When I read Harari’s ‘Homo Deus’ I had my thoughts provoked and I was deeply unsettled by the possibilities of the future that could happen. As I said in my review, it is rare that I find a book that makes me think so much, and interests me both historically and scientifically. I think it must have been within a week that I’d obtained a copy of Harari’s predecessor to ‘Homo Deus’.
And I have not been disappointed. Now having read both books, I understand better how ‘Homo Deus’ is a fabulously brilliant successor to ‘Sapiens’.
‘Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind’, interested me more as a historian than as an enthusiastic armchair scientist, but having studied history at Newcastle University which opens its undergraduate degree with questions in big history, I found this book extremely appealing.
I’d compare it to the likes of David Christian’s ‘Maps of Time: An Introduction to Big History’, and McNeill and McNeill’s ‘The Human Web: A Bird’s-Eye View of World History’, both of which were recommended readings (at least they were when I started my degree), which opened my mind to the idea that history isn’t just about the Tudors or the 20th Century. While I certainly remember more of McNeill and McNeill’s work than I do Christian’s, Harari’s ‘Sapiens’ is, in my opinion, so much better.
It is an exceptionally accessible book that introduces the ideas of big history in such a way that I wish it had been available for me as a bright-eyed and bushy tailed undergraduate. It beautifully takes the reader through the ideas of big history starting from the time when Homo Sapiens weren’t alone on this planet, and the paths that humankind have trod along to get where we are today, including developing revolutions in cognitive ability, agriculture, and science.
It lays out the paths that led to humans first inventing the gods in order to unify the world via shared imagined ideas, and then killing the gods in order to use rational thought and empirical evidence to explain it better. The complex relationship between religion and science is still a modern, relevant debate. However, throughout all of this is the admittance that most of this was a fluke that cannot be described as pre-determined and natural progression. ‘Sapiens’ is Big History in a nutshell.
The thing I love the most about Harari’s work is that while he celebrates the brilliance of humankind and how we have progressed through the millennia, he does not hold back in being brutally honest that sometimes we might be our own worse enemy; the innovations we make sometimes can be traps for future generations that they themselves can no longer escape, the agricultural revolution being one of the biggest traps we have ever got ourselves into.
This book is also thought provoking in a different way from ‘Homo Deus’ – it made me remember an idea I’d had years ago, when I moved beyond curriculum history to study it academically- ‘Is all of human ‘progress’ really something that we should think of as positively as we have been taught to believe?’
If you have ever had the inkling that the answer to that question might be ‘no’, then I cannot recommend this book to you more, as you might find new ways of looking at history that expands on your thoughts like it has mine.
If you immediately thought ‘yes, of course’, then you definitely need to read this book- yes we have certainly made some positive progress, but you maybe need to know a bit more about the journey and the costs of that progress.