Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind

In 400 pages, Yuval Noah Harari covers about 70,000 years of human history — but Sapiens is not a history book. If you enjoy Jared Diamond or Joseph Campbell, you might also like this.

Harari starts by trying to identify what separated Homo sapiens from other animals, including the related species in the Homo genus. We often forget that Homo sapiens lived alongside other species of humans — species that no longer exist today. How did Homo sapiens succeed while others failed? Harari believes it has do to with our ability to organize ourselves not by instinct, but by common beliefs.

You could never convince a monkey to give you a banana by promising him limitless bananas after death in monkey heaven.

Our ability to imagine things that are not physically real is the basis of Harari's answer. While we may have started with animism, Harari reminds us that most things affecting our daily lives are also not physically real. These myths allow us to cooperate on a scale that no other species is capable of, whether it's as company, a city, or a nation.

Ever since the Cognitive Revolution, Sapiens have thus been living in a dual reality. On the one hand, the objective reality of rivers, trees and lions; and on the other hand, the imagined reality of gods, nations and corporations. As time went by, the imagined reality became ever more powerful, so that today the very survival of rivers, trees and lions depends on the grace of imagined entities such as the United States and Google.

Harari then describes how myths have emerged throughout history and shape the present-day. While discussing history, he keeps the content engaging by making comparisons to current events.

Harari also poses some challenging questions about human nature. When did we feel most fulfilled as a species? When were we the happiest? Could it have been as hunter-gatherers, or somewhere in between then and the present day? Given emerging biological evidence that happiness is related to a balance of chemicals in the brain, he suggests that, on average, we might have felt happier in another time period.

Nothing captures the biological argument better than the famous New Age slogan: ‘Happiness begins within.’ Money, social status, plastic surgery, beautiful houses, powerful positions – none of these will bring you happiness. Lasting happiness comes only from serotonin, dopamine and oxytocin.

Sapiens is worth checking out. Harari's blend of narrative and historical analysis makes it an enjoyable read, while offering some great starting points for further discussion.