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by Yuval Noah Harari
(2014, Harvill Secker)

An analysis of the past tens of thousands of years of human history, from sentience through mass migration to technology and society.


-- First reading (trade paperback)
December 6th to 26th, 2019


A fantastic journey through the early years of humanity, this book weaves a thorough journey through the rise of civilization, and educated me on many factors that probably contributed to the cultures we have today. I was less interested in the last couple of hundred years, especially the economics of today, and would have liked to spend more time among the Persians of the Dark Ages, but these are minor complaints, because the author does a consistent job of bringing everything together.

Spoiler review:

I don’t think I’ve had much in the way of education on early man, except what I got in high school and what I may have picked up from documentaries throughout the years, so it was nice to read a thorough account of this minor animal that turned into a godlike creature that can shape its environment and move away from evolution into the territory of Divine Intervention.

The way the author tells the tale of early man and his rise is very entertaining and makes a lot of sense. His references seem credible, and though I’m sure there are many other theories around, he takes the most logical ones and runs them through a narrative that shows how various environmental and behavioral traits led to culture and civilization as we know it.

It’s very interesting to note the different mass extinctions around the world as homo sapiens migrated from one new location to another. It’s also interesting to note that different kinds of humans co-existed in different parts of the world at the same time, which was a different history than we were taught when we were younger. That we may have up to 6% Neanderthal DNA is a kind of wake-up call.

The author takes on a confrontational attitude about agriculture, and a pessimistic attitude concerning the way humans have taken on the role of stewardship of the planet. Are we truly more miserable than our foraging ancestors? While fewer of them survived because they fell to disease and inter-tribal war or accidents, the author doesn’t seem to take those (who must be decidedly unhappy) into account. Yes we toil longer hours and have more stress, but are the limitless possibilities we are offered not worth a little more work? If happiness is relative, as discussed in the later chapters, why bother opening those possibilities? We’re always taught to strive for the betterment of humanity, of ourselves, and our potential. Is this wrong? Or is it just not necessary… or have we just not found the justification for why we long for a better tomorrow?

What might be missing is the emotional impact of what it means to be human. Why do we strive to advance, to explore, to continue even when life is bad for so many of us? Yes, we’ve made a lot of mistakes, mostly due to our Imagined Realities such as religion and nation-states. And we’ve treated the planet horribly, apparently not only in recent decades, and mass-produced animal-slaughter. But I think we’ve done a lot of good, too. I don’t think it’s as doom-and-gloom as the author states.

I was also interested in his view of the energy crises. As he mentions, every time we face an energy crisis, we seem to get through it. Maybe the need sparks research grants that find new ways to make energy production more efficient or with new sources. It’s also interesting to note the theory of multiple inventions, where even if the geniuses we know hadn’t created the advances we know today, it’s very likely somebody else would have –and what would the world look like then?

As the author progressed through the ages, I found he skipped through the Dark Ages too quickly. What of the Persians, who kept scientific knowledge alive while Christianity felt it didn’t need such things and persecuted witches instead?

With the Renaissance came renewed scientific discovery and the exploration of new lands. The author barely talks about Native Americans, except in the Inca and Aztec empires, but explains how the slave trade gained a foothold in the Americas, with the dangerous cotton plantations and salt mines. He doesn’t satisfactorily explain how it started in the first place, though, among the Middle-Eastern states. I also wonder if there’s any relevance to the way he unequivocally states there is no divine entity, but later states there is no known difference between humans of different skin color. In the one case, he’s stating as a fact that God doesn’t exist, but that there might be reason to believe skin color denotes different kinds of humans. Shouldn’t it be the opposite?

I’ve always wondered about how evolution would work through today’s world, where the weak survive just as well as the strong. We no longer live in a world of survival of the fittest, and we happily pass on “defective” genes that would have been eliminated if evolution held sway. There is always the debate between evolution and divine guidance, but never before had we considered ourselves the guiding hand.

I enjoyed the discussions about Empires and politics and religion, but was less interested in the economic aspects, which of course are the most important aspects of today’s world. It was nice to see them presented in the same way as the rest of history, though, and with alternate explanations of some of the forces at work.

The book was definitely most interesting when discussing the early communities and cultures of humanity, but maybe because it’s an area that is still evolving and I was unfamiliar with the most recent discoveries. The Renaissance always fascinated me, but less the economic forces guiding our modern world. It’s nice to know that there have been fewer deaths due to war since World War II, and that there is less violence in the world, too. I wish the author had brought in some Star Trek ideals when discussing world unity, but maybe that’s for a future book.


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