Sapiens: The Pillars Of Civilization Is A Beautiful Existential Crisis

If you think you know don't.


I first heard of Yuval Noah Harari a few years ago when 21 Lessons for the 21st Century was due to be released as the third in his popular non-fiction series exploring humanity. The first, Sapiens: A Brief History of Humanity, looked at our past, while Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow naturally considered where our paths might end up taking our species in the future.

I was intrigued by all three and placed them high on my ever-growing and eternally endless to-buy list. Unfortunately they haven’t yet made it onto my shelf, but as fate would have it I was given an opportunity to explore Harari’s wisdom when I was offered the chance to review the second volume of the graphic novel adaptation of Sapiens.

Historian Harari joined forces with David Vandermeulen and Daniel Casanave to turn his work into graphic novel form, with Vandermeulen acting as co-writer and Casanave as illustrator. You don’t need to have read any of Harari’s previous books, including Volume 1 of the graphic series, to understand and enjoy this adaptation. In fact the production of this book was in part to reach a wider audience that might not usually be interested in science or history books, and I believe it has achieved its aim. After reading this book, I absolutely want to get my hands on the original work more than ever.

Volume 1 – The Birth of Humanity covers exactly what it describes. It talks of Homo Sapiens spreading across the globe. Volume 2 – The Pillars of Society covers how we built empires from our hunter-gathering roots. I thought I was along for a fun history ride, learning about how human civilization was built. I wasn’t aware I’d actually signed up for an exquisitely illustrated existential crisis.

Sapiens very carefully peels back the protective layer of society until you’re confronted with the actual truth of a reality generation after generation has managed to make out of fictional rules. You’re too deeply invested before you realise you’re gradually unlearning everything you thought was true. The agricultural revolution, usually presented in history as one of humanity’s big triumphs, is instead framed as a tragedy that spelled doom for the vast majority of our species, with humans striking a Faustus-esque deal with a head of wheat and reaping unending consequences.

It’s revealed that, from this simple act of converting from hunter-gatherers to farmers, humans built civilisations that then required social order to operate, which in turn led to hierarchies built on imagined orders and inequality. In just 250-odd pages, Harari reveals that our prejudices and biases against those of different races, genders, sexualities, and classes, are all built on a shared mythology that has underpinned our species ever since civilization’s very beginning.

In a way, every revelation in this book feels like a truth we all already knew but had never taken the time to realise. We know that money is a made-up thing, that all cultures are built on mythology, that many people work tirelessly so the privileged few can have an easy life. We know that, despite what we’d like to be true, all humans are not born equally and will not live equally.

The tale is told through the eyes of fictional characters, such as a no-nonsense New York cop, a cheerful biologist, a young and curious girl, and a fictional version of Harari himself. These figures don’t have much of a journey besides imparting knowledge to the reader, with the biggest arc being Lopez the cop’s tireless pursuit of Doctor Fiction, who she believes is responsible for the imbalances caused by imagined orders.

While there’s some semblance of a narrative, these are only in place to present discussion and revelation into the history of civilization’s development. This does leave some sections feeling a little clunky or rushed, and some bits of dialogue coming across as a little forced. After all, the characters are only placeholders to deliver the messages of the original text. Different aspects of the story are told as a play the characters watch and then discuss, a reoccurring comic strip series of a prehistoric couple, news headlines, and other weird occurrences.

The graphic novel aspect is interesting too. I found myself often too entrenched in the bombshells the words were delivering to take in much of the illustrations, but that doesn’t mean the book doesn’t work as a graphic novel. I particularly enjoyed the casual diversity of the illustrations. It’s so interesting to see a non-fiction book translated into graphic form and I really feel it could make it more accessible to readers who may feel daunted by the subject matter in pure text form.

The use of characters like the young girl, the friendly biologist, and the superhero Doctor Fiction make the heaviness of the topic feel more digestible without taking away anything from the message. A great example of this is shown in the grown-ups pointing out to young Zoe that many peasants across many decades had to suffer brutal lives just for her to be able to eat this nice bowl of pasta in a restaurant. The book isn’t shy about delivering difficult and uncomfortable truths, which is especially essential in our current climate of mistrust and claims of ‘fake news’ against anything we don’t want to agree with.

On the whole I found the arguments presented in this book well-balanced and as rooted in concrete facts as possible. And after tearing up the foundation of society, the epilogue does attempt to leave its reader with a way forward – we need to confront the aspects of society that are causing others to suffer. It would cause too much suffering and chaos to scrap all social rules and order, but that doesn’t mean we need to accept every part of the story we’ve been told. This book shows that humans are capable of great things when we communicate and work together – it’s possible for us to change, but it takes everyone to make that happen.

There was just one section I felt had oversimplified things. It was mentioned that changing the story of a civilization was difficult and many believed it was only possible through violence and bloodshed, as seen in countless revolutions and civil wars. This was countered with the rise of feminism, which was declared a peaceful movement due to the lack of guillotines and armies.

However, while there were many peaceful protests that gave women the vote and other crucial human rights, women did have to die to have this movement noticed. Many women starved themselves, were subjected to torture, and even, in the case of Emily Davison, killed in the name of their cause. The same can be argued for civil rights – both peaceful protest and violent demonstrations have been used to make a case for change. As demonstrated in many of the examples in this book, humans rarely listen to any language aside from violence.

If you want to understand how society became so ‘messed up’, why some people claim power while others have none, and many other truths about human nature, I would whole-heartedly recommend this graphic novel, and any sequels that follow it.

Review copy provided.

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