Every week, I write a book summary and review for an online company. I read a nonfiction book and write down my thoughts on it.
So far, I’ve written one, and I’m working on another. Below is my review of the first book I read: Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind by Yuval Noah Harari.
This book, in short, covers the four “revolutions” of human history: The Cognitive, The Agricultural, The Unification, and the Scientific Revolutions. Also, it is incredibly humanistic, talking about the millions of years that the human race have had to evolve and “change”. As a Christian, that made this book very difficult to read, because it flies in the face of all I believe and know to be true.
However, this review does not directly mention this, mainly because there was SO MUCH else to riff on in this book. 😄
Also, this review is LONG. Really long. It’s a good read(if I do say so myself☺️), but if you don’t have the time or inclination to read it all, I don’t blame you. Thanks for reading my blog anyway. 🙂
Now, without further adieu, my review:
The revolutions that have shaped our world and furthered our evolution are fascinating indeed. Our advances in movement, energy consumption, and electricity have led to exciting technological advances in the way we live our lives. Assembly lines made modern production rates the highest in human history, and robots and machines have replaced human power and animal muscle in implementing the progress made by scientists and mathematicians alike. We have discovered countless things about the human body, and why it acts the way it does, and how other people and cultures can work well together. However, there are some, like Mr. Harari, who see this progress as hurting those species who inhabit this world with us: namely, animals. He outlines cruelties suffered by animals in hatcheries and milking factories, as well as during scientific experiments and in zoos and habitats. He also explains how new scientific research suggests that animals have psychological needs as well as emotional and physical needs. This, along with the fact that humans now produce more than they need, leads him to assume that our modern way of life in unsustainable, and will likely result in our eventual extinction. This book, Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, is his proverbial slap on the wrist.
He starts his book millions of years ago, which is an unlikely premise on which to begin. He postulates that there were once several different species of humans roaming the world, but only one made it out alive. How is this possible? He bases his findings on the barest of archeological artefacts, and even admits this to his readers, and yet he still has the audactiy to postulate this entire book upon just a few different ideas and biased opinions. He weaves this amazing narrative about our long and checkered past, and when he tries to prove it, there’s no proof to be had. He admits, more than once, that he is merely guessing at this point, and yet his readers are supposed to take him at his word? If any other published author were to print this, he would be laughed off as a kook. However, since Mr. Harari’s narrative fits in with the globally accepted theory, it’s considered high science. His theories and guesses are haphazard and contradictory, and should not be considered in the annals of scientific discovery.
He goes on to explain how Sapiens either interbreeded with other humans or killed them off, with an obvious bias towards the theory of “replacement”. If this were the case, why have we not found piles of unrecognizable bones scattered across several continents? Would that not be the expected findings, if such systemic genocide did occur? Since no such mass body count has yet to be found, what other guesses does he have? Again, he is basing his entire premise on circumstantial evidence and a few artefacts that have no meaning outside the tribe in which they were used. There is no writing from this time period, indicating that we have aboslutely no idea of what anything used during our ancient past could have meant to that particular clan or trieb. However, Mr. Harari claims greater knowledge, and goes on to weave a long and magical tale of how our ancestors were happy and free, and live a rich and varied life as foragers before awful agriculture took over and domesticated our wild and carefree natures.
This weaving of a narrative to explain our history would be completely acceptable if it was put forth as merely speculation. However, he presents his ideas and guesswork as accepted fact, and in the same breath dismisses religions such as Christianity and Islam as “myths and fictions”. If he was presenting his story as just that, a story, I could quite enjoy his work. He is a gifted storyteller, using both narration and humor in an understated way that allows the reader to follow the story without getting bogged down in either humor or description. However, since he is speaking as if this story were in fact completely true, I must read and judge him and his work accordingly. He has taken nothing but conjecture and tiny bits of truth and made them in to a story that most people will accept as fact, and this is not acceptable.
