Trevor's Reviews > Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind

Sapiens by Yuval Noah Harari
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it was ok
bookshelves: evolution, history, race, social-theory

A friend of mine at work recommended I read this during the week – and it is hard not being struck by the odd coincidence of that. Not so much him recommending a book to me, he’s done that before, but this book is very similar to The Patterning Instinct and I only read that a week or so ago. And that’s odd too, since it is years since I’ve read a book on this theme, despite it being a bit of a favourite at one time. So, reading two books on much the same topic, covering lots and lots of the same ground, and in quick succession, recommended by completely different sources all seems strange to me.

If you are tossing up whether or not to read this one, I would probably recommend reading The Patterning Instinct instead. Not least because, I think it covers the non-Western philosophies and spiritual traditions it discusses much more on their own terms than this one does. It also covers them in ways that make you feel, even though the Patterning’s author provided merely a thumbnail sketch of each, that it is a sketch of the philosophy itself. This one made me feel I was being presented an ‘example’ rather than a ‘sketch’ – with the history of humans being presented much more as a kind of story that leads to us in the West as the culmination. That is, I came away from tins one thinking of Said’s Orientalism, feeling that this was a white guy explaining other-people’s-cultures – which might even have been true of the patterning book too, but that one felt more inclusive. I want to say ‘objective’ but that’s probably not the right word.

The patterning book was, even in its title, a bit of a dig at Pinker – whereas, this one pays him homage repeatedly throughout. And that is interesting here, since we are seeing essentially the same ‘data’ being used to justify significantly different conclusions in the two books. So, in that sense, I really didn’t come away from reading these two books in quick succession feeling it was a waste of time. I do understand that you might not want to read both of them together – although, I feel like I’ve read them in the way that an ex-Australian Prime Minister used to collect various conductors’ interpretations of Mahler Symphonies. The benefit of reading both has been that I got to see ‘evidence’ from the past, even when it is pretty much the exact same evidence, being used to justify significantly different conclusions.

Obviously enough, I would recommend the Patterning book because it more closely corresponds with my prejudices – something that would be hardly surprising, I guess. But that said, I would also recommend it because I think it presents the material in more depth and in ways that are likely to provide you (and maybe even provoke you) with more insight into the complexities of the material too. The author of that one remains clear and accessible, despite the complexities of the material presented – something this one is too, by the way, it just I didn’t quite feel this one was as comprehensive – so the clarity here was also a function of the simpler presentation of the material.

I found a lot of the last of this to be – well, a bit too Pinker for my tastes as well. This happened a couple of times throughout – for instance, there is a bit early on where he discusses males and aggression and their hormones and the genetic selection that encouraged it, and so on – and since I have just finished reading Fine’s T-Rex book on all this, that section proved a bit of a cringe.

The bits at the end where science is proposed as being about to swoop down and save the day (and look, I know I’ve making a bit of a strawman of his argument here, but too not much of a strawman) left me cold, to be honest. My problem with the promise that ‘human ingenuity will triumph in the end’ is that, well, maybe it will, but betting the house on something that simply can’t be a sure thing seems a little reckless to me. Particularly when all life on earth might be wagered on the other side of the bet. I’m not much of a betting man, so perhaps I’m too cautious. But then, maybe we should be a little more cautious with this kind of gamble, even if we end up laughing at how overly cautious proved to be while we are looking back from the glorious future that is always promised us. It’s just that some scientists believe that if global warming proves to be as bad as they think it is going to be, the total population of people on the planet could end up being about half a billion people – which means that about 7 billion people will be in excess to requirements and so will have to die one way or another.

Bits of this were really very good – I’m definitely not saying ‘don’t read this book under any circumstances’ – not in the least, but if you’ve read neither of these two books and only plan to read one – read the other one.
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Reading Progress

Started Reading
March 27, 2018 – Shelved
March 27, 2018 – Shelved as: evolution
March 27, 2018 – Shelved as: history
March 27, 2018 – Shelved as: race
March 27, 2018 – Shelved as: social-theory
March 27, 2018 – Finished Reading

Comments Showing 1-13 of 13 (13 new)

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message 1: by Stefany Loren (new)

Stefany Loren I wanted to read your comments on this book for a long time (well, since I started to read your reviews :) ). I read this book the last year and it is one of my favorite, and I'm shocked because I was expecting you like the book (I don't know why hehe).

