Book review – Sapiens

Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind

By Yuval Noah Harari


I chose to read this book after reading ‘The Power of Myths‘ (1988) from Joseph Campbell. I was interested in getting an overview of the history of humankind to see if Campbell’s definition of myths as ‘clues to the spiritual potentialities of the human life’ or ‘the society’s dream’ could be a guiding framework when analysing history.

“You’ve got the same body, with the same organs and energies, that Cro-Magnon man had thirty thousand years ago. Living a human life in New York City or living a human life in the caves, you go through the same stages of childhood, coming to sexual maturity, transformation of the dependency of childhood into the responsibility of manhood or womanhood, marriage, then failure of the body, gradual loss of its power, and death.” – Joseph Campbell (The Power of Myth)

I didn’t need to look too far to find parallels between Campbell and Harari’s views. According to Harari, the biggest consequence of the Cognitive Revolution (-70.000) is the new possibility for us Homo Sapiens to create fiction (myths, legends…). Harari says that ‘the real difference between us and chimpanzees is the mythical glue that binds together large number of individuals, families and groups’.

Both Harari and Campbell also point out the incredible pace at which our modern world and societies are changing. According to Harari, we as a species are becoming more and more united in a ‘global Empire’. And human evolution is confronted to questions such as animal suffering or overall well-being of nature. As an historian, Harari doesn’t truly choose a position in this book, but the way he exposes the modern history supports Campbell’s idea that our modern, global society requires the emergence of new myths that would allow our species to live in harmony with nature.

This book delivered on all the expectations I had and even more. The most important takeaway for me is that it helped me appreciate the value of studying history. I used to look at history as a rather ‘boring’ subject to study because all the events happening are contingent and I couldn’t find a way to learn anything meaningful about the way we think. The main thing I got from this book are a set of concepts and a general framework to consider and understand all historical events in the general context of human history. With this point of view and those concepts in mind, historical events are no longer mere random accidents. They are manifestations of long-lasting trends which origins are closely related to the way our very own minds work, as individuals and members of a species.

Reading notes available here.

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