.
2. Harari’s thinking and writing makes us see things in a different way
This is perhaps the best thing about Harari and his work – he has the ability to challenge what we think is true. He questions what we believe and offers good arguments for we should also question some of the things we believe in. And he presents his views with logic and clarity, making it easy to see that he’s probably right. Or, at least, that we should consider his views.
I think Harari is one of the few writers who manage to challenge us in such a profound way. If you start reading Sapiens believing that God is real, that we have souls, that humans used to live in peace with nature and that your own desires are your own, be ready to be challenged – in the best way possible.
There’s a chance Harari will crush some of your beliefs – or, at least, make you question them – but I honestly believe you should be open to this. After all, if you’re more interesting in finding what is true than in believing that you are right, you should really consider what Harari says – especially if any of his statements put you on guard.
3. Harari speaks his mind and he courageously makes us question what we believe
I always admire people who question what we think is true. I don’t always agree with these people, but I think they often have interesting insights to share and good questions to think about. Harari obviously does this in a brilliant way. And more than that, we shares his own thoughts with courage, clarity and wit. I would like to add that despite this, Harari does not seem arrogant or patronizing in any way.
I think that one of the marks of Harari’s style is the courage to make us doubt some of the things that almost the entire world seems to believe they are undoubtedly true. The existence of God, the value of money, the source of our own desires – nothing is off limits. And that’s something I admire because we need to re-assess what we believe even – or especially – the things that we are most sure of. I honestly admire him for his insight and his bravery.
4. Sapiens covers some important and fascinating topics
Sapiens is obviously not an exhaustive history of humankind. But it does cover some topics that are definitely worth considering such as the myths we believe in (equal rights, natural orders and so on), the animal industry and more. I think it can very useful to read this book and reflect on these topics too.
5. Harari shares many deep, valuable insights
As mentioned above, Harari brilliantly question what we think is true or normal and he tries to understand the world more clearly. In all his books, he often shares valuable insights that can open your eyes to what is real – even if that contradicts what you believe in and it reveals a sad or painful truth. Sapiens is obviously no exception and it includes many insights that will probably stop you in your tracks and make you reflect on yourself, on human nature and on the world we live in.
6. Harari uses clear language, a logical flow of ideas and good arguments to support his views. He writes with clarity, insight and wit.
I honestly believe that Sapiens is very well-written. The content, the structure, the language all come together to create a wonderful book. I also think that it’s a book that is quite easy to understand even though it is a bit long.
However, I also think Sapiens is the kind of book that has a lot of substance and great ideas so perhaps it’s also the kind of book you need to read more than one to discover all that it has to offer. I definitely plan on reading it again in the future.
I also want to add that this book is far from being dry and boring. It’s interesting, insightful and witty. Harari has a great way of using the right words to drive his point home in a forceful, and sometimes ironic way. I took delight in reading his many witty and quotable phrases.
7. Harari seems to present his arguments and his views in a balanced and rather objective way
Harari does bravely share his own views and makes us question our own. However, I have to say that I believe he does this in a balanced and rather objective way. I really don’t get the feeling that he has a certain agenda that is lead by certain biases or personal beliefs. On the contrary, I feel like Harari really tries to dissect our beliefs to get to the grain of truth in them. And I honestly believe he would be willing to change his views if proven wrong.
Of course, I know that he’s still human so it’s almost impossible for him (or anyone else) to be completely objective or to be completely right. There are a few instances where I believe he may be less objective than usual. But overall, I think that his work is mostly balanced and objective and I do believe it’s worth reading and taking into consideration.
8. Sapiens is the kind of book that can fundamentally change your mind
This obviously depends on who you are, what you already believe in and how much you have analyzed those beliefs, but I do believe Sapiens probably has some eye-opening insights for everyone. Since it covers many interesting topics and Harari often has some pretty unique insights to share, I do believe you’ll find some “delicious” food for thought in it.
I hope you’ll consider everything he has to say and let his ideas challenge you and what you believe. If you can honestly do that and openly accept you may be wrong or you may not know everything, you can learn a lot and change a lot by reading Sapiens. And I say this because some of the ideas in Sapiens could fundamentally change the way you think about yourself, our culture and the world we live in.
