Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind

Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind (Hebrew: קיצור תולדות האנושות, [Ḳitsur toldot ha-enoshut]) is a book by Yuval Noah Harari, first published in Hebrew in Israel in 2011 based on a series of lectures Harari taught at The Hebrew University of Jerusalem, and in English in 2015.[1][2] The book, focusing on Homo sapiens, surveys the history of humankind, starting from the Stone Age and going up to the twenty-first century. The account is situated within a framework that intersects the natural sciences with the social sciences.

A Brief History of Humankind
Ḳitsur toldot ha-enoshut.jpg
First edition (Hebrew)
AuthorYuval Noah Harari
Original titleקיצור תולדות האנושות
LanguageHebrew (2011)
English (2015)
SubjectHistory, social philosophy
PublisherDvir Publishing House Ltd. (Israel)
Random House
Publication date
Followed byHomo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow 

The book has gathered mixed reviews. While it was positively received by the general public, scholars with relevant subject matter expertise have been very critical of its scientific and historical claims.


Harari's work situates its account of human history within a framework: he sees the natural sciences as setting the limits of possibility for human activity and sees the social sciences as shaping what happens within those bounds. The academic discipline of history is the account of cultural change.

Harari surveys the history of humankind in the Stone Age up to the twenty-first century, focusing on Homo sapiens. He divides the history of Sapiens into four major parts:[3]

  1. The Cognitive Revolution (c. 70,000 BCE, when imagination evolved in Sapiens).
  2. The Agricultural Revolution (c. 10,000 BCE, the development of agriculture).
  3. The unification of humankind (c. 34 CE, the gradual consolidation of human political organizations towards one global empire).
  4. The Scientific Revolution (c. 1543 CE, the emergence of objective science).
The Animal that Became a God

     We have mastered our surroundings, increased food production, built cities, established empires and created far-flung trade networks. But did we decrease the amount of suffering in the world? Time and again, massive increases in human power did not necessarily improve the well-being of individual Sapiens, and usually caused immense misery to other animals.
      In the last few decades we have at least made some real progress as far as the human condition is concerned, with the reduction of famine, plague and war. Yet the situation of other animals is deteriorating more rapidly than ever before, and the improvement in the lot of humanity is too recent and fragile to be certain of.

Sapiens Afterword at p. 415

Harari's main argument is that Sapiens came to dominate the world because it is the only animal that can cooperate flexibly in large numbers. He argues that prehistoric Sapiens were a key cause of the extinction of other human species such as the Neanderthals and numerous other megafauna. He further argues that the ability of Sapiens to cooperate in large numbers arises from its unique capacity to believe in things existing purely in the imagination, such as gods, nations, money, and human rights. He argues that these beliefs give rise to discrimination – whether that be racial, sexual or political and it is potentially impossible to have a completely unbiased society. Harari claims that all large-scale human cooperation systems – including religions, political structures, trade networks, and legal institutions – owe their emergence to Sapiens' distinctive cognitive capacity for fiction.[4] Accordingly, Harari regards money as a system of mutual trust and sees political and economic systems as more or less identical with religions.

Harari's key claim regarding the Agricultural Revolution is that while it promoted population growth for Sapiens and co-evolving species like wheat and cows, it made the lives of most individuals (and animals) worse than they had been when Sapiens were mostly hunter-gatherers since their diet and daily lives became significantly less varied. Humans' violent treatment of other animals is a theme that runs throughout the book.

In discussing the unification of humankind, Harari argues that over its history, the trend for Sapiens has increasingly been towards political and economic interdependence. For centuries, the majority of humans lived in empires, and capitalist globalization is effectively producing one, global empire. Harari argues that money, empires, and universal religions are the principal drivers of this process.

Harari sees the Scientific Revolution as founded on innovation in European thought, whereby elites became willing to admit to, and hence to try to remedy, their ignorance. He sees this as one driver of early modern European imperialism and of the current convergence of human cultures. Harari also emphasizes the lack of research into the history of happiness, positing that people today are not significantly happier than in past eras.[5] He concludes by considering how modern technology may soon end the species as we know it, as it ushers in genetic engineering, immortality, and non-organic life. Humans have, in Harari's chosen metaphor, become gods: they can create species.

