Brief Review of ‘Sapiens’, and Why You Should Read It

Yuval Noah Harari was a foreign name to me before I encountered one of the first TED Dialogues where he was hosted to have a conversation about the recent political divide. What fascinated me the most during the dialogue was his astounding capability to manage a large amount of knowledge across multiple vastly different domains within his view and converse in a manner that is neither lacking in wisdom, honesty, and style. If he could handle a conversation like that, I wonder how his written works are like, given that he will have time to reference sources and contemplate his narrative style. Sapiens is this kind of book: extremely ambitious in terms of scope and depth, and coherently weaved into one breathtaking tale.

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Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind is really a cross-disciplinary approach to the evolutionary history of humankind, from a perspective of an almost impartial observer. It narrates about how humankind come into being, and our unique evolutionary history that separates us from the rest of the biological flock marked by three important revolutions: the Cognitive Revolution, the Agricultural Revolution, and the Scientific Revolution.

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This Cognitive Revolution is different from the tale of how Noam Chomsky and friends ended the dominance of radical behaviourism in academic psychology. This revolution here is basically the core premise of the book: which is that human beings are the only species that is capable of communicating fiction or myths among each other, and organizing their lives around these myths. Myths in this context are not necessarily fallacious or fake, but are not rooted in any biological or physical reality. Examples of myths includes nations (Malaysia doesn’t really exist, the physical land does, but the conception of Malaysia as a nation with borders only happens in our minds), religion (putting metaphysical debates aside, faiths do not exist beyond the believer’s head), brands (Apple exists because fans believe in their narrative of offering unique, irreplaceable user experiences), and currencies (money is only worth as much as how much they are believed to be worth). The random forces of mutation blessed our minds with this unique capability to accommodate fiction, allowing Homo Sapiens to quickly accelerate through the evolutionary paths as we organize ourselves around them. This is a quality that is uniquely human and is essential for us to be where we are right now.

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The Agricultural Revolution is our transition from hunter-gatherer to settling down with peasanthood. The idea that settling down is superior seems puzzling from a life quality perspective: wouldn’t moving from one area to another, hunting for flesh and cover, and gathering for vegetation and shelter be better since it offers us a more healthier, sustainable, and holistic lifestyle? What good is settling down and farming limited amount of niche vegetation like wheat? Turns out our evolutionary urges to reproduce large numbers got the better of us. We are hoodwinked to a sedentary lifestyle by the promise of a better life through breeding more of ourselves. Crops like wheat and rice are also more economical since they yield higher harvest in a limited land despite having lower nutritional value. Another factor is the myth that settling down promises a better future for future generation. Agriculture sold humankind an imaginary ideal unfounded in reality that the future will always be better if we work hard, blindly. As an aftermath, food supplies start to outnumber demand, money arises, and empires are formed. Civilization as we know it began to take place, but they all began by letting crops domesticate us through the empty promise of a better life.

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The Scientific Revolution explains why the world is predominantly European in culture. Most people around the world speak their language, adopt their fashion, and promote their ideologies. All is simply due to the fact that Europeans are the very first population to start to accept the possibility that there are a lot of things they do not know. They are the first to realize that they may not be the only race on the planet, and the first to mark areas as unknown on their map. In contrast, other cultures have been content with their models of the world, created through filling in the blanks with imagination. Acceptance of ignorance becomes a fundamental quality of science as we know it today, and has been pivotal for the development of the Europeans. The powerful empires formed because of the previous revolution realized the value of science, and it amassed resources, then provided these resources for science, while science utilized and refined these resources, which in turns translates to more power for empires. This process is still ongoing today.

Adapted from http://www.st-ives.cornwall.sch.uk/

How does these revolutions impact psychology? The Cognitive Revolution provides us a simple theory to understand how the human mind is unique from other species, and how our psyche interact with social constructs not founded in reality. The Agricultural Revolution tells us that our biological specifications are similar to our hunter-gatherer ancestors’, and that a lot of our present misery is a result of a mismatch of these specifications with our much more developed surroundings. The Scientific Revolution expounds the value of skeptical constructive inquiry, which allowed one culture to dominate all over others.

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Aside from these three major themes, Sapiens also highlight the interplay of biology and culture. The book provided a good rule of thumb to answer all issues dancing around the two concepts: biology enables, culture forbids. Every experience that has ever been through by humans are only possible because they are biologically possible. Every obstacle to these experiences are imposed on humankind from the cultures humankind enacted. This is another powerful concept for us to consider when understanding human psychology. Is our understanding of biology as restrictive and conservative accurate? Is being natural always better? Are the experiences and constructs we consider as unnatural really non-biological? Should interventions on human behavior target biology or culture?

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The above are only fragments of wisdom I manage to gather after putting down the book and rehearsing in my head. There are various other topics such as the industrial revolution, human happiness, consumerism, capitalism, money, and writing. Overall, Sapiens has enabled me to understand evolutionary psychology, anthropology, biology, sociology, economics, philosophy, and history in a coherent way that no other reading did before. This is strongly recommended to anyone who interest themselves with studying humanity. This brief yet comprehensive narrative of mankind is sure to bring fresh conversations to psychology classrooms.

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Tan Jia Yue, codenamed JY, a s̶e̶l̶f̶-̶p̶r̶o̶c̶l̶a̶i̶m̶e̶d time traveler from a dystopian future who settled down in the present hoping to change its course. Suffering from time-machine lag, he struggles to blend in with peasants of the present and manages to find his way into HELP University’s BPsych programme while picking up a taste for mellow music, video games, anime, inappropriate attempts at jokes, and tea. Having d̶e̶l̶u̶s̶i̶o̶n̶s visions of humanity’s bleak future, he believes the key to a better future lies in the education of the sciences, psychology, humanism, and cat videos. Follow his personal ramblings at A Certain Astral Project;ion.