Yuval Noah Harari’s “Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind” is a mix of history, biology, and socio-political commentary, and even though the tone can be preachy or overly-instructive at times – especially towards the end, in fact even approximating to that of Ernst Gombrich’s “A Little History of the World”, which was written for young children – the book still gives a comprehensive account of the origin and uniqueness of Homo sapiens across four different parts, spanning three successive revolutions: the Cognitive Revolution, the Agricultural Revolution, and the Scientific Revolution. And in this vein, our species is contrasted not only with the plant and animal species living on Earth (even those which are now extinct, no thanks to the destructive capacities of human beings), but also with the other human species which used to inhabit this planet.
The first three chapters of the book was very informative. In particular, in Harari’s historical accounts, he consistently emphasised the uncertainty of what actually transpired – such as the interbreeding or replacement theories surrounding the battle of dominance, or the conflict narratives of colonialism, of oppression and exploitation vis-à-vis “the White Man’s burden” – and instead presented competing views and their respective merits, advocating for a “middle road” approach. The undertaking is challenging, since past events are inevitably shrouded in a “curtain of silence”, yet asking questions are important lest we “dismiss 60,000 or 70,000 years of human history with the excuse that ‘the people who lived back then did nothing of importance'”. It is an apt summary of this trek through the past, to better understand the present, for the future.
Speculations, furthermore, are oftentimes “a Rorschach test that reveals much about the preconceptions of modern scholars, and little about the beliefs [of the past]”. Developing this awareness to discern, therefore, is critical.
He does not shy away from broader commentary, drawing comparisons between the lives of our ancestors and our lives today, though this is more ubiquitous in the second-half of “Sapiens”. Harari’s overarching exposition about human culture, social structures, and imagined communities or hierarchies segues into broader discourse about the future of the world, and whether Homo sapiens will even feature. “Biology enables, culture forbids”, and the argument is made that “the wall separating the department of biology from the departments of law and political science” must be torn down. From an animal of no significance, we have become “a God”, and despite our advancement – at the cost of other species and the environment – it is not clear whether we are actually leading, or will continue to lead, better lives.