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  • Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind by Yuval Noah Harari
  • John R. Pfeiffer
Yuval Noah Harari. Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind. Translated by Yuval Noah Harari, John Purcell, and Haim Watzman. London: Vintage Books, 2014 (2011 Hebrew). 498 pp. Paperback, £9.99, isbn 978-0-099-59008-8

We are such stuff / As dreams are made on.

—Prospero, in Shakespeare, The Tempest (ca. 1619)

Only an American could have seen in a single lifetime the growth of the whole tragedy of civilization from the primitive forest clearing. An Englishman grows up to think that the ugliness of Manchester and the slums of Liverpool have existed since the beginning of the world.

—Bernard Shaw, Shaw: An Autobiography 1856–1898

LUCA [Last Universal Common Ancestor], the researchers say, was the common point of origin for three great domains of life—bacteria, archaea, which are bacteria-like single-cell prokaryotes, and the eukaryotes, a domain that includes all plants and animals [including Homo sapiens].

—Avaneesh Pandey, "LUCA: A 4 Billion-Year-Old Ancestor of All Living Things on Earth"

Our language evolved as a way of gossiping. According to this theory … [s]ocial cooperation is our key for survival and reproduction. It is not enough for individual men and women to know the whereabouts of lions and bison. It's much more important for them to know who in their band hates whom, who is sleeping with whom, who is honest, and who is a cheat.

(25–26)

Most people can neither intimately know, nor gossip effectively about, more than 150 human beings.

(29) [End Page 214]

We are still animals, and our physical, emotional and cognitive abilities are still shaped by our DNA. Our societies are built from the same building blocks as Neanderthal or chimpanzee societies, and the more we examine these building blocks—sensations, emotions, family ties—the less difference we find between us and other apes.

(42)

How can an early twenty-first century person begin to understand his or her place in the universe? Increasingly wonderful—and ominous—answers to this question are represented by recent efforts to assemble a radically new syllabus for human history. The best such effort is by Yuval Harari in Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, in its first English edition and translation in 2014.

In the past twenty years, arguably the most important writing in the fields of anthropology and history is by polymath/anthropologist/"Big Historians." Among the most notable pioneering Big Historians are Jared Diamond in Guns, Germs and Steel (1997) and Ian Morris in Why the West Rules … for Now (2010). Remarkably parallel to Harari's books, in both length of prehistoric retrospect and schedule of publication, are Michael Tomasello's anthropologically grounded A Natural History of Human Thinking (2014) and A Natural History of Human Morality (2016). A fourth associated title is Nicholas Wade's much admired Before the Dawn: Recovering the Lost History of Our Ancestors (2006), the key content of which is abruptly no longer current. Meanwhile, there is no hotter topic in paleohistory studies than the extraordinary revelations about Neanderthal humans, as elaborated in Jon Mooallem's January 11, 2017, New York Times Magazine feature "Neanderthals Were People, Too: New Research Shows They Shared Many Behaviors that We Long Believed to Be Uniquely Human. Why Did Science Get Them So Wrong?" Harari's narrative presents new information and electric scientific opinion—giving it as well the integrity of a far more conservative and anthropologically persuasive taxonomy. He also tells his story with an extraordinary compassion for the people and creatures who share the world that paleo-"Sapiens" transformed. And Harari writes and speaks about it with greater clarity than any historian before him.

Sapiens is by now available in about thirty languages. Meanwhile, a highly readable sequel, Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow (Hebrew 2015), reached English readers in September 2016. And Harari's stature as a celebrity historian has been cemented, for example, by a September 2016 one-and-a-half-hour YouTube interview of him (www.youtube.com/watch?v=JJ1yS9JIJKs; his spoken English is as exceptionally engaging as his English translations of [End Page 215] Sapiens and Homo...

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Additional Information

ISSN
2154-9648
Print ISSN
1045-991X
Pages
pp. 214-220
Launched on MUSE
2017-04-11
Open Access
No
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