Marc Gerstein's Reviews > Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind

Sapiens by Yuval Noah Harari
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did not like it
bookshelves: non-fiction

Had I stopped reading after the first section, I’d have given this a five stars and whined that the Goodreads platform doesn’t aloe reviewers to go higher. But I didn’t stop. I kept reading, . . . until it got so bad, I found myself unable to do more than skim, and eventually, to just skipping large chunks.

It starts out as a fascinating discussion of the development and rise of our species, homo sapiens. But starting in the second section on the Agricultural Revolution, Harari shift gears and drops any pretense of an scholarly work. From that point on, it’s all personal bias all the time. This guy absolutely hates human beings and society. It seems that he is completely stuck in the idea that the world would have been better off had humanity simply stayed put in the hunter-gatherer stage.It seems all the countless billions of humans who lived since then are deluded and don't get it, and that only he understands. Yeah, right!

OK. There are worse sins than personal bias. Many great writers have it and let it show. But unlike Harari, the good ones work to try to justify the positions they take. Harari, on the other hand just bombards readers with one opinion after another and treats them as proven fact, even though what he says is often debatable or out and out wrong. That’s one of the reasons I gave up on a close reading as I progressed into the second half. Even when it seemed as if Harari was selling me something I didn’t know (which did not occur often), I simply did not trust him. An author can choose to forego many things. Credibility and trust are not among them.

Perhaps the best way to illustrate this mess is through a conversation I once had among people who liked to discuss philosophy. Somehow or other, though, this conversation veered off into a set of irritating rants on how western society sucks. The thing that sticks out most in my memory is how the host went off on a diatribe about the greatness of nature and Native Americans and about how he was fine being a non-vegetarian because the cows understood human need for meat and were happy to offer themselves as a precious spiritual gift to humanity. My reply: “That conclusion is based on interviews with how many cows?” The conversation abruptly ended. That is exactly the way I reacted to the self-serving gibberish offered by Harari under the guise of scholarly presentation.
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Reading Progress

May 5, 2015 – Started Reading
May 5, 2015 – Shelved
Finished Reading
May 29, 2015 – Shelved as: non-fiction

Comments Showing 1-50 of 83 (83 new)


message 1: by Lowell (new)

Lowell My thoughts exactly. The book comes off one sided and opinionated. At one point the author seems to be headed toward advocating for one world government while at the same time lambasting national hegemony and lamenting us ever having progressed beyond hunter-gatherers. He mentions how important the U.S. Declaration of Independence was; mentions some gibberish about slavery and moves on to some topic he's more passionate about. I found myself asking myself many times, "So what's your point?" Past the first few chapters, a total waste of time.


Luke Johnson Write your version of this book, see if anyone reads it. This book is excellent and the author presents his thoughts in his book because it is his book and therefore his thoughts. Come up with a better reason to give a book 1 star than you don't like that the author wrote a book about what the author thinks.


Marc Gerstein Luke, is that the best you can do? If so, that proves my point. There is no support at all for anything the author says except "
this is how I feel and I'm going to rant and I don't care if it makes sense and if you don't like it I'll get my mommy to yell at you and if she won't, I'll get Luke to do it." For the record, I write for publication constantly and know full well how to justify a stance and plenty of people read it. So have a good day, although i doubt that's possible for you unless you aren't a hunter gatherer


Luke Johnson Haha ok Marc I'll have a good day just for you ;) have a good one too!


Vanessa Wester A fair review ... I lost the will towards the end too! There are much better books on this subject out there! Oh well :)


message 6: by Najam (new) - added it

Najam Saqib Hi Vanessa,

Could you recommend other better books than this one especially kn regards to same topic?


message 7: by Najam (new) - added it

Najam Saqib Hi Vanessa,

Could you recommend other better books than this one especially kn regards to same topic?


message 8: by Connie (new) - added it

Connie A thoughtful review, thank you Marc Gerstein.


message 9: by Elentarri (new)

Elentarri Thank you! Thank you! Thank you! for the warning. :)


Marc Gerstein Najam wrote: "Hi Vanessa,

Could you recommend other better books than this one especially kn regards to same topic?"


I wish. I was really excited about the topic. I did, however, find a "Great Courses" lecture series on this and I will listen to it at some point.


message 11: by Leslie (new)

Leslie YS Completely agree! I'm on the Agricultural Revolution section and had to put it down when he started singing Mary Had A Little Lamb in reference to sheep domestication.

I thought I was reading an unbiased and factual book on evolution. Guess not....


message 12: by Leslie (new)

Leslie YS Completely agree! I'm on the Agricultural Revolution section and had to put it down when he started singing Mary Had A Little Lamb in reference to sheep domestication.

