Book Review of Sapiens

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When I am writing this review, 1.3 billion population of India is getting ready to celebrate its 71st Independence Day of the Indian nation. And on 9th of August, Indian Parliament debated about 75th anniversary of “Quit India Movement” and agreed on the strategy of “New India- Sankalp se Sidhi-Commitment to fulfilment”. Quit India Movement of 1942 is one of the path-breaking events of India’s modern history. However, as per the author Yuval Noah Harari, ‘Nation’ is an imagined order and a myth created by the people to cooperate at large scale in a particular boundary. And history is not good or bad or ancient or modern as ”history has still not decided where we will end up, and a string of coincidences might yet send us rolling in either direction”, says Harari. This book is exceptional and an outsider view of the evolution of Homo Sapiens on the earth. It seems that he is sitting in front of the revolving earth and trying to see how Homo Sapiens evolved.

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Harari is questioning every single belief in the society. Political thinkers like Locke, Hobbes, Rousseau etc have tried to find out the basis of political authority and” why do we obey the authority? What were the reasons behind the formation of “Social Contract”. State/Nation/Country vs Individual debate is still going on. Who is more important State or Individual? State came first or Individual. As per Harari’s hypothesis, state/ nation is an ‘imagined order’ created by Homo Sapiens to establish a complex mechanism for cooperation.

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In fact, in this book he traces the evolution of human beings through the various revolutions starting from Cognitive Revolution, Agriculture Revolution, Industrial Revolution and the current Scientific and Technological Revolution.  Cognitive Revolution helped us to create the communication and writing methods and processes. The Tree of Knowledge mutation led to the evolution of the brain. However, no one knows what was the reason behind this revolution. There are various theories behind it but Harari seems to believe in the ‘Gossip theory’ under which the language of Homo Sapiens evolved to share information.

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Agriculture Revolution transformed the Homo Sapiens from ‘foragers’ to ‘farmers’. As per Harari, it was the biggest fraud of history. He persuasively says, “we did not domesticated wheat but wheat domesticated us”. He tries to find various flaws in Agricultural Revolution and the subsequent revolutions which made Homo Sapiens more like a machine which is alienated from himself, using the terminology of Marxism, as well as from its surroundings. And he also tries to find out why did we start Agriculture Revolution. Did agriculture start as some kind of ritual or religious practice to some local deity? He is trying to say this while discussing Gobekli Tepe.

How Homo Sapiens has increased its power and strength through scientific revolution after agreeing on the” doctrine of ignoramus “and consistently trying to find out the mystery of the universe. We agreed that we don’t know and the knowledge is never complete. We have to consistently find out something new and revolutionary.  Not only this, as Harari says, there was an existence of marriage between Science and Empire. Empires were one of the three myths, other two were money and religion acted as the most successful tool for unification. How Empires were established in the world with the help of scientific revolution?  The British Empire was based on the Scientific and the Industrial Revolution in the 17th century. In fact, this is still true. We also have the recent example of the USA, which is the most powerful country in the world, not only because of economic might but also because of its cutting-edge technological innovations.

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Money is another creation of human mind. It is the most powerful tool which has unified and interlinked the whole world in the form of World Empire. Trust is the basis of the whole economic system. He also talks about the whole phenomenon of Capitalism and how we are so much embedded into consumerism and romanticism. This has become a kind of race where Human beings are running towards the unbelievable goals. I was fascinated by his thread bare description of capitalism where he tries to show it as some kind of Ponzi scheme. However, that’s how it is. To change this system, we need to create another imagined order or at least, we need to realize the faults and fallacies of the capitalism so that we should not become its slave.

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Religion is the next big myth he talks about in his book. He talks about monotheism, polytheism and most specifically “syncretism”. How Harari’s analysis of polytheism provides a basis for “Sarv Dharma Sambhav”. And why polytheist religion is more tolerant and accepts other religious practices. How religion has unified as well as divided the Human beings into “us” vs “them”. In fact, his analysis of religion can be related to the concept of ‘spiritualism ‘and ‘detachment philosophy’ of Gita of India. He also talks about Buddhism to explain the concept of inner self. And we Indian can be proud of it that we had all kinds of philosophies in our religious discourse.

How can I forget his discussion about the concept of Caste System which is based on the Concept of purity and impurity? It is also an imagined order created by our forefathers to make things moving on the basis of division of labor. However, we are struggling with these caste divisions despite knowing that we only created this.

In the end, he questions the scientific revolutions of the present day. Genetic engineering, Cyborg, etc will give tremendous power to the Homo Sapiens and it is also possible that it will make us subservient to our own creations. According to him, Homo Sapiens has become a GOD who does not know what exactly they want? This has created a kind of confusion and dissatisfaction which will finally lead to the end of Humankind.

He also discusses patriarchy, the basis of natural and unnatural sex, conception of marriage etc. In fact, he is playing various roles as a writer. He is a liberal when he says, “Biology enables, Culture forbids”He is a feminist when he talks about “patriarchal gene” and questions the basis of discrimination against women. He is a Marxist when he talks about alienation and exploitation of Human beings who have become a machine working as per the time table and earning a lot of money but does not experience happiness and contentment despite having everything. He belongs to Critical Studies approach when he criticizes various scientific revolutions and ideologies existing in the world. He is philosophical when he talks about happiness as subjective well-being and “happiness begins within”. He is a psychologist when he says, “Happiness only comes from serotonin, dopamine, and oxytocin”. He is an animal rights activist when he talks about the domestication, exploitation & cruelty against animals and extinction of various other species and animals. He is being ethical and moral when he says that unethical application of technology will create a monster and will lead to the end of Homo Sapiens. Most importantly, he is a Post-Modernist when he rejects various ideologies and grand narratives.

This book is very radical and provokes the reader to think about the beliefs of the human kind in a different perspective. However, he also agrees,” there is no way out of an imagined order”. If we want to change the present imagined orders, we have to bring another imagined order around which we, Homo Sapiens will live out the new life. For instance, as he says, the new imagined order can be green in color based on the idea of sustainability. This book will help in increasing our horizon of thinking to take various issues in very objective manner.

Having said that, I also want to highlight here that Harari’s whole idea and narrative in this book “Sapiens”  is little pessimistic and cynical in its approach. After reading this book, the reader will feel like running away from the world. It highlights a kind of escapism. In fact, we can’t run away from the problems which are there in the world. Despite all myths and ideologies, there are people who are trying to bring about change in the world. One more thing I want to highlight, if the “cognitive revolution” has brought us here, we will certainly find out the way through this revolution to understand what do we want to become and what kind of earth we want to live. Harari is one of the Homo Sapiens and the readers of this book are other Homo Sapiens who will make other Homo Sapiens understand the reality of life and the evolution of Homo Sapiens to make earth livable in the coming future.

Please see these links to know more:

http://www.thenewatlantis.com/publications/a-reductionist-history-of-humankind

https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/our-kind-of-people/2015/03/13/78404422-b84c-11e4-aa05-1ce812b3fdd2_story.html?utm_term=.b72654add6d9

http://www.thehindu.com/sci-tech/science/gene-study-rewrites-neanderthal-history/article19452381.ece

http://gobeklitepe.info/

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Industrial_Revolution

5 thoughts on “Book Review of Sapiens

  1. Ritambhara, your have put in quite an effort and done a great job in writing the book review given his books are so dense and a heavy first read. Yuval challenges our beliefs in a way that is disturbing and yet intriguing at the same time. You would love his second book Homo Deus.

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