Valerie Pavilonis

“Homo sapiens rules the world because it is the only animal that can believe in things that exist purely in its own imagination, such as gods, states, money and human rights.” It is with this idea that author Yuval Noah Harari opens his narrative on human culture, society, the past and the future. His book “Sapiens” subtly introduces broader ideas about cultural evolution, until the reader is forced to question their most basic assumptions about our society and its origins. Artfully crafted anecdotes blend together with sweeping rhetorical questions, making it easy, almost necessary, for a reader to doubt their views.

I’ve always been fascinated by stories. This book is no exception as a story in itself, but much of the content analyzes the way humans have used stories to serve collective and personal agendas. Humans tell each other stories about ourselves, about Gods, about money and about anything else we can think of.

“Sapiens” opens with a highly readable take on human evolution, one that incorporates speculative stories, entertaining what-ifs, and several outlandish-sounding (but not altogether unlikely) scenarios that brought Homo sapiens to the top of the dog pile of history. Notably, the theory that cooked food allowed greater brain growth and development is explained in the context of the cognitive revolution. Harari goes into depth on the subject of the cognitive revolution, both because it allowed humans to use math to record food storage and other important numbers, and because it allowed for large scale cooperation, something previously unimagined. Some species, such as termites or ants, are able to function as a large group effectively. However, this is because their only thought is the task which they have been programmed to carry out by millions of years of evolutionary trial and error. The cognitive revolution allowed humans to maintain free will while creating common systems, such as money, that required only belief in order to be realized. This book stresses, in what is perhaps my favorite new idea, that in order for a system like money to function, one must only believe that someone else believes in it.

Of course, Harari weaves these ideas into stories about the first monetary systems, providing both detail and speculation on ancient societies. He builds narratives from some of the first known hunter-gatherers to the first major agricultural civilization to the beginning of globalization. The latter half of the book is dedicated to predictions, sifting through human history to extract likely themes for the future. Harari makes no claims regarding the longevity of the human race, making “Sapiens” at once powerful and realistic.

Just like there are no deeply-rooted societal imbalances that the author fails to touch on -— such as gender dynamics, race relations and the concept of nationalism — so too are there no sacred cows left untouched. In the process of reading this book, I found myself at times confused, unsure of my own beliefs and even downright offended. Near the middle of the volume, he draws the conclusion that if there is a single omnipotent God, he must be evil. Harari admits, however, that “nobody in history has had the stomach for such a belief.” But there is no denying that Harari’s methodically planned and executed logic draws him and the reader naturally to these conclusions. From his explanations of the random event that was the agricultural revolution to the matter-of-fact description of the mass extinctions perpetrated by humans long before global warming or the industrial revolution, the bits that put you to sleep in AP World History become impossible to put down.

A word of warning: Do not read “Sapiens” all at once. Allow time for the author’s ideas to sink in, enjoy the journey through time on Earth, and wholly immerse in the wondrous intellect and lightning wit that define Harari’s work.

Lazo Gitchos | lazo.gitchos@yale.edu .