Notes and Review - Sapiens (Harari)

I have been hearing about Sapiens since April 2018. A friend in university read that book and told me that it was really good and that it changed the way they thought about a lot of things. I wanted to read the book but it was never very high on my list. This past Friday, I read a profile of the author, Yuval Noah Harari in the New Yorker. This profile intrigued me because it told the story of a university professor and a historian and even a philosopher who had some very strange principles and said things that I had honestly never heard before. These two quotes sealed the deal for me:

In “Sapiens,” Harari writes in detail about a meeting in the desert between Apollo 11 astronauts and a Native American who dictated a message for them to take to the moon. The message, when later translated, was “They have come to steal your lands.” Harari’s text acknowledges that the story might be a “legend.”

“I don’t know if it’s a true story,” Harari told me. “It doesn’t matter–it’s a good story.” He rethought this. “It matters how you present it to the readers. I think I took care to make sure that at least intelligent readers will understand that it maybe didn’t happen.” (The story has been traced to a Johnny Carson monologue.)

I wanted to find out if I was an intelligent reader. And this one:

Later this year, in Israel, Harari plans to have a private conversation with Peterson. Harari said of Peterson’s representatives, “They offered to do a public debate. And we said that we don’t want to, because there is a danger that it will just be mud wrestling.”

I don’t know much about Jordan Peterson but I have seen him talk about some things when he was on the H3H3 podcast and the one feeling I didn’t get from him was that he was someone who would get into mud wrestling on a public debate. (Especially because they talk about his appearance on an English talk show and how the anchor tries to gotcha him every single time but he is extremely careful with his words and can effortlessly trace back to exactly what he said, word for word, and explain to her why she is portraying things not as they are, but as she wants them to be.

Now, I absolutely had to drop everything else and read Sapiens. I did just that.


The book is divided into three parts.


TL;DR Don’t read Sapiens. Read Lever of Riches (Mokyr) to get a detailed account of the last 2000 years of technological progress and Factfulness (Rosling) to learn about the social advancements that we have made since ancient times and feel good about progress.

There aren’t a lot of original insights in this book, there’s a lot of speculation without any backing in facts or in arguments. The prose isn’t concrete enough to be history and isn’t abstract or argumentative enough to be philosophy. It is extremely easy to read and that is concerning to me because of the purported subject of the book: “History of Humankind”.

Most people who read this review might disagree with me or might think that this review is too harsh. I am confounded by the fact that so many people read this book and found it to be useful. I want to understand how that could happen. Perhaps, we can discuss why you thought it was a good book and what insights were in it that I didn’t pick up on.

Part 1

The first part covers human “history” leading upto about 12,000 years ago. The main event that it talks about is the Cognitive revolution about 70,000 years ago at which point in time there were several species of the genus Homo on the planet and the sapiens species was the first to start thinking. I have put the word history in quotation marks because most of it is made up. There are no written records (there wasn’t even writing yet) and there’s the flimsiest basis for most of the claims made in this part if you consider archaelogical findings. The ethos of this part seems to be “If you don’t know what happened, make something up”

One particular passage sums up this part nicely:

Tolerance is not a Sapiens trademark. In modern times, a small difference in skin color, dialect, or religion has been enough to prompt one group of Sapiens to set about exterminating another group. Would Ancient Sapiens have been any more tolerant towards an entirely different human species? It may well be that when Sapiens encountered Neanderthals, the result was the first and most significant ethnic-cleansing campaign in history.

– p.18

This passage comes about 3 lines after the author admits that there are two possibilites that expert have admitted: Sapiens exterminated Neanderthals either intentionally or by simply being better at foraging and hunting everything before Neanderthals could do anything OR Sapiens and Neanderthals intermixed and there was no malicious extermination. You might have seen what path the author chose. And perhaps you see why he chose that path. This passage is particularly hard to look past because it’s the equivalent of something that talking heads say on TV to get next day’s sound bite; it is sensational.

Part 1 is rife with such examples. Another classic:

We did not domesticate wheat. It domesticated us. Domesticate comes from the Latin domus, which means “house”. Who’s the one living in a house? Not the wheat. It’s the Sapiens.

– p.81

And one last one:

Since we enjoy affluence and security, and since our affluence and security are built on foundations laid by the Agricultural Revolution, we assume that the Agricultural Revolution was a wonderful improvement. Yet it is wrong to judge thousands of years of history from the perspective of today.

– p.83

Here’s the thing: what he is talking about is not wrong. No one can say that it is, because we don’t know what is right. We have absolutely no idea. No one does because there are no records from this period of time. As there are no records, one can say almost anything they want to about this period without caussing much ire among any group of scholars. In my opinion, one should not speculate about such things. Especially when the speculation is that it was a tragic mis-step to move from foraging to agriculture and the implication is that even though we have some comforts today the path we took to this state was not a good one.

I know that books about a particular philosophy make such speculations. That is completely acceptable as the author is trying to put forward an argument for why things are the way they are. This is not philosophy. This book is not being marketed as philosophy. The back cover of the book claims that it is related to “Science” and nowhere does it indicate that everything in this book might not be factual or even based on any evidence.

Part 2

This is the smallest part of the book. It talks about the effects of the Agricultural Revolution, about 12,000 years ago. Here, we slowly lead up to the invention of writing. Things start to get more concrete and the author moves away from using probably and perhaps. There are fewer over-simplifications in this part, but there is still a significant amount of “dumbing down” of complicated topics for the benefit of the reader.

