Yuval Noah Harari's Sapiens has famously been praised by both Bill Gates and Barack Obama. Those names really make you sit up and take notice. But they also signify something important about the book itself.
We had a meaty conversation about Sapiens at last night's Reading Through It Book Club. We talked about our origins as a species, the importance of belief, the weight of fictions and narratives in the construction of our civilization, and the way we fool ourselves a thousand times before breakfast. For every line of questioning that I spun into nowhere — despite my best efforts I seriously sounded like a dorm-room stoner for much of the discussion — other book club members offered substantial criticisms and thoughtful complements to the text.
Some members of the club accused the book of being aimless and lacking a thesis. Others argued with the idea that the time before farming, when humanity was mostly interested in hunting and gathering, was the paradise that Harari painted it to be. Some enjoyed the break from election stresses that Sapiens's ten-thousand-foot view of the human race provided.
Along those lines, one big takeaway from the book was the way Harari tries to demythologize the human race. We are not the end result of millions of years of evolution, nor are we the pinnacle of life on earth. But the very thing that makes us special — our ability to cooperate through shared communication and stories — also convinces us of our own supremacy as a species. We are gods in our own minds, Harari argues, and he implies that it might be best if we let go of that arrogant assumption.
Perhaps the sharpest complaint leveled against Sapiens last night was that, though it was first published in 2015, Harari does not predict the rise of nationalism. He's not a fortune teller, of course, but his failure of imagination undercut his suggestions that civilization is moving forward, beyond racism and regressive thinking. It seems as though Trumpism and Brexit likely took him entirely by surprise.
And Trumpism and Brexit also took Barack Obama and Bill Gates by surprise. Perhaps we should read something in to Gates's and Obama's support for Sapiens. Both men are profoundly popular and transformative figures in American history, but both men also failed to see the world that was lying in wait just around the corner from their ascendancy. What if Sapiens isn't a book about how we prepare for the future, but is instead a tribute to the great minds who built our past? What if the world is actually meaner and dumber and less logical than the world Harari presents in Sapiens? What if the view from 10,000 feet doesn't provide anything of value to those who live in the dirt every day?