What I don’t like about Sapiens
1. Harari does not always add sources or proof for why he believes something is true
I am sure you know this, but I love science-based books that include references and scientific studies to prove the validity of the ideas brought forth. While Harari does often include references, he does not do this for everything that seems to be presented as fact.
Sadly, this was quite disappointing for me as I loved Sapiens and Harari’s work in general. But it’s true and I wanted to mention it because it made me like the book a bit less.
However, I want to add that I was not that affected by this because almost nothing Harari stated seemed false, incorrect or illogical – at least based on what I know at the moment. There’s a chance I don’t know enough about some subjects to check the validity of some statements. So I would have really loved it if Harari included more references for more of his statements.
2. Some of his views are questionable
I generally understand and agree with Harari’s views, but there are some instances when I don’t. While reading Sapiens, there were a few instances when I wasn’t that convinced of his arguments. I think that there are a few possible explanations for this: Harari was wrong, he did not explain his reasoning clearly enough, I misunderstood him or I am wrong. I’m not really sure what the case was, but I will briefly mention the arguments I was skeptical about.
Women were considered inferior and subjugated by men in most civilisations but this is not because of their physical inferiority
Harari claims that “it sounds improbable that the most influential and most stable social hierarchy in history is founded on men’s ability to physically coerce women”.
He gives 2 reasons for this opinion:
- women are not physically weaker in every way as they are more resistant to hunger, disease and fatigue than men
- the men with the most social power are not always the most muscular men
He also claims that it makes no sense that women were excluded from fields where physical power was not even necessary such as law, politics and so on.
While I do believe these are all good arguments, I still do not think that the physical power argument should be dismissed so easily. While this may not be the only reason why men have always had the upper hand in society, this does exclude it as a factor.
As a woman, I find it ridiculous that Harari would dismiss this. Let me tell you that as a woman living in the 21st century, I know that I am lucky that I live in a world where we strive for gender equality. I know that I can get an education, get a job and decide who and if I get married. There are so many decisions I can make for myself that other women like me could never have made in the past.
However, with all these rights and all this freedom, I am still afraid to walk alone at night even in a relatively safe city. Why? Because let’s face it – the world is not as safe for women as it is for men. Women are often the victims of violence, rape and murder and they are much more rarely the perpetrators of these crimes.
I can guarantee that many other young women feel the same fear of walking alone at night – despite all the great progress we have been making. And remember, we probably live in the best moment in history in terms of gender equality.
Then how can Harari tell me that the superior physical strength of men – and the real or imagined threat that comes with it – is not a factor that can explain male dominance on its own?
I have to honest with you and say that this is just my current opinion that is not based on research. I could be totally wrong. But as a woman who has to watch out for herself, I felt that Harari dismissed this argument way too easily.
I would also to add that according to some studies, all it takes for a woman to be discriminated – and even dehumanized – is a tad too much make-up. Sadly, this type of discrimination is something that is probably affecting women much more than men. If your male coworkers consider you less human because you wear eyeliner or lipstick, how could they ever want to take orders from you and value your expertise as much as that of a man?
Sadly, I fear that there are some biases that may be created or fueled by our culture that are often invisible, but very powerful. Maybe there is also an evolutionary underlying factor that we have to take into account. Whatever the cause is, I would love to learn more about gender equality and the factors that make it hard to achieve it.
There is so much energy that we don’t have to worry we’ll run out of it
According to Harari, “Clearly the world does not lack energy. All we lack is the knowledge necessary to harness and convert it to our needs.” He then proceeds to mention that we only capture a tiny portion of the amount of energy that the Sun releases every day for free.
That is obviously true. But the transition to renewable energy is not an easy project for humanity. There are many things to consider such as the cost of solar panels, the vast areas that we would need to cover with solar panels, intermittency and so on. How would we even get the entire world to make the transition to solar energy? This would take a major operation in every country. I am sure people who are more educated on the topic would also be skeptical as to how easy this would be – if it would be possible at all.