I thought I was reading an unbiased and factual book on evolution. Guess not....


message 13: by Leslie (new)

Leslie YS Completely agree! I'm on the Agricultural Revolution section and had to put it down when he started singing Mary Had A Little Lamb in reference to sheep domestication.

I thought I was reading an unbiased and factual book on evolution. Guess not....


message 14: by Pete (new) - rated it 1 star

Pete Strong agreement, and I'll go further. In fact, I did in my own review, listing some of the areas where he either misleads or is flat out wrong, ignoring evidence contrary to his assertion (and typically in such cases he does not even support his case.)

It's sad, because he IS a good writer. But IMHO, he's a dangerous writer, too easily convincing people of things that simply are not true. :(


message 15: by Judith Field (new) - added it

Judith Field Fortunately I didn't invest or read-just looked at the section I knew about-completely partisan and wrong. So thank you everyone for the warning. A bit like reading Tim Flannery and hoping for something accurate-don't bother.


message 16: by Brad (new) - rated it 1 star

Brad I totally agree with you. I really enjoyed this first section. It fell off rapidly after.


message 17: by A (new) - rated it 3 stars

A James great review.


message 18: by Rajat (new) - added it

Rajat Mehndiratta @marc are u religious? ??? do you believe in God???


message 19: by Ben (new) - rated it 1 star

Ben Couldn't agree more, first section was good then it was flooded with baseless opinion....."people only travel overseas because culture and society myths tell them too, ancient Egyptians never used to think of overseas ski trips!"
Cringe moment, people travel overseas because humans love to explore and see unfamiliar lands, they have since the dawn of time, drilled into us through natural selection to discover new lands and survive. Why did sapiens discover America, Australia, etc? Even with the most basic boats / rafts? He tells the story of foragers doing this 40 000 years ago then claims it's only modern people who like to explore new lands because of "myths" that society convinces them to believe in. What a joke.... The only difference is we now have means to explore anywhere with planes and things keep running easy at home without us, so we do....Egyptians didn't have this option.


Marc Gerstein "Rajat Mehndiratta @marc are u religious? ??? do you believe in God???"

I don't see how that's relevant to this review of this book.


message 21: by D (new) - rated it 2 stars

D This author leans heavily to the left and is frequently wrong.


Kevin Wilcoxon Perhaps the book is taken too seriously as "history", an accounting of the facts. I don't know how the book is sold, so it may be the author's fault. The title seems to allude to the fact that history cannot be factually told in one book. I do believe that agriculture marked the first step in specialization, a road we've traveled ever since. I agree with Harari that specialization - knowing more and more about less and less - makes us dumber and less able to solve real problems.


message 23: by AnnaG (new) - rated it 1 star

AnnaG Spot on - as soon as he said that Hitler wasn't wrong, just early, I realised that Mr Harari is not nearly as intelligent as he thinks he is.


Jason Keogh @AnnaG, there are 6 references to Hitler in this book and none of them say he was not wrong or that he was early. I just finished reading the book, but double checked with a Kindle search for the word Hitler. You're commenting on another book or on the wrong medication.


message 25: by AnnaG (last edited Mar 12, 2017 04:33PM) (new) - rated it 1 star

AnnaG Jason wrote: "@AnnaG, there are 6 references to Hitler in this book and none of them say he was not wrong or that he was early. I just finished reading the book, but double checked with a Kindle search for the w..."
For "wasn't wrong" - see the end of Chapter 12: "The main ambition of the Nazis was to protect humankind from degeneration and encourage its progressive evolution... Given the state of scientific knowledge in 1933, Nazi beliefs were hardly outside the pale."
See also the four paragraphs starting with "The Nazis did not loathe humanity.." which seemingly provide a Darwinian justification of Nazism using 1933 scientific knowledge.

For "just early" - see next paragraph: "But today such projects are back in vogue. No one speak about exterminating lower races... but many [contemplate creating] superhumans". Maybe it is unfortunate type-setting, but on the preceding page in the paperback version there is a cartoon with the caption "Hitler is presented as a sculptor who creates the superman."

In fairness, there are two paragraphs in the middle of this section that note that biologists have debunked Nazi racial theory and that because the Nazis were racist, racism went out of favour in the west.

