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Old 11-19-2016, 10:52 AM   #1
WT Sharpe
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November 2016 Discussion: Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind by Yuval Noah Harari

The time has come to discuss the November 2016 MobileRead Book Club selection, Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind by Yuval Noah Harari. What did you think?
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Old 11-20-2016, 06:08 AM   #2
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I'm at the beginning and will surely finish it long after this month, but it started brightly in my opinion. I would have made a dent in it had I not been juggling other books.
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Old 11-20-2016, 08:38 AM   #3
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Cross posted in the Deals forum.

Sapiens is on sale today only in the Kindle store for $4.99, down from its regular price of $17. Anyone who was interested but put off by the price might want to jump.
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Old 11-20-2016, 09:27 AM   #4
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I thought the book was interesting for both the ancient history it did present of our species, but also for the speculative questions it posed had things turned out differently.

For example:
Quote:
Imagine how things might have turned out had the Neanderthals or Denisovans survived alongside Homo sapiens. What kind of cultures, societies and political structures would have emerged in a world where several different human species coexisted? How, for example, would religious faiths have unfolded? Would the book of Genesis have declared that Neanderthals descend from Adam and Eve, would Jesus have died for the sins of the Denisovans, and would the Qur’an have reserved seats in heaven for all righteous humans, whatever their species? Would Neanderthals have been able to serve in the Roman legions, or in the sprawling bureaucracy of imperial China? Would the American Declaration of Independence hold as a self-evident truth that all members of the genus Homo are created equal? Would Karl Marx have urged workers of all species to unite?
With the history of discord between sapiens of varying pigmentation our species has, can you imagine living harmoniously in a world of multiple homo species? And what does this say about our ability to transcend our animal nature?
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Old 11-20-2016, 09:32 AM   #5
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But then there was a lot of rubbish such as all that nonsense about Peugeot.
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Old 11-20-2016, 09:57 AM   #6
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I found his use of Peugeot to illustrate the concept of a shared fiction to be quite good.
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Old 11-20-2016, 10:30 AM   #7
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This was kind of a mixed bag for me. I ended up giving it three stars at Goodreads because I saw the appeal of it (I'll post about that later), but after a strong start, it didn't really fit my parameters of what I wanted.

The good: it was easy to listen to, even with the dreadful Hoopla app. I really enjoyed and was illuminated by the beginning. I know little of pre-history and I found it fascinating. But as the book progressed, it got increasingly squishy; much speculation based on little evidence, as far as I could tell, starting with identifying the hunter/gatherer stage as the lost golden age. Harari also tended to belabor his points (not always a bad thing in an audiobook, as I never felt I'd missed much when I zoned out!) and seemed to regard the reader as ignorant in every discipline. The discussion of currency is just one example. We get it. He also contradicted himself - as when he said there was no point to the French Revolution in terms of increasing happiness, which ignored his own comment on the broke mother who won a small lottery and experienced a permanent increase in well-being. Indeed. A mention of Maslow in the context of the French Revolution would not have been amiss.

Once Harari got to modern history, I thought he lost his mooring. I didn't think he had anything particularly penetrating to say; he used a very general history as the basis for his riffs on anything and everything and they did little for me. In the end, I didn't see the thrust of it all; admittedly it's hard to have a thrust when covering such vast territory. Mostly I was disappointed, as I'd expected history with mostly an anthropological bent, but Harari's multi-discipline approach obfuscated that aspect.

Still, as I said, I do get its appeal and I'll get to that.

Last edited by issybird; 11-20-2016 at 10:32 AM.
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Old 11-20-2016, 10:38 AM   #8
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Originally Posted by WT Sharpe View Post
I found his use of Peugeot to illustrate the concept of a shared fiction to be quite good.
This was the kind of thing that irritated me. Just because something is abstract rather than concrete doesn't mean it's not real, and calling it a shared fiction didn't increase my understanding. It was one of the many times I said to myself, "Get on with it!"

I think I would have enjoyed it more had I been able to read it; then I could have skimmed the repetitive bits instead of having to plod through them.
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Old 11-20-2016, 03:25 PM   #9
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I thought the book was interesting for both the ancient history it did present of our species, but also for the speculative questions it posed had things turned out differently.

For example:


With the history of discord between sapiens of varying pigmentation our species has, can you imagine living harmoniously in a world of multiple homo species? And what does this say about our ability to transcend our animal nature?
Thirty to 40 percent of the world's human population has Neanderthal genomes in them. While that fact does not necessarily imply that there are some humans in the world with a majority of Neanderthal, rather than homo sapiens, in them, it comes mighty close to implying that. And I feel sure that there is some empirical data out there somewhere which would confirm that. So for some of us MobileReaders "our species" probably is, well, other than homo sapiens. Of course, I'm sure that I have no Neanderthal in me, however.
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Old 11-20-2016, 03:34 PM   #10
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I do agree with a lot of what issybird had to say about the book.

One thing that's not yet mentioned, Derek Perkins did an excellent job reading the book. He made it easy to listen to the parts that just droned on and on.
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Old 11-20-2016, 05:25 PM   #11
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This was the kind of thing that irritated me. Just because something is abstract rather than concrete doesn't mean it's not real, and calling it a shared fiction didn't increase my understanding. It was one of the many times I said to myself, "Get on with it!"