Honestly, I think that Harari may be a bit too optimistic about the energy sources and our ability to use them in the future. He may be right, but being too optimistic is dangerous – especially if millions of people read your book and you may be underestimating the difficulty of such a transition.
Happiness depends on your expectations
Before I get into this, I want to say that I have read science-based books on happiness written by some of the best psychologists in the field. While this obviously does not make me an expert, I am familiar with some of the fundamental theories related to wellbeing. In the chapter about happiness titled “And They Lived Happily Ever After”, Harari tries to explain what makes us happy and what doesn’t. While it is obvious that he did his research, I think that Harari either is confused about some aspects of the theory, or he could have better explained his views.
Let me mention some paragraphs that are important related to this and add my own thoughts about them.
“Imagine that Lucy and Luke are middle-class twins, who agree to take part in a subjective well-being study. On the way back from the psychology laboratory, Lucy’s car is hit by a bus, leaving her with a number of broken bones and a permanently lame leg. Just as the rescue crew is cutting her out of the wreckage, the phone rings and Luke shouts that he has won the lottery’s $10 million jackpot. Two years later she’ll be limping and he’ll be a lot richer, but when the psychologist comes around for a follow-up study, they are both likely to give the same answers they did on the morning of that fateful day.”
“But the most important finding of all is that happiness does not really depend on objective conditions of either wealth, health or even community. Rather, it depends on the correlation between objective conditions and subjective expectations. If you want a bullock-cart and get a bullock-cart, you are content. If you want a brand-new Ferrari and get only a second-hand Fiat you feel deprived. This is why winning the lottery has, over time, the same impact on people’s happiness as a debilitating car accident. When things improve, expectations balloon, and consequently even dramatic improvements in objective conditions can leave us dissatisfied. When things deteriorate, expectations shrink, and consequently even a severe illness might leave you pretty much as happy as you were before.”
The claims Harari makes are true – but I think his explanations don’t make much sense. The idea that winning the lottery or becoming physically incapacitated is true. There’s a famous study that proved that both events will only have a temporary effect on your happiness. Your happiness levels will go back to the initial level of happiness within a year.
However, why would he explain this by talking about expectations? By definition, both winning the lottery and being crippled by an accident are events that you never see coming. You do not think about them – or not much – so they cannot affect your own expectations before they happen. In this case, the comparison with the vehicle (bullock-cart, Ferrari and Fiat) seems out of place.
If your happiness level goes back, that has little to do with expectations and more with the fact that we have a happiness set point (or range). Our happiness level is, to a large extent, determined by our genes. This fact partly explains why even big events do not create a lasting change in terms of the happiness we feel.
Another part of the explanation is hedonic adaptation (or the hedonic treadmill phenomenon). Basically when something great happens in your life, you become slightly happier for a while. How happy you become and for how long usually depends on the event that causes your happiness. A chocolate ice-cream is not the same as a new house. But whatever great thing happens in your life, you inevitably get used to it – pretty quickly. So whatever makes you feel like you’re floating on Cloud 9 today might spark no joy 3 months from now.
The idea of a hedonic treadmill comes from the fact that you keep running on a treadmill but you’re always in the same spot. That’s what happens with our happiness too – we keep chasing things, people and events that we think will make us happy, but we eventually end up no happier than before.
The idea that our happiness depends on our biochemistry, on evolution and on genes – as Harari mentioned in the following pages of the book – is a much better and a much more valid explanation for why winning the lottery or becoming lame does not permanently alter your happiness level.
Like Harari mentioned, expectations do play a role when it comes to happiness. Once we habituate to our current situation, we search for new and better things and experiences trying to raise our happiness level again. However, I think that this is not the reason why big changes – positive or negative – do not lastingly change our happiness baseline.
I know that the idea that happiness depends on expectations is very popular. However, I have yet to hear a psychologist use this as a main argument in explaining why happiness often stays relatively constant in time.
If you want to learn more about the science of happiness, I recommend the works of Sonja Lyubomirsky and Martin Seligman.
