“What do we want to want?” (Page 414)
That is the question presented by the author, Yuval Noah Harari, at the end of this book. This is not to be confused with ‘What do we want,’ which are our current desires. This is more of a question about the direction our species is going. Once simple inhabitants on planet Earth, the human species has undergone a roller coaster of events that have brought us to where we currently are….and will also suggest where we are headed. And due to these “sudden shift” on a evolutionary time scale, we are confused on what makes us content, how we should act, and how science will shape our desires and expectations.
Sapiens is not necessarily a history book, but rather a sort of hybrid between social science and evolutionary science on the scale encompassing world history. It will illustrate topics with examples of a few staple empires, countries, and historically known individuals, but most of the book is based on social theories and over-arching trends that are not limited by borders. This involves the shifts from hunters-and-gatherers and the agricultural era to individualist capitalism and imagined communities.
The book starts out with initial social trends that you would expect from the books description: agriculture, money, religion, and so on. Of all of these, Yuval states that “money is the most universal and most efficient system of mutual trust ever devised” (page 180). This idea morphs into how money, credit, and financial trust becomes the building block for how capitalism took over the world. This is how Europe was the powerhouse in the 1900’s, why almost every country works in capitalist markets, and how science was used as a tool to improve its edge.
While we would like to think that Science is just a pure pursuit of discovering unknown knowledge…. but it’s always been a political tool from the beginning of the industrial revolution (when it started to make a major impact). This is because science needs money….. a lot of it! And do you know who has money….. empires do. Biological excursions were paired with territorial expanse. Archaeology was a tool to bind the cultures of newly acquired territories. And ironically, nuclear bombs brought along one of the most peaceful times in human history.
I’m not going to lie…… this book does get dark. It spits in the face of our “accomplishment” and makes us ask ourselves “what is this all for?”
For examples, one of the topics that comes up over and over throughout Sapiens is that we are biological superstars. In economic terms, a superstar is someone who improves his/her stance at the cost of others. When you look at the overall trend of human’s healthy and safety, it does increase over time. However, the opposite can be said for the other living species on Earth. When humans have spread across the continents, a large majority of species (many of those larger than us) became extinct quite rapidly. Mammoths, giant ground sloths, elephant birds, and many other fellow mammals became extinct even before we started to bake bread. And with every expanse we made, the health of nearby plants and animals have diminished. This includes the cows, pigs, chickens, and other animals we breed, compress, and butcher to meet our newly found expectations of high meat consumption.
But looking back over how we have adapted, overcrowded the planet, and became mortal gods with respect to every other living being on the planet ……. the book concludes on the topic of happiness. From being a biological design through evolution as strongly community-focused to individuals ripped from these desired bonds in the realm of “capitalistic freedom,” it’s hard to state if we were emotionally better off now than we were before agriculture. With many theories stating that happiness stems from brain biochemistry and societal expectations, along with the mind’s pattern to adjust our current status as the norm, it does ask us what is the whole point of our society’s gains.
Regardless of what happens, the universe will still move along. There is most likely no god or after-life that is awaiting us after we die. We all just fight our unconscious pursuits to push farther than our current state, allowing our “selfish genes” to do what is necessary to keep making more humans at the expense of our own health and satisfaction. But being gods growing in control over the physics and chemistry that can evolve us to a higher (or even a completely new) species, this brings us back to the question of “What do we want to want?” and how can we give homo sapiens a direction in our future. Science WILL change our futures, but we do have the power to influence on how it will unfold.
My conclusion………..Read this book!
I previously read Yuval’s second book Homo Deus, and I actually now regret reading that book first. However, both books have made a strong impact on how I see the world now.
Unless you’re a strong-minded individual who doesn’t like different view of the world…….Read this book!
There’s a reason why there is 4.6/5.0 rating on Amazon with over 5,500 reviewers.
And of course, if you are human …….. Read this book!