The last of my holiday reads, albeit finished this week, was Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind by Yuval Noah Harari. I was a bit disappointed, as it had absolutely glowing reviews. After reading Ian Morris’s Why The West Rules For Now and his more recent Farmers, Foragers and Fossil Fuels, and Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs and Steel, and his later Collapse, not to mention Joseph Tainter and Walter Russell Mead, I suppose it’s hard to describe anything completely new looking through the long lens on the history of civilisation. It’s quite a crowded terrain.
That isn’t to say I didn’t enjoy reading Sapiens. It’s eloquently written. I liked the emphasis on human social agency, and absence of technological or ecological determinism: “The ability to create an imagined reality out of words enabled large numbers of strangers to co-operate effectively.”
He writes of ‘imagined order’ (echose of Benedict Anderson): “We believe in a particular order not because it is objectively true but because believing in it enables us to coperate effectively and forge a better society.” He has a nice example using Peugeot, the car company. It doesn’t consist in the cars it makes, or its assets, or the people working for it – it has an existence beyind any of them, and a longevity too, kept in existence by the imagined order of the French legal system, the French state, the idea of nation states, and so on. The ‘rules of the game’ as an institutional economist might put it, are a set of Russian dolls.
It drove home for me the point that for individuals the agricultural revolution was an adverse development, although it was great for spreading Homo Sapiens genes. I liked the discussion of natural and unnatural – a distinction that pre-supposes the existence of a higher purpose, and since evolution has no purpose it is a distinction that comes from religion.
I very much enjoyed the contrasting portraits of Louis XIV of France and Barack Obama: “Dominant men have never looked so dreary as they do today. What happened to the wig, stockings, high heels?”
The book tails off a bit towards the end – the economics chapters seemed weak to me, although perhaps they wouldn’t to a non-economist. They cram the whole history of world economics with an emphasis on credit (Graeber-style) into three chapters.
Anyway, that’s it for summer paperbacks. Back to the serious reading now. Next up is John Kay’s Other People’s Money. Four pages in, and I think it’s fabulous.