Design,
Code,
and HCI

Sapiens

A Brief History of Humankind

By Yuval Noah Harari

When I first saw this book, I pretty intrigued: it packs a “brief history of humankind” into a mere 400 pages and does it well enough to garner titles such as “international bestseller” and “best brainy books of the decade”. Besides, I could always use a refresher on the “history of humankind”, whatever that meant, so I ordered a copy as soon as I got back from my summer in Israel (which was where the book was first published, actually).

I wouldn’t say this book was a serious contributor to new knowledge for me. A lot of what Harari talked about was more or less covered in history or social studies classes in grade school. However, Harari did a great job of organizing his narrative and clarifying some concepts or events that I learned or heard about but have been blurrily sitting at the back of my head because they weren’t explicitly discussed. For example, he organized chaotic systems into two types: level 1 systems, such as the weather, does not react to predictions about it whereas level 2 systems, such as stock markets, reacts to predictions. Before, I had a general understanding of why market can never be predicted to an exact degree of accuracy, but now I have a more organized way of explaining the phenomenon and also one I can apply in scenarios outside the markets.

Harari also had some pretty interesting theories that I’m not sure if I agree with due to the lack of support (there are many complaints on Goodreads and elsewhere about his facts being too broad and speculative to be accurate, but I won’t go into that here). For example, he claims that homo sapiens are a “banana republic” (unstable) dictator. Having recently been one of the “underdogs of the savannah”, we are full of fears and anxieties over our position. Unlike the lion, which in its full majesty is a confident veteran of the savannah, humans’ over-hasty rise to the top of the food chain has made us doubly cruel and dangerous, which resulted in many historical calamities, from deadly wars to ecological catastrophes. These theories, although speculative, are quite interesting to read.

I really appreciated Harari addressing the concept of happiness. Towards the end of the book, he asks whether the transformation of society by the industrial and scientific revolutions over the last 500 years, and the immense increases in wealth, have increased human happiness. He goes on to claim that historians have researched the history of politics, society, gender, diseases, sexuality, and food, yet have seldom stopped to ask how these influence happiness. It reminded me of this story a high school teacher told a while back. Is a top Google engineer happier than a farmer who just collected a dozen of fresh eggs at sunrise? Should happiness be the ultimate life goal? All great questions without answers.