Do we really need another book about the general history of humankind? That was my first question. After all, authors like Jared Diamond (Guns, Germs and Steel; The Third Chimpanzee) and Ian Morris (Why the West Rules- For Now) already wrote books on that, not to mention countless other historians. The answer is yes, because Yuval Noah Harari has his own point of view on the whole matter.
For Harari, the crux is this:
Imagine how hard it would be to create a state, or a religion, or a legal system, if we could speak only about things that really exist, such as rivers, trees and lions.
Harari’s big idea is that Homo sapiens conquered the world because we could imagine things that do not really exist and have the language to talk about these things, and so create collective fictions such as states, religions and companies. It is these fictions that keep humans cooperating in huge numbers, otherwise societies would fall apart in groups of about 150 people.
In itself, this is not a new or shocking idea. What makes the book interesting is that Yuval Noah Harari is a world-class communicator of ideas with an easy and accessible writing style, and he squeezed the book full of interesting ideas and updated facts from science. So no, thankfully the book is not a standard recital of kingdoms and cultures, but about special topics that explain much more than dry facts.
He enjoys being cheeky, such as by calling agriculture history’s biggest fraud and a trap. This way, the book stays interesting, and also closer to today’s knowledge than that of outdated schoolbooks. By investing a lot of time and effort in agriculture, he explains, we got a bigger population but our individual living standards got lower than that of hunter-gatherers. He then compares this with today’s situation of people working very hard, only to lose their free time and tie themselves up with obligations.
The best thing about the book is that Harari keeps going back to the biological starting points to reminds us of how our society is based on myths, and what the biological and physical reality was. It is history of Homo sapiens from a biological point of view. History books have a tendency to get caught up in stories about kings and cultures and so on, but as Harari says: history is something that very few people have been doing while everybody else was ploughing fields and carrying buckets of water. All of history is built on crop surpluses and myths.
As the book progresses towards the modern age, Harari discusses money, empire, religion and science. In these chapters, his own opinions come much more to the fore and he is quick to dismiss people who tried to explain why history went the way it went. I find this a bit baffling. There are many interesting ideas about the shape of history and the sequence of events that make a lot of sense, but instead of enriching his book with these ideas, Harari rather likes his own idea better that history is so very random.
That is one drawback of the book. Some of his ideas are tantalizing and intellectually arousing, but to present them he conveniently forgets the insights made by others, or pretends that these aren’t so important in the end. Occasionally it confuses me how to take this book, because it so not so much a comprehensive scientific treatise but more like a personal opinion piece on human history. A very interesting opinion piece nonetheless.