About the book “Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind”

9780062316097I feel that I have learnt a lot of from this book, both in knowledge (such as the genus of Homo at the beginning of the book) and a few ideas which seem so obvious now but somehow I haven’t realized before.  ( Well, the principle of equivlance has been “obvious” enough ! )  Though I might have some vague and confusing ideas about these biological / archaeological / anthropological knowledge, I certainly haven’t been able to remember their names and (exact) definitions.  Let me write down a few simple things before I forget:

p.4 (lines 16-18): “Animals are said to belong to the same species if they tend to mate with each other, giving birth to fertile offspring.”

p.6: Homo neanderthalensis were in Europe and western Asia, Home erectus in East Asia and Homo soloensis in Java, Indonesia.

p.14: Around 70000 years ago, Homo sapiens spread from East Africa to Asia and all over the world.  Other Homo species (humans) have vanished and there are two theories of explanation, “Interbreeding Theory” (eg. Sapiens & Neanderthals in Europe / Sapiens & Erectus in East Asia) and “Replacement Theory”.  The latter “has been the common wisdom in the field as “it had firmer archaeological backing” and “more politically correct” (last paragraph on p.15) 🙂  Nevertheless, there started to have some evidence of “interbreeding” from DNA analyses (p.16) since 2010 though the extent seems small (eg. 1-4% or 6%).

I certainly have felt very rewarding to learn all the details.  But towards the end, the discussions, theories and the author’s extrapolations have become more and more speculative.  One realizes that they’re probably no longer any “standard model” of history but the opinions of the author’s.

One message in this book has come across as a bit of a surprise, even though it’s obvious as an afterthought.  The author told or reminded us that not just various religions, most things in our lives are actually only our imagined ideas such as liberalism, limited liability companies or countries.  Sapiens have been able to dominate the world mainly due to this kind of superior cognitive ability to take over the world from other human species and other animals which may be bigger in size or faster in speed etc.  The author calls it “The Cognitive Revolution”.  Though we all know that human rights are not apples that one may grasp (to eat), when I was told that ideas such as human rights or liberalism are just (like) different kinds of religions, I still feel a bit shocked or lost.  It’s probably like one’s religion has been attacked.  Nevertheless, when one reflects on this, all liberty, equality etc. are merely what we have in our brain/imagination.  I probably don’t think in the same way as the author does, as I think believing in one’s individualism or liberty is different from religion that one doesn’t need to believe a God or what miracles have happened.  Belief in liberty is more like a demand or upholding a principle rather than a religion.  However, I have to admit that after all, it’s probably not less ephemeral or volatile than any religion ?!

I thought I was familiar with the idea of the Scientific Revolution but the author has still managed to tell me something refreshing.  The author calls the Scientific Revolution “a revolution of ignorance”  (12th line on p.251) as people have discovered that there are/were many things that we don’t/didn’t know yet.  This has made us feel that tomorrow will be better than today, due to all kinds of scientific and technological advancement.  This then allowed the emergence of growth which has been translated to the explosion of the credit giving.  As tomorrow’s pie would be bigger than today’s, the abundance of credit has allowed capitalism to grow even until now.  Before the Scientific Revolution (~1500 AD), people didn’t see any way that tomorrow would be improved upon compared to today (as people then thought that they knew everything they needed to know), they didn’t believe that the pie could be bigger tomorrow; and therefore, credit giving to a person was betting on that person being able to grab a piece of the pie from somebody else, instead of a new or bigger pie 🙂  This has suppressed credit giving.  How interesting and insightful !

In Chapter 11, “Imperial Visions”, the author told us that there has been no real justice in history (but, in my words, only victory and defeat).  Our thoughts have been heavily shaded by various empires.  Since I am most familiar with the history of China, when the author discussed about the situation in China, I feel that it resonates with me.  Let me write down two such instances.  On p.197 (lines 12-21): “In Chinese political thinking as well as Chinese historical memory, imperial periods were henceforth seen as golden ages of order and justice. In contradiction to the modern Western view that a just world is composed of separate nation states, in China periods of political fragmentation were seen as dark ages of chaos and injustice … Every time an empire collapsed, the dominant political theory goaded the powers that be not to settle for paltry independent principalities, but to attempt reunification. Sooner or later these attempts always succeeded.”  On p.201 (lines 23-31): “In China the success of the imperial project was even more thorough.  For more than 2,000 years, a welter of ethnic and cultural groups first termed barbarians were successfully integrated into imperial Chinese culture and became Han Chinese … More than 90 per cent of the population of China are seen by themselves and by others as Han.”  This just feels so true.  All the rulers have made use of patriotism and unity to their advantage and somehow it has worked so thoroughly with the so-called Chinese !

When I first saw the title of the last chapter “The End of Homo Sapiens”, I told myself that the author must be talking about the environmental disaster to this Earth.  But this is not the case !  He actually meant that we would create some sort of superhuman (by DNA modification or other technologies) who/which are truly superior to us.  But I believe in this case, the author’s guess is not necessarily better than mine and everybody else’s.  Hehehe …

While I had some expectation (after I noticed that the author is homosexual), the author didn’t say too much about this topic.  Nevertheless, he has written quite a bit about human cruelty towards animals, especially domesticated animals.  After reading what he told us on p.91-97 of the 5th chapter, I now almost feel guilty in eating any chicken or pork or beef.  I am wondering whether the author is a passionate animal lover.  The last sentence of p.379 says: “Perhaps it is also wrong to consider only the happiness of humans.”  Overall, the author didn’t have too many good things to say about the 2nd revolution in this book “The Agricultural Revolution” which he has called “History’s Biggest Fraud”, the title of the 5th chapter.

This book was said to be published first in Hebrew in 2011 and was later translated to English (~2014) by the author.  I guess during the translation, he has added something.  On p.375 (6th line), the author said: “it was written in 2014” and on p.409, at the 17th line: “In 2013 the project received a grant” and then at the 20th line: “the world of 2014 is already…”.

I haven’t noticed any typography etc.  The only place that I’ve frowned a little is: “a more easy way”, on the last two lines of p.176.  I’d prefer “an easier way”.  The editing and proofreading is apparently superb.  The quality of paper of this book is probably the best that I have ever remembered for a popular modern book that I’ve read.  Though it has made the book considerably heavier, it has allowed colored pictures to be printed throughout the book and it also reflects well on the quality of this book.


About kinyip

An experimental particle physicist ...
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