I’d like to find some more books like ‘Sapiens’ to read

The most impressive bit of prehistoric art I’ve ever seen, from the Cave of the Hands in Argentina.

Or to spread it more broadly, like that — by which I mean Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, by Yuval Noah Harari — and like some other, similar books I’ve read in recent years. They include:

  • Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies, by Jared Diamond.
  • 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus, by Charles C. Mann.
  • 1493: Uncovering the New World Columbus Created, the sequel to the previous.

Remember how I said my New Year’s resolution was that I would finally start reading all those many fascinating books I had put on my Amazon list in recent years, and my loved ones had so kindly given me? I said I would start with the ones I received for Christmas (pictured on the post), and go on from there.

In that post, I mentioned that I had just finished, on New Year’s Eve, reading Sapiens. And stated my intention to charge forward and spend the whole year reading other interesting new books that would broaden my mind, instead of rereading things I’d read multiple times before, such as the volumes of Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey/Maturin novel series.

So what have I been doing? Well, the last few days I’ve found myself rereading Sapiens. And I’m again being thoroughly fascinated by all the interesting things I had already forgotten, even though I had read it so recently. (An aging thing, I guess. I never had trouble in school remembering things over summer vacation. But I guess I don’t retain things that easily now, being less “impressionable.”)

Just this morning, I was reading again how we humans messed up our lives with this whole Agricultural Revolution thing. And how we couldn’t help ourselves. But this time I took time to leaf to the back to check out a footnote, and found it was referring to… Guns, Germs and Steel. Yeah, I thought I had read something else that told me giving up hunting and gathering was a raw deal… not that we can do anything about it.

There’s a connection here somewhere to my decreasing interest in the “news” of the day, and the same stupid, overly simplistic arguments about what’s going on around us being offered by “both” sides — you know, the ones and zeroes people. (Not that I ignore current events entirely. For instance, this morning I learned a lot from a piece in The Wall Street Journal about the shadow war being conducted between Israel and Iran — something I had known next to nothing about.)

More and more, I’m interested in the Big Picture. I’m more fascinated, for instance, by how sapiens outlived (and quite likely of course, killed off) the Neanderthals — except for a few bits of DNA that I and other people of European ancestry are anachronistically carrying around. That interests me more than, say, how the billionahuhs are exploiting the proletariat — or, if you prefer the “other” interpretation (among the two and only two that we’re allowed), how the job-creators are building a better world.

I’m not sure that what I’m talking about here is “Big History,” which I’ve heard a good bit about recently. A lot of that has to do with all those billions of years before our ancestors came along and started walking on two legs. And those eons seem a bit… sterile… to me. I’m more interested in the last few million years — and particularly the millennia between what Harari calls The Cognitive Revolution and the Agricultural Revolution (between about 70,000 and 10,000 years ago), and what happened in the few millennia after that, shaping the world we now live in.

The books I’ve listed at the top of this post fit right in that sweet spot. So, to some extent, does one of those books I asked for for Christmas: The Discovers, by Daniel Boorstin. I started to read it long before I developed this recent interest, and remember being impressed at his description of one of the greatest bits of “progress” that has ever oppressed us: the measurement of time. But before I finished it, I misplaced my copy, and have been wanting for all this time to get back to it.

I also want to read those novels in that small stack as well. I mean, I know what happened to Thomas Cromwell, but I’m interested to find out how Hilary Mantel tells the tale.

But I want to read more in what I think of as the Sapiens category — the story of how humans got from hunting and gathering to where we are.

I’m particularly hoping Lynn Teague reads this, and has some good ideas. She’s the only archaeologist I know, and these books fit largely within her field…

24 thoughts on “I’d like to find some more books like ‘Sapiens’ to read

  1. Brad Warthen Post author

    And of course I cheated a bit — I just emailed Lynn to ask her to read this, and give her advice.

    I mean, since Homo sapiens went to the trouble of inventing that recent “labor-saving device” that actually enslaves us — email — I might as well get some use out of it, right?

    1. Brad Warthen Post author

      Remember when we thought email was a wonderful innovation? I certainly do. It was the early to mid-90s. Of course, few other members of our species actually send me email back then, so each message received was a bit of a treat.

      I think it was about the turn of the century that I realized how oppressive it was, demanding far more of my time than snail mail ever had.

