Sapiens: A Cautionary Tale for Humankind

“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.” (Yuval Noah Harari, Sapiens) 

Although they have only occupied a brief moment in the history of the universe, Homo sapiens’ time spent walking the Earth has been far from insignificant. In Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, Dr Yuval Noah Harari traces the cognitive and technological development of the Homo genus over the past two and a half million years. It is a multidisciplinary must-read for social and natural scientists alike. The book is wittily written in a journalistic style, uniting colloquial language and academic subject matter. As such, Sapiens plays a crucial role in the debate between popular and academic history. This book is not an academic text, but it shouldn’t be criticised for that. History need not be confined to academia. It is vital that the raw information given to the public through ‘infotainment’ style texts is factually accurate. The ‘sprucing’ of historical texts for entertainment or economic value may render them less valuable than academic analyses. Yet as long as the information is accurate, texts such as Sapiens remain an important form of historical writing.

Harari’s thesis includes a crucial observation on human history: that the struggles facing modern society are far from unprecedented. They are the consequences of clear historical trends in human actions that, despite often repeating themselves, open up human society to infinite opportunities. Language, according to Harari, is the key to unlocking these possibilities. Homo sapiens have the unique ability to create ‘social constructs’ and ‘imagined realities’, or more simply, to conjure myth. He uses the Peugeot corporation as an example. If every Peugeot car were to disappear along with its employees and offices, Peugeot would still exist as an entity without any physical connection to the world. In short, it is a ‘legal fiction’ o