Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind

Harari, Yuval

Primary Category: Literature / Nonfiction

Genre: History

Annotated by:
Field, Steven
  • Date of entry: Dec-17-2018


Yuval Noah Harari’s best-selling book “Sapiens” is subtitled “A Brief History of Humankind.”  While this may seem to bespeak a bit of hubris—it would seem that 414 pages might be, despite the modifying adjective of the subtitle, a little too condensed to cover 2.5 million years (albeit only the last 70,000 or so in any kind of detail)—the impression after finishing is that he may have done it, or at least, done the effort proud.  Mustering a combination of data and insights from the domains of history, archeology, genetics, biology, paleobiology, economics, and sociology, among others, Harari weaves an organized narrative that attempts to answer the questions of who we are and how we got here.

He divides the story into four assigned landmark periods in human history: The Cognitive Revolution (the earliest organization of humans into groups which evidence the use of tools and the beginnings of culture), The Agricultural Revolution (the impact of the learned ability to cultivate the land, with its shift from hunters and gatherers to farmers, and by necessity, from nomadic to settled tribes, and the beginnings of towns), The Unification of Humankind (the aggregation of people into larger groups and the emergence of money (and the earliest capitalism), religion, social expansion and conquest), and The Scientific Revolution (the development of science and the incredibly rapid acceleration of knowledge in the last five or six hundred years).  The titles of the periods are, however, only guideposts, for the sections are broader in scope than simply farming or science. The section on the scientific revolution, for example, interweaves scientific progress with economics and imperialism (which are themselves interwoven, after all), religion, and philosophy. And that same section leads Harari to speculate, at the end, as to where the digital revolution and the development of artificial intelligence might be leading us and what we might say about our future as a species.  


Seventy thousand years of human history is a lot to cover in 400 pages, and the narrative is obviously not all-inclusive, nor could it be expected to be.  It is, however, eminently readable. The author has a very entertaining and welcoming writing style, which draws the reader in and along as he presents the “long view” of human history. The work is well-referenced, not as extensively referenced as a historical text (which it is not, was not intended to be, and makes no pretense of being), but more so than most books aimed at a popular audience. It is a relatively quick read not because it deals with a light or narrow subject—it does not—but because it is well-written and even fun to read, and deals not only in concepts but also in examples of those concepts. 

It is hardly worth noting that a book of this size and for this market could not possibly deal with all of the nuances of human history, including the exceptions that prove various rules. Thus the narrative—especially as regards the earlier periods of human history—is often more speculative than proven, although for purposes of narrative style and in the service of illustrating a particular hypothesis, it is presented as very much the way it happened. This is unavoidable; there were no written records of the time, and writing history is hard enough without having to reconstruct it out of fossils and the DNA of ancient bones. But Harari constructs an evidence-supported best effort at recounting the history of man in a unified, cogent, and compelling way. And he creates a story in which broad historical, social, cultural, and scientific trends are seamlessly interwoven in the service of telling that story.

The historical narrative nods to philosophy and ethics with the introduction of the Gilgamesh Project, the scientific undertaking aiming to understand, and by understanding to stave off, death. In this brief discussion, the author wonders about the change that the role of death has undergone in our philosophy, and what its future will be.  And near the end of the book, Harari’s speculations about artificial intelligence and digital human beings raise interesting questions about exactly where the species is going. He also invokes, as might be expected, the specter of Frankenstein as the eternal metaphor for scientific arrogance, as once again our creations hold the promise of destroying the species as we currently know it. 

Other than the section referenced above, which is the last part of the final section, there is not terribly much here that directly relates to medicine, or patients, or health care. It is, however, the story of humanity told in a way that interweaves multiple disciplines, and is a pleasure to read. And perhaps having a fuller appreciation of humanity isn’t a bad reference point for the humanities in general, medical or otherwise.        


Harper Collins

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