      Agriculture, which required us to work more hours a day than hunting and gathering had, and which forced us to eat a less nutritious diet, snuck up on us over thousands of years. Email was something that happened within a fraction of our lifetimes…

  2. Lynn Teague

    Bellwood’s “Global History of Human Migration” comes to mind, although it is fairly technical in places. I don’t know of anything quite like “Sapiens,” unfortunately archaeologists and friends are generally pretty poor at producing big picture syntheses. As to whether our species made a big mistake moving on from hunting and gathering, that depends on how you look at it. As someone who had a childhood illness (appendicitis) that would have killed me at age 4 prior to modern medicine (along with 25-50% of my age cohort dying of various things), I am not so convinced. I know that under good conditions hunting and gathering provides a reasonable diet and lifestyle with minimal labor and — at its best — strong community. In any case, I will definitely argue that our ability to act in ways that are extremely destructive — both small and large ways — has greatly exceeded our ability to refrain from doing so. At present the folly of pushing forward relentlessly with carbon-based energy to preserve short term benefits is a HUGE example, and probably the one that will cause massive disruption. Unfortunately, contrary to nutters on both ends of the political spectrum (Bannon, Sarandon) disruption and chaos do not necessarily provide good outcomes. On the other hand, those of us who survive may get to revisit the rewards and pleasures of hunting and gathering.

    1. Brad Warthen Post author


      I think Harari makes an excellent big picture case that it was a bad deal for most healthy individuals. But I doubt I would have survived childhood in a time before modern medicine, which is largely an outgrowth of the Agricultural Revolution. Maybe that time in the hospital with pneumonia when I was 6 would have done me in, for instance. At the same time, childhood mortality went WAY up after we started farming, so…

      But my “Yes!” is a response to your last words, “On the other hand, those of us who survive may get to revisit the rewards and pleasures of hunting and gathering.”

      As I’ve written here, I’ve chosen to go off and on a paleo diet in the last few years (I’m thinking at the moment about going back on it), and that’s a luxury available to me because I live in a time far more advanced than those first few millennia of agriculture. I’m not limited to eating little more than the wheat (to which I’m allergic), potatoes or rice that my family and my neighbors grow in our own fields. I can choose a healthier diet, one more like the luckier foragers had. And whether we go “paleo” or not, most of us enjoy a diet somewhere in between the forager and early farmer extremes.

      I might check out that Bellwood book you recommend, although your description of it as “technical” is slightly intimidating.

      It’s a little hard to tell in advance what I WILL like. For instance, the only book I’ve read so far that closely tracks what Sapiens does is Guns, Germs and Steel. If you look at those two books by Mann that I mentioned, they are both rather limited in scope by comparison. But within those limitations — human habitation of this hemisphere in the ages before 1492, and the whole globe in the centuries after — it takes a very big picture approach, and I like that.

      To some extent, it’s going to depend on the author, and how broad and thoughtful the observations are. I enjoyed Guns, Germs and Steel so much, I’ve been thinking I’ll enjoy another Jared Diamond book on why humans are the way they are. But I hesitate to put it on my Amazon wish list. It’s called Why Is Sex Fun?

      In any case, thanks for your input!

      1. Brad Warthen Post author

        It occurs to me that I have a copy around here — among those many book I’ve wanted to read, but haven’t gotten to — of The Selfish Gene, and might enjoy that for similar reasons as Sapiens. Even though it’s Dawkins. I tend to be leery of anyone I think is going to be preachy (or anti-preachy) on some modern-day controversy, and Dawkins has that rep. But then so did Christopher Hitchens, and he’s still fun to read.

        Harari comes across as an atheist. But he’s not evangelical about it. And he’s very open-minded (as most atheists think they are, but being humans, they often fail on that score). He’s fair. He dismisses religion as fiction, but he does the same with other things that are conceptual rather than physical — such as liberalism, monarchy, corporations and of course money.

        And while that can be offensive — he’s dismissing all the things that we humans value! — he also acknowledges that they’re pretty essential to humans living together in any societal arrangements larger than about 150 individuals.

        1. Brad Warthen Post author

          Another way to put it is that I frequently, in reading Harari, object, “But those are the very things that separate us from animals!”

