Those attuned to nuanced argumentation may find Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind slightly annoying, for it is filled with daring and sweeping claims, some of which might easily look like reckless and simplistic generalities. The book has been doing the rounds internationally and is written by Israeli scholar Yuval Noah Harari, who holds a doctorate from Oxford and lectures at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.
Originally working within medieval and military history, Harari now operates around world history and macrohistorical processes. He has come up with a staggeringly ambitious project, in which he neatly begins 13.5 billion years ago, that is, at the Big Bang, and imaginatively ends with a host of futuristic scenarios that are scarier and more puzzling than sci-fi movies. Sapiens is entertaining and educational and Harari deserves to be commended for his originality and sincerity. The book could prove to be refreshing to those who are bored with narrowly specialised academic voices and are longing for someone who could give them a much broader view. Also, those who find it cumbersome to navigate history (owing to its denseness) and as a result, avoid studying it, may want to reengage with it with a new-found fervour after being stimulated by the vivid and accessible language of the book.
Among the many valuable insights offered by Harari is the following:
…the Gilgamesh Project is the flagship of science. It serves to justify everything science does. Dr. Frankenstein piggybacks on the shoulder of Gilgamesh. Since it is impossible to stop Gilgamesh, it is also impossible to stop Dr. Frankenstein.
Harari uses Gilgamesh, the ancient Mesopotamian hero, protagonist of the world’s oldest epic, as a symbol for humankind’s quest for immortality. (Gilgamesh, king of the city of Uruk, undertakes a journey to the ends of the earth to meet a man whom he thinks can help him conquer death but returns with little success.) Dr. Frankenstein, the protagonist of Mary Shelley’s celebrated 1818 novel – the ambitious scientist who ends up creating a monster – is used as a symbol for humankind’s attempts at manipulating existing and engineering new life. According to Harari, if you ask scientists to explain the rationale behind their projects, “nine out of ten times you’ll get the same standard answer: we are doing it to cure diseases and save human lives.” That’s why the enterprises of Gilgamesh and Dr. Frankenstein are interwoven.
Featured: Yuval Noah Harari by User “Tzahy Lerner”, CC BY 3.0, Wikimedia Commons