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    • Back in December 2016 I was in a bookstore browsing the non-fiction section when I spotted Yuval Noah Harari’s book “Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind”. I spent that Christmas reading the book cover to cover and spent my summer vacation in 2017 reading his second book: “Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow”. Whenever someone asks me what non-fiction books I recommend, I always say these two - they’re in a low minority of non-fiction books that have ‘stayed with me’ and I reference them quite a lot. These books truly changed my understanding of human existence and 1.5 years later, I still find myself thinking about much of what is written in them.

      It’s interesting to me that Yuval Noah Harari was an unknown history professor in Israel who managed to do what many historians have tried before him – create a new and unique view on the human race – but somehow, he managed to do it. His book was launched into fame by recommendations from the likes of Bill Gates and President Obama. By 2017 anyone who had read ‘Sapiens’ was left with a whole new perspective on life’s meaning. Do you know how many historians have tried to do that? A lot. But I can’t name one, except Harari.

      The first book packs 70’000 years of history into around 400 pages and comprehensively explores everything from biology, justice, anthropology and philosophy. I’m probably making it sound like a snooze fest, but it’s really not and that’s the beauty of it. ‘General’ history books can often be too over-simplified, but Harari manages to give in-depth analysis, whilst avoiding being ‘too heavy’. Remember, this book has been touted as one of the best books of this millennia and I can’t agree more.

      ‘Sapiens’ takes us through the three major revolutions in human history: the cognitive revolution, the agricultural revolution, and the scientific revolution, and leaves us with a better understanding on how we came to be as ‘powerful’ as we are. It leaves us questioning so much of what we thought we knew and leaves you in deep thought after every chapter.

      One of the topics he raises that has stayed to me is about money. Money is the one thing that we globally trust but is also something with zero meaning. Let’s imagine us in an apocalypse… what purpose would money serve? We can eat it, we can use it as fuel, and we can’t use it as shelter. Harari talks us through that a little more eloquently, but you get the idea.

      During his chapters on the cognitive revolution, he talks about how our ‘minds’ have played a massive role in the way we live now. Humans began telling stories and shared ideas and myths. These stories and myths (religions, ideologies) facilitated cooperation and led to the creation of ideas such as fairness and justice, which were essential for cooperation between larger groups.

      ‘Homo Deus’ comes as Harari’s second book and takes a look at how he foresees the future of humanity in a data-driven world. We are at the very beginning of our transformation to a data-driven world and Harari writes that there is very little we can do to stop it. ‘Homo Dues’ feels very much like an “end of history” book and I don’t mean this in an ‘Armageddon’ sense. The book gives us a realisation that things are moving so fast and it’s became impossible for us to imagine what the future holds. In the 1800s it was possible to imagine with meaningfulness about the world in the 1900s and how it may look. That’s what history is: a series or sequence of events that humanity plays a part in. Now let’s, in the year 2018, imagine what 2100 will look like… it’s almost unimaginable – we have no understanding of where we will fit in, if at all. Harari asks us the question: are we building a world that no longer has a place for us?

      It probably all sounds a bit doom and gloom considering I’m supposed to be recommending these books, but they are intelligently written, full of sharp insight and caustic wit. I found the books deeply appealing and thought-provoking, but admit that not everyone may think so, but I challenge anyone to read these books and not get at least an occasional momentous thrill.

      If you’re interested, his new book “21 Lessons for the 21st Century” comes out on August 30th (at least in the UK) – I’ve already got my pre-order in.

      Have you read the books? I’d love your thoughts.

    • Oh my God I love his books. I check Obama and Gates' reading lists and saw Sapiens there, so I got interested. The thing is, so many books, so little time, right? My coping mechanism is to find a podcaster who interviewed the author because maybe the interview is all I really need, or maybe it tells me whether it's worth a big block of time to read.

      So I listened to Ezra Klein's interview of Yuval. Fascinating! After that I had to read the book and the book was even more fascinating than the interview.

      On the other hand, I had a couple friends tell me his books are mainly bunk. These Quora reviews are crazy bad. (Pic from Ideas Festival.)

