Sapiens by Yuval Noah Harari
Review by Viji Kurup, MD
Books are like old friends. Sometimes you remember exactly when you first met them… Sapiens is one such book. I was driving home from work and listening to a fascinating NPR interview with author Yuval Noah Harari. The discussion was about how human beings evolved to the present-day form, and they went on to discuss the scenarios of possible ‘future worlds’. The author’s arguments were compelling and stimulating! I made a mental note to look up the book, and when I did, I couldn’t put the book down until I’d finished reading it.
Harari who is a known Israeli historian, zooms out of the traditional narrow view of individual, political and cultural growth of humans and takes a broad look at the cost of human evolution on other species. He reviews the evolution of humans over the last 70,000 years. Harari argues that the capacity of homo sapiens to organize collectively and to embrace such ideas as religion and distinct economic systems allowed groups to flourish, many times at the expense of other living species (Neanderthals, homo erectus and homo soloensis); he suggests that homo sapiens were the cause of extinction of other species.
Some of the ideas Harari explores force a radical rethinking of long-held views, especially the question of whether the agricultural and industrial revolution actually improved the quality of life of homo sapiens, compared to our ancestor hunter-gatherers. He takes us on a journey that combines history, biology and philosophy in a way that I have neither encountered nor considered before.
Many of the arguments are provocative and can be fodder for thought. Harari ends with his view of what the future holds for our species. This idea is explored in detail in the sequel, Homo Deus. He looks at the effects of technologies such as genetic engineering and artificial intelligence and describes fascinating possible future worlds.
This is a book that will both capture your imagination and revolutionize the way you look at history and the role of homo sapiens in shaping it.