Thursday, March 11, 2021

Sapiens by Yuval Noah Harari - a brief review

I'm a fairly average sleeper for my age, but this morning I gave up a bit before 4am. With the unexpected time I finished Yuval Harari's 2015 book "Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind". (The "finishing" part is a bit unusual, I too often lose interest 80% of the way through many books.)

Sapiens was, I've read, quite popular with the Silicon Valley set. So I was prepared to dislike it from the start. In truth, while I can see why the Captains of Industry were fans, it's not a bad book. I'd grade it as very good to excellent.

I didn't learn much new -- I have read many of the same things as Harari. I was reminded, though, of things I'd forgotten -- and he touched on many of my favorite themes. If I'd read this as a young person I might have found it astonishing.

What are the flaws? He has a weird definition of "The Liberal" and he really dislikes whatever he means by that. He has a thing about Hosni Mubarak -- a loathsome person, but an odd choice for chief villain. He is glib, but that's a necessity in a book like this.  The glibness is somewhat offset by his habit of critiquing his assumptions at the end of each chapter. He's weakest when he strays into the sciences, particularly biology. Since he wrote this book we’ve seen Trumpism, the rise of Xi, and the slow burn of the Left Behind — events that might cause reconsiderations.

I liked the repeated reminder that non-human animals have paid a terrible price for the rise of humanity. Most books of this kind don't consider them.

In a book of this sort one constantly tries to decipher the author's agenda. What does Harari truly think? He clearly admires Buddhism; I would be surprised if he were not a practitioner of the more intellectual forms of Buddhism. He has a love and admiration for capitalism that outshines his self-critique. On the current American spectrum of political ideology he'd be a techno-optimist libertarian to the right of Obama and me (his characterization of the British Empire is more than slightly incorrect.)

Most of the time the book affirmed my own beliefs and reminded me of things I'd forgotten. Sometimes it annoyed me, but in a way that forced me to examine my priors. It's aged well -- even if some of his 2014 near-future predictions look to be still a decade or two away. I recommend it.

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