          But in his defense, Harari is very much a member of the school that insists, “Homo sapiens thinks too highly of itself, and needs to remember that it is just another animal…”

          So he’s consistent. Fancy thoughts might separate us from other animals, but he’s just not as impressed as I am…

          1. Brad Warthen Post author

            I’m too much of a humanist to go all the way with Harari.

            I think.

            There are so many ways to define “humanist” that I get confused. I think I mean it in the way Thomas More did, but I need to read up more on that school to be sure…

      2. Lynn Teague

        Childhood mortality going up with farming wasn’t an inevitable product of farming, it was because people unwisely too often chose to live in tightly clustered settlements after ag was introduced. We have a perfect case study in the American Southwest. The puebloan people on the Colorado Plateau did indeed have high infant mortality with farming. The Hohokam down in the Sonoran (low) desert farmed extensively, in fact built some of the first major canal irrigation systems in the Americas, but they did not move into tightly clustered pueblos as soon as they began ag. Instead they lived in dispersed farmsteads and in large settlements that consisted of dispersed extended family households across a substantial area. As long as they stayed dispersed, infant mortality was low. In the 1200s they began to live in puebloan-style settlements and (surprise) infant mortality soared. That was even before the drought/flood disasters of the 1300s destroyed their ability to maintain large settlements of any kind.

        1. Brad Warthen Post author

          Well that certainly makes sense.

          Did either group live in close quarters with livestock? That was another factor, although now that I ask it, I can’t remember to what extent pre-Columbian farmers in that part of North America domesticated animals, aside from dogs. Everybody had dogs, right?

          1. Lynn Teague

            They did indeed have dogs. Interestingly, at San Xavier del Bac we found dog burials. All the dogs were about 1 year old. Something ceremonial going on there (what archaeologists always say when something seems hard to explain). Also sometimes turkeys — big turkey pens at Casas Grandes in Chihuahua (not to be confused with Casa Grande in Arizona). They also at times kept macaws, brought in from the south. My last day of work I was given a retirement party by the O’odham and PeePosh tribes of southern and central Arizona. Several sang macaw songs for me in O’odham. When I asked what the songs said, they declined. I said I understood, didn’t want to pry into something religious. They said that wasn’t it, it was just that macaw was very naughty sometimes.

            1. Brad Warthen Post author

              It was very respectful of you not to pry into their culture’s smutty jokes… 🙂

              As for this: “Something ceremonial going on there (what archaeologists always say when something seems hard to explain)…”

              Harari would refer to that as some sort of useful fiction they invented to stabilize their culture. Or something like that…

              Things like that underline the way we have traditionally defined “history.” I thought about approaching this post a different way, posing the question, “What is history to you?”

              Used to be, we’d say “history” is what happened after the invention of writing, and anything before that was pre-history, or archaeology. (Correct me if I’m wrong on that.)

              Harari defines history as beginning 70,000 years ago (his date for the “Cognitive Revolution”), when “organisms belonging to the species Homo sapiens started to form even more elaborate structures called cultures.” So well before agriculture, and of course before writing.

              Then the “Big History” people have it starting with, I guess, the Big Bang.

              I’m a traditionalist, and always thought writing was a good place to start, but Harari’s definition seems a good compromise — we weren’t writing, but we were smart enough to write…

              The Big Bang seems a tad early to me…

              1. Lynn Teague

                The nature of history becomes very important when considering indigenous histories that were not written until European contact. Some are convenient myths, some refer to events and circumstances that existed in the past, many are a combination of both. I considered this problem in a paper originally published in 1993. It is now online at https://www.resolutionmineeis.us/sites/default/files/references/teague-1993.pdf. There is even a moral in the story of the fall of the Hohokam sivanyi for modern politicians — don’t claim to control the wind and rain gods when things are going well if you don’t want the blame when things are going badly.

                1. Brad Warthen Post author

                  Right. Don’t claim to control the wind and rain gods… or the economy. Good advice.

                  What archaeologists do is important, because we DO want to know more about those cultures and what happened (at least, I do). And there are no written records.

                  The thing is, figuring out history from AFTER the invention of writing is hard enough, particularly since other cultures had different literary styles, and we only recently (in historic terms) came up with such clear distinctions as that between fiction and non-fiction.

