Monday, 24 October 2016

Now, that's what I call an arresting opening page! Yuval Noah Harari's "Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind"

This is one of the best openings to a non-fiction book I've ever read:
"About 13.5 billion years ago, matter, energy, time and space came into being in what is known as the Big Bang. The story of the fundamental features of our universe is called physics.
About 300,000 years after their appearance, matter and energy started to coalesce into complex structures, called atoms, which then combined into molecules. The story of atoms, molecules and their interactions is called chemistry...
About 1.8 billion years ago, on a planet called Earth, certain molecules combined to form particularly large and intricate structures called organisms. The story of organisms is called biology.
About 700,000 years ago, organisms belonging to the species Homo sapiens started to form even more elaborate structures called cultures. The subsequent development of these human cultures is called history. 
Three important revolutions shaped the course of history: the Cognitive Revolution kick-started history about 70,000 years ago. The Agricultural Revolution sped it up about 12,000 years ago. The Scientific Revolution, which got under way only 500 years ago, may well end history and start something completely different. This book tells the story of how these three revolutions have affected humans and their fellow organisms."
Honestly - how could you not want to read on?

The first English language edition of Sapiens was published in 2014, and it's a bestseller, so I'm probably preaching to the converted. But if you haven't read it and fancy an immensely stimulating overview of human development, I wholeheartedly recommend it. The central questions Harari addresses are these: as there were at least six human species alive on Earth at one time, why was ours the only one to survive, and why did it thrive so spectacularly? One answer he gives is:
 ...only Sapiens can talk about entire kinds of entities that they have never seen, touched or smelled.
I disagree vehemently with much of Dr Harari's approach and with many of his conclusions (especially in the latter stages of the book), but I admire the clarity, forcefulness and sheer sweep of his thinking. He also writes extremely well: there are quite a few maddening pages in the book, but not a single dull one.

Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind is available here.

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