The Not so Kind History of Humankind

by Akshat Pai

Graphic design by Vanessa Nguyen

I first heard about Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind by Yuval Noah Harari from an article outlining books that former United States president Barack Obama recommends. This book has also received praise from technology titans like Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg. As someone who is perpetually interested in how humans have evolved from living in dark caves to potentially becoming inter-planetary species within the next few decades, this book immediately piqued my interest. I could not resist reading it. I began reading this book during my daily commute between Toronto and Mississauga (what better place to read about the history of human civilization than amongst strangers commuting to and from the most densely populated city in Canada).

Yuval Noah Harari
Author of Sapiens:A Brief History of Humankind

In this non-fiction book, which is also a prequel to Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow, Harari segments 13.5 billion years of history into various revolutions until modern day while also providing a brief outlook on the future of humankind. From the agricultural revolution that began 12,000 years ago to the technological revolution we are currently in; he walks the reader through different defining moments of human history.

Overall, the book was an interesting read. Although, I noticed that whenever Harari was about to provide more details about each time period, he quickly moved on to the next one. I found this quite lackluster at times since I expected more information regarding the defining moments in each era. This pattern contributed to this book feeling ingenuine. I was, however, not alone as quite a few historians and anthropologists have expressed similar opinions about this book’s content and the author’s writing style.

Furthermore, Harari seems to mainly showcase theories that are considered to be low hanging fruits in the world of evolutionary psychology and fails to present opposing theories. Moreover, throughout the book, he continued to take a nihilistic or dismissive approach that instills a sense of pessimism into the reader (regardless of this being his primary goal or not). On page 179, he says “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”. Statements like these seem to undermine the role and power of social constructs that continue to form the backbone of our modern society.

I would have appreciated if he provided different perspectives on a certain paradox and then explained which theory is widely accepted by experts. I believe that Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind should be read as an introductory work on evolution as it falls short as a literary work rooted in evidence (due to a lack of peer-reviewed references throughout the book along with the presentation of anecdotal evidence which may further contribute to the author’s confirmation bias). As controversial as this book is within academic circles, I would still recommend the book, however it must be supplemented by Bill Bryson’s A Short Theory of Nearly Everything and other books in this genre.