The first part of his story is very well written: good amount of drama to keep the reader entertained, but also a few drops of humor to keep the reader from getting too depressed at the plight of the other humans on earth. However, he only cites one place with any kind of research, and the rest is merely his version of how to explain the few artefacts found from this period in time. His view of humanity is very negative indeed, especially for being a member of the species himself. He seems to believe that all Sapiens are cold blooded killers who are out for their own needs alone. I understand that life was hard in the foraging society, and that sometimes tribes would be at war with one another over very trivial matters, but the idea that a Sapien tribe would kill a Neanderthal tribe simply because they look a little different is a bit far fetched. I understand that it happens in this day and age, but primitive tribes did not think that way, but were much more animalistic and simple in their needs. If there was a fight over a particularly lush feeding ground, yes, but it seems unlikely that they went around killing other humans because they looked different. Mr. Harari is very tough on his own species, in light of the marked lack of evidence to suggest such a thing being possible. Also, since their is precious little evidence, just a few bones or so, to suggest the lives of the other human species, is it possible that they did not exist? Could these discovered bones not belong to genetically mutated Homo sapiens, rather than the existence of a completely different species? I do not claim to be an expert on the scientific qualifications for a new species to be discovered, not by any means, but it does seem a little premature to base an entire species on the discovery of just a few bones. However, that seems to be how Mr. Harari likes to operate: make the tiny bits of evidence fit my narrative, not the other way around.
As he moves in to the second part of his book, his ideas become even more controversial. His entire second part of his book is villifying the greatest advancement in history up until that point: the Agricultural Revolution. Anyone who has studied history can tell you that the advent of agriculture as a means of obtaining food was a breakthrough of epic proportions, which allowed for more comfortable living in settled towns rather than by nomadic travel. It also allowed for the population to grow exponentially, and allowing for greater civilizations to form and for science to progress on the evolutionary scale. It allowed for individuals to plan for the future, rather than live in the present, through the discovery of food storage methods. It allowed for better protection of herds and families, with the advent of new weapons and methods for defense. It fostered new relationships between larger tribes of people, resulting in intermarrying that strengthened the gene pool for future sapiens. In short, it was a massive evolutionary breakthrough that was the catalyst for all the advances in modern science and technology that we have today.
This optimistic view of agriculture is not shared by Mr. Harari. He views this revolution as a monumental evolutionary mistake, because i made life harder for sapiens, and made them more and more miserable. First of all, he is operating on assumptions again, because there is still no writing from this time period, at least not until much later in the revolution. He is guessing that because they were producing more food, they were working harder for little return. They may have worked harder as a whole, but the returns on investment were much greater. They could produce enough grain to feed their families for months, rather thana day or two. True, there were some months and years where the crops did not do as well, but with the discovery of food storage methods and techniques, they could have food for months even when the ground was inhospitable. If the foraging ground would not give up its bounty, a family had to pack up and move miles and miles away, in hopes of finding food in some other place on earth, hoping that it will be a little less inhospitable than where they just left. His second argument is that we evolved to be a foraging society, and that our bodies were not built to be harvesters and farmers. Would that not be something we would adapt to, though? Wouldn’t we, as a whole, evolve to adapt to our new way of life? Why would we evolve to be foragers and not evolve into something better? Does it not stand to reason that if a better way of life comes along, we would adapt ourselves to live that way? It flies in the face of all his previous reasoning that we would evolve all the way to foragers, and then not progress to the next step because it’s different and we weren’t built for that. How is it that we cann ot evolve past a certain point, according to Mr. Harari? We have become giants of this world, cultivating it and tending it and harvesting from it its bounty. However, Mr. Harari would rather we stopped that to return to being foragers in nomadic tribes. No thank you, Mr. Harari. I will continue to progress forward.
He goes on to argue that the plants themselves caused us to become farmers, rather than our desire to make our lives better. This is probably the most disjointed theory of them all. He goes on to describe the evolution of farming from the point of view of a wheat seed. He bestows on the seed cognitive and psychological abilities that rivals humans, and an impressive amount of manipulation for a plant. Again, I appreciate his poetic approach to this wheat seed, personifying it in a way I had not thought of before, but to present the idea that wheat, a small and inanimate seed with no cognitive abilities, domesticated and manipulated the sapien, an animal riding high at the top of the food chain and the peak of intelligence, into growing and cultivating and caring for it, I have to laugh. It’s utterly ludicrous. Wheat did not subjugate the human race, we subjugated it. The very essence of the Agricultural Revolution was the progress of humanity’s intelligence. We discovered a way to grow our own food, to bring it under our own control, rather than relying on the earth to give us whatever it deemed necessary. Our higher intelligence realized that if we could create our own source of food, we would be able to have more children and grow larger families. Our family and tribe would never have to go hungry, or travel long distances in the blistering heat of summer or the dead cold of winter in oreder to find food and shelter. It was a remarkable leap forward in our evolution, and one that ushered in many exciting possibilities that could not have been possible had we still been foraging around the land for food and warmth.
