Book Reviews

Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind by Yuval Noah Harari



About the Book


Wow, wow, wow.


This book has knocked me for six. Never has the world seemed so clear until now!

It had all the hallmarks of a classic with many compelling reviews. If Barack Obama says it’s “interesting and provocative”, you’ve got to check it out, right?

So check it out I did. And oh my, how richly rewarded I was.

There’s no doubt in my mind this is the best non-fiction book I’ve read this decade. Sure, a few come close, such as Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers, but this is just in another league.

From chemistry to history, philosophy to religion, Sapiens has the lot. There was one section in which Harari even managed to break down basic economic theory in a way which left me utterly speechless.

I can’t even begin to imagine how long it took him to put this masterpiece together. One thing’s for sure though; he’s one heck of an author!


Favourite Passages

There are wayyyyy too many to mention but here are a few:

  • “Any large-scale human cooperation – whether a modern state, a medieval church, an ancient city or an archaic tribe – is rooted in common myths that only exist in people’s collective imagination. Churches are rooted in common religious myths. Two Catholics who have never met can nevertheless go together on crusade or pool funds to build a hospital because they both believe that God was incarnated in human flesh and allowed Himself to be crucified to redeem our sins. States are rooted in common national myths. Two Serbs who have never met might risk their lives to save one another because they believe in the existence of the Serbian nation…// Yet none of these things exist outside the stories that people invent and tell one another. There are no gods in the universe, no nations, no money, no human rights, no laws and no justice outside the common imagination of human beings.” Chapter 2


  • “As time went by, the imagined reality became ever more powerful, so that today the very survival of rivers, trees and lions depends on the grace of imagined entities such as the United States and Google.” Chapter 2


  • “During these long millennia, people occasionally ate wheat grain, but this was a marginal part of their diet. About 18,000 years ago, the last ice age gave way to a period of global warming. As temperatures rose, so did rainfall. The new climate was ideal for Middle Eastern wheat and other cereals, which multiplied and spread. People began eating wheat more, and in exchange they inadvertently spread its growth. Since it was impossible to eat wild grains without first winnowing, grinding and cooking them, people who gathered these grains carried them back to their temporary campsites for processing. Wheat grains are small and numerous, so some of them inevitably fell on the way to the campsite and were lost. Over time, more and more wheat grew along favourite human trails and near campsites.// When humans burned down forests and thickets, this also helped wheat. Fire cleared away trees and shrubs, allowing wheat and other grasses to monopolise the sunglight, water and nutriets. Where wheat became particularly abundant, and game and other food sources were also plentiful, human bands could gradually give up their nomadic lifestyle and settle down in seasonal and even permanent camps… The foragers became farmers.” Chapter 5


  • “History is something very few people have been doing while everyone else was ploughing fields and carrying water buckets.” Chapter 6


  • “How do you cause people to believe in an imagined order such as Christianity, democracy or capitalism? First, you never admit that the order is imagined… // You also educate people thoroughly. From the moment they are born, you constantly remind them of the principles of the imagined order, which are incorporated into anything and everything… fairytales, dramas, paintings, songs, etiquette, political propaganda, architecture, recipes and fasions. For example, today people believe in equality, so it’s fashionable for rich kids to wear jeans which were originally working-class attire.” Chapter 6


  • “A similar vicious circle perpetuated the racial hierarchy in modern America. From the sixteenth to the eighteenth century, the European conquerors imported millions of African slaves to work the mines and plantations of America. They chose to import slaves from Africa rather than Europe or East Asia due to three circumstantial factors. Firstly, Africa was closer, so it was cheaper to import slaves from Senegal than from Vietnam.// Secondly, in Africa there already existed a well-developed slave trade (exporting slaves mainly to the Middle East), whereas in Europe slavery was very rare. It was obviously far easier to buy slaves in an existing market than to create a new one from scratch.// Thirdly, and most importantly, American plantations in places such as Virginia, Haiti and Brazil were plagued by malaria and yellow fever, which had originated in Africa. Africans had acquired over the generations a partial genetic immunity to these diseases, whereas Europeans were totally defenseless and died in droves. It was consequently wiser for a plantation owner to invest his money in an African slave… Paradoxically, genetic superiority (in terms of immunity) translated into social inferiority…” Chapter 8


  • “The religious wars between Catholics and Protestants that swept Europe in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries are particularly notorious. All those involved accepted Christ’s divinity and His gospel of compassion and love. However, they disagreed about the nature of this love. Protestants believed that the divine love is so great that God was incarnated in flesh and allowed Himself to be tortured and crucified, thereby redeeming the original sin and opening the gates of heaven to all those who professed faith in Him. Catholics maintained that faith, while essential, was not enough. To enter heaven, believers had to participate in church rituals and do good deeds. Protestants refused to accept this, arguing that this quid pro quo belittles God’s greatness and love. Whoever thinks that entry to heaven depends on his or her own good deeds magnifies his own importance, and implies that Christ’s suffering on the cross and God’s love for humankind are not enough.” Chapter 12


  • “So, monotheism explains order, but is mystified by evil. Dualism explains evil, but is puzzled by order. There is one logical way of solving the riddle: to argue that there is a single omnipotent God who created the entire universe – and He’s evil. But nobody in history has had the stomach for such a belief.” Chapter 12


  • “Gautama’s insight was that no matter what the mind experiences, it usually reacts with craving, and craving always involves dissatisfaction. When the mind experiences something distasteful, it craves to be rid of the irritation. When the mind experiences something pleasant, it craves that the pleasure will remain and will intensify. Therefore, the mind is always dissatisfied and restless…// Gautama found that there was a way to exit this vicious circle. If, when the mind experiences something pleasant or unpleasant, it simply understands things are as they are, then there is no suffering…// Gautama developed a set of meditation techniques that train the mind to experience reality as it is, without craving. These practices train the mind to focus all its attention on the question ‘What am I experiencing now?’ rather than ‘What would I rather be experiencing?'” Chapter 12


  • “Over the last few years, banks and governments have been frenziedly printing money. Everybody is terrified that the current economic crisis may stop the growth of the economy. So they are creating trillions of dollars, euros and yen out of thin air, pumping cheap credit into the system, and hoping that the scientists, technicians and engineers will manage to come up with something really big, before the bubble bursts. Everything depends on the people in the labs. New discoveries in fields such as biotechnology and nanotechnology could create entire new industries, whose profits could back the trillions of make-believe money that the banks and governments have created since 2008. If the labs do not fulfil these expectations before the bubble bursts, we are heading towards very rough times.” Chapter 16


  • “It goes without saying that nations cannot be created from thin air. Those who worked hard to construct Iraq or Syria made use of real historical, geographical and cultural raw materials – some of which are centuries and millennia old. Saddam Hussein co-opted the heritage of the Abbasid caliphate and the Babylonian Empire, even calling one of his crack armoured units the Hammurabi Division. Yet that does not turn the Iraqi nation into an ancient entity. If I bake a cake from flour, oil and sugar, all of which have been sitting in my pantry for the past two months, it does not mean that the cake itself is two months old.” Chapter 18



What Others Are Saying About It

reviews for Sapiens


Star Rating:


Books don’t get much better than this! I can’t recommend Sapiens more highly enough!

If you only do one thing this week, make sure it’s that you start reading this masterpiece!


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