Harari takes the reader on a thrilling ride through 70,000 years of our species, the Homo Sapiens (wise men).
Starting with the cognitive revolution that kick started the human spirit, through the agricultural revolution that gave us surplus food and spare time for creative pursuits, the unification of mankind through myths and finally the scientific and industrial revolution that gave us the modern facilities and lifestyle.
In the chapters on cognitive revolution, Harari explains what differentiates homo sapiens from other species and how our capacity for social cooperation has made us the rulers of Earth. He argues that with the advent of cognitive revolution , historical narratives should replace biological theories as the primary explanation in what drives human history. We cannot understand why french revolution happened by studying the biology of humans.
In the subsequent chapters, Harari claims that agricultural revolution has made lives of modern humans worse than the life of foragers. He argues that foragers had more free time than a modern person and they valued social interactions and friendships more than us. Also their diet was more nutritional because of non-dependence on a single food like wheat or rice which agricultural revolution produced. I think this argument may not be completely correct as hunting animals for food is not easy and couple it with the long distance travel that foragers undertook frequently in search of food. The constant threat of wild animals forcing them to stay vigilant even during their supposed free time.
The book is a decent read except for some chapters where the author seems to have injected his personal views. Two examples, first is the chapter on ‘There is no justice in history’ where he talks about the dichotomy of sex and gender and gender being a imagined hierarchy rather than a biological reality. There are not enough arguments given to how these conclusions were reached.
His views on religions seems to be quite superficial though he agrees to their unifying power he could not think of them more than imagined myths and labels it as ‘fiction’ throughout the book. He couples ideologies like communism, capitalism, liberalism etc in the category of religions which I think is quite silly for a serious scholar. In the same chapter Christianity ‘s view on Satan is also misunderstood by the author. Incidentally, this chapter on religion is among the ones with the least references.
If I had to pick a favorite chapter, it would be ‘The scent of money’. In this chapter, Harari shows how money is the only universal system of mutual trust between humans ever devised that breaks all barriers of caste, religion, race and ideology. With money as the medium of exchange, any two strangers can cooperate on any project. This is now evident in the large multi-national corporations spread across the world.
Moving further the book talks about progress and constant change that came about by the scientific revolution and accompanying capitalism. Here, Harari argues that all the modern advancement came about because humans finally accepted their ignorance and realized that they do not know everything. This is also quite a preposterous claim. Humans have known even before the modern scientific revolution that they did not understand everything. The history of modern scientific revolution is better explored in other books and how it is deeply rooted in western philosophy and Christian theology.
The book ends with a chapter exploring the potential changes that our species will undergo in the future, from genetic engineered humans to cyborgs to inorganic life. These will lead to significant ethical questions in coming years and our answers to them will tell whether we have really created a Frankenstein monster in technology, that will destroy our species, or something that will make us even more God-like.