Who do you mean by we?
November 8, 2015 6:55 AM   Subscribe

Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind by Yuval Noah Harari - "The book delivers on its madly ambitious subtitle by in fact managing to cover key moments in the developmental history of humankind from the emergence of Homo Sapiens to today's developments in genetic engineering." Also btw, check out Harari on the myths we need to survive, re: fact/value distinctions and their interrelationships.
posted by kliuless (7 comments total) 12 users marked this as a favorite
Ha! I am reading this book right now!
posted by growabrain at 7:27 AM on November 8, 2015 [1 favorite]

Some of "Sapiens" is pretty interesting, like a good article in Smithsonian or Discover. In some places, the tone is a little adolescent, as Harari breathlessly reveals to us that most of the things that appear to us as rock solid truths are only social constructs. (Of course if you actually are an adolescent, that might be news). Aside from the narrative history, his overall message seems to be, as Shakespeare's Hamlet said, "Nothing is either good or bad, but that thinking makes it so." Overall, it's a brisk popular history, with an agreeable post-modern design.
posted by Modest House at 7:36 AM on November 8, 2015 [3 favorites]

My review of the audio version of sapiens:

I was mostly fascinated with this book, though I often disagreed with it. As background, I am a sociologist, with some training in history of science and economics, so Harari's work occasionally overlaps with topics I know very well.

First, the good, and there is a huge amount to admire here: Harari's goal is to write grand macro-history without regard for the details, and at that he succeeds brilliantly. He outdoes Diamond's Guns, Germs, and Steel, by examining the intellectual, as well as biological, factors that have shaped the evolution of societies. Few popular histories manage to do so much, while still being engaging. There are plenty of WHOA moments that are very insightful - re-conceptualizing agriculture from the point-of-view of wheat, some trenchant observations on the idea of progress, contrasts between religion and capitalism, etc. A few fall flat, but there are many interesting ideas and they are all well explained.

The downside, however, is that while the grand history is engaging, many of Harari's observations on the factors underlying society are a bit shallow and misleading, and occasionally even suspect. This is true especially of the most dramatic moments of the book. For example, he calls the agricultural revolution “history’s biggest fraud,” because of a (still controversial) belief that life with agriculture was worst for most people than hunter-gatherer existence. This seems like, at best, an overstatement, given the facts. Similarly, his arguments about the goals of science (extending human life?), the origins of the scientific revolution (imperialism?), and why some countries did not turn to science (in-curiosity?) all seem to be rather unorthodox and, in many cases, wrong. There are other problems as well, including an occasional turn towards unsupported evolutionary psychology and other vague theorizing. Plus, there wasn't any credit given (or references at all) to the work upon which Harari built his arguments upon.

I still recommend the book - it is interesting and exciting. But take the ideas with a grain of salt or too, since the audiobook is more of an argument than a discussion of historical fact.
posted by blahblahblah at 8:09 AM on November 8, 2015 [6 favorites]

Thanks blahblahblah and Modest House for the thoughtful comments about this book (and thanks kliuless for this post!), which I have been looking forward to reading for a while, with just a bit of scepticism.
posted by two or three cars parked under the stars at 8:46 AM on November 8, 2015

blahblahblah: That's really interesting, thanks. What facts are there against the agricultural revolution being 'history's biggest fraud'? I remember thinking this seemed like a pretty big claim so I'm keen to know the counterarguments.
posted by adrianhon at 9:08 AM on November 8, 2015

adrianhon, I am not an archaeologist, but from what I understand, there seems to be good evidence that health decreased during the early stages of the agricultural revolution (see this, for example), and population increased. What isn't clear is causality - did some environmental or social change cause both the health decrease and agriculture? Did population growth happen first? Was population growth or agriculture responsible for health changes?

In any case, without the agricultural revolution, hunter gatherers may have been more healthy - but there would have been many fewer, and they may have been more vulnerable to change. Plus, early agriculture was a transitional state - living in cities for the first time involved a lot of changes that were bound to cause stress - health seems to have gone up afterwards. Plus, without surplus from agriculture, differentiation and specialization of jobs would have been much harder - less science, literature, philosophy, etc. The result is that it seemed like a really strong statement.
posted by blahblahblah at 1:06 PM on November 8, 2015 [1 favorite]

I have read that agricultural societies were less healthy, yes, but supported 25 times the population density. So if you were a hunter-gatherer, you might leave a taller, better-fed corpse when the farmers took your land...
posted by alasdair at 2:03 PM on November 8, 2015 [1 favorite]

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