Ben Smithgall

Welcome to the web blog

Interactive News Developer at the New York Times. Previously with Spotify, U.S. Digital Service, and Code for America.





Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind

By Yuval Noah Harari

Finished reading on September 26, 2018

Sweeping generalizations and factual inaccuracies pepper this book that manages to somehow be both far too long and not really detailed. The book trots out a number of strange examples that feel out of place, and the numerous diagrams are comically simplistic.

The book’s opening has a lot of promise and asks and answers interesting evolutionary questions: what made Homo Sapiens successful and break apart after many years of stagnation in the pre-Cambrian? Harari’s answer is the “Cognitive Revolution” or the ability to create collectively shared myths, such as corporations and religions.

Following this, though, the book falls short. It loses track of any argument that it was trying to make, and engages in broad reductionism that glosses over interesting details in favor of bland and trite ideas.

The scope of the book is so broad that when you read something that you inevitably don’t know much about, the insights initially seem interesting, but all of that is undermined when you get to a section that covers something you may have studied a bit more and realize that the analysis being done, if there is any, boils down essentially to “we live in a society.”