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LoveVoodoo review

  /  LoveVoodoo review

I much enjoyed Yuval Noah Harari's Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind

It is a brilliant, thought-provoking odyssey through human history with its huge confident brush strokes painting enormous scenarios across time. It is massively engaging and continuously interesting. The book covers a mind-boggling 13.5 billion years of pre-history and history.

From the outset, Harari seeks to establish the multifold forces that made Homo (‘man') into Homo sapiens (‘wise man') – exploring the impact of a large brain, tool use, complex social structures and more. He brings the picture up to date by drawing conclusions from mapping the Neanderthal genome, which he thinks indicates that Sapiens did not merge with Neanderthals but pretty much wiped them out. ‘Tolerance' he says, ‘is not a Sapiens trademark' (p19), setting the scene for the sort of animal he will depict us to be.

Fascinating but flawed

Harari's pictures of the earliest men and then the foragers and agrarians are fascinating; but he breathlessly rushes on to take us past the agricultural revolution of 10,000 years ago, to the arrival of religion, the scientific revolution, industrialisation, the advent of artificial intelligence and the possible end of humankind. His contention is that Homo sapiens, originally an insignificant animal foraging in Africa has become ‘the terror of the ecosystem' (p465). There is truth in this, of course, but his picture is very particular. He is best, in my view, on the modern world and his far-sighted analysis of what we are doing to ourselves struck many chords with me.

Nevertheless, in my opinion the book is also deeply flawed in places and Harari is a much better social scientist than he is philosopher, logician or historian. His critique of modern social ills is very refreshing and objective, his piecing together of the shards of pre-history imaginative and appear to the non-specialist convincing, but his understanding of some historical periods and documents is much less impressive – demonstrably so, in my view.