July 2022 Open Book Group – Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind by Yuval Noah Harari

100,000 years ago, at least six human species inhabited the earth. Today there is just one. Us. Homo sapiens. How did our species succeed in the battle for dominance? Why did our foraging ancestors come together to create cities and kingdoms? How did we come to believe in gods, nations and human rights; to trust money, books and laws; and to be enslaved by bureaucracy, timetables and consumerism? And what will our world be like in the millennia to come? In Sapiens, Professor Yuval Noah Harari, an Israeli academic, spans the whole of human history, from the very first humans to walk the earth to the radical – and sometimes devastating – breakthroughs of the Cognitive, Agricultural and Scientific Revolutions.

 Drawing on insights from biology, anthropology, palaeontology, and economics, he explores how the currents of history have shaped our human societies, the animals and plants around us, and even our personalities. Have we become happier as history has unfolded? Can we ever free our behaviour from the heritage of our ancestors? And what, if anything, can we do to influence the centuries to come?

 Published in 2014, Sapiens has sold 23 million copies translated into 65 languages.

 Our discussion opened with comments on the size of the book. It is 500 pages in small print. Well, Harari is covering all of human history. Most of the 12 sapiens who gathered for this month’s OBG meeting had read it all. Others had read the first third and dipped into the rest.

 His theory on how Homo Sapiens became the dominant species in the world intrigued us. Harari contends that other Homo species, like Neanderthals, were as sophisticated as Sapiens. Neanderthals could only form groups based on personal relationships. This limited their organisational abilities to 150 people. Homo Sapiens, Harari argues, is the only animal that can believe in things that exist purely in their imagination, such as gods. This enabled Sapiens to mobilise groups much larger than 150 and to overcome all other contenders for supremacy.

 He debunks theories there was no intercommunication between Homo species. One member pointed out that improvements in DNA testing have found many of us have traces of Neanderthal blood.

 Today Sapiens continue to rule the world through our belief in a range of imagined systems such as religion, nation states, money, and human rights. One member stressed that for Harari’s argument to hold trust in these intangible constructs is fundamental. If we trust them, they bind us as a group. Once trust is broken the imagined constructs collapse. Money is worthless without the trust of its users. Political systems break down without the trust of the people. For centuries the French society bowed to its King. The French Revolution broke that trust and replaced the monarchy with another imagined construct of liberal democracy and the birth of the French Republic.

 We were captivated by the questions he looked to answer. How had Europe, which up to 1500 was an intellectual backwater compared to China, developed the scientific method? And so the vast wealth of the industrial revolution? Answer – because European were willing to accept they were ignorant and wanted to explore different options. Other civilisations were comfortable with what they knew and saw no reason to expand their knowledge. A thought-provoking thesis.

 We agreed that his highly readable style, laced with anecdotes and humour, meant answers to difficult questions were not mired in impenetrable academic language. We understood why Harari referenced Jared Diamond’s classic Guns, Germs and Steel as an influence.

 We noted his populist style polarised Sapiens’ reviewers. Many academics saw red at some of his sweeping statements and, at times, injudicious use of facts.

 We discussed how this criticism hit home when Harari argued Aboriginal people reached mainland Australia by boat; we thought it was via a land bridge when sea levels were much lower. He argued the extinction of megafauna, including giant 10 feet tall kangaroos and 10 feet long wombats (what fun), was caused by the invading Sapiens; we thought an environmental catastrophe annihilated them. A quick post-meeting trawl of the internet reveals the jury is still out on all these theories. Unlike pedantic academics, these disagreements did not detract from our enjoyment of Sapiens.

 Members referenced Dark Emu by Bruce Pascoe (OBG May 2018) and Kate Grenville’s The Secret River. Academics had been similarly critical of these authors for their selective use of historical sources.

 Glyn Davis, Vice-Chancellor of the University of Melbourne, reviewed Sapiens in the SMH.

 Whatever the flaws, Sapiens is compelling. There are unexpected takes on conventional wisdom, astonishing compression to produce impressive synthesis and many tough judgments about our species worth reflection. The prose is tight and clear, the range impressive, the reach across aeons and nations in places brilliant. Others will tell the story differently, but few with such skill.

Well said, Prof. Davis. OBGers are with you!

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