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Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind (2011)

by Yuval Noah Harari

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This book got much praise which - on the whole - it well deserves. Harari is a fluent and entertaining speaker and the book is written in this stile (e.g.: "homo sapiens did not domesticate wheat and rice, rather wheat and rice domesticated homo sapiens!”). The written result is, however, too long: it could and should have been considerably shortened.

Harari’s strong points are: (i) to bring out the main points of human phylogenetic development while pointing out (or speculating on) perspicacious connections (e.g. the Agricultural Revolution bestowed the ability to keep ‘more people alive under worse conditions’, the connection between Science - imperialism - capitalism, the discussion of ‘happiness’; (ii) he is (usually) careful to state contested opinions which are (yet) undecided; he is also careful to relativise when appropriate: e.g. how the past and the future are viewed (end of Ch. 18).

There are, however, some points I take issue with:
(a) There is an ongoing debate whether Neanderthals are to be considered a distinct species (Homo neanderthalensis) or a subspecies of homo sapiens (Homo sapiens neanderthalensis); genome analysis supports some interbreeding, thus argues against distinct species. H. has not stated this clearly enough.
(b) The chapter 'The Worship of Man’ is badly written; his use of words can only be called ‘sloppy’! Neither Buddhism nor Communism “believed in a superhuman order” and to call the writings of Marx a “gospel” reveals a blinkered vision. And why widen, thus misusing, the term ‘religion’ ?
(c) The chapters on gender hierarchy are not thought through sufficiently. Clearly, male/man - female/woman are biologically and culturally defined: femininity is a cultural construct based on the biological sex. Many patriarchal societies existed and exist but there does not seem to be any clear evidence of past (and certainly not present) societies where women were dominant over men. Harari rightly says there must be 'some universal biological reason, but we do not know this reason’.He than discusses many unsatisfactory theories at great length, concluding with the question: 'If, as is being demonstrated today so clearly, the patriarchal system has been based on unfounded myths rather than biological facts, what accounts for the universality and stability of this system?’ A false conclusion this: In Western societies today the patriarchal system is being slowly dismantled through cultural pressure, a process that is far from complete ( today, in the West, 6 year-old girls know already their place!). It does not demonstrate that a universal lack of societies with female dominance has not ultimately its root in biology. I agree that neither physical strength nor hormonal differences give convincing answers. But it is the female who bears the child and suckles the infant. Pregnancy and caring for the infant is physically demanding and restrictive on time and activity; no such restrictions apply to the male who are free to hunt and fight and kill each other. Secondly, women, not men determine the number of the next generation. One man can impregnate 100 women and could, theoretically, have 1000 children, but one woman can have not more than a dozen children, regardless of the number of men she has intercourse with. A tribe, where the women, not the men, risk their lives hunting large animals and fighting may soon die out. This may well be the root from which the ubiquitous cultural hierarchy between the sexes developed.

The broad history of humans is well presented including a speculative look at the future (which does not make for a pretty picture!). It is an inspiration and incentive to look closer at some issues, for example:

- about phylogenetic ( neuro-cognitive, social, and physical) development: http://www.ruf.rice.edu/~kemmer/Evol/dimensions.html

- the 40 000 year old Stadel Löwenmensch (I had not been aware of it):
http://www.loewenmensch.de/index.html

- still surviving indigenous cultures as the hunter-gatherer: the Andamese Onges , the Amazonian Zo’é (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9SW0jzXTS6A), neolithic farmers: the Papuan Dugum Dani , … ( )
  MeisterPfriem | Apr 24, 2017 |
Good gallop through he whole of human history. Not just one damn thing after another , but what are the underlying structures and causes that give it shape.Good one is the pattern of empire, Roman, Ottoman or British - kind of Decline & fall but shorter. Has a jolly tone and even some good jokes, some of them a touch puerile, and many detailed examples are made up with silly names (Mr Greedy and the like), where it would be more convincing if a real case were taken. The jocularity perhaps makes it easier reading but detracts from the heft of the argument. also too much space and weight given to Marxist approach which, for me at least, seemed out-of-date even before the Soviet collapse. ( )
  vguy | Apr 24, 2017 |
Long history from Noah Harari. Great intro observing that "a large brain, the use of tools, superior learning abilities and complex social structures (p. 11)" are insufficient as an explanation for humans' now dominant position, as "humans enjoyed these advantages for a full 2 million years during which they remained weak and marginal creatures." Humans were in the middle of the food chain until we jumped to the top quite recently, with no ecological checks and balances on our power. Harari is clear that he sees agriculture as a trap increasing the number of people at the cost of lowering the standard of living. Nobody agreed, but who would volunteer to starve to go back? Another (well known) observation is how recent much of what modern geographically based culture culture is - e.g. only recently did tomatoes come to Italy and horses came to the Americas with the Europeans. Relatedly, it is always good to be reminded of both the breadth and the contingency of practices and norms. I was not aware that Columbus never realized he had not come to India and that America was named after Vespucci who was one of those who said that one did not know which country it was. There is much material on how myths/fictions keep humans cooperating, like religion, rights and the legal system, the limited liability company. Recommended. ( )
  ohernaes | Apr 23, 2017 |
Sapiens A Brief History of Humankind is just that. It begins with the earliest humans and there were several. We seem to think we have a monopoly on humanship but it is not true. There were many humans who did not make it. Homosapiens may have crowded them out. In the earliest years men were hunters and gathers. You will learn about the monkeys who are our closest relations. I enjoyed the book and think it is worth a detour. ( )
  SigmundFraud | Apr 22, 2017 |
A must read. It will get you thinking about how we have progressed and whether it have been progress or regress. Have the lives of sapiens improved over the thousands of years? What about the planet and the other animals on the planet (the ones we haven't killed off any way) are they better off? ( )
  Neale | Apr 16, 2017 |
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» Add other authors (10 possible)

Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Yuval Noah Harariprimary authorall editionscalculated
Gower, NeilMapssecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Purcell, JohnTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Watzman, HaimTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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In loving memory of my father, Shlomo Harari
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About 13.5 billion years ago, matter, energy, time, and space came into being in what is known as the Big Bang.
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We study history not to know the future but to widen our horizons, to understand that our present situation is neither natural nor inevitable, and that we consequently have many more possibilities before us than we imagine.
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