Posted in Books

Review: Sapiens – Yuval Noah Harari

Finally finished this lengthy book, thank god last 40 pages were glossary! Pretty dry, especially for me the regular fiction reader. However, I picked this book as it is critically acclaimed. The book traces the evolution of Homo Sapiens and the proliferation of the species as dominant living organism on Planet Earth before rounding off with wonderment at what lays ahead for these so-called self-made Gods! Much of the thesis though must be predictable to most of us but we have to credit the author for laying it all down in a way we can identify patterns and come clear on fuzzy issues. Some ideas are though a lot like original – or perhaps sound new to us. For instance, treating Communism like a religion. Creating an order. I have never thought of an arrangement like that all these days. A willful political agreement. The book opens with how it all started, how from Cognitive revolution, human beings or homo sapines in the word of the author, advanced to the agricultural revolution and then galloped to the scientific revolution. So far so good. The rambling sets on after this.

I would like to recollect some gems from the book:

Homosapiens killed most other species without merging with them. (Like how mules are born infertile when horse mates with donkey. The genetic mutation plays a part here). This theory clearly proposes how Neanderthals etc., from the same human family could have gone extinct. In my opinion, this is a very valid point, food for thinking.

I wish I really could get back to the hunter-gatherer carefree days, the way the author sounds buoyant about them! The limitations forced by agricultural revolution on such a nomadic species sound pathetic! I liked this about wheat domesticating us and not the other way around!

Domestication of the bovine, canine and the fowl follows. Of the fowl, i would like to draw a point from the last couple of chapters: of how the chicken or poultry of today with slow demeanour and stocky build was probably genetically engineered by the ancient man (from the days of agricultural revolution)! So it is not that all the harm is caused by the current generation of homosapiens. The destructive streak caused by selective breeding of crops and animals and birds has been a part of human evolution.

One more gem that makes you think loud: how a species that may be going extinct like rhinoceros for instance, is still happy and living a good life in the bush, compared to machine-copied like poultry, bred miserably for slaughter, even if the chicken can go on to survive millennia after millennia long after the last of the rhino is gone off the face of earth.

A lot of discussion (hypothetical) on Babylon, Egypt, China, Mexico etc., but a big hole here missing out ancient India and Hindu race. Hinduism is mentioned for caste system nothing more. India/ Hindu culture and civilization could be the only surviving continuous civilization uninterrupted for over 10000 years. Parallel to the Indus valley was the Thamizh culture down south where we had structured grammar and literature penned before the birth of Christ. Such a language as Tamil has not gone out of usage like Latin or even Sanskrit. Tamil is still a spoken language and is touted the world’s oldest language. A big miss by the author here. Or was it deliberate by overstressing isntead on Buddhism, an offshoot from Hindu Dharma. Hinduism also spread to south east Asia without violence. Pretty interesting to be told that the meditation techniques are Buddhist. Of course they are, but after they were and are first Hindu. The first legal perfecter, owner, practitioner of meditation could be Hindus. Yuval tell me who founded Hinduism. You know who founded Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, Communism. You know who founded these when. Where exactly. You have written volumes on Sumeria, Greece. Why have you failed to do justice to Hinduism. Realization of self and mind control without a mention of Hindu Dharma sounds hollow.

To Yuval I would say, if for Jews Auschwitz could be holy pilgrimage site, then Taj Mahal could be the image for representing the majority Hindu India by the same logic.

To Yuval I ask: why should God have to come only from Middle East. For Hindus God comes down from the Himalaya.

Ok I get it. Yuval picks up Buddhism, Islam and Christianity for suppositions nothing more.

Discovery of ignorance: This is too good that prompted the scientific revolution when pushing limits became the order of the day for the Homo sapiens.

Some great information from the founding of Peugeot as limited company in France for the first time to launching life insurance by two Presbyterian clergymen in Scotland, Alexander Webster and Robert Wallace in the year 1744.

Masterstroke by Yuval: in one shot he says why we have the adage in the world that the sun never sets in british empire:

“The Chinese and Persians did not lack technological inventions such as steam engines (which could be freely copied or bought). They lacked the values, myths, judicial apparatus and sociopolitical structures that took centuries to form and mature in the West and which could not be copied and internalised.” (Harari, Yuval Noah. Sapiens (p. 314). Random House. Kindle Edition.)

I started laughing at this because, that day finally arrived in the 20th century with the chinese turning tables on the west. Looks like, each one of us has a different timeframe when it comes to evolution of our mental faculties.

The conquest of the Americas and Australia are poignant. In this context I want to refer the quote from the author in the book:

Rudyard Kipling’s words, ‘the White Man’s burden’:

Take up the White Man’s burden – Send forth the best ye breed – Go bind your sons to exile To serve your captives’ need; To wait in heavy harness, On fluttered folk and wild – Your new-caught, sullen peoples, Half-devil and half-child. (Harari, Yuval Noah. Sapiens (p. 336). Random House. Kindle Edition.)

This is a gentle reminder to all of us colonials of what return gift we received from our occupiers.

The author conveniently washes his hands off slave trade that he terms an economic enterprise that got nothing to do with politics. Sad. Aren’t the invaders given a similar benefit of doubt with Rudyard Kipling.

I loved the part about the standardization of working times, industrial hours, school days etc., in a structured pattern starting with the arrival of the steam engine pulled passenger trains. The gun powder and the energy-force through distance made the difference. This is a big takeaway from the book for me.

I do agree with the author that perhaps we live in the best of earth’s times: we have lasting peace and a kind of universal empire now. More common interests than glaring differences which are a reason for sustaining peace. It is only in this century that we have running water in our kitchen faucet and women need not have to rush to the river to fetch drinking water in a pot over their head day after day (at least in developed countries of the world).

The book closes with the chapter on bionics and cyborgs which held the potential to transform homo sapiens into organically different species and that the future sapiens could find us the last few generations very much the way we found the neanderthals! Will the tinkering with bio-engineering actually pull the Frankenstein out of thin air? Who knows wonders Yuval on the finishing note.

Worth reading. Old wine in new bottle, but this is good brushing up of facts that were right before your eyes but that you missed making connection with.