But you are a man who has read much more books than me and you know more about these things, I suppose. Anyways, I did like this book because although I received lessons in biology and history in school, I never saw biology and history in a way that the author made me to see. Besides, I learnt a lot from this book and I started to read more about biology, particularly evolution theory. I have learned a lot since then. I've also read Homo Deus, another book by this author, and I liked it too. And, of course, I'd like to read a comment on this book by you. I hope you read the book some day.

I'll take your advice and I'll read the one you recommend.

By the way, you have become my teacher on writing. I print your reviews by categories and then I study the way you write. I'm from Colombia and I'm learning by myself how to write essays and other stuff in English. A big hug for you from Colombia.


Trevor I really don't want you to think I didn't like this book - I think because it is on so many ideas I find completely fascinating and because I'd just read the other one that - well, maybe if there had been a bit more time between the two readings things would have been better. But these are the things I think people need to know about - as you say, the relationship between biology, evolution, society, the environment - these should be the basics of what we learn, and they are things we might just happen upon if we are lucky enough to read the right books. Too much of education is learning disconnected facts.

You have no idea how delighted and humbled you have made me feel this morning Stefany - honestly, you have made my day.

Love and all good things


Andreea Covaleov I have not read this book yet, but I will soon! I was just going through the reviews and came across yours. I have to say you made me curious!


Trevor Let me know what you think after you finish it. I would be interested.


message 5: by Lorraine (new)

Lorraine my scholarly anthropologist friends hate this guy -- no methodology they say, no research standards... I'm not an anthropologist myself but that's what people in the field are saying...


message 6: by Emma (new)

Emma Urgh, I just started this for my book club yesterday. I've read only a few pages and I'm not vibing on it well. A few little alarm bells...


Trevor I liked the Patterning Instinct better. No idea if Anthropologists would have the same problem with that. Possibly. Let me know how it goes Emma.


message 8: by Emma (new)

Emma Oh, I remember what it was - he does a timeline of life at the start, and for 'the present' he mentions the risk of destruction by nuclear weapons, instead of climate change. It does have a feel of slightly not rigorous.


Trevor He is crap on climate change, but then, so is Pinker and for the same reasons.


message 10: by Shashank (new) - added it

Shashank Sharma Hey, I just started reading Sapiens and stumbled across your review. I heard about Sapiens through a variety of sources, as you can imagine--from friend recommendations to booklists to, even, Bill Gates' review of this book on his blog. But by all accounts, The Patterning Instinct seems to be just as good a read on this subject. Then how is it that this book has received close to 200K reviews on Goodreads and is immensely well known with everyone picking a copy, while its counterpart is almost entirely forgotten? Really good marketing or just random chance, you think?


Trevor I really can't say - I guess marketing. But the other is by far the better book. As my dear friend Mark Twain used to say: "Whenever you find yourself on the side of the majority, it is time to pause and reflect".


message 12: by Shashank (new) - added it

Shashank Sharma Hahaha; fair enough! I'll give this one a shot anyway since I already bought it and couldn't find the other at my local bookstores.


message 13: by Susan in NC (last edited Nov 06, 2018 08:16AM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

Susan in NC Trevor wrote: "I really can't say - I guess marketing. But the other is by far the better book. As my dear friend Mark Twain used to say: "Whenever you find yourself on the side of the majority, it is time to pau..."

Great review and great Twain quote - and thanks for The Patterning Book rec, I’d never heard of it and will add it to the teetering TBR pile. I’m also going to follow your reviews if you don’t find that creepy and stalkerish - I like your writing style and want to mine your reviews for books I might miss here in the U.S. (Unfortunately, a lot of news can’t break through the Trump noise machine). I pick up interesting reviews and insights from my overseas GR friends. Cheers!


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