    • Yeah, those reviews are not warm and fuzzy are they? But still Bill Gates and President Obama are pretty credible advocates.

      I just read the first couple chapters, and was reminded how much I was impressed by an earlier book by a primatologist, which I find was published 9 years ago now - Time flies and all that.

      Richard Wrangham wrote a book titled "Catching Fire - How Cooking Made Us Human" which I was most impressed by. Initially, I approached it with a negative mindset, and was won over as I read it. I had always wondered why gorillas had such large jaws and teeth and such a long bowel tract, while humans ( a fairly close genetic relationship ) have small jaws, a much smaller bowel, and a bigger brain, and became far more dangerous predators.

      I had never really thought about how much more calories are available to a species that cooks its food before eating it, until I read Wrangham's book. Wrangham suggests humans cannot even survive without cooked food - again a fact I would have thought ridiculous - but he provides some research data to support his claim. Try to identify a primitive human tribe that survives in the wild without any cooking, at all. Yes, we can all survive for fairly long periods without cooking our food - fruits, and nuts and all - but try it for 6 months or 18 months without ANY heating of your food - it is hard to get the calories humans need without cooking some of their food stuffs. Cooking also helps sterilize, purify, liquify, and break down animal and plant proteins, and plant polysaccharides.

      Early in his book, Harrari does mention the significance of fire in the genesis of homo sapiens, and its usefullness to provide heat, light, defense, AND to provide cooked food to provide the caloric needs of a larger brain. ( At rest, fully 25% of the caloric need of a human, is dedicated to keeping their brain alive and working. For most animals it is more like 10-12 % or less.) Since cooked food is more pre-digested by cooking, we spend less time hunting and eating than most species and have more free time for other cultural/creative activities to engage our larger brain.

      I look forward to finishing Harari's book within the next week.

    • I just finished Sapiens and Homo Deus and I have to say that I'm less enthusiastic about them than most people seem to be.

      Sapiens covers a lot of familiar ground but with a possibly different and (IMO) somewhat quirky perspective. For example, human language is described as important because it enables the sharing of myths, a term he uses often as a substitute for culture. Now it's certainly true that culture is founded on language and that counterfactuals may require language, but the primary advantage that language confers is a means to accumulate and share knowledge of the world. He sometimes seems dismissive of culture as merely imaginary, as though it is less real than quarks and electrons. This is nonsense. But then, he is given to exaggeration. Sometimes this is amusing: "God is dead – it just takes a while to get rid of the body." Sometimes it's ridiculous, as when he describes the emergence of agriculture as plants domesticating people. Really? It does keep one reading, though.

      Deus is subtitled "A Brief History of Tomorrow." He states for the record that it is not meant to be prophecy, merely a speculation of what could conceivably happen. Fair enough, but it appears to accept as inevitable the wildest speculations of technofuturists. Immortality, genomes reprogrammed for superpowers and superior AI that knows us better than ourselves are taken for granted. Humans are just an algorithm (he claims), so we can expect the emergence of non-organic life (whatever that means). He tries to imagine the social consequences of all this change but does not really have much to say other than that we don't know. His exploration of the implications of modern science for the underlying assumptions of humanism seems to be marred by a spotty understanding of the science and an inability to separate realistic expectations from Silicon Valley hype. While he is almost certainly correct that we're going to need some new social institutions and ideas to support our technological future, I think it's likely that these will emerge naturally over the timeframe needed to realize this future.

      Perhaps I'm giving too negative an impression. On the plus side, I found his discussion of the tradeoffs between hunter/gatherer and agricultural life fascinating and I confess that I knew nothing about the Taiping Rebellion of the 19th century. I was also intrigued by his linking of a rise in religious fundamentalism with the development of the industrial revolution and its possible implications for contemporary society. If you've never studied evolution, there's lots of interesting stuff to learn here. Some of his asides on sexual orientation and gender identity are fun if not exactly to the point of the chapters in which they appear. It's easy reading, so don't let my grumpiness discourage you.