Discovering Humanity’s Biology and History through Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind

A book that has come highly recommended the last few years is Sapens: A Brief History of Humankind, written by Yuval Noah Harari. After reading Bill Bryson’s A Short History of Nearly Everything, which turned out to be the perfect precursor to Sapiens, I finally picked it up and began the journey from humanity’s biology to its history and beyond.

Most intriguing was the beginning of the book and the beginning of our species’ history, which was not “history” at all but biology. In the beginning we were just another animal, living our lives in our small corner of the world, no different than any of our other ape family members. Even once we passed from the realm of biology into history, developed consciousness, began shaping our environment to our needs, and spread out across the continents, any real change was painstakingly slow for thousands of years. All of the progress we did make was not some inevitable destiny; any number of different paths throughout history could have been taken, shaping our world into one unrecognizable compared to the one we live in today.

As mentioned previously, the book I read before this was A Short History of Nearly Everything, which ended with a chapter or two on our species’s history. Those closing chapters were fascinating and I found myself hungry for more information; Sapiens delivered. Although a bit repetitive for the first chapter or two, after that Sapiens was brimming with new information which I soaked up enthusiastically. Sapiens was the perfect followup to A Short History; Harari and Bryson write in a similar style and with a similar tone. Both books are written for a wide audience, and while they do not patronize or hold your hand, they also don’t delve into any one topic too deep so as to exclude any non-scholars.

The chapter on religion was particularly interesting. As someone who grew up attending a Catholic school, but has never been particularly religious, I appreciated getting an unbiased look at how religions today have formed over the centuries, morphing from polytheism to dualism to monotheism as human empires expanded. Sapiens provided context on the politics of early religion, for example explaining why the Romans would have wanted to execute Jesus for political reasons (Other cultures conquered by the Romans were allowed to continue worshiping their own gods, so long as they included the Roman ones as well. The Christians refused, which undermined the Roman authority.). Hearing the story from a neutral perspective was a breath of fresh air.

One of Sapiens‘s strongest assets is the examples it uses to illustrate its points. These examples come from a wide range of places and cultures, which was particularly refreshing after having read A Short History; although a lot of early science was pioneered by European white dudes (Harari touches on why this is, which was appreciated), damn were there a lot of European white dudes in that book. Opposite to this European-centric viewpoint, Sapiens introduces the reader to cultures and civilizations that never get touched on in most history books. While these cultures seem utterly foreign in their customs and myths, Harari never makes them seem less-than, and always challenges why the reader may feel that way.

Sapiens presents broad ideas in simple, interesting ways with compelling examples. With chapters on biology, evolution, consciousness, agriculture, empires, economics, religion, and much more, there is something for everyone and I would recommend giving this book a try.