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a Brief History of Humankind

by Yuval Noah Harari, HarperCollins Publishers, 2015

Harari has a PhD in history from Oxford University. He lectures at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, specializing in world history.

Here is a Harari line about agricultural societies growing ever larger and more complex:

Myths and fictions accustomed people, nearly from the moment of birth, to think in certain ways, to behave in accordance with certain standards, to want certain things, and to observe certain rules. They thereby created artificial instincts that enabled millions of strangers to cooopeate effecively. This network of artificial insticts is callled 'culture.'

At Amazon.com a reviewer writes:

If you think of history as an account of kings, wars, and revolutions, you won't find it in Yuval Noah Harari's Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind. Nor will you find more than a smattering of familiar names of the "Great Men" who have supposedly bent the arc of history. This is history as you've never seen it before, history as it might have been written by an extraordinarily long-lived extraterrestrial observer. Here is Big History, the story of life on earth from the Big Bang to the present — and beyond.

Another reviewer at Amazon writes:

Harari is a masterful debunker, dramatically exposing accepted realities to be nothing more than imaginative constructs.

In his first sentence, Chapter One, Harari departs from common assumption about time, space and matter. He writes:

About 13.5 billion years ago, matter, energy, time and space came into being in what is known as the Big Bang.

Many people instead see time as something in itself (not dependent on matter in motion) and as eternal. I like Harari's view because it's my view. ("What is Time".)

Harari describes the above fundamental features of our universe as "physics ... the story of atoms, molecules and their interactions is called chemistry."

By the end of page 19, Harari has described humankind as having "extraordinary social abilities" that accompanied a newborns need for prolonged care. "Raising children," he writes, required constant help form other family members and neighbours." Evolution, he adds, favoured those capable of forming "strong social ties." Harari describes the success of our own biological species, Homo sapiens, over other humans, including Neanderthals. And he describes claims that one of the reasons for the success of Homo sapiens was its unique language – a matter he describes in Chapter Two. Ants, bees and Chimpanzees have language, he points out, but Homo sapiens could communicate with imagination beyond the simple fact of what is to imagined complexities that contribute to group cohesion.

World history is a big subject, of course, and it requires choices as to what to include. Harari covers different subjects than I did in my world history, published online only (fsmitha.com, now owned by Scott Jones of Scotland and being edited for typos.)

Harari's addresses matters that I did not. In his last chapter (Chapter 20), titled "The End of Homo Sapiens," Harari gets futuristic. He goes where I have not. He writes about Homo Sapiens in the 21st century being able to break free of their biologically determined limits, of science messing with what we have been biologically.

Three percent of the nearly 1,900 reviewers who rated Harari's book at Amazon.com have given the book one star.

One reviewer dislikes Harari's focus on ideas that are fabrications or myths, and he dislikes Harari's description of capitalism. He describes the book as "absolutely replete ... with errors in reasoning and sleights of hand." Someone writes approving of this criticism:

I see it's not worth my time especially since I have the capacity to think for myself and put the puzzle together, coupled with God's guidance, not that of some fool who completely disregards Biblical Scripture.

Someone else:

Sapiens is a very odd book, mostly a waste of time. Why it has been so popular is a complete mystery to me, it's only merit is its ambitiousness. It is not intelligent, coherent, or imaginative in any good way. It is shocking that the author teaches at any university.

Another reviewer complains:

on page 55 he writes about "witch-burning Puritans," but in fact no witches were burned by the Puritans. People were hanged or pressed to death - which is certainly not nice - but they were not burned.

This is the kind of criticism I have always appreciated. A writer of Big History doesn't have to distort any detail. This kind of criticism is specific and easily authenticated. In the age of Google we don't need access to a university library to check the veracity of someone's work.

Writing a world history is not like writing an essay. One doesn't have the space to prove or document most points. One isn't writing an encyclopedia or trying to prove anything with mathematical or scholastic logic. One is mainly telling a story that is supposed to hang together. But one does well to give some documentation, and Harari is criticized for its dearth.

One avid critic describes Harari's book as "a fact-thin morality tale attuned to current fads." This is a claim appears to be mere opinion – his picture against Harari's – expressed without any contrary coherence or substantiation.

I haven't finished reading the book, I see it as a contribution to Big History. Harari's years for his PhD, his learning through teaching, and the fantastic about of work that must have gone into writing Sapiens does, I suspect, account for something.

Harari describes as problematic views like mine on conquest and empire – the idea that every people has a right to self-determination and should never be subject to the rule of another. (I think it's unfortuate, for example, that those migrants to be called Spartans managed to conquer and make slaves of those to be called Helots.) But I'm delighted that Harari is making his contribution to our understanding of history in other areas. I will be referring to him occasionally when writing history.

Copyright © 2016 by Frank E. Smitha. All rights reserved.