Review: Sapiens, a Brief History of Humankind

I am vary of any book which proclaims to talk about the ‘a brief history of’ a certain topic because to me they are neither brief nor easy to understand. They force me to stop reading them, because of the too elevated language they use or the hard to follow narrative. …and I just hate to leave books unfinished. This one though surprised me, pleasantly. Let’s see what piqued my interest in the first place.

My latest non-fiction purchase! Do you read non-finction? I like to, every once in a while, and I read some good stuff about this one on Goodreads so I thought I'll give it a go. • From the back cover: 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 of 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? And what will our world be like in the millennia 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. • What was the last non-finction book you read? This one sounds challenging and fun! • #nonfiction #sapiensabriefhistoryofhumankind #yuvalnoahharari #bookstagram #ilovetoread #inspiretoread #instaread #bookishfeatures #totalbooknerd #goodreads #readmore #bookish #ilovebooks #bookphotography #mutimitolvasol #carteadinmanamea #booklover #instabook #bibliophile #bookaholic #bookaddict

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I think I saw the book repeatedly on social media, and then when I spotted it at my local bookstore, on sale, I just had to get it. Plus I loved the blurb, here it goes:

100 000 years ago, at least six 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? And what will our world be like in the millennia 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.

Here is why I loved this book:

  1. It’s easy to read for anyone.
  2. It gives a good and easy to understand overview of history. It does not go into every imaginable detail but it does elaborate where it is necessary to understand our evolution.
  3. It’s more than just laying out the facts and figures. It makes you think and ask your own questions. It makes you question some of your beliefs.
  4. When you think it might get complicated it gives easy to understand examples which then are used throughout entire chapters, making it easier to follow and understand certain topics.
  5. It’s more than history. It’s an anthropology, a study of humans and their relation to culture, religion and customs.

My advice is, read this, especially if you love history.

[Spoilers ahead]

I always loved history and I always preferred learning about it through documentaries because history books always seemed too stuffy and complicated.  This book has totally changed that. It was so much more than enumerating facts and figures. It is a book that will stay with you long after you finished it because it makes you think, it makes you understand yourself, as a human being, and the world we live in. For example:

  • Why did the Homo sapiens survived and not the physically stronger Neanderthals?
  • Is there a correlation between cooked food and the development of our brain?
  • Did language evolved simply so we could gossip?
  • Why is fiction/creative imagination so important to us?

This latter is especially fascinating for me. Let’s see a small fragment from the book:

‘It’s relatively easy to agree that only Homo Sapiens can speak about things that don’t really exist, and believe six impossible things before breakfast. You could never convince a monkey to give you a banana by promising him limitless bananas after death in monkey heaven. But why is it important? After all, fiction can be dangerously misleading and distracting. People who go to the forest looking for fairies and unicorns would seem to have less chance of survival than people looking for mushrooms and deer. And if you spend hours praying to non-existing guardian spirits, aren’t you wasting your precious time, time better spent foraging, fighting and fornicating?’

It turns out that we should thank our imagination for the world we live in today. If not for our collective belief in imagined things we could have never lived in large cities, nor would we talk of collective values and myths. The author gives the example of Peugeot. A company which is not a physical entity, today can borrow money, hire people, build factories and pay taxes. Yet, it exists only in our imagination. And this imagination today practically controls the world. Think of Google or the United States as other examples.

The book is divided in three parts, The Cognitive Revolution, The Agricultural Revolution and The Scientific Revolution. The first part narrates how and why Homo Sapiens was the only human species that survived and what this meant for the animal kingdom (nothing good, let me tell you that). The second part explains what brought about the end of the foraging era. Why did we stop that way of life which was our way of living for 2.5 million years? What really interested me in this part is the part some ‘insignificant’ plants, like wheat, rice and potato played in our evolution. According to the author, these plant domesticated us and not vice versa.

Religion plays an important role in The Agricultural Revolution and we find out what are the implications of believing in multiple gods (polytheism) versus believing in one (monotheism). Here is another quote.

‘Monotheists have tended to be far more fanatical and missionary than polytheists. A religion that recognises the legitimacy of other faiths implies either that its god is not the supreme power of the universe, or that it received from God just part of the universal truth. Since monotheists have usually believed that they are in possession of the entire message of the one and only God, they have been compelled to discredit all other religions. Over the last two millennia, monotheists repeatedly tried to strengthen their hand by violently exterminating all competition.’

Looking at religion from this perspective, I cannot see the problem with believing in multiple gods. If everything is an imagined reality why not choose to believe in the one which is less violent and extreme? After all, just like Peugeot, religion is also an imagined reality.

Part three, The Scientific Revolution explains how we made such incredibly progress about 500 years ago. What change brought about such incredible transformation? What is discussed here is how empires were made and what drove the expansion of these empires? Why did Europe lead the way and not China? Where does science come into the equation and why?

Capitalism and specifically credit, plays a central role in this part. If you thought economics has nothing to do with the history of humankind, think again. And again, the role economics play is so well explained that after reading this I wish this book was available when I studied the subject at university. An example is given, of a bakery being opened on credit.

‘[] The only way she could get her bakery built would be to find a contractor willing to work today and receive payment in a few years’ time, if and when the bakery starts making money. Alas, such contractors are rare breeds. So our entrepreneur is in a bind. Without bakery, she can’t bake cakes. Without cakes, she can’t make money. Without money, she can’t hire a contractor. Without a contractor, she has no bakery.

Humankind was trapped in this predicament for thousands of years. As a result, economies were frozen. The way out of the trap was discovered only in the modern era, with the appearance of a new system based on trust in the future. In it, people agreed to represent imaginary goods – goods that do not exist in the present – with a special kind of money the called ‘credit’. Credit enables us to build the present at the expense of the future. It’s founded on the assumption that our future resources are sure to be far more abundant than our present resources.’

From this there is only a small leap to the consumerist society in which we live today, where the mantra is treat yourself.

Originally I gave this book 3 out of 5 stars and thinking about it now I don’t know what I was thinking. Yes, there were parts which seemed to drag by but I also have to take into consideration that I am a fiction kind of gal. I only read non-fiction when I studied and those where some awfully boring books. So, I am changing my rating to 4 stars (Wooohoo!).

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