After he explains the fraud of the Agricultural Revolution, he goes on to delve into the advent of the written word and the discovery of math, both of which happened near the end of this revolution. We move out of the realm of fantasy and conjecture, and straight into fact. From here on out, the boook is actually very well written, He explains and tells stories very well, and his writing style is excellent. The fact that he is a history professor makes him very credible once he passes in to recorded human history. However, he continues to postulate based on his conjecture from earlier chapters, comparing new technologies and theories with the ideas he formed in the beginning of the book. He does well tying it all together, given that the beginning of the book was so fantastical, but he still bases certain observations about our modern world on his conjecture from earlier in the book. For example, he villifies capitalism as a cult that is responsible for the slaughter of millions on the chopping block of corporate greed. He then goes on to explain how the idea of capitalism and the free market would make no sense to an ancient, because their bartering system is so simple and well organized, and allows for no greed whatsoever. This postulation is pure guesswork used to make capitalism, which is what our country runs on and runs on well, look evil in the eyes of the reader. He also talks about the mistreatment of animals in milk and egg laying factories and farms. I know nothing about these factories and farms, so I cannot speak to the veracity of his statements. However, he does compare them to the harmonious way that foraging societies lived with nature, and how the animals roamed the wild and were untouched by human hands, which is conjecture once again. He bases some of his arguments against things that should be argued against on conjecture, which makes his arguments, while good and well intentioned, invalid.
I am sure there exists somewhere a scholaraly article about all of these things that I have mentioned as being conjecture and guesswork, but none of them are cited in this book. If they were, I would have nothing about which to write for this review. I can’t say a word against his writing or his style, as both are impeccable. His knowledge of modern history and current socioeconomic theories is astounding, and I am most impressed by his way of creating an interesting and insightful way to present complex ideas, in a way that anyone can understand them. He does quite an excellent job explaining capitalism, the importance of statistics, and the differences between our world and the Middle Ages, in a way that doesn’t lose the reader to boredom or apathy. It makes for a very compelling read as he use apt and well thought out examples to explain complex ideas as well as simple ones that we take for granted every day. His explanation of the importance of empires to our evolutionary progress is nothing short of amazing, as it allowed me to view empires in a way I had never really seen them before. The way he lays out the scientific discoveries of the Middle Ages, and how they affected, or didn’t affect, the lives of the peasants and priests who lived in that era was very well done, and I enjoyed that part of the book immensely. He writes superbly, and I will be looking up more of his writings, because he is a wonderful author and storyteller. However, the fact that he bases so many of his core arguments on conjecture that can never possibly be proven or disproven, I have lost much respect for him. It is one thing to present ideas as speculation, which he does on occasion throughout this book. However, to weave such a tale and then present it as fact is academically unacceptable. The fact that this book was published as nonfictionj continues to astound me, as nearly half the book was written about a time about which we know almost nothing. It is unscholarly and a violation of trust to print something so horrendously underresearched and tell the world it is true. There is no respect left for a scholar who would present such garbage to the world. I enjoy Mr. Harari’s writings, but I do not enjoy reading fiction in a nonfiction book. If he were to reprint this and sell it as a fiction novel, I would read it many times over, for I do enjoy his writing style and his understated descriptions. He is very talented, but not very respectable. I do not mean to attack Mr. Harari personally, but merely his book and the claims made in it. I cannot state this enough: do not publish conjecture and guesswork as fact. It is bad enough that we have ambiguity in some recent scientific findings, but there should not be outright fabrications to contend with as well. The story is wonderful, but the book is not.
Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind commits a cardinal sin: it is untruthful. In a normal fictional story, this is no problem, for the reader can enjoy a story without believing in the veracity of the tale. However, it is when a book presents itself as fact, and that all the contents within are factual based on empirical evidence, that the problem begins. A nonfiction book has no business containing fiction, because there is no reason for the reader to disbelieve it unless it knows better of its own accord. This is what this book does: it paints a fictional story as a factual account, and that cannot be forgiven. It is a beautiful story, weaving a wonderful tale of intrigue, drama, war, science, and humor. If it was only backed by evidence, it would be the greatest story ever written. However, without evidence, I’m afraid the sapiens will be relegated to land of conspiracy theory and general quackiness. Until it is proven, it’s nothing but hot air.