Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind by Yuval Noah Harari

yuval hariri pic
Yuval Noah Harari, Israeli Historian and Professor of History at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem

For a man who likes fiction, and who usually only reads fiction, I found myself, because of Christmas, with 4 new non-fiction books on my bedside table: Anne Summers’ memoir, Unfettered and Alive; Colm Tóibín’s Mad, Bad, & Dangerous to Know: the Fathers of Wilde, Yeats and Joyce; Stephen King’s On Writing, and this one, Yuval Noah Harari’s Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind (2014).

The first I have because Anne Summers is a friend; the second because I am a fan of Colm Tóibín and I collect everything he writes; the third was a Christmas gift from my sister; and the fourth was a grab-bag gift from the festivities of Christmas Day. They all interest me, in fact many non-fiction books interest me, but volumes of fiction always got in the way. Even now, there are seven novels hovering ready to pounce and to grab my attention.

Let’s start with Harari’s definition of history: the development of elaborate human structures called cultures which the organism known as Homo Sapiens began to form about 70,000 years ago. Once I read this I knew I was in safe hands and that I was going to, not only find out stuff that would fascinate, but that it would all be in accessible language.

Sapien’s time on this planet is a very short period in the cosmic time frame: if you could squeeze the time from the beginning of the universe to the present day into a 12 hour period, Homo Sapiens would have first stood upright at about 11.59.

The book is full of fascinating detail and remarkable insights. Homo Sapiens was not the only Homo species to exist at the same time but the reason Sapiens prevailed and destroyed the others – as one theory goes – is not because of our strength or our brain size – the Neanderthals had bigger brains and bigger bodies –  but because of one fundamental difference: our cognitive ability, via language, to imagine things that do not exist: fictions like religion, nationalism, honour, human rights, politics, literature, and (the only fiction that everyone in the world believes in) money.* These mental constructs were what enabled Homo Sapiens the where-with-all to organise themselves in large numbers. Large crowds of people, from 2,000 to 100,000 individuals can organise themselves to behave well and orderly for many hours to witness the outcome of a competition (football) or the staging of a story (Wagner’s Ring Cycle). If you put only 500 of our nearest relatives, the chimpanzees, in a theatre there would be chaos. Of course, large crowds of humans can degenerate into chaos but only when the acceptable boundaries, rules; i.e., agreed constructs, that all members of the gathering adhere to, or believed would be adhered to, are broken. For example, the premier of Stravinsky’s ballet Rite of Spring.

And fundamental to the success of our ability to co-operate in large numbers is our obsession with social information: gossip. This fascinating topic and its historical necessity I’ll leave for you to read about.

English suffers from the absence of the third-person singular and genderless personal pronoun. We have plural ones: themthey, and their, and they are allowed to be used in singular form (“Each writer needs to be merciless when re-writing their work” – his/her is no clumsy), but the long standing acceptable way around this problem has been to use the masculine singular personal pronouns: he, his, and him.  Harari raises the finger to such ‘traditions’ and opts for the feminine: she, her, and hers. A nice touch, given our current social and linguistic shenanigans around gender. It puts it firmly in the 21st century.

The language is not simplistic but is easily digestible – you need to read it with the TV off –  and is peppered with humour, irony, and hyperbole. It’s a wonderful read, entertaining, enlightening, and often astounding.

You can watch and listen to an excerpt from Harari’s TED talk (June 2015) on “Why Humans Run the World” here.

Everyone is reading this book and the two that follow it: Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow (2016) and 21 Lessons for the 21st Century (2018). They are everywhere. If you haven’t seen a copy you’re either blind or have just returned from Mars.

* Money was created many times in many places. It’s development required no technical breakthroughs – it was purely a mental revolution. It involved the creation of a new inter-subjective reality that exists solely in people’s shared imagination. Money is not coins and banknotes. Money is anything that people are willing to use in order to represent systematically the value of other things for the purpose of exchanging goods and services. Money enables people to compare quickly and easily the value of different commodities (such as apples, shoes and divorces), to easily exchange one thing for another, and to store wealth conveniently. Sapiens, Page 197