So in support of my first comment -
(1) It is directly stated that Nazism was a rational belief given the state of science at the time
(2) It is suggested that evolutionary humanism is again a reasonable philosophy with a focus on creating a distinct superior race rather than eliminating existing groups.


message 26: by Ram (new) - rated it 5 stars

Ram Anvesh @anna g on 1)
Assuming that the Nazis had the most rational opinion given the then current scientific knowledge, what the other wants to say is that just having a rational opinion which is in sync with the latest scientific knowledge is not enough to make policies and decide the future of the human race. philosophy and an in-depth understanding of the human condition is utmost required. personally I was amazed at the intelligence of the insight and the eloquence of the subtlety by which the argument was made. given that the author thinks that the way animals are treated in agriculturally farmed industries could be the biggest crime in the history of the world, it is extremely hard for us to believe that he is supporting nazizm or Hitler in any way. I think you have misunderstood the author immensely.


message 27: by Pete (new) - rated it 1 star

Pete Given that the author badly misrepresented modern animal husbandry, I don't think he was misunderstood at all.


message 28: by William (new) - added it

William It seems that he is completely stuck in the idea that the world would have been better off had humanity simply stayed put in the hunter-gatherer stage.
Well, if you look at global warming, pollution of the air and oceans, and the 9 billion that will demand a better life by 2025, I would say that human beings, in particular greedy, testosterone driven men, have totally f'cked the world beyond hope. Man is a cancer of the planet, taking resources and destroying it's host. And that is accelerating. Wake the f'ck up.


message 29: by Pete (new) - rated it 1 star

Pete Our planet is more resilient than most people can imagine. YES we can (and have) caused tremendous harm. Yet for the most part once we stop imagining we can manage the planet, it does amazingly well on its own.

So far, 100% of all scientific predictions of doom have been proven abjectly false... going back to professor Paul Ehrlich.

We have learned to produce more efficiently and effectively than ever before. Proven reserves in general are on the increase. Pollution is improving.

What we DO get wrong, time after time, is the assumption that somehow we can correctly manage the planet. From the Florida Everglades (environmentalists recommended actions that came close to destroying the environment of the entire US southeast) to New Orleans (Hurricane Katrina was 100% predicted, in writing, way back in 1984... based on the dumb things people were doing...

William, you might find http://metrics.stanford.edu eye opening. They are discovering what has gone wrong in modern science, and what it will take to fix it. Science is "proving" way too many things that Just Aren't So.


message 30: by William (last edited Mar 20, 2017 05:55PM) (new) - added it

William Captain of Titanic: "So far, we are unsinkable"

http://www.tenbillionmovie.com

Ten Billion is a documentary film written and presented by one of the world's foremost scientists, Professor Stephen Emmott.

Stephen J. Emmott (born 3 June 1960) is a Professor and Head of Computational Science at Microsoft Research in Cambridge, UK


message 31: by William (new) - added it

William What's gone wrong with science is that MONEY controls the livelihoods of scientists, and their families, and corporations often pervert science for profit.

GREED is truly the most terrible challenge of our times, and capitalism is its tool, its means to power and more greed.

Greed is a (contagious) mental illness, an unfillable hole, a hunger that denies justice, a brutal expression of broken egos.

Greed is having a million times as much as the poor and still feeling you don't have enough.

Greed consumes the earth without respite, and is a cancer on humanity. Greed destroys us and our children and their future.

Greed is death.


Marc Gerstein Wow, what rage, and wonderfully supported by a full helping of confirmation bias. I've seen it hundreds of times and recognize the script. But unlike me, Harari did a nice job of converting rage to book sales, so I suppose I would have to give him five stars for profitable branding-marketing.


message 33: by William (new) - added it

William Methinks thou doth protest too much.


Marc Gerstein :-) :-) :-) Have a glass-half-full day!


message 35: by Max (new) - rated it 4 stars

Max Dear Marc it seems you got disappointed by the book, which is normally due to your set of expectations rather than the actual level of work by the author. You're saying it's wrapped in a scholarly looking coat but truly isn't scholar work? What's your point exactly?

A) Harrari is not telling the truth? What's truth?
B) Harrari's not backing up his point-of-views? Example?
C) Harrari hides his true intentions? What do you think are his true intentions?

Judging something as “not being scholar” from a pure subjective point of view is highly questionable. Less conscious humans tend to disrespect opinion they don't share.

btw on your last point and small episode of your life, you would have a splendid conversation with Harrari. He really meets your expectations here. I think finishing the book makes a lot of sense, due to the real gem of Harrari’s work is at the end with the build up to “Homo Deus”. It seems secretly you wouldn't give him a 1 out of 5 stars rating ;-)


Michael Show me one history book that is not biased in some way. Harari has great insight into the stream of history


message 37: by Richard (new)

Richard Thwaite I let myself be influenced to purchase this book by a certain radio2 dj. Mr Evans bestowed the virtues of this book every day for two weeks or more he even interviewed the author .Mr Evans waxed lyrical about how interesting this book was . Personaly i am struggling to keep going ,i am approx half way through the book i think the author is too opinionated and bends the script to suit is own thoughts, i just dont think i can bring myself to continue.


