SAPIENS by Yuval Noah Harari (Vintage Books, 2014)

41mjx6yzfel-_sx324_bo1204203200_History is full of big mistakes and there’s a common notion that we should study it to avoid repeating the errors of the past.

However, Yuval Noah Harari explains one of the key problems with taking lessons from previous cultures and generations is that “History cannot be explained deterministically and it cannot be predicted because it is chaotic”.

Such a view could give credence to the belief that “History is just one damn thing after another”.

Harari’s populist approach to the subject is a breath of fresh air. He has been criticized for his lack of scholarly rigor but his non-elitist position is that historians cannot and should not assume an objective, dispassionate position.

665full-yuval-noah-harariWriting about the past inevitably involves considering the author’s present day baggage so some conscious or unconscious bias or prejudice is unavoidable.

Harari is a gay atheist vegan from Israel so it’s easy to understand why his perspective draws the reader away from mainstream attitudes.

When he describes the agricultural revolution as “history’s biggest fraud” you recognize that this book is not going pay lip service to the belief that such radical shifts in society automatically represent a great leap forward for humanity.

His position on this and other ‘revolutions’ is guided by the question : In what way did these events make ordinary people’s lives better and how have they contributed to the happiness of humankind?

Many of his claims are unconventional and controversial but the logic of his arguments are irrefutable. Take for example his approach to the age-old dilemma of how to explain evil in the world if we are being watched over by a benevolent God.: “Monotheism explains order, but is mystified by evil. Dualism explains evil, but is puzzled by order. There is one logical way of solving the riddle: to argue that there is a single omnipotent God who created the entire universe – and He’s evil. But nobody in history has had the stomach for such a belief”.

As this reasoning illustrates, Harari is smart, provocative and entertaining. Watch one of his interviews on You Tube or his What Explains The Rise Of Humans? Ted Talk and you will appreciate what a good storyteller he is. This is significant because one of the key premises of Sapiens is that humankind’s unfailing skill at telling stories is one of the main reasons why we have achieved dominance over the animal kingdom. The ability to create credible fictions about God, money, nations and political ideologies help build levels of organization and co-operation between total strangers that would otherwise be impossible.

Given the radicalism of many of Harari’s views it is perhaps surprising to find that this book has been praised by influential men like Barack Obama, Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg and Tom Hanks. Normally I would regard such endorsements as the kiss of death but in this case it just helps to demonstrate the power of Harari’s debating skills.

You certainly don’t need to be a world leader, successful entrepreneur or top actor to appreciate the book. Sapiens is a work about the people and for the people so should be essential reading for movers and shakers everywhere.

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