4 Reasons Why You Should Read ‘Sapiens’ by Yuval Noah Harari
I was told to read Sapiens by many people over quite a few months, from the friend of a parent to a few teachers. As someone who struggles to finish books (but has no issues starting them), I reluctantly began to read it as university application time began, only after realising I needed to read at least one book related to the subject (biology) I thought I’d be applying to.
I was pretty sure Sapiens would be another book I wouldn’t finish… but then I read it in a few days. Not only did I end up quoting it in my university applications, but it intrigued me so much that I switched my course choices from entirely biology-based to anthropology-based subjects. It also completely changed my outlook on things — for the better.
As seems to be a common phenomenon with people who read it, I’m now on a mission to get as many people to read it too.
Here are four reasons why you should read Sapiens:
- You’ll realise how our existence is so meaningless…
Harari gracefully boils the complex constructs that rule our societies down into their crude realities as he makes you realise values of even hugely important structures (such as money, time) gain their sole value from worth attributed to them by people.
Of course, to dismiss money and time as meaningless is wrong; both result in the smooth (for money, this obviously depends on your income) running of society. If we all collectively stopped believing in the time right now being 11:50 am, for example, we’d quickly descend into absolute chaos.
But it is important to question the structures that rule over our society and in whose favour they’re working for, which is something Sapiens does so brilliantly.
“How do you cause people to believe in an imagined order such as Christianity, democracy or capitalism? First, you never admit that the order is imagined.”
2. …yet, so beautiful
Are we on a floating rock in the middle of a universe? Yeah. Is our species, entire existence and every single establishment or structure on this planet almost hilarious due to the fact that we’re literally just somewhat smart monkeys? Also yeah.
But from this meaninglessness and the absurdity of our structures grows an absurd sort of beauty that permeates the entire book.
Sapiens is structured in such a way that it takes you through the history of our species, the intertwined harmony with nature that our ancestors had, up to the growth of complex civilisation. We have a tendency as a species to perhaps romanticise the reasons why our ancestors did what they did- something Harari breaks down swiftly.
“We did not domesticate wheat. It domesticated us.”
3. You’ll learn what Biology 101 didn’t teach you about evolution
Another amazing aspect of Sapiens is how much it opens your eyes to the actual story of evolution.
We all know the famous photo of evolution that features the slow progression from ape to man; but what we consider far less is the steps it took to get there. Biology 101 teaches us of this slow progression, but doesn’t give any names, faces or features to our ancestors. Sapiens completely alters your perception, giving names and faces to the plethora of complex species scattered alongside the long lineage from ape to Homo sapiens.
Ever heard of Homo rudolfensis, Homo ergaster, or Homo georgicus? What about our mysterious cousins, the Denisovans? How about Java’s Homo soloensis? Sapiens plugs the gaps between ape and man in such a graceful, poetic way, revealing the complex web of interactions that lead to our species today.
“The members if some of these species were massive and others were dwarves. Some were fearsome hunters and others meek plant-gatherers. Some lived only on a single island, while many roamed over continents. But all of them belonged to the genus Homo. They were all human beings.”
4. It’s not just about history, nor is it just about what actually happened
As the book’s author Yuval Noah Harari is a history professor, you wouldn’t be crazy to assume the book doesn’t touch what our future as a species may look like- but your assumption would be very wrong.
Harari takes you on a journey from Eastern Africa around 2,500,000 years ago, through the migrations of our ancestors to the modern day institutions, structures and hierarchies that our society relies on to function. In Sapiens, these structures aren’t just questioned, their futures are too- as are alternate histories that very nearly happened.
Through the interweaving of history, anthropology, sociology, biology and politics (to name a few), Harari paints a rich picture of what happened, what could have happened and what might happened. Parts of the book certainly are slightly unnerving, with discussions of how AI might change our lives (spoiler: it’s not in the fun Hollywood horror/sci-fi way) and how many of us face a fate of being a member of the ‘useless class’; however, the doom and gloom are well-balanced with a constant realisation of how absurd, odd and occasionally heartwarming our species can be as continue living in our invented realities.
“Whichever way it happened, the Neanderthals (and the other human species) pose one of history’s great what ifs. Imagine how things might have turned out had the Neanderthals or Denisovans survived alongside Homo sapiens. What kind of cultures, societies and political structures would have emerged in a world where several different human species coexisted? How, for example, would religious faiths have unfolded? Would the book of Genesis have declared that Neanderthals descend from Adam and Eve, would Jesus have died for the sins of the Denisovans, and would the Qur’an have reserved seats in heaven for all righteous humans, whatever their species? Would Neanderthals have been able to serve in the Roman legions, or in the sprawling bureaucracy of imperial China? Would the American Declaration of Independence hold as a self-evident truth that all members of the genus Homo are created equal? Would Karl Marx have urged workers of all species to unite?”