It takes an author of considerable skill to write a book which takes an infinitely deep and convoluted topic with a thousand possibilities and a million questions in a way which even a layman can understand, comprehend and worst of all, feel like an expert on. This is the double-edged sword Yuval Noah Harari plays with as he writes Sapiens. He popularizes one of the most fundamental and dreary topics known to man – Evolution, ironically – and converts it into all but a pop culture phenomenon.
Sapiens is about, well, us. It’s not about our genetic evolution. Darwin and Dawkins covered that much better than Harari ever could. Rather, Sapiens is about how we, the human species of Homo Sapiens, got to the point where we find ourselves today in the grand design of time and space. It’s essentially about the evolution of our mind and therefore, the evolution of our culture, our myths, our wars and our very priorities. Sapiens outlines the path we took to get here, typing on a laptop reviewing a product of a mind capable enough to comprehend a history of a million years before its birth. That’s not entirely accurate. Harari charts one possible path of how we might have reached here and acknowledges that there might have been a thousand other paths, differentiated by one small decision taken by one small human being important in his time but of no real consequence 3 generations hence.
The book is much more about the How of things rather than the ¬Why. And that is what makes it such a fascinating read. It takes us through one possible journey of the human mind, and its evolution from enabling a stone-age man catching his daily food to the modern mind capable of viewing, comprehending, analyzing and executing huge amounts of data and thereby controlling multiple spheres of life efficiently and effectively. This journey is nothing if not a miracle. He analyzes, through this text, how our mind became so powerful over the ages and what allowed human beings to create a civilization more powerful than any animal species could ever manage. And therein lies the crux of the book.
While what the author terms as the agricultural revolution was the first major turning point in human history, wherein we first devised myths and cultures capable of controlling the masses, the cognitive revolution is where homo sapiens truly unlocked their potential. This road from controlling 1000 people through minor gods and myths to controlling millions and billions of minds through creation of elaborate fiction told convincingly is what empowers human beings. It’s our ability, through the myths of politics, patriotism and money, shared by all 7 billion of us that reside on this planet, that enables us to control the world and everything in it. Sapiens unlocks this Pandora’s Box with great care and just the required amount of recklessness. It could very easily have become a rant against how fake and artificial our gods are, and how religion is nothing but a tool of control. Instead, it acknowledges that both God and Religion, along with Money and Nation, are naught but tools carefully crafted and administered, and more importantly, myths created and accepted whole-heartedly by the masses. There is no judgement passed on these tools or their nature and their consequence. There is only the statement of opinion, and an openness to debate the validity thereof.
This perspective, complicated and yet explained simply and lucidly by Harari, is what makes the book such a beautiful read. It’s the simple fact that, after a long time, an author has made the most complex of subjects – the subject of the human mind – simple enough for simpler minds to understand. The fact that the author does not try to pass off opinions as facts works in his favor, as the reader always finds himself instinctively challenging certain statements, which is often, considering how integral these myths are to a large number of us. To most of us, God, Patriotism and Money are more real than the resources we burn and the animals we kill. To us, these myths hold much more value than the absolutely real things we destroy to achieve them. To the modern human being, heaven hold far more importance than the earth and we are ready to destroy the latter to achieve the former.
Is Sapiens a perfect book? Not by a long shot. Harari has an unnerving habit of glossing over facts that don’t support his theories and sometimes skipping them entirely. This has the unfortunate consequence of subjecting a reader who doesn’t know better to one side of the story, while being blissfully unaware that there may be other explanations. In particular, Harari never really delves into why the foragers, 10000 years ago, suddenly felt the need to settle down and start farming. He never delves into why they suddenly felt the need for artificial gods, when they were happy worshipping nature and animals for millenia. He never really explores why the concept of happiness kept evolving for human beings, and continues to do so even today. These things become important, as they form the first real foundation for where we are today. Instead, Harari chooses to dwell on more recent history, from the Industrial to the Scientific Revolution, which has accelerated growth and progress to a stage where fears of it being unsustainable arise. Harari also avoids the moral and ethical conundrums inevitably caused by such rapid progress, in terms of issues like a species going extinct, resources depleting rapidly, economic gaps increasing and the climate going for a toss. He focusses on what he sees as facts and passes the least possible moral judgement on the actions that give rise to these issues. Sapiens also concludes on a more fantastical note, which deals with the future of humankind and the rise of Artificial Intelligence, which seems completely out of line with the tone the rest of the book employs. Harari could have done well to avoid this teaser for his next book, Homo Deus, and let this one be as it is – standalone.
For all its flaws, however, Sapiens remains a good read – fast, lucid, easy to understand and opens up a new world to most readers. Moreover, it opens up a new perspective for readers who have already delved into the likes of Darwin. It’s not a book to base your conclusion on, but a book to form your hypotheses on – to be proven or disproven upon further research. It can serve as a great starting point in your journey to understand the species you are a part of, but do remember to build on that foundation and not take this book as ultimate fact.
Ultimately, Sapiens is enough of a good book to turn potent minds to a potent topic by giving 10 answers, inviting a 100 explanations and raising a 1000 other questions. If you wish to work your mind just a little bit, this is the book for you.
Reviewed by: Aniruddha Rege