RAD Book Club review: Sapiens

21 Feb 2019

RAD Book Club’s fifth read, and the second non-fiction title this series, was Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind by Israeli historian Yuval Noah Harari.

Professor of history at Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Harari’s academic interests include medieval and military history as well as cognition, consciousness and biotechnological change. This book is an account of human history and cultural change from the perspective of cognition and natural science, particularly evolutionary biology, and a vision of things to come.

The book is organised in four broad chapters (or revolutions): the cognitive revolution and the place of imagination; the agricultural revolution and the development and means of sustenance; the unification of humankind, or the drive towards global political and ideological organisation; and the scientific evolution, or how objective science is shaping the way we see and create the world. In this book, Harari argues that the distinctive characteristic of sapiens is their ability to cooperate and to be organised by complex ideological, yet changing, systems of belief. Harari makes several claims, among others, that the agricultural revolution might have been better for sapiens as a species than for an individual person’s happiness. He also suggests that economic, political and religious ideas have participated in a unification project which helps explain today’s global context. He proposes that empiricism and the scientific method are drives used by sapiens to reach the next evolutionary stage for the species. This stage seems to be one in which biotechnology might be able to give humans almost god-like qualities. He concludes that human happiness is a valid area of research which requires further enquiry.

For some of us, particularly those not inclined towards nonfiction, reading this book gave us a sense of personal achievement. A very brave undertaking, the book is broad in scope and diverse in topics treated. We felt the author managed to achieve this while keeping an apparent sense of simplicity. We also thought the book was thought-provoking and we appreciated the author’s efforts to raise question which we had not pondered before. Although provocative, the book was accessible in terms of language and clear in terms of structure. A few of us also welcomed the clever, inclusive and diverse use of examples presented and language employed as we felt this compensated for the imbalances often found in history books in terms of gender and sexuality, among other aspects.

For others however, the scope of the book was such that the author just glossed over certain aspects of the complex history he was trying to convey. On the other hand, some of us would have liked to see more evidence of the research that led to some of the explanations presented, which rarely included any critical apparatus. Certainly this was due to the attempts to present a comprehensive yet concise history of humankind. This meant that for some of us the book read more as a philosophical treatise or historiographical work than as a history book. Another difficulty we found with the book was its inaccuracy and vague treatment when dealing which certain topics in detail. This made us question the accuracy of the facts presented and therefore the reliability and relevance of the work as a whole.

A few also found it difficult to keep track of the complexity of the different lines of argument reached towards the second part of the book. By that time we felt saturated by the wealth of material presented. A few added that by that time they felt the book had lost momentum. Some found the author’s tone too matter-of-fact, opinionated, and repetitive, even patronising at times.

Harari’s presentation of the near future raised several questions about biotechnology and medical ethics. Although we were not in agreement about the suitability of the author’s treatment of these topics, we felt we could have dwelt in those interesting subjects for much longer. As a group, we gave it a score of 6 out of 10.