Yuval Noah Harari

“Just six million years ago, a single female ape had two daughters. One became the ancestor of all chimpanzees, the other is our own grandmother.” That appears on page 5, and somehow it convinced me that I was going to enjoy this book. Actually, even before that, the framing of the massive exercise of universe creation, and evolution, neatly into physics, then chemistry, and biology is itself a fantastic beginning. This elegance in framing, which extends to the analogies used as well, played a huge role in me recommending this book to pretty much everyone I met, even while I was still reading it.

To continue, after biology, which is the study of organisms, we come to the study of something developed by humans – culture, and that study is history. From as many as six other human species that existed until 100,000 years ago, we were the chosen ones. How did that happen, and how did we get here, that is what the book explores.

What I really liked was that it isn’t just a chronology of events, but an exploration of how and why it might have happened. And these are not just limited to societal, political, economic or scientific evolutions, but that of our minds and world views as well. From really broad themes such as cognitive and agricultural revolutions and the concepts that shaped the modern world – trade, empire, religion (including capitalism, ha!) – to something as subjective as ‘happiness’ and ‘meaning’, pretty much everything that is of consequence to the individual as well as the species somehow manages to find a place in this book.

And while there is a very sharp, logically backed point of view on a lot of things (e.g. the agricultural revolution was a trap) there really is no preaching, you wouldn’t really call this book opinionated. And yet, I found validation for many of my own belief systems. I especially liked the idea of inter-subjective reality – concepts and belief systems that are actually imaginary but agreed upon by most – money, nations, god.

The last few pages are devoted to what might be our future, and using another fantastic use of analogy – how the launch of space missions in the 40s made many people believe we’d colonise other planets by the end of the century, but something such as the internet and its effects was not really foreseen – the author explains how we might be absolutely wrong when we try to fathom the physical/emotional/societal needs of the beings that follow. But he does point out that throughout history, our ability to control the world around us and shape it to our needs has been exponentially increasing. (early on, he shows how wheat, chicken etc gained prominence as a species because of our interest in them) Therefore, as intelligent design advances, and we take on from nature, a huge responsibility looms.

In this context, one statement made me wonder – “The tragedy of industrial agriculture is that it takes great care of the objective needs of animals, (survival, reproduction) while neglecting their subjective needs”. Is that what we are doing to our own species too?

The book is thought provoking, and has the ability to widen one’s horizons and make one question deeply held views. Though there has been criticism for sensationalism, and glossing over facts to prove a point, I’d still highly recommend it.

Sapiens