Note: This is longish post, sorry. I quite like this book. Also, if you are easily offended, maybe this isn’t the book for you, although it probably is. That being said, we don’t know all of the facts about the past, and often what’s recorded was recorded because it was exceptional, because it was the exception at that time. Likewise, any literature on the topic should be taken with a pinch of salt and some perspective.
One of my favourite books is Guns, Germs, and Steel (you can read the review here) that roughly outlines the development of humans from around the time of agricultural development, up to today. It’s a fascinating book with some great insight.
I kept wondering about what happened before the agricultural revolution, for a more complete history of our kind. Then I found Sapiens, A Brief History of Humankind.
It’s the description of our journey 2.5 million years in the making, and written with little regard for people’s feelings. This book will offend a vast majority of people. It offended me. Why and how it offended me is what makes me love this book.
Often we don’t like to look too closely at our past because it takes a lot of effort, and if the way we live our lives and interact with people feels absolutely normal and natural, then why question it at all?
First off, “Humankind” in the title doesn’t refer to humans as we know it. It refers to all species in the Homo genus, which would include Neanderthal, Homo habilis, Homo naledi, Homo floresiensis, Homo egaster, and about ten other species of human, many of which existed at the same time.
We are often have racial conflicts, and make a big deal out of it, but what if several other species of human had survived with us? Would there be “equal human rights” for all?
The next question is what happened to those other humans? Well, in a nutshell we couldn’t compete individually with other human species because they were often stronger, but they couldn’t compete with us when it came to making a group effort, so over time we took over their lands, their food supplies, and wiped them out.
The next 2 on the offense list: we’re almost solely responsible for wiping out many other species (just like we still do), and what keeps us together to a larger degree is what we make up and get everyone else to believe. Think of money, religions, laws, and human rights – according to the book those are all made up by Sapiens. Do you see why a lot of people would get offended by Sapiens?
Your religion, the money you work so hard for, and the inalienable rights you have as a human being were completely made up.
However, it’s these myths we’ve made up that keep us together, and able to work together. It’s what let’s strangers from different countries get along; they share a common belief in something. Real or imagined.
But these beliefs and group think can also work against our own “humanity” when you think of how we treat animals. We know that we haven’t been the most symbiotic when it comes to animals – we raise them to eat them, and on average (the world population as an average) we don’t really care how they’re treated because it’s “normal”.
This book is great at looking at our normalcy and giving it some perspective.
Repeatedly impregnating another species which drastically decreases it’s life span, killing it’s offspring, and then killing the mother when it can’t reproduce quickly enough, so that we can drink it’s bodily fluids which were designed to make their offspring gain weight quickly, seems quite odd.
But milk in your coffee is perfectly normal.
It’s seldom I come across a book that challenges my view on so many things.
Again, because we assume things about the past from a present day perspective, anything besides accurate facts should be viewed as carefully as possible and never assumed to be true. We, Homo sapiens, are brilliant when it comes to imagining things and tend to hold onto these imaginings when they are helpful, as in human rights, and money, which unify us, and unfortunately when they are not, as in the case of genocide and and torture.
I think is one of the biggest warning signs this book tries to alert the reader to – much of what we consider as normal was made up by people at some time to serve a purpose, and even though we may have strong feelings about these subjects, whether it’s the right to freedom of speech, abortion, God, or even the daily 9-5 grind, they are not always useful to us now, and should always be put under review.