90 second book review: Sapiens

This is a gapper review.  I actually finished this book several months ago, forgot (or neglected) to do a quick review at the time, added it to my to do list where its been sitting there for the better part of 3 months.  Thankfully, I just finished another (audio) book (review forthcoming….soon….since this one has been jamming up all the other reviews for the five or six books I have finished since I realized I missed this one) which is helping me to see the folly in leaving things on my list that long, so this morning, I am going to hammer it out, despite my fear that it won’t be perfect…or even very good.

The subject of this review is Sapiens.  Sapiens is one of a long list of books I first heard about on the Tim Ferriss podcast.  It came up in rapid sequence on a few interviews as one of the books lots of folks in Silicon Valley were reading.  That alone didn’t really interest me; what got me was the basic premise: the author, Yuval Noah Harrari, attempted to look at the evolution of the human species from a detached, non-human lens, the same way a biologist might look at a newly discovered species of deep sea plankton.

This is a book of many, big ideas.  I can see why it has captivated the intellegensia of the valley.  It starts with the fundamentals, describing how physics begat chemistry which begat biology which begat history.  From there it goes on to try to answer the basic question: why have homo sapiens taken over the planet?  The basic answer seems to be that we evolved from a tribe of story telling monkeys.  It was our ability to tell each other stories that allowed us to shift gears, from depending on the slow mechanism of biological evolution, to the much faster mechanism of cultural evolution.  This seems related to (but stop far short of) to the narrative construction of reality concept put forward by Bruner.

From this basic premise, Professor Harrari, goes on to investigate some of the most important stories our particular band of story telling monkeys has come up with in the past 5,000 years.  I found his two chapters on money and religion (which interestingly are the bread in a sandwich around a chapter on imperialism) to be fascinating high level overviews of these two topics, with some interesting intersections.  Hararri intertwines says that money and religion are both stories we tell each other, but with one important difference:

Christians and Muslims who could not agree on religious beliefs could nevertheless agree on a monetary belief, because whereas a religion asks us to believe in something, money asks us to believe that other people believe in something

Its seems to me that Harrari would be more comfortable at a Starbuck’s full of occupy wallstreet folks than in the local chapter meeting of the Carnegie foundation, with insights like this in his chapter on capitalism:

The capitalist and consumerist ethics are two sides of the same coin, a merger of two commandments. The supreme commandment of the rich is ‘Invest!’ The supreme commandment of the rest of us is ‘Buy!’ The capitalist–consumerist ethic is revolutionary in another respect. Most previous ethical systems presented people with a pretty tough deal. They were promised paradise, but only if they cultivated compassion and tolerance, overcame craving and anger, and restrained their selfish interests. This was too tough for most. The history of ethics is a sad tale of wonderful ideals that nobody can live up to. Most Christians did not imitate Christ, most Buddhists failed to follow Buddha, and most Confucians would have caused Confucius a temper tantrum. In contrast, most people today successfully live up to the capitalist–consumerist ideal. The new ethic promises paradise on condition that the rich remain greedy and spend their time making more money and that the masses give free reign to their cravings and passions and buy more and more. This is the first religion in history whose followers actually do what they are asked to do. How though do we know that we’ll really get paradise in return? We’ve seen it on television.

That being said, I didn’t really see his politics get in the way, or alter his main insights, some of which can be gleaned from his “iron laws of history”, which he sprinkles through the book.  Some examples:

  • Luxuries become necessities which then span new obligations
  • Every imagined hierarchy disavows its fictional origins and claims to be natural and inevitable
  • What looks inevitable from hindsight was far from obvious at the time.

Harrari has written an important, albeit ambitious book.  It seemed to me to loose some steam near the end, in its explorations of artificial intelligence and other potential “next chapters” in the history of the story telling monkey tribe know as homo sapiens.  That being said, overall it is a worthwhile read and may be one of the best books I have picked up in the last year.  It covers everything from history to philosophy, from science to economics.  I think you would be hard pressed to finish it and not come away with at least a few new ideas or perspectives.

While biology is clearly an important evolutionary force so things like GMO and life extending technologies deserve our attention, its much clearer to me after reading Sapiens that equally important are the stories we tell ourselves, both individually and as a group.  Terrence McKenna might have been on to something when he said:

The syntactical nature of reality, the real secret of magic, is that the world is made of words. And if you know the words that the world is made of, you can make of it whatever you wish.

One Reply to “90 second book review: Sapiens”

Leave a Reply