Ishita I was deep in guilt when read about how human destroyed mega fauna of Australia and Americas , so many beautiful species which lived for millions of years disappeared when human arrived. Homo sapien is ecological serial killer . I love nature and animals and our planet for its natural beauty, but I think the person with above review is completely apathetic to it.


Marc Gerstein Ishita, Im not apathetic to nature but I am allergic to pompous sophomoric bullsh**.


Dayananda Aswathaiah I am just one section away from finishing this book. I have read a few books on this topic, never have I read a book that talks about humanity in such sinister manner. The string of causalities that Harari traces in this book is pretty logical and by all means, very much verifiable. There are citations to the facts claimed and the 'Notes' section does give references to the material surveyed. A review as critical as this should challenge the book with counter arguments backed with credible data. At least for a few points if not the whole book :)


Marc Gerstein "A review as critical as this should challenge the book with counter arguments backed with credible data."

Dayananda,

Like hell it should. This is a review, my impression as a reader, someone to whom the author was trying to speak. I'm at liberty to say he didn't make his point to me and why I felt it was lacking. I'm likewise free to react to such data as is presented and come to the conclusion that it is not sufficient to support his argument and that his argument seems, to me, to logically flow,not from his data but from the personal bias he brings to the topic. For the record, I'm a research-and-analytics specialist (in finance) and i publish, and I cope every day with the need to separate data-driven conclusions from emotion, bias, etc. and if/when readers disagree, they express their opinions, often quite boldly.

Having a negative view of the manner in which the author did his job does not impose any obligation on me (or my readers) to collect data and, in essence, write a book on the opposite side of the argument. That said, however, history has long fascinated me so if you are willing to bankroll me so i can quit my job and devote myself to the writing of a counter-Sapiens book, message me privately so I can take you up on your offer. As soon as the funds you supply is clear in my my account, I'll get started.


message 43: by Arun (new) - rated it 3 stars

Arun P L "Biased"- it must be the word which comes out after reading this book.


message 44: by Alex (new) - rated it 3 stars

Alex Pyatetsky Largely my same takeaways. At the end of it, I still couldn't tell you the books core theses.


message 45: by Sudha (new) - rated it 1 star

Sudha Bellamkonda If only I read this review a couple days ago I would have saved myself some time. I slogged through till the end because the book has such huge popularity and I was trying to understand what I didn't get?!?
Sadly I think there has been a rise in recent times of good PR for not-so-good books making them bestsellers (Gone girl, 50 Shades, Sandberg come to mind)


message 46: by Benjamin (new)

Benjamin Gordon I've just finished the book and I agree with Marc's review. The first chapter was great and it presented itself as a scholarly work then quickly become a student essay heavy on opinion and personal bias, the afterword being a completely different tone to the beginning. I don't understand how this book is so well reviewed when Harari is pushing his opinion that bring tribal foragers was the best time to be alive, because we'd feel awesome. I bet it was terrifying and awful constantly facing death at every turn, and that opinion is just as valid as Hararis. He also suddenly ends on a pessimistic note when in other sections he's wildly optimistic. A strange disjointed personally biased summary of history with few facts you can't find elsewhere.


message 47: by Nic (new) - rated it 2 stars

Nic Najam wrote: "Hi Vanessa,

Could you recommend other better books than this one especially kn regards to same topic?"

Maps of Time; and introduction to Big History by David Christian


message 48: by Marilyn (new)

Marilyn Valkenburg Just hearing about Sapiens from friends, haven't read it yet, but my first and foremost questions (from what I've heard) are "What are his proofs?" and "How does he know what their thought processes were?" They didn't have a written language, nothing that we can translate or infer from other than cave paintings (???), so really, these are his thoughts and his own conclusions on people who lived 10's of thousands of years ago. Does he have a working time machine? If so, he must have spent centuries in the past to gain this extensive knowledge. I will read the book, but I won't pay for it...I'll borrow it from the library. I'd advise you to do the same. Save your money for something more credible...maybe The Celestine Prophecy?


Manxtofu A rambling, aimless review not backed up by citations. 2/10.


Marc Gerstein Thank you for the insightful comment. I checked your profile to study and learn from your approach to reviewing and found, oh well, you know. :-)


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