These are the 3 main ideas that I believe Harari should have considered, researched or explained better. There is a chance he might have overlooked some key aspects. But there is also a chance that I am wrong or that I have misunderstood Harari’s claims. That’s definitely possible. However, I wanted to add my own views and the information that I do have access to. Even if I am wrong, at least you have a different perspective to consider.
3. I definitely enjoyed reading some chapter more than others
I don’t think this is necessarily a bad thing. I think this is normal and highly subjective. I probably liked reading more about topics I knew little about because I felt like I was learning a lot. This might be my experience only, but I wanted to add this in case you’re expecting every chapter to be just as great and exciting as the previous one.
Lessons & Quotes from Sapiens
“There are no gods in the universe, no nations, no money, no human rights, no laws and no justice outside the common imagination of human beings.”
“Telling effective stories is not easy. The difficulty lies not in telling the story, but in convincing everyone else to believe it. Much of history revolves around this question: how does one convince millions of people to believe particular stories about gods, or nations, or limited liability companies?”
“Don’t believe tree-huggers who claim that our ancestors lived in harmony with nature.”
“The average farmer worked harder than the average forager, and got a worse diet in return. The Agricultural Revolution was history’s biggest fraud.”
“It is easy for use to accept that the division of people into ‘superiors’ and ‘commoners’ is a figment of the imagination. Yet the idea that all humans are equal is also a myth. In what sense do all humans equal one another? Is there any objective reality, outside the human imagination, in which we are truly equal?”
“Like the elite of ancient Egypt, most people in most cultures dedicate their lives to building pyramids. Only the names, shapes in sizes of these pyramids change from one culture to the other. They may take the form, for example, of a suburban cottage with a swimming pool and an evergreen lawn, or a gleaming penthouse with an enviable view. Few question the myths that cause us to desire the pyramid in the first place.”
“Most sociopolitical hierarchies lack a logical or biological basis – they are nothing but the perpetuation of chance events supported by myths.”
“Discord in our thoughts, ideas and values compels us to think, re-evaluate and criticize.”
“In other words, money isn’t a material reality – it is a psychological construct.”
“Christians slaughtered Christians by the millions to defend slightly different interpretations of the religion of love and compassion.”
“A person who does not crave cannot suffer.”
“Without recourse to eternal souls and a Creator God, it becomes embarrassingly difficult for liberals to explain what is so special about individual Sapiens.”
“Credit enables us to build the present at the expense of the future.”
“This is the fly in the ointment of free-market capitalism. It cannot ensure that profits are gained in a fair way, or distributed in a fair manner. On the contrary, the craving to increase profits and production blinds people to anything that might stand in the way. When growth becomes a supreme good, unrestricted by any other ethical considerations, it can easily lead to catastrophe.”
“Even plants and animals were mechanized. Around the time that Homo Sapiens was elevated to divine status by humanist religions, farm animals stopped being viewed as living creatures that could feel pain and distress, and instead come to be treated as machines.”
“The history of ethics is a sad tale of wonderful ideals that nobody can live up to.”
“Nobody is ever made happy by winning the lottery, buying a house, getting a promotion or even finding true love. People are made happy by one thing and one thing only – pleasant sensations in their bodies.”
“So perhaps happiness is synchronising one’s personal delusions of meaning with the prevailing collective delusions. As long as my personal narrative is in life with the narratives of the people around me, I can convince myself that my life is meaningful, and find happiness in that conviction.”
“We are more powerful than ever before, but have very little idea what to do with all that power.”
Should You Read Sapiens?
Definitely! I think that Sapiens is one of the few books that everybody should read. I love Harari’s work and I believe he is one of the best thinkers and writers of our time. I think that his unparalleled insight and his books truly have the power to fundamentally change the way think and the way our societies work. Of course, that is possible only if we truly consider and accept his views and if enough people are willing to do this.
If you want to have your views challenged, read Sapiens.
If you want to better understand human history and human nature, read Sapiens.
If you want to stop believing in unfounded myths and stop letting them influence your life, read Sapiens.