Whether you are optimistic or pessimistic about the future of the planet and of the survival of humankind upon it, you will find some of this book disturbing. You may also find some solace. In a lively, even entertaining, style unencumbered by some of the verbiage we might normally associate with discourse in the social sciences, Harari traces the development of our species and our associated cultures from the emergence of “animals much like modern humans . . . about 2.5 million years ago” (4) to “a world in which culture is releasing itself from the shackles of biology” (409).
Many of us, I suspect, have absorbed an attitude towards humans that places our species at the top of a hierarchy. Then we remember that should we be stalked by a cougar or harassed by a shark, we are actually prey, no longer beings at the top of the food chain. Sapiens challenges many of our notions about ourselves, suggesting how “time and again . . . a dramatic increase in the collective power and ostensible success of our species went hand in hand with much individual suffering” (97). It’s hard to disagree with him. Just consider for a moment how much more leisure time hunter gatherers have than we do. Just how free from our labours are we, tied as we are to our screens? Would we all be better off psychologically if we still lived in small self-sufficient communities untouched by the outside world? Exactly what does it mean to be human? Just how do we live with ourselves? These are the kinds of questions that Harari’s work raises. He reminds us “the dynamics of history are not directed towards enhancing human well-being . . . . history disregards the happiness of individual organisms (244).
If you are uncomfortable thinking of humans simply as organisms not as something greater and different from other species, then you will probably be even more uncomfortable with Harari’s understanding of what constitutes a religion: “a system of human norms and values that is founded on belief in a superhuman order” (228). He emphasises his use of the term “superhuman” rather than “supernatural” and suggests that distinguishing between what is religion and what is ideology is “just a semantic exercise” (228). You may be made even more uneasy with his recognition of capitalism as a “new religion” (314), one side of the coin of which the other side is consumerism (349).
As you can see, Harari takes his readers into disconcerting territory holding up a mirror to our sense of history, a mirror that is not particularly flattering. He asks us to reconsider our ideas of progress. From a certain perspective, we may actually have regressed. While we are freer from disease than our ancestors, are we any happier? We can shop more, but does retail therapy actually offer us any sense of permanent satisfaction? Whether he’s discussing religion or the nation state, Harari challenges many of the “givens” in our world. He’s certainly not the first to do so, and I’m sure that his views will resonate with many readers. Perhaps what is so impressive about this book is its scope, the whole of human history. But then, of course, one of the points the book emphasises is that within the history of our planet, homo sapiens has actually not been around for that long.
Sapiens is an intensely readable, compassionate look at our history. The conclusion Harari draws from his assessment of the past is that the future of humans may well be precarious, if the species has a future at all. He describes us as “self-made gods” (415) who “are constantly wreaking havoc on our fellow animals and on the surrounding ecosystem, seeking little more than our own comfort and amusement, yet never finding satisfaction,” and he ends his work by asking, “Is there anything more dangerous than dissatisfied and irresponsible gods who don’t know what they want?” (416).
Earlier, I remarked that there may well be some solace in this book. I found it in the fact that in some ways the moral, ethical, and cosmic questions that Harari raises are not actually new questions. We are faced with the same questions about what is the meaning of our lives and how to live the good life that we have been asking perhaps for ever. A pessimist might say that if we still need to ask the questions then something is wrong. The optimist might reply that because we still strive to consider what is right and good means there is hope.