I didn’t really get any novel insights from this part either. Most of the stuff being said is either mundane and known to everyone or hyperbole. I have tried to find some original insight that I can highlight here but I am struggling to even as I flip through the chapters to find something. This is a very good example of the kind of hyperbole: The author’s argument is that moving from foraging to agriculture was a tragic mis-step, people are supposedly working more hours, dependent on nature’s whims hence making them more anxious and are getting less nutrituous food in return. The only good point is that the food comes in abundance and one doesn’t have to live hand-to-mouth which leads to an explosion in population.

When discussing why such a mis-step was allowed to stand by thinking populations and evolution, on a macro level, alike, here’s what is said:

The above scenario explains the Agricultural Revolution as a mis-calculation. It’s very plausible. History is full for far more idiotic mis-calculations.

– p.89

There’s no explanation about what those other idiotic mis-calculations were; also, the very next paragraph explains another possibility which has written evidence.

Part 3

This is the longest part and it’s about the unification of humanity into a single world. For the first time in the book, there are some original insights. Even though they are framed as bite-sized couplets that would look very good with a contemplative image as background, they are insights nonetheless. here’s the first one:


Photo by Christian Kielberg on Unsplash

I didn’t have time to make similar images for the other insights, but there are some good ones. One particular story that I liked was about how James Cook’s expedition out to Australia was actually as part of an expedition that the British government had set up asking scientists to go to different places and get some readings which would enable them to calculate the distance between the Earth and the Sun accurately.

Another one was about how America was named after Amerigo even though the only thing the Italian Amerigo did was say that the landmass that Columbus found were part of an entirely unknown continent. This is a great piece of trivia.

There are more such pieces of trivia. But the major questions are left unanswered and there aren’t even any solid serious arguments put forth about them. For eg, the author started to make me uncomfortable for a few paragraphs by saying that Communism and even Nazism were religions!!! They were not mere ideologies that one could choose to believe at one point and not believe when they did not feel like it, they were religions that one must convert to and can’t leave without an official conversion, and so on. But after these few paragraphs, he immediately backs off and doesn’t flesh it out any further. I don’t think I would have the stomach to read about how Nazism is a religion (I recently finished reading Diary of a Man in Despair) but for Communism, it would have been an interesting argument to reason about. But the book disappoints by not taking it any further. In fact, the author even says that it’s not of any import what you call it:

If it makes you feel better, you can go on calling Communism an ideology and rather than a religion. It makes no difference.

– p.229

If this was indeed the case, then why make the initial argument and say that they are religions?

Another question that is asked is about why the Chinese or the Mughals or the Indians weren’t interested in going over to America and conquering those lands for themselves despite finding out about European conquests on this new continent almost immediately and having the ocean navigation technology to get there. Readers of this blog might notice that this is extremely similar to the questions posed by Mokyr in Lever of Riches. The difference being that Mokyr presents the comparison in extreme detail and puts forth several arguments for why he thinks this could have been. Nothing of this sort can be found in Sapiens. The question is posed, and promptly forgotten about.

The last three chapters of the book are apart on their own. The book slowly turns into a social commentary on our connected way of life, consumerism, people buying things they don’t need, happiness being connected to what one feels rather than what one has, “pauper can be happy if they have a loving family but a lonely billionair can’t” and so on. Once again, there’s nothing particularly revolutionary about anything being said. I felt like I was reading curated Medium articles about capitalism, happiness, consumerism, the evils of shopping malls, global trade connecting nations etc.

There are some hard to believe assertions:

Never before has peace been so prevalent that people could not even imagine war

– p.344

The author says this in reference to the post-WW2 period from 1945 to now. As far as I can remember, most of the cold war was anxiety filled about an actual war, there was an actual war in Vietnam, then several wars in the middle east. In India and across the world, there was some terrible terrorism in the period between 2000-2012. So, I would say that “people could not even imagine war” is an exaggeration. There’s also no mention about the most peaceful period in history which one might compare our own times against.

Some quotes from the book

An example of sentences that start with probably and how detailed they can be: (emphasis on probably mine)

Nomadic bands that stalked wild sheep gradualy altered the constitutions of the herds on which they preyed. This process probably began with selevive hunting. Humans learnt that it was to their advantage to hunt only adult rams and old or sick sheep. They spared fertile females and young lambs in order to safeguard the long term vitality of the local herd. The second step might have been to actively defend the herd againt predators. Driving away lions, wolves and rival human bands. The band might next have coralled the herd into a narrow gorge, in order to better control and defend it. Finally, people began to make a more careful selection among the sheep, in order to tailer them to human needs. The most aggresive rams, the ones that showed the greatest resistance to human control, were slaughtered first. So were the skinniest females and the most curious. With each passing generation, the sheep became fatter more submissive and less curious. Voila! Mary had a little lamb and everywhere that Mary went the lamb was sure to go.

– p.92

An example of the arguments that the author decided to back out of instead of fleshing them out further:

If it makes you feel better, you can go on calling Communism an ideology and rather than a religion. It makes no difference.

– p.229

A crucial lack of explanation about what the theories are and why they aren’t convincinng:

Why did the Scientific Revolution begin there of all places, and not in China or India? Why did it begin at the midpoint of the second millenium rather than 2 centuries before or 3 centuries later? We don’t know. Scholars have proposed dozens of theories but none of them is convincing.

– p.244

For posterity, the arguments given in Lever of Riches (Mokyr) are convincing. The least the author could do was at least point the reader to another book which would summarize those theories.

P.S. I wrote about this on Twitter as I was reading the book: