Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind by Yuval Noah Harari
A good writer is able to smoothly zoom in and zoom out of their subject matter. Zoom in, to give the reader evocative detail and compelling individual stories; zoom out, to give the reader a sense of the text’s big ideas, of its place in the canon. If done skillfully, this dance between detail and magnitude leaves the text resonating in the reader’s mind. If done poorly, the piece suffers, whether it be a novel or a magazine article: too little “zoom in” and the piece feels dry; too little “zoom out” and it feels inconsequential.
Few writers walk the tightrope between the grand and the minute as skillfully as Yuval Noah Harari. In Sapiens, he promises – and delivers – nothing short of a history of humankind. He begins with the most extreme wide-shot possible, deftly zooming in to the story of us, at this point “an animal of no significance”:
About 13.5 billion years ago, matter, energy, time, and space came into being in what is known as the Big Bang. The story of these fundamental features of our universe is called physics.
About 300,000 years after their appearance, matter and energy started to coalesce into complex structures, called atoms, which then combined into molecules. The story of atoms, molecules, and their interactions is called chemistry.
About 3.8 billion years ago, on a planet called Earth, certain molecules combined to form particularly large and intricate structures called organisms. The story of organisms is called biology.
About 70,000 years ago, organisms belonging to the species Homo Sapiens started to form even more elaborate structures called cultures. The subsequent development of these human cultures is called history.
– Sapiens, page 1
Harari’s conceptualisation of physics, chemistry, biology, and history as “stories” sets the tone for his work, which is just that – a riveting, breathtaking story, which hurtles through the annals of history at a cracking pace. He has an astonishing ability to elegantly encapsulate theories, movements, and events which elsewhere seem hopelessly complicated. Here is the reason why human beings came to dominate the globe, he gently explains. Here is the relationship between science, empire, and capitalism.
This approach is seductive. Human beings seem wired to accept narrative explanations, and it seems too good to be true that all of human history, nothing less, can be delivered in such an elegant narrative. It probably is, and Galen Strawson has pointed out Harari’s “sweeping judgments, his recklessness about causal connections, his hyper-Procrustean stretchings and loppings of the data.”
When reading parts of Sapiens that dealt with historical events I knew little about, I felt vulnerable: at the mercy of this “ruthless synthesiser”, unable to counter his streamlined narrative with my own complicating background knowledge. Nonetheless, it was difficult not to admire Harari’s sweeping approach, his seemingly effortless mastery of the interplay of forces throughout the whole of human history. He casts a brutal light on the arbitrariness of human affairs and values, nonchalantly pointing out that money, the equality of humankind, and our present-day Western emphasis on enriching experiences, are all imaginary (not fake, but constituting “inter-subjective phenomena”: existing only to the extent that a critical mass of others believe in them). Speaking of post-industrial-revolution society’s obsession with time, he observes that “nowadays, the first item of every news broadcast – more important even than the outbreak of war – is the time.” So it is! I wondered, having never given any thought to that ubiquitous beginning to the news, “It’s eight o’clock”, the Amen of our cult of time-worship.
Sapiens is enlightening, disarming, and very entertaining. It makes you think and question. That thinking and questioning should be equally applied to the book and its talented author.