Harari cites Jared Diamond's Guns, Germs, and Steel (1997) as one of the greatest inspirations for the book by showing that it was possible to "ask very big questions and answer them scientifically".[6]


Popular receptionEdit

First published in Hebrew in 2011, the book was released in English in 2015 and has since been translated into 65 languages.[7] On Goodreads, the book is rated 4.4 out of 5 according to more than 800,000 reviews.[8] It also made The New York Times best-seller list, appearing for 182 weeks (as of May 2022) including 96 consecutive weeks.[9][10] It won the National Library of China's Wenjin Book Award for the best book published in 2014.[11][12] Writing four years after its English-language publication, Alex Preston wrote in The Guardian that Sapiens had become a "publishing phenomenon" with "wild success" symptomatic of a broader trend toward "intelligent, challenging nonfiction, often books that are several years old".[13] Concurrently, The Guardian listed the book as among the ten "best brainy books of the decade".[14] The Royal Society of Biologists in the UK shortlisted the book in its 2015 Book Awards.[15] Bill Gates ranked Sapiens among his ten favorite books,[16] and Mark Zuckerberg also recommended it.[17] The Kirkus awarded a star to the book, noting that it is "the great debates of history aired out with satisfying vigor".[18] The British daily The Times also gave the book a rave review, quoting that "Sapiens is the kind of book that sweeps cobwebs out of your brain" and that it is "mind-thrilling".[19] The Sydney Morning Herald described the book as "always engaging and often provocative".[20]

In 2015 the Israel Museum in Jerusalem created a special, temporary exhibit based on the book, using archeological and artistic displays to demonstrate the main themes found in the book. The exhibit ran from May until December 2015.[21]

Scholarly receptionEdit

Anthropologist Christopher Robert Hallpike reviewed the book and did not find any "serious contribution to knowledge". Hallpike suggested that "...whenever his facts are broadly correct they are not new, and whenever he tries to strike out on his own he often gets things wrong, sometimes seriously". He considered it an infotainment publishing event offering a "wild intellectual ride across the landscape of history, dotted with sensational displays of speculation, and ending with blood-curdling predictions about human destiny."[22]

Science journalist Charles C. Mann concluded in The Wall Street Journal, "There's a whiff of dorm-room bull sessions about the author's stimulating but often unsourced assertions."[23]

Reviewing the book in The Washington Post, evolutionary anthropologist Avi Tuschman points out problems stemming from the contradiction between Harari's "freethinking scientific mind" and his "fuzzier worldview hobbled by political correctness", but nonetheless wrote that "Harari's book is important reading for serious-minded, self-reflective sapiens."[24]

Reviewing the book in The Guardian, philosopher Galen Strawson concluded that, among several other problems, "Much of Sapiens is extremely interesting, and it is often well expressed. As one reads on, however, the attractive features of the book are overwhelmed by carelessness, exaggeration and sensationalism". He specifically mentions how the author ignores happiness studies, that his claims of the "opening of a gap between the tenets of liberal humanism and the latest findings of the life sciences" is silly and deplores how the author, once again, transforms Adam Smith into the apostle of greed.[25]

John Sexton, then a graduate student in the Committee on Social Thought from the University of Chicago,[26] concluded that "The book is fundamentally unserious and undeserving of the wide acclaim and attention it has been receiving".[27]

Bibliographic detailsEdit

The original Hebrew publication was first issued in 2011 as קיצור תולדות האנושות [Ḳitsur toldot ha-enoshut], which translates into A Brief History of Humankind.

A 2012 English translation was self-published with the title From Animals Into Gods. The English translation was published in 2015 as Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, "translated by the author with the help of John Purcell and Haim Watzman", simultaneously in London by Harvill Secker ISBN 978-1846558238 (hardback), ISBN 978-1846558245 (trade paperback)[28] and in Canada by Signal (ISBN 978-0-7710-3850-1 (bound), ISBN 978-0-7710-3852-5 (html)). It was then republished in London by Vintage Books in 2015 (ISBN 978-0099590088 (paperback)).