                  I get frustrated trying to sort out what happened in the last few decades, much less the last few centuries. And when you get back to, say, the Roman Empire, it’s hard to know, really, just how insane Caligula was. Because our few sources had their own agendas. We don’t have anything like, say, newspapers of the second half of the 20th century — economically secure journals that could be independent not only from political parties, but from their own advertisers (something most people don’t fully believe, but it was true). Of course, that was a rare thing in history, and I’m not sure just how rare and brief it was until it was gone. It’s certainly different from what we had in the 19th and even early 20th centuries (although I get a kick out of reading that stuff — read Twain’s “Journalism in Tennessee,” which I enjoy especially since that’s where I started my own career), and very distinct from the click-based media that replaced it as the advertising industry collapsed.

                  But once again, I digress…

                  1. Brad Warthen Post author

                    Of course, that sort of journalism wasn’t restricted to Tennessee. If you look back at the editorials of N.G. Gonzales at the end of the 19th century, you have a better understanding of why Lt. Gov. James H. Tillman shot him — and why those Lexington County jurors let him get away with a clear, premeditated murder of an unarmed man, committed at noon on Main Street in front of a cop.

                    Those Tillmans were poor sports, and just didn’t appreciate the journalism of their day. And of course, those Lexington County jurors were almost certainly the ancestors of some of our most loyal Trump voters…

                  2. Lynn Teague

                    Archaeological interpretation is a very strange beast. While there are constant diligent attempts to create a solid theoretical foundation, I still see a lot of projection in archaeological interpretations. My colleagues who are personally conflict-averse see the cultures they study as peaceful and benign. My colleagues who love to fight and “defeat” others see their cultures the same way, with evidence of warfare everywhere around them. It has occurred to me that my own tendency to see the people I’ve studied as very focused problem solvers looking for long-term balance and stability says something about me.

  3. Ken

    I found Harari’s book rather too breezy (“like a ride on a tour bus that never stops for a poke around the ruins,” as the New Yorker put it) – in the way these big, sweeping histories aimed at a large, popular readership tend to be. And also rather tendentious in its easy acceptance of the role that technological advances will (as Harari seems to believe, inexorably) play. The latter appears to be taken to Brave New World-ish extremes in his follow-on book, Homo Deus. At least if the London Review of Books is to be believed:
    “Harari’s prediction is that we will become more god-like as we become more
    machine-like and as machines’ capacities become more god-like. Humanity’s future is in the hands of technical experts – in biotechnology, artificial intelligence, cognitive and computer science.
    It is a fact, Harari announces, that the ‘last days’ of Homo sapiens ‘are fast approaching’.
    Absent some unforeseeable calamity, our species will be replaced ‘by completely different beings who possess not only different physiques, but also very different cognitive and emotional worlds’. The current version of Homo sapiens will become surplus to economic and military requirements. War will be waged by drones and work will be done by robots: ‘Some economists predict that sooner or later, unenhanced humans will be completely useless.’ Algorithms embedded in silicon and metal will replace algorithms embedded in flesh, which, Harari reminds us, is what biology and computer science tell us is all we really are anyway. In the argot of Silicon Valley, now-useless human beings are just ‘meat puppets’. New life forms will be created, breaking the chain which – from protozoa to Homo sapiens – made life an exclusive function of organic compounds. Harari sees all this as an index of the great ‘decoupling’ of intelligence and consciousness that is being brought about by advances in artificial intelligence.
    Human beings will cease to be agents, their authority taken over by algorithms – written at first by human beings but ultimately by algorithm-writing machines. Confronted with the new ‘post-humanist’ technologies, liberal society will disintegrate. We will no longer be able to sustain belief in the unique, free-acting, free-judging individual as the basis of liberal social order: ‘We – or our heirs – will probably require a brand-new package of religious beliefs and political institutions.’
    The new religion will be called Dataism. The boundaries between animals, machines and
    social systems will dissolve: all these will come to be seen as algorithmic information processing systems. The notions of ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ will be superseded by the unchallenged virtue of the flow of information….”

    And so forth.

    The New Yorker review also noted that “the more typical reader may be a young person grateful for permission to pay more attention to his or her needs than to the needs of others.” That along with a kind of equanimity almost to the point of indifference about human suffering.

    Like a lot of this sort of thing, the book is now supposedly being turned into both a graphic novel AND a children’s book. Plus there are apparently plans to make a multi-season TV series based on it. It’s its own big business, the author is his own brand.

