The past 200 000 years are a mere geological blink, but during this time Homo sapiens has reshaped the world. How did we rise to global domination? What does our conquest of the world mean for the species around us? What’s next? The causes and consequences of human success are the topics of two of the best popular science books of last year: Yuval Noah Harari’s Sapiens: A brief history of humankind and Elizabeth Kolbert’s The Sixth Extinction: An unnatural history.
By Thibaut Brunet
Sapiens: A brief history of humankind, Yuval Noah Harari Sapiens addresses nothing less than the entire history of humankind. To many of us, the topic of history evokes memories of tedious school time litanies of faceless kings and queens fighting for abstract bits of territory on the maps of interchangeable countries that don’t exist anymore – the world’s longest, dullest, most repetitive sitcom. But history can be taught well, and Sapiens provides ample proof of it. Harari provides a fresh – and often irreverential – perspective on the main historical transitions, backed up by the latest science. The invention of writing? A mere accounting tool. The agricultural revolution? The “biggest fraud in history”, making people less healthy and shorter-lived than hunter-gatherers. The key behaviour that allowed coordination of the first large human groups? The much-maligned habit of gossiping. Harari relishes in such informed reversals of conventional wisdom, and the book is full of similar gems. Weaved into a well-reasoned narrative, they build up a powerful and thought-provoking overview of human history that will convince, challenge, and sometimes puzzle – but never bore.
The Sixth Extinction: An unnatural history, Elizabeth Kolbert The Sixth Extinction (Pulitzer Prize, 2015) also centres on the human conquest of the world, but from the perspective of the nine million other species that happen to share a planet with us. Unsurprisingly, humans are difficult to live with, and the book focuses on the mass extinction event that, according to scientific consensus, our activity is currently triggering. The Sixth Extinction is three books in one, each individually successful. The first is a treatise on the history of science, detailing how scientists slowly discovered the reality of past biological extinctions. The second is a field report, detailing Kolbert’s eyewitness account of the sixth extinction and of the scientists studying it – from Amazonian rainforests to Australian corals. The third provides a popularisation of ecology and of what makes species vulnerable. Kolbert concludes putting forward an argument that what makes the sixth extinction so hard to prevent is that it is not the product of a single cause, but an unavoidable consequence of multiple, independently lethal ways our expansion and transformation of the world are affecting the environment. The conclusion is grim, but the demonstration is thoughtful and rigorous, and a must-read for anyone who wants to understand the current biotic crisis.
Kolbert and Harari are both wonderfully gifted writers, who manage to convey an impressive quantity of information without ever stopping to be entertaining and graceful. No ape, dolphin or robot can (yet) write such books, and their excellence stands testament to the multifarious prowess of Homo sapiens. Read them both, whether you are human or not, to better understand our unreasonable species.