SAPIENS: A BRIEF HISTORY OF HUMANKIND

This must be the first book I’ve read that was first published in Hebrew (not counting the Bible). I’m certainly glad for the translation. Without it, how would I know that humans were domesticated by a grass—and not the other way around?

What struck me forcefully about author Yuval Noah Harari is how he weaves together traditionally dry material with wit, humor and verve. Imagine if the Freakonomics team decided to ask, “why did Homo sapiens thrive when five other homonids died out?” They would come at the question from unexpected perspectives, which is what Harari has done (thus leading to his conclusion about the taming powers of wheat).

I noted in my recent post about one of Malcolm Gladwell’s books that I appreciate how Gladwell makes us see things from a fresh perspective. Harari trades in the same currency, and consequently has my number.

I don’t want to spoil the book, but I will relate one perspective that really sat me up straight, given what I do to put bread on the table (I know, I'm working that wheat thing too hard here). Central to Harari’s thesis about why Homo sapiens was able to out-compete other hominids (indeed, out-compete pretty much everything) is the concept of story. Specifically, we thrived because we can create fiction.

Huh?

Here’s what he means. No other creature appears to be able meaningfully to imagine different futures and then communicate and act upon them. Almost all sentient creatures appear to live largely in the moment. So consider this: If early Homo sapiens were able to huddle together and say, in effect, “Og and I will go around the backside of the hill, you attack that band of Neanderthals from the front, and when they flee over the hill, Og and I will ambush them.” This capacity for imagination (which, upon reflection, we see is essential to the evolution of all our technology), is what made us superior to all other creatures on earth. If we had it and nobody else did, it was game over.

Is the ability to imagine different futures exclusive to us? We can’t be certain—maybe elephants or whales can do it, and if you’ve read John Vaillant’s The Tiger: A True Story of Vengeance and Survival, then it certainly seems that at least some individuals of other species pull it off on occasion. But certainly we are the species that has perfected the use of story as an evolutionary tool.

As a storyteller myself, that must mean I’m highly evolved. :)

Sapiens is full of these sorts of brilliant revisions to our settled understanding of how the world works. Much of what Harari does is aggregate and translate existing scientific knowledge into highly accessible language (for instance, when he explains how the origins of the modern economy are rooted in the concept of interest payments). That is no mark against him—the book is also full of what was at least to me original thinking. As soon as I finished, I wanted to read it again.