Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind by Yuval Harari


Best for:

Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind is best for those who have a general curiosity about the history of humanity from a number of different angles. It is also best for those who appreciate diverse topics and unique angles but can digest opinionated viewpoints.

Difficulty to digest:

Sapiens is relatively easy to digest, though it is a long book that covers a number of topics. A single read-through should be sufficient, though you could likely get more from multiple.

Key Insights of Sapiens:

One thing I would like to get out upfront, given the broad range of topics and a wide number of ideas discussed in Sapiens, this review will only cover a limited number of topics. Since this blog is focused on happiness, we will spend more time there to the exclusion of others. If you are looking for a more general review or summary, other resources may be your best bet, since this post will be fairly high-level and sporadic.

Sapiens is essentially Harari’s exploration of the human species across time and several different angles. At the core, Harari breaks the book into large blocks of human development along the lines of cognition, agriculture, unification, and science. Within these blocks, he discusses all sorts of topics from unique angles and interesting perspectives. While some of what he says is commentary, a good chunk of historically relevant information is available as well.

Themes in Sapiens:

One of the largest repeated themes is the idea of shared fictions. Sapiens argues that our ability to create communities and share fictitious ideas is one of the key differentiators of our species. Shared fictions like gossip, religion, money, and corporations have been some of the most revolutionary and widespread fictions. These ideas, which do not exist outside of humanity, drive a huge portion of our actions.

Another major theme is that of transitions and the concepts or technologies driving those transitions. Harari compares ideas to genes and suggests that their spread is expanded by their ability to replicate and be shared. For example, he explains the shift from religions to consumerism and from communities to states. He also conjectures about how we’re in the midst of transitioning into bioengineering and how we’re already cyborgs (tools, like phone, computer use, etc.) While there are plenty of nuances, Harari also clearly states that history is non-deterministic and ruled by hindsight bias.

Harari takes a few stabs at what produces happiness in humans, taking an angle between Buddhism and Evolution. Essentially, he says the core determinants of happiness are our expectations relative to reality as well as our well-being relative to others. There is also conversation around us adjusting to our circumstances and developing new preferences after the old ones have been met. This explains why our general well-being may be higher than those in the past, but why we are not generally happier.

Final Opinion on Sapiens:

Overall, Sapiens is an interesting and digestible read with great writing. It is definitely worth the time investment. For most people, it will provide some new and interesting ideas to consider. While most points have some room for debate, the concepts will help push your mind in new directions.

Regarding happiness specifically, Harari makes a few good points, but of course, does not give a huge amount of depth. He presents a ton of practical information here that is fairly surface level. This read is not for key actions and takeaways, but more to expand your viewpoints on various topics you may not have considered previously.

Other considerations:

Sapiens talks quite a bit about history and peppers in a lot of concepts that could be more accurately construed as opinion. For some, this may be off-putting as things that are debatable are talked about authoritatively. As long as you take the ideas with a grain of salt and allow yourself some space to reflect, it shouldn’t be too bad. That being said, don’t accept everything at face value.

Applicable Content:

  1. How often do you engage with viewpoints outside your normal expertise?
  2. How have shared fictions influenced your life? (Think Money, Religion, etc.)
  3. What are a few luxuries you have adjusted to? How much does your expectation of having them influence your happiness?