A Reductionist History of Humankind

51xwPegEzlL._SX333_BO1,204,203,200_John Sexton at The New Atlantis:

The hardcover American edition of Sapiens weighs two and a half pounds — a little less than the average weight of a Homo sapiens brain. This is unusual for something that is neither a reference work nor a coffee-table book, and that runs to fewer than five hundred pages. The reason for such disproportionate heft is the quality of the paper: the pages are thick like those of a book of prints, crisp white and replete with color illustrations. At any time, but especially in the age of the e-book, such pages in a book with a mass run represent a considerable investment by the publisher. The biography of Harari on the inside jacket boasts that Sapiens has “already become an international bestseller” in, among other places, Slovenia, so the confidence of the publisher may well be justified. Certainly, Mark Zuckerberg’s decision to select Sapiens for his online book club devoted to “big ideas” won’t have hurt sales.

Books like this meet an appetite for sweeping history written in an accessible style and stressing the role of science and technology in shaping human destiny. Probably the best-known work in this genre is Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs, and Steel (1997). Diamond endorses Sapiens on the cover and receives special thanks in the acknowledgments: Diamond “taught me to see the big picture,” Harari writes. But whereas Diamond stressed the role of climate and disease as well as technology in shaping human history, Harari makes the curious claim that it is only when humans have started making things up — imagining entities that do not objectively exist, like gods, ethical principles, and limited liability corporations — that we have made progress toward becoming a super species. Harari’s vision of history is therefore actually quite different from Diamond’s: while Diamond was really concerned with the influence of the external environment on human culture, or the power of matter over mind, for Harari, history is the story of the gradual triumph of mind over matter.

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