Run-on Sentence Summary
An ambitious attempt to concisely explain the progress of human history from the dawn of man to the present day, all in 500 pages.
Harari’s compendious tome is so chock full of ideas that it is difficult to speak about the book as a whole. The charm of the book is that he takes an outsider’s view on humanity, allowing you to step outside of many deep seated cultural assumptions and see things from new and compelling perspectives. It is a science book with more than a little philosophy.
One of the most provocative arguments in the book is that adoption of agriculture was a mistake. He doesn’t pretend that humans pre agriculture lived in harmony and balance with nature, instead arguing quite the opposite:
“Don’t believe tree-huggers who claim that our ancestors lived in harmony with nature. Long before the Industrial Revolution, Homo sapiens held the record among all organisms for driving the most plant and animal species to their extinctions. We have the dubious distinction of being the deadliest species in the annals of biology.”
Instead, he claims that agriculture came about mainly as an economic force. We adopted it piecemeal as a supplement to our hunter gatherer diet, but as with every luxury, eventually became dependent on it as population growth increased to match the new bounty. Eventually, even though it left us working longer hours for poorer nutrition, the jaws of the trap were shut and there was no going back to hunting and gathering.
It is interesting, but then he goes on to romanticize pre-agricultural life. Based on sparse evidence, he asserts that hunter gathers were stronger, happier, healthier, and even smarter than humans in agricultural societies. For instance, he speculates that “they had physical dexterity that people today are unable to achieve even after years of practicing yoga or t’ai chi.” How could he possibly believe that? How does he think a modern olympian would stack up against someone who spends all of their time searching for food? Evidence shows that modern men are substantially bigger and stronger than they were even a century ago, mostly thanks to medicine and nutrition.
I found it hard to muster the indignation I felt towards this specious idea compared to when I was reading, say, Ishmael, because I just didn’t feel like he even believed it himself. Throughout the book it felt like he would adopt a contrarian stance just to be thought provoking, but I didn’t mind because it was consistently entertaining.
The most rewarding portion of the book for me was his martian viewpoint on modern society. He details how the combined mythology of humanism, romanticism, capitalism, consumerism and science drive so many of the basic assumptions in our lives. For instance, the notion of traveling and seeing the world would be totally unappealing to an ancient Egyptian Pharaoh. The virtue of traveling and ‘following your heart’, he argues, is entirely derived from nineteenth-centry Romanticism and twentieth-century consumerism and is just as arbitrary as building a giant pyramid.
Take it with a big grain of salt, but I’d recommend this book to anybody as an entertaining and fresh look at our culture.
“The scientist who says her life is meaningful because she increases the store of human knowledge, the soldier who declares that his life is meaningful because he fights to defend his homeland, and the entrepreneur who finds meaning in building a new company are no less delusional than their medieval counterparts who found meaning in reading scriptures, going on a crusade or building a new cathedral."