Sapiens by Yuval Noah Harari

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Wow.

I say that, not because it was necessarily amazing, although parts of it were, but because it’s the first history textbook I’ve read cover-to-cover since Carl Degler’s Out of Our Past. And that was back in university. And I didn’t even read every page of that, come to think of it.

History textbooks have come a long way, if Sapiens is typical. Maybe because Harari is happy to poke through the walls of his discipline and consider physics, evolutionary biology, philosophy and religious studies to present a comprehensive view of 70,000 years of human history.

And there are quite a few wow moments.

The first was when he stipulated that wheat domesticated humans, not the other way round. How else should we interpret an agricultural revolution that took relatively healthy, free-range hunter-gatherers and tied them to back-breaking work harvesting and planting one crop, devoting their lives to it and feeding themselves an inferior diet in exchange? Wheat (and rice and barely) became the dominant plants in the world. They weren’t the ones being domesticated, homo sapiens were.

There were lots of other such moments,  including quite a detailed philosophical treatise on what exactly happiness is, and why we haven’t found it (and probably never will), the shockingly cavalier approach we have to other species and often our fellow humans, and the results of imperialism (not all bad), nationalism (mostly bad) capitalism (mostly good, though potentially apocalyptic) and our species’ ability to turn mass into energy (like burning coal) and energy into mass (like 416-page history textbooks) and to waste all this power on buying Madonna CDs when we would probably be better off being good Buddhists and eschewing the craving for anything and just digging nothingness, man.

But, man, then there would be no history and certainly no ambitious textbooks like this one, which would be a terrible shame.

Thanks to Sapiens, I think I finally understand how best to look at money, religion, human rights, democracy, communism you name it, (they are invented subjective shared truths) and human self-centeredness and how we, eternal Laurel and Hardys don’t ever know what we’re doing but will end up evolving ourselves into yet another fine mess.

Yeah, that’s history.

No. 2 of 100 books I intend to read and review in 2019.

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Patrick Sherriff publishes a monthly newsletter highlighting good fiction published in English about Japan. He lives in Abiko with his wife and two daughters.