Thoughts on Sapiens: the path from animals to gods

sapiens by yuval noah harari

I just finished reading Sapiens.

It was hands down one of the best books I’ve ever read: not only it helped me understand crucial parts of the human evolution, but also to ask me serious and deep questions about the direction humanity is taking.

I think the beauty of a non-fiction book relies in its ability to stimulate the right questions.

Yuval Noah Harari is an Israelian historian and professor, but his book is not a technical essay on the specifics of human evolution.

Sapiens has a strong philosophical aspect, which makes reading it even more interesting and captivating.

I like to think about history, universe and deep questions without necessarily trying to find answers.

That’s exactly what I enjoyed about this book: the digressions about the matter of humanity are not pretentious claims to give or propose certain answers to certain topics.

Harari focuses on some key moments throughout history that changed the way we act and live: the Agricultural Revolution, the Cognitive Revolution and the Scientific Revolution.

Using these moments as lenses, he analyzes and explains how phenomenons (or religions, as he calls them all) like Christianity, Islamism, Buddhism, Communism, Nationalism, Imperialism or Capitalism shaped the way we think.

And the arguments for these considerations resonate so well that you can’t disagree.

The approach though is always impartial, and this is something I appreciated so much reading Sapiens.

It’s difficult to talk about these topics without raising objections from any strong supporter of one or the other part involved.

When you read this book, you feel like the author is just thinking out loud about the single concepts and his analytical approach is the only one capable of winning over the reader while presenting these facts and point of views.

Sapiens and our relationship with history

Usually, these days not many people pick History as their major.

Harari makes a really solid point throughout the book that makes you accept the importance of history as the main tool to understand why we are who we are and how we got here.

And he never does this explicitly.

The analysis is so clear and understandable that you just get the fact that maybe in order to prepare to shape the future, it’s important to understand and analyze the past.

It seems weird, but we’re still governed by many of the same fears or emotions we had a long time ago, without really needing to.

Sapiens and our relationship with science

After talking about all the religions and beliefs, their historical role and their power over us, Sapiens does a good job at decoding science.

If you think about it, we have a close relationship with science these days: it is the single subject we rely on for the vast majority of our operations and decisions.

Rightly so.

The problem is that we don’t see that science is our newest religion.

One of the fundamentals of modern science establishes that no theory is perfect or eternal: if a new and better one comes out, we have to throw away the previous one and take this as the ‘truth‘.

Now, when Sapiens deals with proper religions, Imperialism, Communism or Nationalism, it makes it clear that one of the best effects this ideas had was (or is) that they are collective.

Collective ideas, opinions or beliefs are the fuel that drives society to be united.

And unity as a society is what ultimately led Sapiens to become the single human species to survive and the single animal to build something complex as the world we live in.

This might be compromised by the fundamental principle I mentioned before: science considers failure and is based on it. The consequence is pretty obvious, how can we stay united as a society if we don’t believe in something supreme and untouchable upon us?

sapiens

Imagination and growth

Homo sapiens rules the world because it is the only animal that can believe in things that exist purely in its own imagination, such as gods, states, money and human rights.

This is the first sentence of the web page dedicated to Sapiens on Yuval Noah Harari’s website.

The description marks this as the provocative idea Sapiens starts from.

And it’s right, the book is quite provocative as a whole, but the reasons given in each chapter that narrates the history of each one of those imaginary concepts don’t make you questions the provocation.

Instead they give you, as I said at the beginning, a sense of urgency to get answers to the questions it causes.

I found it particularly interesting when Sapiens talks about the human imagination, because I’ve always loved social sciences and social dynamics.

Connecting these notions to the idea of them as imaginary entities made me feel bothered at first.

It’s like someone who says what you think is important is actually a fairy tale.

Then you think about it and you realize a lot of the things we mark as important are actually imaginary things we accepted the existence of in our minds. As a society.

The fact is when the whole society thinks in the same way, even imaginary things become real.

It’s imagination that led us here and unlocked for us all the power of cooperative minds that work together that no other species was able to have.

Progress at all costs

There’s a problem now. Science is fueling progress and innovation, and during the last few years we saw radical changes and unbelievable improvement.

What’s happening now is that people actually believe in science more than anything and they’re always seeking innovation at all costs.

Harari points out that this is unavoidable: when certain conditions and standard are reached, you just don’t get back.

Is this a good thing? Of course yes.

Is this dangerous? Yes, it probably is, given the circumstances of the last discoveries, inventions and results with research and technology.

We’re reaching incredible levels of growth and unlocking more and more power, all without knowing exactly the direction we’ve chosen to take.

Read the last sentence of the book and you’ll understand the point.

What did I learn?

Honestly, I don’t know if there are clear and specific lessons I’ve learned from reading Sapiens.

What I do know though is that I absolutely fell in love with the way Harari writes about things and I’m looking forward to starting Homo Deus, the next chapter.

Sapiens gave me many different new perspectives about life, evolution, society, growth, progress and history.

This is a fresh touch on topics that are abandoned by most writers because they either get too philosophical or too boring.

It made me think about how far we’ve come as humans and about the direction we’re taking for our future. And honestly I still don’t know if I’m more afraid or excited about it.

I recommend this book to anyone who’s interested in thinking: you’ll love it and you’ll appreciate Harari’s objective, direct and provocative style.

I’ll leave you with a quote:

We study history not to know the future but to widen our horizons, to understand that our present situation is neither natural nor inevitable, and that we consequently have many more possibilities before us than we imagine.

– Yuval Noah Harari

Thank you for reading this,

Vittorio

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