    1. Brad Warthen Post author

      Yep. As for The New Yorker‘s characterization — well, you’ve got to keep the bus moving if you’re going to see the whole landscape and make the kind of observations that make the book interesting to me (as a forest rather than a tree guy). But I think he does poke around quite a few ruins, and I find those examples he gives very interesting, and usually educational. But then I’m glad to get back on the bus, and see the rest of the forest…

      But I’m less interested in reading Homo Deus. I might read it, but on its face it seems less attractive to me. Before I read Sapiens, I spoke with someone who had read it as a member of a book group, and was told the first part of the book — how we got here — was much more interesting than the parts covering the modern world.

      As for his predictions about sapiens going away, he sort of predicts that from the start of Sapiens. Sometimes he almost seems like a guy who can’t wait to see Homo sapiens get what’s coming to him for having wiped out Homo neanderthalensis.

      And yet, he kind of is becoming a big business. Which is OK up to a point. But it’s a bit hard to imagine a children’s book — it would either be something very different, or it would be beyond kids’ ability to grasp…

      1. Brad Warthen Post author

        I’m smiling at The New Yorker’s metaphor: “like a ride on a tour bus that never stops for a poke around the ruins.”

        Reminds me of our trip a couple of years ago to Ireland. When we’ve traveled before, we’ve stayed clear of tours, and just gone where we want and spent as much time as we’d like.

        This was a bus tour, which I enjoyed, but would have enjoyed even more had it NOT been a bus tour. And we literally passed by a LOT of ruins I would have liked to stop and poked around in. I took pictures of them as we passed. Here’s one, whizzing past:

        Worse, our guide was an Englishman, who kept making passing references to Irish “terrorists” — in reference of course to the IRA, and probably Sinn Fein. I’m not sure it ever occurred to him that there were a lot of American Catholics of Irish extraction on his bus.

        I’m an Anglophile, as I’ve often noted. But I find that the Brits make better tour guides when I’m in England…

        1. Brad Warthen Post author

          The Englishman never stopped for ruins, but he always stopped for shopping opportunities. He frequently explained he was doing that because he knew that was something “the ladies” liked.

          My lady didn’t like it a bit…

  4. Brad Warthen Post author

    By the way, glancing back over what I wrote earlier… I was making an assumption when I wrote, “except for a few bits of DNA that I and other people of European ancestry are anachronistically carrying around.”

    Including myself in that was just based on having read multiple times that European people tend to have about 1 to 4 percent (or something like that) Neanderthal DNA. Kind of like all people of European descent are direct descendants of Charlemagne. (With Charlemagne, it’s a matter of math. You go back that far, and you have more ancestors than there were humans on the earth — IF you were only descended from them one way. But you’re not just descended one way. Way back then, you were descended multiple ways from each available person. So the “tree” collapses on itself, with the branches intertwining.)

    I have traced myself back to Charlemagne (assuming none of those many connections are based on erroneous info, which is a huge assumption), and I can see how unavoidable that is, since I’ve found more than one such connection to him.

    But I have no evidence, shaky or not, to back up my Neanderthal connection. That’s because, for whatever reason, Ancestry doesn’t provide that info.

    At least one of my daughters knows what HER Neanderthal percentage is, because she did 23andme. But hey, that could all be from her mother, right?

    The only indication I have in my own case is that, you know, Neanderthals had bigger brains than modern humans, so, ahem… 🙂

  5. Brad Warthen Post author

    Here’s another book that I might need to add to my list. I found it in the piece in The Atlantic that Barry referred us to on another thread (a fascinating piece that I may explore further in another post):

    There is a direction to history and it is toward cooperation at larger scales. We see this trend in biological evolution, in the series of “major transitions” through which multicellular organisms first appeared and then developed new symbiotic relationships. We see it in cultural evolution too, as Robert Wright explained in his 1999 book, Nonzero: The Logic of Human Destiny. Wright showed that history involves a series of transitions, driven by rising population density plus new technologies (writing, roads, the printing press) that created new possibilities for mutually beneficial trade and learning. Zero-sum conflicts—such as the wars of religion that arose as the printing press spread heretical ideas across Europe—were better thought of as temporary setbacks, and sometimes even integral to progress. (Those wars of religion, he argued, made possible the transition to modern nation-states with better-informed citizens.) President Bill Clinton praised Nonzero’s optimistic portrayal of a more cooperative future thanks to continued technological advance.


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