Monkey Business – Sapiens

Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind – Noah Yuval Harari (Vintage, 2014)

Hello all. It’s been yonks, but I won’t bore you with my life since February. I’m back belatedly reviewing a blockbuster book from a couple of years ago. I remember when Sapiens was first released and copies thronged the shop window of Oxford Waterstones. I’m an historian, I’m a homo sapiens – what could possibli go wrong?


As the subtitle suggests, Harari takes us on a journey through the history of mankind. He identifies a number of key ‘revolutions’ in human history. These include the agrarian revolution – the general shift from hunter-gatherer societies to sedentary agricultural ones, and the scientific revolution. There are recurrent themes throughout this – notably that, however we choose to rationalise it, Homo Sapiens are just another animal, but one which has had an incomparable impact on the environment. In particular, Harari charts how our ‘progress’ has caused a huge deal of suffering. The passages which deal with how pigs, cattle, chickens, and other livestock are farmed on an industrial scale are the book’s most harrowing – and Harari’s veganism leads to impassioned writing.


The cost of human progress? Industrial-scale pig farming.

Indeed, Sapiens leaves us with a rather grim prognosis for the future of Planet Earth amid moments of optimism. For instance, Harari notes that – despite humanity having gained the capability to destroy itself and the earth with the advent of atomic weaponry in 1945, it has so far failed to do so. Yet other threats loom on humanity’s horizon – AI, nanotechnology, cybernetics. It brings to the fore some common, yet important themes. Alongside the advances humanity has made, particularly in the last two centuries – what has it also lost? A particularly poignant (if perhaps a bit hypocritical given that I am airing it on one the internet’s innumerable blogs) example is writing. When people wrote letters or telegrams to each other they had to think carefully about what to say – limited either by cost-per-words, or the amount of paper. Replies had to be similarly considered and took time to arrive. Now, with email, we can contact anyone around the world, and receive replies almost instantly – but does this just encourage us to be busier and talk more whilst meaning less? (short answer: yes it does).

Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan saw it all coming in this terrifying premonition of 21st century working practices.

So far, so thought-provoking. But Harari’s book can be controversial at times. Some of this stems from his ‘big broad history of humanity’ focus and others from his particular analysis.

Firstly, big broad histories of humanity are nothing new. A much earlier sweeping ambitious study was Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs and Steel. I own this book but have not read it, and while that exponentially weakens this review through a lack of comparison regular readers who know the author well will know that, whatever progress Homo Sapiens has made in the last 70,000 years, some things never change. Anyway, as a – dare I say it – ‘professional’ historian (with proper certificates and everything) I can tell you that with history the devil is in the detail. Unfortunately this makes a lot of good history very tough-going, it also means that books like Sapiens are inevitably going to miss a load of stuff out. I can’t knock Harari for being ambitious in his work, I can knock him for making a truckload of generalisations about things (human progress, culture, etc) that shouldn’t be generalised about. To his credit, Harari is very deft in handling this paradox of his book, which he is obviously aware of as another professional historian – and he does it a lot better than some people, but it’s still worth being aware of.

This was perhaps the most interesting google image search result of ‘Professional Historian’ I could find – we’re a fun bunch!

Secondly, I find Harari’s treatment of imperialism perplexing. Harari, admittedly with qualifications, seems to think imperialism has a bad (or at least unfair) historical rap. He says: ‘Imperial elites used the profits of conquest to finance not only armies and forts but also philosophy, art, justice and charity.’ [p.216]. Yes, I’m sure Gandhi was just chuffed that the profits of conquest used to imprison him throughout World War Two also went to fund some nice paintings. This is a frankly bizarre view – of course the profits of imperialism weren’t just used to fund coercive mechanisms – Liverpool and Bristol were built on the back of the slave trade – is that a fair swap? I don’t really understand why it isn’t possible to be critical of imperial legacies for this reason, particularly because it wasn’t the subjugated colonial peoples who got to look at the art, or read the philosophy, or experience the justice, that also emerged. I mean sure, empire brought the railways to the colonies – but then as we all know from watching Richard Attenborough’s Gandhi (1982) Gandhi wasn’t allowed to travel first class in South Africa! Even though he was a lawyer! I suppose they both cancel each other out though right?

Fig. 1 – Suspected ‘Mau Mau’ in a British detention camp, Kenya 1950s – boo coercion!

It’s hard to see what Harari’s point is here, if – following from previous parts of the book dealing with sensitive topics such as the slave trade – his point is that empire was both good and bad then fair enough, but his analysis seems to suggest we just leave it at that. People all around the globe still live with the legacies of empire today. It is Harari’s duty as an historian to investigate these legacies.

Fig. 2 – The Royal Festival Hall, opened 1951 – woo culture!

Additionally, Harari offers some perplexing commentary on how empire actually works, using a particularly ill-considered example. Citing orientalists (those who studied ‘the east’) William Jones and Henry Rawlinson, he offers an argument [p.335] along the lines of: the western imperialists knew India better than the Indians themselves, so were able to govern it. This analysis shows an astonishing ignorance of how empire worked on the ground level. I’m an historian of empire, so I’m likely to get a bit defensive when Harari bungles into my patch with an argument which essential parrots what the orientalists themselves thought about empire (i.e. that they were smarter than the ‘natives’). Thomas Macauley, another orientalist, famously wrote a Minute on Education in 1835 in which he (in)famously claimed:  a single shelf of a good European library was worth the whole native literature of India and Arabia.

download (1)
Thomas Babington Macauley

British imperialism in India (and elsewhere) worked for a large number of reasons, and accurate collection of knowledge was almost never one of the main ones (if indeed it was accurate). The main reason so few Britons were able to rule over so many Indians was that so many Indians were willing to help them. This is a fact Harari seems to ignore – bizarrely too, because earlier on he explained how Cortes was able to use disgruntled South American tribes to help overthrow the Aztec empire. Fully a third of the Indian Empire consisted of ‘princely states’ ruled by people with such fantastic titles as  the Nizam of Hyderabad, which were at least pseudo-autonomous. Elsewhere, all over the British empire, local soldiers, policemen, and administrators abounded as individuals took advantage of the (albeit heavily circumscribed) opportunities that empire offered. This was the real secret of European imperial success and proved that non-Europeans were just as canny at playing the game as Europeans, making questions of ‘why did Europe do it but not [insert non-Europeans here]’ a little redundant.


The Nizam of Hyderabad on the front cover of Time magazine.

Finally, I disagree with Harari’s point about decolonisation: ‘Since 1945 most empires have opted for a peaceful early retirement. Their process of collapse became relatively swift, calm and orderly’ [p.413]. Here’s a list of wikipedia articles for you to read:

Then think of all the knock-on effects of those conflicts. Even if from a long-term perspective the deaths in all those wars were small – as a proportion of the population – compared to earlier centuries, in what way can even that small selection of conflicts be typified as ‘calm’ or ‘orderly’?

British soldiers disembarking from a helicopter in the Malayan Emergency, 1958

So, in conclusion, Sapiens was a book I had a lot of time for. It was thought-provoking and highly readable. Harari actually does a very accomplished job of dealing with an incredibly broad and complicated subject. However, his treatment of empire – my own specialist subject – made me question the validity of his other analysis. Also, the work suffers from the broader issue of insufficiently treating the topic with detail and relying heavily on generalisations. It remains a good ‘popular history’ introductory text which I would recommend to pique the interest of those who find history boring, but I would do so with the caveat that you would need to read wider to get a more rounded picture of the phenomena Harari describes. I give it three asterisks ***


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s