Monday, November 9, 2020

Review of Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind by Yuval Noah Harari

This review is written by Eugene Kernes

Book can be found in:
Genre = History

Elaborate Description

This book is about the complexity of humanity, or rather, Homo Sapiens. Harari poses more questions than answers as there is no definitive explanation for many aspects of the species. Expressing different views regarding the species but also explaining their limitations. Even though history is in the past, it is difficult to extrapolate what was done throughout many millennia because the tools and other artifacts did not survive the journey through time. The how of history can explain a sequence of events, but causal connection provided by explaining the why creates a deterministic account of history. Each event and juncture can have a myriad of possible outcomes constrained by factors such as geography, biology, and economics. History cannot provide predictions about the future, but is able to express the possibilities that we cannot even imagine. That no situation is inevitable.

Humankind does not posses’ physical endowments that make them flourish compared to other animals and in particular to other sapiens. What humankind has are social abilities derived from biological problems. Social relations were needed for survival as lone mothers could not provide enough food. Rather than infants being fully developed when born, infants need to grow and understand how to survive. Being underdeveloped allows the community to teach and train the infants into the needed members of the community. Homo Sapiens leap into a dominant species created a problem with the ecosystem. Other species did not have enough time to adept to the new threat posed by Homo Sapiens who made certain species extinct by over hunting.

Social cooperation is the biggest advantage that Homo Sapiens possess. Small societies needed trust in each other to meet their goals, but it is not enough for large societies. It is abstract fictions and myths which enable cooperation of large numbers of people. Collective fiction gives credence to strangers which thereby facilitates needed flexible arrangements. Socially constructed products such as money and government do not exist outside common imagination of human beings. Even trade requires the trust provided by imagined realities.

Agriculture may have been beneficial from the recent past, but most of the history of farming is abysmal. While foragers ate a varied diet to protect from malnutrition, farmers ate a limited and unbalanced diet. Only a few species of flora and fauna were able to be domesticated for farming and herding. The benefit of agriculture is the production of more food given the same amount of space which enabled a greater population. The consequences of agriculture was the change in conditions which made everyday life harder for the workers, created a worse diet, and an increase in diseases. Limited types of food increased the chance of starvation as they would not be able to find alternative substance quickly should the dominant ones not grow. Hunter-gathering societies also spent time in more stimulating and varied ways.

Sapiens deliberately created grasslands by burning away the thickets and forests which made it easier to hunt game. Agriculture demanded a lot of the works which forced people to settle down next their crop. This makes Harari claim that it was wheat that domesticated humans rather than the common idea of humans domesticating wheat. Agriculture created a vicious cycle as increased food supply and permanent settlement created a demand for more workers who then needed a bigger supply so more fields were planted which required more workers. Society changed very gradually so that life before farming was forgotten which meant there were no conscious comparison between life as it was and their present. Inventions which made farming easier also increased the obligations of the farmer. Another consequence of farming is the creation of a class structure.

The combination of Increased food supplies and transportations facilitated the gathering of more people within the same space eventually creating cities and commercial networks. Without a large group, each individual needed to obtain different skills to provide for needs as no skill alone was able to fund the needs. Specialization became more prominent with larger number of people living together as the specialist would be able to provide for needs with just the specialized skill. With the rise of specialization came the need to create a common currency in order to easily and effectively value every other commodity. Money provides the trust, flexibility, convertibility, and ease of transport that enables complex commercial networks and dynamic markets as strangers are willing to accept money over many other constructed realities. The cost of making money ubiquitous it that it corroded local traditions and intimate values.

Empires contain cultural diversity and have flexible borders but they are also the reason for a reduction in human diversity. As diverse small cultures were amalgamated into an empire, it became easier to spread ideas and institutions. Standardization reduced the difficulty in governing groups as the groups became more like each other. History shows that empires did a lot of damage to various societies but they also created infrastructure and institutions which enabled many communities to be more economically integral. Constructed realities needed to change to support the rulers who governed the various groups. Religion provided credence for particular norms and values based on a superhuman order. Religion gave stability to many fragile values thereby ensuring social stability. People subjected in an empire which was polytheistic were usually not convert to the polytheistic value but were expected to respect the empires gods and rituals.

Recent history shows that the search for knowledge and a way to finance it has been prominent in raising human capabilities. This required a presumption of ignorance that there is more to learn and that ideas can be proven to be wrong. Harari claims that in ancient societies, people thought they knew it all and that all they had to do was ask the person who knew what they needed to know. Science may search for knowledge, but the research usually has an alternative agenda, one that suits the financier’s interest. The discovery of a particular knowledge does not dictate how it will be used as the same idea can have antipodal conclusion. The discovery of ignorance facilitated the growth of credit as people started to think that the future can be better while before lending money was seen as a lose-lose situation. As more discoveries were found, the more funds became available for further studies. It was also the protection of property rights which enable more funds to be exploited as government had a diminished ability to claim the wealth of their subjects.

The problem with this book is that when generalizations are presented, the examples that should provide credence to the generalization actually pose different conclusions. The examples used are not given much depth and are explained in terms that fit the generalization, but if more details of the examples would be presented, they would not fit the generalizations so easily or even may pose an antipode to the generalization. Certain generalizations appear true from the standpoint of present tense, while they have been wrong for most of the time and may be wrong given a few more years.

Cooperation is needed for our species to survive. With ever more diverse ideas, it becomes even more important on how we go about cooperating between those diverse ideas. This book has many passages which humble the reader in search of answers while at other times providing stark generalization with contrary reasoning.


Book Details

Edition ISBN:  9780062316103
Pages to read:   383
Publication:     2015
1st Edition:      2011
Format:            eBook

Ratings out of 5:
Readability    5
Content          4
Overall           4