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Monday 9 July 2018
Review: Yuval Noah Harari, Sapiens
Somewhere in my childhood memories there is a strange book The Story of Mankind written and strangely illustrated by Hendrik van Loon. It didn’t fit with what I understood to be History: the Kings and Queens of England; the wars in which We had beaten Them; and – a bit later - the heroes of the agricultural and industrial revolutions.
Now that we have Globalisation, the study of World History makes a lot more sense, and probably even to children. Yuval Noah Hariri’s Sapiens: A Brief History of Mankind is a splendid, fascinating contribution to world history. I even indulged myself with the thought that it could be the basis of a primary school curriculum, but then I remembered that I live in Ruritania where schools hang out bunting for Harry and Meghan but would never do so for a Climate Change agreement.
All the way through this readable 500 page book, Harari springs surprises, getting us to see things - with which we may be half familiar - in a new light. His most striking achievement is to incorporate other animals into his narrative, both elaborating on how other animals have shaped Homo Sapiens and how Sapiens has shaped them. He doesn’t say it, but in effect he makes a very strong case for veganism.
He makes a strong case for a lot of things, and one of the interesting features of this book is the way in which he is not afraid to venture challenging opinions even though they are couched in modest prose. Especially in the early chapters, I felt that I was having all kinds of preconceptions challenged, as when he develops a line of argument to suggest that early hunter-gatherers (foragers) were (much) better off than the peasants who toiled in the fields after the first Agricultural Revolution – the one which took place long before Christ. He also made me laugh with some very well aimed Ouch! lines.
A world history has to be extraordinarily selective, but I felt that Russia was unreasonably overlooked in the account of Imperialism. Russia is interesting because over a few hundred years it created an Empire by constantly expanding its land borders. The Romanov dynasty entered the First World War with plans to extend those land borders still farther – into Austrian Galicia and across Turkey to Constantinople. Only in the case of Alaska and California did it create a colonial presence which required that a sea be crossed. It also had its eyes on Hawaii, but fairly quickly gave up on all of them, despite the availability of some very good explorers, ships, and sailors.
The book is translated from the Hebrew original, partly by Harari himself. I noticed only one occasion when the translation is unsatisfactory: at page 287, we are told that “Darwin almost became an Anglican pastor”. “Clergyman” would be the right word.