In 2020 the first volume of the graphic novel version of the book was published simultaneously in several languages, with the title Sapiens: A Graphic History, Volume 1: The Birth of Humankind. It is credited as coauthored by Harari and David Vandermeulen, with adaptation and illustrations by Daniel Casanave. The second volume Sapiens: A Graphic History, Volume 2: The Pillars of Civilization was published in October 2021.

See alsoEdit

Notes and referencesEdit

  1. ^ Strawson, Galen (11 September 2014). "Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind by Yuval Noah Harari – review". The Guardian. Retrieved 29 October 2014.
  2. ^ Payne, Tom (26 September 2014). "Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind by Yuval Noah Harari, review: 'urgent questions'". The Telegraph. Retrieved 29 October 2014.
  3. ^ Ben Shephard. Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind review – thrilling story, dark message, The Guardian, 21 September 2014.
  4. ^ "Sapiens". Yuval Noah Harari.{{cite web}}: CS1 maint: url-status (link)
  5. ^ Harari, Yuval Noah. Were we happier in the stone age?, The Guardian, September 5, 2014.
  6. ^ Kennedy, Paul (January 12, 2015). "Sapiens". IDEAS with Paul Kennedy. CBC.
  7. ^ Harari, Yuval (2022-05-07). "Sapiens - Yuval Noah Harari". Official Website - Yuval Noah Harari. Retrieved 2022-05-07.{{cite web}}: CS1 maint: url-status (link)
  8. ^ "Sapiens". Retrieved 2021-06-20.
  9. ^ "60 Minutes sits down with historian and author Yuval Noah Harari". Retrieved 2022-05-08.
  10. ^ "Paperback Nonfiction Books - Best Sellers - Books - May 8, 2022 - The New York Times". The New York Times. ISSN 0362-4331. Retrieved 2022-05-08.
  11. ^ China Book Award, CCTV News, April 23, 2015.
  12. ^ What makes us human, China Daily, May 18, 2016, p. 20.
  13. ^ Preston, Alex (July 29, 2018). "How the 'brainy' book became a publishing phenomenon". The Guardian. Archived from the original on July 31, 2018.
  14. ^ "Best 'brainy' books of this decade". The Guardian. July 29, 2018. Archived from the original on July 31, 2018.
  15. ^ "Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind". RSB. Retrieved 2019-07-02.
  16. ^ Gates, Bill (2016-05-20). "My 10 Favorite Books: Bill Gates". The New York Times. ISSN 0362-4331. Retrieved 2019-01-28.
  17. ^ "I finally read 'Sapiens,' the book that Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg both recommend to everyone – and I get why Silicon Valley loves it so much". Business Insider. 2019-04-14. Retrieved 2020-06-23.
  18. ^ "Science Books - Best Sellers - Books - The New York Times". The New York Times. ISSN 0362-4331. Retrieved 2021-06-20.
  19. ^ Carey, John. "Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind by Yuval Noah Harari". The Times. ISSN 0140-0460. Retrieved 2021-06-20.
  20. ^ Davis, Glyn (2014-11-21). "Review: Sapiens". The Sydney Morning Herald. Retrieved 2021-06-20.
  21. ^ "Israel Museum turns a 'brief history of humankind' into exhibit". Haaretz. Retrieved 2021-07-19.
  22. ^ Hallpike, C. R. A Response to Yuval Harari's 'Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind', New English Review, December 2017.
  23. ^ Mann, Charles C. (6 February 2015). "How Humankind Conquered the World". Wall Street Journal. Retrieved 15 June 2016.
  24. ^ Tuschman, Avi (16 June 2016). "How humans became human". The Washington Post. Retrieved 16 June 2016.
  25. ^ Strawson, Galen (11 September 2014). "Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind by Yuval Noah Harari – review". The Guardian. Retrieved 15 June 2016.
  26. ^ "Current Graduate Students | Social Thought | The University of Chicago". Retrieved 2021-08-01.
  27. ^ Sexton, John (Fall 2015). "A Reductionist History of Humankind". The New Atlantis. Retrieved 2021-08-01.{{cite web}}: CS1 maint: url-status (link)
  28. ^ "A brief history of human kind". Retrieved 2019-07-25.

External linksEdit