Sat, 03 Sep 2016
The Wise Ape

Sapiens
By Yuval Noah Harari

A popular book, displayed in the bookshop prominently and also heard discussed in its aisles. It has all the usual laudatory blurbs on the cover but I try and train myself to ignore these as much as I can. They're a bit like film trailers: completely unreliable indicators.

Harari's book covers a very long period (millions of years initially, then tens of thousands) as he traces the rise of homo sapiens (the "wise man") over all our brother and sister humans (erectus, neanderthal etc.). We've been very successful but some of that success as come at a great cost to other things, including other animals. Perhaps we're reaching the limits of our ape brain : cue his new book Homo Deus (Guardian article), "A Brief History of Tomorrow".

I enjoyed the book, particularly the way he discusses things like our "cognitive revolution", when our brains grew and we developed tools, technology and better organisation. Also, his description of Sapiens sharing myths that bind and enable such large scale group organisation. These "myths" might include the usual things such as religion, but also the value of money or even the Limited Liability Company. Some of his discussion grates slightly though, such as his use of a phrase like "some religions, such as Christianity and Nazism, have killed millions out of burning hatred". Well, in context, perhaps. But such a needlessly provocative way of expressing this here will alienate people.


Above : Cave of Hands, Argentina. Paintings of human hands from 13,000 to 9,000 years ago.
From wikipedia. CC BY-SA 3.0

The book is best during its first half, as it becomes more a sociological and current affairs discussion in later chapters. Interesting and thought provoking though, just not as deep as some might think.