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.