What I thought of ‘Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind’ by Yuval Noah Harari

Sapiens is one of those books that I’ve seen being read everywhere. As in, every time you’re on public transport or at a beach, someone seems engrossed in it. There have been a few of these books in my time, such as The Celestine Prophecy, The Secret, Bohos in Paradise, Sophie’s Choice and everything by Alain De Botton and Dan Brown. Sapiens was elevated above simple cult status by being recommended by John Hartley and my Hons student Rebekah Barnett. It was a worthy read in the sense that it was a beautifully crafted story; it didn’t answer all my questions about the history of humankind but it did make a few points that I found provocative and/or interesting, which I’ll spell out here without any commitment to  authorial fidelity.

The argument I found most interesting in this book was that the ascendancy of humans has been, to some extent, a result of their ability to get more energy out of the biosphere than previously possible. This theme is dealt with a number of times throughout the book but made particularly salient at a few points, such as when Harari decribes the wheat plant as a colonising force. Humans, he argues have come to serve the needs of wheat and rice in a manner that those genomes can actually be understood to be the colonising force; using humans like parasites to spread their seed and propogate their species. What is interesting about this for me is that the suggestion that this sort of thing does happen in evolution points toward a sort of ‘divine law’ of production that always sees greater production as an inherent good.

The precise nature of that production is not particularly clear – wheat and rice became the staple diet for humans not because it was a healthier choice – life spans actually shrank as nomadic foragers became stationary farmers; humans reduced the variety of their diet and the amount of exercise they needed to acquire food – which were unhealthy choices. However what was gained from the shift to staple crops was a concentration of calories. More energy could be produced more efficiently (and thus feed a growing, sedentary population).

What fascinates me about this topic is the ‘parasitic’ influence upon human evolution. Elsewhere Harari discusses memes and cultures in a similar way:

 A cultural idea – such as belief in Christian heaven above the clouds or communist paradise here on earth – can compel a human to dedicate his or her life to spreading that idea, even at the pice of death. The human dies, but the idea spread. According to this approach, cultures are not conspiracies concocted by some people in order to take advantage of others (as Marxists tend to think). Rather, cultures are mental parasites that emerge accidentally, and thereafter take advantage of all people infected by them. .. successful cultures are those that excel in reproducing their memes, irrespective of the costs and benefits to their human hosts. p.270

Another interesting point that Harari makes is that while the ‘arrow of history’ seems to suggest that Human ascendancy was somehow a foregone conclusion, deep anthropology makes it clear that we have actually succeeded through a variety of happy coincidences. For instance:

All modern attempts to stabilise the sociopolitical order have had no choice but to rely on either of two unscientific methods:
a. Take a scientific theory, and in opposition to common scientific practices,
declare that it is a final and absolute truth. This was the method used by Nazis
(who claimed that their racial policies were the corollaries of biological facts)
and Communists (who claimed that Marx and Lenin had divined absolute
economic truths that could never be refuted).
b. Leave science out of it and live in accordance with a non-scientific absolute truth.This has been the strategy of liberal humanism, which is built on a dogmatic belief in the unique worth and rights of human beings – a doctrine which has embarrassingly little in common with the scientific study of Homo sapiens. p.282

What this quote is discussing is the flaws of over determinism but what he’s summarising n the latter point is that the idea that ‘humans’ are in some sense ‘blessed’ or ‘unique’ is an error of judgment; an opinion which does fly in the face of a lot of the history of European philosophy, from Aristotle to Arendt. I don’t necessary agree with this very materialistic perspective; but Harari makes a strong argument for why it is the correct perspective from that materialist position.

Harari’s other great contribution in this book is to provide a quite bare bones analysis of capitalism. Capitalism, he declares, is the reason that Europe became the source of the scientific enlightenment (rather than many other sophisticated cultures that existed at the same time) (p. 349). I find this analysis quite reductive and his ignorance of scientific progress and approaches in the Islamic world prior to the European enlightenment seems a little Orientalist. However he makes a clear point about how capitalism – as the reinvestment of profit into improving the efficiency of production – has become a hegemonic system in the contemporary age. Simply because capitalism created the stable legal and technological systems to continuously improve production. The role of currency, banking and credit in this system is well explained and I feel one of the more useful contibutions of the book. The requirements of commerce, he explains, meant a similar need for freedom of commerce, stable government and tolerance of difference (p.354-365). Capitalism rewarded these systems because they were good for profit, good for growth and essentially good for production. He even points out how this system eventually eroded the relative strength of the community and family:

Parents are obliged to send their children to be educated by the state. Parents who are especially abusive or violent with their children may be restrained by the state. If need be, the state may even imprison the parents or transfer their children to foster families. Until not long ago, the suggestion that the state ought to prevent parents from beating or humiliating their children would have been rejected out of hand as ludicrous and unworkable. In most societies parental authority was sacred. Respect of and obedience to one’s parents
were among the most hallowed values, and parents could do almost anything they wanted, including killing newborn babies, selling children into slavery and marrying off daughters to men more than twice their age. Today, parental authority is in full retreat. Youngsters are increasingly excused from obeying their elders, whereas parents are blamed for anything that goes wrong in the life of their child. Mum and Dad are about as likely to get off in the Freudian courtroom as were defendants in a Stalinist show trial. p.404-405

This erosion of family and community has come with the elevation of the state systems necessary for capitalist growth; the production of a neo-liberal subject.

I’m going to end with two more lengthy quotes that impressed me ; the first a binary about how we imagine ‘progress’ that shows the flaws in each argument; and the second a reflection on what brings happiness which I feel is again, very worthy of repeating.

