Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind by Yuval Noah Harari
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Very enjoyable history of humanity, cleverly written and very comprehensive. At times I felt that I was reading “World History for Dummies,” because with such a broad scope, a lot of the coverage is almost inevitably superficial. You will find this to be the case whenever he summarizes great volumes of recent research on some topic you know very well, in my case, his tales of the origins and developments of empires and of the colonization of the Americas. Where he touches things I don’t know well, such as the biology of early humans, I was grateful for the overview and the notes on where to go for more thorough information. In this book, Harari doesn’t go deep but he certainly goes wide, bringing together in one narrative the most varied topics, from paleoanthropology to artificial intelligence. This is a productive strategy for generating new insights, suggesting connections among the most diverse phenomena. My favorite and most memorable portion is his riff on the Peugeot symbol and the surprisingly similar figure of a combative man with a lion’s head from paleolithic times. This is an entertaining device to make the point that what first distinguished modern human beings from all other intelligent creatures was their ability to imagine and depict things that had never been seen — including “corporations”, “nations”, “human rights”, religions, and monsters with lion-heads. He doesn’t say this in so many words, but one thing he has demonstrated is that, rather than “Sapiens” — wise or knowing — we are really “Homo Phantosiosus”, the original inventors of fake news (and, sometimes, wild imaginings that turn out to be confirmed in reality).