Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind – Yuval Noah Harari

I like science-fiction.  You know this if you have read this blog before.

A question I often find myself asking is to what extent humanity would be different had there been other species of humans about to this day. We were once not the only species of hominids around – there were other, competing species about the world, and somehow we merely out-competed them. But human history certainly would have taken a different, and surely more interesting turn, should those other species have survived to give us some competition. It would effect literally ever aspect of our lives.

That is not what Sapiens is about. But Sapiens certainly gives a lot of fuel to those ideas.

Sapiens is Yuval Noah Harari’s history of our species, and it gives us an account of our journey out of the African continent and around the world. It goes into our biology from before we could even really consider ourselves humans, and elaborates on where we became distinct from our competing species. And it also goes into how our dominance came to pass, despite the advantages the competing species did have on us.

It isn’t much of a spoiler to say that the advantege is all in our head. Literally our brains. We can look at the animal kingdom around us and notice the difference. The specificity that Harari gives it is codified as inter-subjective realities, those abstract notions and institutions that only we humans really have, and that our species is entirely dependent on. In many respects this book felt like a companion piece to that book that got bandied about so much during my Master’s degree, Terrence Deacon’s The Symbolic Species. But that was a very different book, and this one was certainly much more anthropological in nature.

There are some grievances against this book, a notable one being that much of Harari’s conjecturing about our distinction is not as rigorously supported by science as one would like. However, that’s not really in my wheelhouse to judge. What can be said of the book is that is gives us a wealth of information about our early period, and that in turn does do much to clarify our current position. Many people seem to think that knowing history leads to sound knowledge about what is going on in the present, but never seem to want to go back as far as Harari does, instead wanting to simply lament that because the Roman empire fell, we must be definitionally on the precipice of a fall as well. Sapiens is much more interesting than all that, and much more informative as well.

Frankly, I have no idea. And I am happy this way.

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