I think I would have enjoyed it more had I been able to read it; then I could have skimmed the repetitive bits instead of having to plod through them.
I was amused by this, but didn't really learn much from it. I have not yet finished the book. I enjoyed it at the start but eventually I lost interest.
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Old 11-20-2016, 05:32 PM   #12
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I do agree with a lot of what issybird had to say about the book.

One thing that's not yet mentioned, Derek Perkins did an excellent job reading the book. He made it easy to listen to the parts that just droned on and on.
I agree. Were it not for that, I'd not have read as far as I did.
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Old 11-22-2016, 02:36 PM   #13
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But then there was a lot of rubbish such as all that nonsense about Peugeot.
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Originally Posted by issybird View Post
This was the kind of thing that irritated me. Just because something is abstract rather than concrete doesn't mean it's not real, and calling it a shared fiction didn't increase my understanding. It was one of the many times I said to myself, "Get on with it!"

I think I would have enjoyed it more had I been able to read it; then I could have skimmed the repetitive bits instead of having to plod through them.
I think he made an excellent case using the Peugeot illustration. As a man, Peugeot certainly exists, but as a company, what physical attribute can you point to and say, "This is the company." Manufacturing plants come and go, but the company remains. Ultimately it is all on paper, just as any work of fiction. Moreover, the point he was making was not that Peugeot is a shared fiction, but that the creation of shared fictions is, as far as we can tell, a uniquely human endeavor that has allowed us to transcend our biology.

Spoiler:
[T]he truly unique feature of our language is not its ability to transmit information about men and lions. Rather, it’s the ability to transmit information about things that do not exist at all. As far as we know, only Sapiens can talk about entire kinds of entities that they have never seen, touched or smelled. Legends, myths, gods and religions appeared for the first time with the Cognitive Revolution. Many animals and human species could previously say, ‘Careful! A lion!’ Thanks to the Cognitive Revolution, Homo sapiens acquired the ability to say, ‘The lion is the guardian spirit of our tribe.’ This ability to speak about fictions is the most unique feature of Sapiens language.

Sociological research has shown that the maximum ‘natural’ size of a group bonded by gossip is about 150 individuals. Most people can neither intimately know, nor gossip effectively about, more than 150 human beings. Even today, a critical threshold in human organisations falls somewhere around this magic number.

How did Homo sapiens manage to cross this critical threshold, eventually founding cities comprising tens of thousands of inhabitants and empires ruling hundreds of millions? The secret was probably the appearance of fiction. Large numbers of strangers can cooperate successfully by believing in common myths.


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Thirty to 40 percent of the world's human population has Neanderthal genomes in them. While that fact does not necessarily imply that there are some humans in the world with a majority of Neanderthal, rather than homo sapiens, in them, it comes mighty close to implying that. And I feel sure that there is some empirical data out there somewhere which would confirm that. So for some of us MobileReaders "our species" probably is, well, other than homo sapiens. Of course, I'm sure that I have no Neanderthal in me, however.
I don't think that's the way genes work. We also share 1% of genetic material with monkeys, but I don't think you're going to find humans who have a majority of chimp genes. Humans that do have neanderthal genes have around 1-2%.
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Old 11-23-2016, 01:47 PM   #14
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I thought the Peugeot analogy was fine, except that it was too drawn out. He's not content with making a point, he had to belabor it and then go over it again. As I said, the ability to skim once the needle got stuck would have been welcome.

But this leads me to what made me think the book has its merits, even if it didn't appeal that much to me. Keep in mind that what I'm about to say applies to American universities only. But this whole book to me evoked an introductory course that's hugely popular on campus; one that freshman even with no particular interest in the subject sign up to take, because the teacher's something of a star and the lectures are discursive and entertaining. When I was an undergraduate, the comparable course at my school was Introduction to the History of Art. It was so popular that the lectures had to be given in the law school auditorium, the biggest space on campus. Outsiders would show up to listen, also.

Sapiens reads to me like the lectures from such a course. I used the word discursive above and if anything, it's an understatement. Harari takes in history, anthropology, biology, physics, sociology, economics, political science, physics, statistics and I could go on, and he'll jump millennia in making comparisons. It's mind-expanding for the freshmen I have in mind; they might consider disciplines they hadn't thought of and they start to get a sense of how they can all interconnect. I found the text to be rather squishy and unsubstantiated myself, but I don't think it matters much, if the point is to open vistas, to get the student/reader into an inquiring frame of mind and generally to light a fire under them. But at this point in my life, I'm not looking for vistas, I'm interested in specifics.

But I acknowledge that any book that covers as much ground as this one does has to keep moving; you can't have breadth and depth and still come in at a reasonable number of pages. There's an argument for breadth and Sapiens scores well in presenting a compelling panorama.

Last edited by issybird; 11-23-2016 at 01:49 PM.
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Old 11-23-2016, 06:05 PM   #15
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Now that's an argument I can appreciate. It's true that the scope was grand and the points made were often done so with insufficient documentation. I frequently found myself thinking that footnotes were too sparse and wishing for more depth, but given the nature of the work I accepted that certain trade-offs that had to be made. As an introduction to the prehistory of homo sapiens it was excellent, however, although as you mentioned in an earlier post, it was not as strong on it's presentation of known history.
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