Reflections on ‘Sapiens’

It’s been a while since my last post! I’ll try to get on it more often. I guess that’s more for me than it is for you, but oh well. Now you know that I’d like to blog more often.

Today’s post is a reflection on the book Sapiens, by Yuval Noah Harari. This book came highly recommended by some friends, and I found it absolutely fascinating and eye-opening. It tells the story of humankind from the time before we were recognizably human up to today, hitting all the major points of development like the advent of writing, money, religion, etc. I wanted to talk about a couple of big points that made me think, and as usual, try to give people something to reflect on as opposed to summarize the book or teach what was learned.

The first major idea was the idea that Sapiens destroyed everything we’ve ever touched, ever. Since the time that we were tribes of chimp-like creatures, we’ve multiplied and obliterated everything in our path. Even before industrial deforestation, before the industrial revolution and the associated pollution, before global warming was a thing that we knew about, we were killing thousands of species and leaving desolation wherever we went. The giant mammals of Australia are a good example; these giant mammals had never seen predators like us, who managed to invade their territory by boats, and by the time they could learn that we were dangerous, we had already slaughtered them all. Bonus: I learned about the diprotodon, a cute giant wombat.

Another idea I found very intriguing was the idea of money, capitalism, communism, and humanism as “religions”. On religion, Harari says:

Religion can thus be defined as a system of human norms and values that is founded on a belief in a superhuman order.

We know that football is not a religion because it was clearly invented by humans and has a well-defined set of rules and rituals. According to Harari, a religion must “espouse a universal superhuman order” and insist on spreading this belief to everyone. Capitalism is an interesting example of this, because it seems to exist outside of individual humans and while it’s not associated with deities, it has a superhuman way of controlling the entire world’s behaviour. It may not spread in the form of missionaries like other religions, but it spreads through education, culture, and I would argue it’s a strong meme (in the sense of actual memetics, not internet humour). Something to ponder!

Lastly, the idea that agriculture was the beginning of the end for humankind is an idea that resonates very strongly with me. It’s something I had thought before, and he does a great job of explaining this without explicitly saying it in his book. I think a lot of the problems we have in society today and have had throughout the history of modern society have their roots in the fact that we changed from a nomadic hunting and gathering animal to a sedentary, farming one. The range, at least in my opinion, is huge. Materialism (especially exaggerated, damaging forms of it), depression from loneliness, bad eating habits, a culture where work takes up more than half your life, bad sleep habits, disease, the list goes on. I have hundreds more questions about this when thinking about how individualism came about, at least partly from sticking people in tiny houses that they “owned” and separating them from their tribe. So many questions!

But I won’t ask them all here, I’ll simply tell you that overall the read was fantastic and I highly recommend it to everyone. It also makes a good gift!

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