Though few have studied the long-term history of happiness, almost every scholar and layperson has some vague preconception about it. In one common view, human capabilities have increased throughout history. Since humans generally use their capabilities to alleviate miseries and fulfill aspirations, it follows that we must be happier than our medieval ancestors, and they must have been happier than Stone Age hunter-gatherers.

But this progressive account is unconvincing. As we have seen, new aptitudes, behaviours and skills do not necessarily make for a better life. When humans learned to farm in the Agricultural Revolution, their collective power to shape their environment increased, but the lot of many individual humans grew harsher. Peasants had to work harder than foragers to eke out less varied and nutritious food, and they were far more exposed to disease and exploitation. Similarly, the spread of European empires greatly increased the collective power of humankind, by circulating ideas, technologies and crops, and opening new avenues of commerce. Yet this was hardly good news for millions of Africans, Native Americans and Aboriginal Australians. Given the proven human propensity for misusing power, it seems naïve to believe that the more clout people have, the happier they will be.
Some challengers of this view take a diametrically opposed position. They argue for a reverse correlation between human capabilities and happiness. Power corrupts,  they say, and as humankind gained more and more power, it created a cold mechanistic world ill-suited to our real needs. Evolution moulded our minds and bodies to the life of hunter-gatherers. The transition first to agriculture and then to industry has condemned us to living unnatural lives that cannot give full expression to our inherent inclinations and instincts, and therefore cannot satisfy our deepest yearnings. Nothing in the comfortable lives of the urban middle class can approach the wild excitement and sheer joy experienced by a forager band on a successful mammoth hunt. Every new invention just puts another mile between us and the Garden of Eden.

Yet this romantic insistence on seeing a dark shadow behind each invention is as dogmatic as the belief in the inevitability of progress. Perhaps we are out of touch with our inner hunter-gatherer, but it’s not all bad. For instance, over the last two centuries modern medicine has decreased child mortality from 33 per cent to less than 5 per cent. Can anyone doubt that this made a huge contribution to the happiness not only of those children who would otherwise have died, but also of their families and friends?

A more nuanced position takes the middle road. Until the Scienti􀉹c Revolution there was no clear correlation between power and happiness. Medieval peasants may indeed have been more miserable than their hunter-gatherer forebears. But in the last few centuries humans have learned to use their capacities more wisely. The triumphs of modern medicine are just one example. Other unprecedented achievements include the steep drop in violence, the virtual disappearance of international wars, and the near elimination of large-scale famines.

Yet this, too, is an oversimplification. Firstly, it bases its optimistic assessment on a very small sample of years. The majority of humans began to enjoy the fruits of modern medicine no earlier than 1850, and the drastic drop in child mortality is a twentieth-century phenomenon. Mass famines continued to blight much of humanity up to the middle of the twentieth century. During Communist China’s Great Leap Forward of 1958–61, somewhere between 10 and 50 million human beings starved to death. International wars became rare only after 1945, largely thanks to the new threat of nuclear annihilation. Hence, though the last few decades have been an unprecedented golden age for humanity, it is too early to know whether this represents a fundamental shift in the currents of history or an ephemeral eddy of good fortune. When judging modernity, it is all too tempting to take the viewpoint of a twenty-first-century middle-class Westerner. We must not forget the viewpoints of a nineteenth-century Welsh coal miner, Chinese opium addict or Tasmanian Aborigine. Truganini is no less important than Homer Simpson.

Secondly, even the brief golden age of the last half-century may turn out to have sown the seeds of future catastrophe. Over the last few decades, we have been disturbing the ecological equilibrium of our planet in myriad new ways, with what seem likely to be dire consequences. A lot of evidence indicates that we are destroying the foundations of human prosperity in an orgy of reckless

Finally, we can congratulate ourselves on the unprecedented accomplishments of modern Sapiens only if we completely ignore the fate of all other animals. Much of the vaunted material wealth that shields us from disease and famine was accumulated at the expense of laboratory monkeys, dairy cows and conveyor-belt chickens. Over the last two centuries tens of billions of them have been subjected to a regime of industrial exploitation whose cruelty has no precedent in the annals of planet Earth. If we accept a mere tenth of what animal-rights activists are claiming, then modern industrial agriculture might well be the greatest crime in history. When evaluating global happiness, it is wrong to count the happiness only of the upper classes, of Europeans or of men. Perhaps it is also wrong to consider only the happiness of humans. (422-424)


Huxley’s disconcerting world is based on the biological assumption that happiness equals pleasure. To be happy is no more and no less than experiencing pleasant bodily sensations. Since our biochemistry limits the volume and duration of these sensations, the only way to make people experience a high level of happiness over an extended period of time is to manipulate their biochemical system.

But that definition of happiness is contested by some scholars. In a famous study, Daniel Kahneman, winner of the Nobel Prize in economics, asked people to recount a typical work day, going through it episode by episode and evaluating how much they enjoyed or disliked each moment. He discovered what seems to be a paradox in most people’s view of their lives. Take the work involved in raising a child. Kahneman found that when counting moments of joy and moments of drudgery, bringing up a child turns out to be a rather unpleasant affair. It consists largely of changing nappies, washing dishes and dealing with temper tantrums, which nobody likes to do. Yet most parents declare that their children are their chief source of happiness. Does it mean that people don’t really know what’s good for them?

That’s one option. Another is that the findings demonstrate that happiness is not the surplus of pleasant over unpleasant moments. Rather, happiness consists in seeing one’s life in its entirety as meaningful and worthwhile. There is an important cognitive and ethical component to happiness. Our values make all the difference to whether we see ourselves as ‘miserable slaves to a baby dictator’ or as ‘lovingly nurturing a new life’.2 As Nietzsche put it, if you have a why to live, you can bear almost any how. A meaningful life can be extremely satisfying even in the midst of hardship, whereas a meaningless life is a terrible ordeal no matter how comfortable it is. (p.437)