Review: Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind

Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind by Yuval Noah Harari
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I really enjoyed this book. It is "pop history" not "history" to be sure, but it offers some keen insights, asks some provocative questions, and is engagingly well written.

Harari captured my attention from the get-go as he defined four chronological frames of reference, each of which builds on its predecessor:
Physics - fundamental particles and the forces that interact between them
Chemistry - combinations of those particles to make molecular compounds
Biology - complex combinations of those compounds to comprise living organisms
History - actions and interactions of conscious living beings

One of Harari's most pervasive arguments is about what separates homo sapiens (modern humans) from other species of the human genus (homo erectus, homo neanderthalensis, etc.). He suggests that the key distinction is our ability to grasp "fiction" (or I might paraphrase to call it "abstract thought"). This unique ability is the foundation of our communication, economic trade, social organization, etc.

This is a really interesting point as it allows Harari to distill many things down to being a "fiction." Businesses, for example are "fictions" in the same way that religions are. Neither of them are tangible, empirically verifiable "things;" they both exist because we believe they do.

Using this viewpoint as a basis, Harari presents an abridged version of the history of homo sapiens. Following are a few interesting highlights that do not summarize the book but rather are indicative of his writing:

* Homo sapiens has been responsible for the extinction of so many other species that perhaps *we* were Noah's flood.
* When you look at how much we have changed since the agricultural revolution, it seems that wheat domesticated us rather than the other way around.
* Laws can change with the stroke of a pen but the "fictions" we use to define society cannot -
hence, for example, racial discrimination not ending with the passage of the Civil Rights Act.
* Despite technological advances and objectively much greater quality of life, humans are no happier than we used to be.
* The Atlantic slave trade was the result of unchecked free market capitalism, not of racism per se.

Harari also argues that there is no reason to fear running out of resources like energy because science/invention will surely find a way. He doesn't seem to recognize the irony of this fatalist argument in light of demonstration that free market capitalism can have disastrous outcomes when left unchecked just a few pages prior.

There is a great deal wrong with this book, I'm sure, and rigorous historians may take issue with many of Harari's glossed-over versions modern humans. Still, it is interesting, well written, and thought provoking so I would recommend it.

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Alien: Covenant - Interesting But Deeply Flawed

Katie and I watched Alien: Covenant this evening and, despite trying to temper our expectations, still left with very mixed feelings. All comments below are spoiler-free except where indicated.


  • Michael Fassbender puts on an acting master class. The movie is worth seeing just for him.
  • The movie explores a genuinely interesting idea for the genesis of the xenomorphs. I'm pleased that the mythology of this universe has not been degraded - which is always a risk with prequels.
  • The attempts at character "development" come across as forced and largely fail.
    • SPOILERS: For example, David's opening scene, Oram's exposition of being mistrusted due to his faith, and Daniels's out-of-nowhere badassery (Ripley's felt much more earned.).
  • This is the second big film (along with Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them) starring Katherine Waterston and I just find her to be completely devoid of any charisma. Apparently she was in Inherent Vice, which I liked, so I will have to re-watch it and see if I like her better in it.
  • For a Ridley Scott movie, this film really underwhelmed me visually.
  • This also had very uninteresting creatures. Prometheus had its flaws but it at least had some really interesting, rapidly evolving creatures; these seemed more like run-of-the-mill, vanilla monsters to me.
  • The tone bounces around all over the place and, at times, the words and actions of the actors seem completely incoherent with the context of their situation.
  • At some points the film seemed to be going for a sort of Predator vibe. There were guys with guns smoking cigars (on a first contact alien planet??) and a sense of the protagonists being hunted by something with Predator-like score cues - but it really fell flat for me.
  • Expanding on that point, this movie didn't quite know what it wanted to be: a horror film? A sci fi action film? A metaphysical thought exercise? It tried several things but didn't do any of them really well.


  • This film unfortunately lacked any tension whatsoever. It telegraphed every "twist" way ahead of time and fell back time and time again on tired tropes - both from the horror genre in general (Hey, let's all split up!) and from its own previous movies (No spoilers, but they will be obvious.). All it's left with are cheap jump scares and you know they're coming.
  • The worst part for me is that the plot relies on one unbelievably stupid human decision after another even just to get our protagonists into this mess - emphasis on "unbelievably." In sci fi movies you can suspend disbelief of technology, but it's hard to believe that that humans became so much dumber in the future and the resulting incredulity really pulls me out of the movie.
The film is worth seeing, especially if you're a fan of the franchise (read: the first two films and aspects of Prometheus). However, set your expectations appropriately and, because there isn't anything too special cinematically here, it's not crucial that you see it in the theaters.