Book Review: Sapiens, A Brief History of Humankind by Yuval Noah Harari

Homosapiens a.k.a we humans are the dominant specie today because we can create mythologies and tell stories. Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind by Yuval Noah Harari is an interesting read, where the author interweaves science and the humanities together to make us see where we have reached today from once being the hunter gatherers.

The storytellers

According to Robin Dunbar, a British anthropologist, humans have limited number of meaningful relationships and that is around 150. Later this quantity became Dunbar’s number. Harari gives reference to this measure saying that it was the most difficult task for humans to organize a group of more than 150 people. The two main hurdles were:

  • Trust factor and
  • Close relationships with 150 individuals

But if we create myths and tell stories, we can follow unwritten laws and form bonds even with individuals that are outside our core group. Having shared knowledge in something which is not even true leads to the formation of trust even between strangers.

Animals cannot bond with each other in huge numbers as humans can, why? Just because they cannot ‘tell’ stories.

Glorifying stories and creating systems

As per Harari, this notion alone is responsible for global religions to sprout. We tell stories, we take it as our ‘personal responsibility’ to keep traditions alive so, we keep on glorifying stories and myths generations after generations.

Not only religions, story making has helped us in creating boundaries between nations. We tell stories, give value to things, consequently we have built economies and paper money system.

Our superpower of storytelling has allowed us to form massive and lasting operations. Let’s take the case study of French auto-giant Peugeot, demonstrated Harari. Today if all the employees of the firm die and every car is disappeared from the world, yet the company will not get wiped out.  Peugeot does not represent its people or product rather the auto giant is a business that has been collectively agreed upon by society.

He makes an interesting point targeting religion, he says, like politics and economics, religion too is another technique employed by humans for creating an organised society. And maybe the fanaticism is the culmination of this method (and this happens to be my point of view).

Human specie is responsible for fauna extinction

He puts a hammer on our approach that took early humans as “tree huggers”, on the contrary archaeological evidence shows otherwise. Early humans were responsible for mass extinctions. This reminds me of Agent Smith’s famous lines from the movie Matrix,

I’d like to share a revelation that I’ve had during my time here. It came to me when I tried to classify your species and I realized that you’re not actually mammals. Every mammal on this planet instinctively develops a natural equilibrium with the surrounding environment but you humans do not. You move to an area and you multiply and multiply until every natural resource is consumed and the only way you can survive is to spread to another area. There is another organism on this planet that follows the same pattern. Do you know what it is? A virus.

Archaeological record shows three scenes, postulates Harari:

  • First scene: Rich and varied population of large animals. Without any trace of humans.
  • Second scene: Sapiens appeared, evidence by human bone, a spear point, or perhaps a potsherd.  
  • Third scene: Men and women occupy center stage. And most large animals, along with many smaller ones are gone.

Farming changed everything

Contrary to the popular belief, Harari postulates that the Agricultural Revolution put brakes on the otherwise nomadic life of people, which also caused shortages of food. How?

Farming caused the “moving” civilization to settle at one place. After all, it demands a lot of attention, patience and hard work. Although it increased the availability of food, nevertheless it is also one of the reasons that led to the growth of human population.  

Why didn’t they abandon farming when it backfired?

It takes generations for smaller changes to accumulate and transform society. By then no one remembered they once lived differently. Also, rise in population burdened humanity’s growth.  

Having surplus food allowed humanity to expand its tentacles in trades, create systems like politics, economies, nations. Once stomach was full, they could dedicate time to explore arts, philosophy, expeditions etc.

Sapiens were better off as foragers

After reaching a certain point in time, all this “progress” led to war! The gulf between the materialistic rich and poor widened. Also, periodic diseases erupted, which caused massive death of humanity.

According to Harari, human species might have had better chance of longer life or they were better off as foragers had they never settled permanently for agriculture. Farming changed everything.

Some say Agricultural Revolution led humanity to prosperity and progress. While other feel it led to perdition. However, the turning point arise when sapiens moved away from its intimate interdependence with nature and opted for greed and alienation.   

Political & economic interdependence and scientific revolution

While referring to the unification of humankind, the author postulates that history has shown Sapien’s inclination towards political and economic interdependence. For centuries, they have constructed empires and worked unceasingly towards capitalist globalization. Till today, they have been successful in building the process over the wheels of money, empires and religions.

One of the most deciding factors of Scientific Revolution in Europe, according to Harari was, the early modern European imperialism. However, there is no research done till now when it comes to the history of happiness.  

Are we happy?

With a progression of over 200,000-years, Harari questions, are we living a better life, are we happier in the end? Humans have become gods, they can create species. However, the fundamental question remain the same – are we happy?

Hunter-gathers have had less capabilities than us – we have tools, we can predict weather, we can call/talk to our peers irrespective of the distance, we have medical facilities, we understand our bodies well relatively, we have standardised transaction structures in place of barter system – yet, they had a better life than us. They worked for few hours and spent more time with family members.

Therefore, happiness does not depend on human capabilities rather “it depends on the correlation between objective conditions and subjective expectations”, concluded Harari.


The book has a lot of interesting insights and it directs us to question the fundamentals of how everything started, not from the point of Big Bang but from the stand point of emergence of global society. I never realized history could be so engaging. I’m surely going to read Harari’s Homo Deus, the next in line.

Explore further