Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind

Image of Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind
Release Date: 
February 9, 2015
Harper Collins
Reviewed by: 

One of the hallmarks of modern communication is the glossy, well-illustrated general science based histories of the origins of our species. Following in the tradition of Jacob Brownowski’s The Ascent of Man, Carl Sagan's Dragons of Eden, and Jared M. Diamond's Guns, Germs, and Steel, Yuval Noah Harari offers Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind.

Seemingly, every week some announcement on changing views about human history arrives, often to disappear as quickly, making these new works so important. Sapiens, for example, summarizes much of the latest learned from thoughtful reasoning as well as archaeology and technological advances. As the author writes about the latest “findings” in DNA, however, “further research is underway and will either reinforce or modify these conclusions.”

Harari here asks why Homo sapiens, of all of the members of their species, alone survived and then triumphed to reach the top of the food chain. He wonders if humanity will continue to move forward to astounding triumphs or to its destruction, the same points famously raised in Carl Sagan's Cosmos and Michael Wood's Empires.

Some of the human origins books draw criticism for shallow research, confused organization, and lack of coherent logical conclusions. This new work, however, achieves much in purpose, relevance, and organization. Harari clearly outlines the issues and makes no claim of anyone having all of the answers.

Sapiens also challenges that human, western civilization, and world history have all become too complicated, large, and cumbersome in an age of unreason versus political correctness to serve as subjects for at least survey courses. Not the children’s little golden book of human history, this book serves as an introductory school textbook to the complexity of who we are.

This book lends itself to class discussions. Individual chapters and subsections push the reader into the various circumstances shared with other species but from which humans have developed tools both unique and necessary to serve the human gift of vision. The most common theories appear next, followed with ideas on what may come next.

Educators who argue that students need more than ever to see a global all-encompassing history might applaud the publication of Sapiens or they might condemn it as too abbreviated. The prose sometimes does come across as too casual, simplistic, and even flippant. Harari writes with terse, modern, simple, short paragraphs suitable to Internet-era attention span.

The author does present the important ideas punctuated with brief, relevant examples given. The He explains sound, for example, as serving practical purposes for many species, but “only Sapiens can talk about entire kinds of entities that they have never seen, touched, or smelled.” Important notes noted in passing include the value of gossip; human extermination of animals on islands like Australia; most plants and animals cannot be domesticated; the imperial basis of the modern world; and the trap of luxuries.

Structure is critical in this work from the beginning. The author sets out to explore humanity chiefly through the Cognitive Revolution some 70,000 years ago, the Agricultural Revolution circa 12,000 years in the past, and the Scientific Revolution of the last five centuries.

Harari’s Homo sapiens appear slow in developing at least because they alone have somewhere to go. Much of how we came to be remains unknown, a “curtain of silence shrouds tens of thousands of years of history.” Humans, however, make up for their perceived shortcomings in the broad number of ways wherein they simultaneously adopt and more than change. 

Even if intended by the purchaser as an accessory for decorating a room, Sapiens can produces thought on the things that matter and in manageable bytes to anyone. Although designed for a popular audience Sapiens is also for the new student of the broadest history imaginable.

The accidental as well as the deliberate reader will have to think—and that means much in the 21st century.