I really enjoy history books that tell the story of humankind with large brush strokes; the telling detail of day to day history seems much less interesting and leaves me feeling swamped with forgettable lists of dates, or names of Kings.
So it was with some degree of anticipation that I turned to Harari’s Sapiens, and in many ways it didn’t disappoint.
Sapiens begins in prehistory and opens with broad claims about the prehistory of man, the importance of fire, the presence of other hominid species, and their differences from homo sapiens, the whole lot brim full of theories and facts. A lot of this is not new, but a real strength of this book is Harari’s ability to apply an imaginative interpretation to scenes from history, bringing them to life for the reader. An example is his description of an African scene, where men wait their turn to scavenge after a lion has eaten its fill. The hyena comes next, and then, sadly, man, with his stone tools to break open the bones of the carcass, and suck the last nourishment from the marrow.
The remainder of the book followed this pattern – some familiar material, accompanied by a range of interesting new facts and ideas, and a compelling evocation of some details. Harari looks at the development of knowledge based societies. Here he focuses on the importance of ideas and imagined realities, and the ways in which these can shape and galvanise different groups.
Harari’s interpretation of the agricultural revolution is next, and this revolution is explained in some interesting detail. In his view mankind stepped into the prison of agriculture, the luxury trap, and was never able to escape. In this section he considers the development of writing and mathematics, as the ability to manage large populations depended on this knowledge. These points have been made before. It was Harari’s focus on the importance of myth that was most interesting. He adopts the post-modernist view that all ideologies, or fictions as he calls them, have equal value – in fact are valueless, and merely provide social cohesion. Of course I disagree.
In the last sections of the book Harari considers the development of empires across the world, focusing on the cycle of decline and fall, and the ways in which empire has contributed to the dissemination of human knowledge and the unification of mankind. He looks closely at the role of money and finance, giving a really interesting explanation of the way it enabled the expansion of modern European societies, and its importance in the development of the contemporary world. Next is the age of reason, and scientific revolution, which he argues is distinctly different from earlier philosophies, and made the modern world possible. His conclusion looks at the possible development of artificial intelligence and the end of man.
I think that last point says it all – this is a pretty comprehensive view that focuses on the development of ideas and the increasing complexity of human society. It picks out key aspects of development and change and explains them in everyday language using clear and precise descriptions and analogies. What else could you need, if you’re at all interested in how we got to where we are?
Should you find this interesting, I can also highly recommend:
This takes a different approach: it’s less interested in the ideas that shaped man and more in the impact of geography on human life in different continents, and the impact of that on history.