John Gray at The Financial Times:
Already a bestseller in Hebrew, Sapiens mounts a fundamental challenge to the predominant contemporary view of humans and their place in the world. “Liberal humanism,” Harari points out, “is built on monotheist foundations.” Take away the soul and the privileged place in the world accorded to humans by a creator-god, and it becomes difficult to explain why humans are so special. The task becomes harder if we perform a thought-experiment based on the facts of human origins. We’ve grown used to thinking of ourselves as the only species of humans. But for most of its history Homo sapiens shared the planet with several humanoid species – the Neanderthals being only the best known. “The earth of a hundred millennia ago was walked by at least six different species of man”, writes Harari. Suppose some or all of these species had survived alongside ourselves up to the present. What would become of the cherished sense that we are set apart from the rest of the natural world by having some peculiar transcendent value? Human uniqueness, Harari concludes, is a myth spawned by an accident of evolution.
For most people today, history is a tale of human advance fuelled by increasing brainpower. For Harari, this is just another myth. There is no evidence that human beings have become more intelligent over time, and most of history’s largest changes have not involved an improvement in the quality of life. The agricultural revolution is touted as a great advance; but “for the average person, the disadvantages probably outweighed the advantages”. For most human beings, the shift to farming was not a choice but a trap.