I read “Sapiens - A Brief History of Humankind”

I was first made aware of Yuval Noah Harari on the 4th of February 2020 when Adriaan van Dis interviewed him in this special episode of DWDD . After having watched that interview I wanted to read his books. I started with Sapiens which, it turned out, is the first of his books.

Sapiens talks about the history of human species and the Homo Sapiens branch. From our earliest beginnings as hunter gatherers up until the current day. The book ends with teasing our future challenges, setting up his second book “Homo Deus”.

There were a couple of points that Harari made in the book that stuck with me after finishing it. Firstly, the importance of language and communication. While other animals can also communicate, Sapiens can do so in more detail. Using stories can bind together large groups of people and align them towards a common goal. The ability to describe and believe something that doesn’t exist is one of our greatest assets.

Next, what constituted a normal day for the first Homo Sapiens. The ancient foragers led better lives than I expected. They ate a varied diet made up of nuts, fruits, and meat. They worked 4 to 6 hour days, the rest of the time was spend telling stories and hanging out. They cared for their elders if they weren’t able to fend for themselves. Compared to most of society now a days, that’s pretty good. Of course it wasn’t all sunshine and rainbows. People died from illnesses that are treatable now. If it wasn’t illness or a passing lion, it could be their own tribe that spelled their end as part of a human sacrifice to their gods.

As we discovered farming and moved away from the hunter gather way, life got better, right? For the whole species I would say yes. It no longer was a constant struggle for survival against the elements. While those were still a factor, they were under control somewhat thanks to methods such as irrigation. But these farmers worked long, back breaking hours in the fields. While humanity thrived, a single human was actually worse off in some ways. There was a particular passage that stuck with me so much I took a photo of it so I wouldn’t forget it. I hope to keep this in the back of my mind and not let the lifestyle creep set in.

How many young college graduates have taken demanding jobs in high-powered firms, vowing that they will work hard to earn money that will enable them to retire and pursue their real interests when they are thirty-five? But by the time they reach that age, they have large mortgages, children to school, houses in the suburbs that necessitate at least two cars per family, and a sense that life is not worth living without really good wine and expensive holidays abroad. What are they supposed to do, go back to digging up roots? No, they double their efforts and keep slaving away.

Lastly, the importance of culture and our shared agreement to believe in made up constructs were eye opening. We hold values like the existence of money, corporations, and human rights to be self evident. In reality they are made up, and these constructs work because we all agree that they exist. I’ve known this was the case at some level, but the way Harari described it in the book made me appreciate it in a new way.

All in all, I enjoyed Sapiens. I finished it quicker than any book in a long while, I couldn’t put it down. I wholeheartedly recommend this book to anyone.