Book Reviews For January & February 2018

Book Reviews For January & February 2018

Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind by Yuval Noah Harari (this is top 3 or even possibly in my top 2 favourite books of all time)

He divides the history of Sapiens into four major parts:

  1. The Cognitive Revolution (c. 70,000 BCE, when Sapiens evolved imagination).
  2. The Agricultural Revolution (c. 12,000 BCE, the development of farming).
  3. The unification of humankind (the gradual consolidation of human political organisations towards one global empire).
  4. The Scientific Revolution (c. 1500 CE, the emergence of objective science).

Harari’s main argument is that Sapiens came to dominate the world because it is the only animal that can cooperate flexibly in large numbers. He argues that prehistoric Sapiens were a key cause of the extinction of other human species such as the Neanderthals, along with numerous other megafauna. He further argues that the ability of Sapiens to cooperate in large numbers arises from its unique capacity to believe in things existing purely in the imagination, such as gods, nations, money and human rights. Harari claims that all large-scale human cooperation systems – including religions, political structures, trade networks and legal institutions – owe their emergence to Sapiens’ distinctive cognitive capacity for fiction. Accordingly, Harari reads money as a system of mutual trust and sees political and economic systems as more or less identical with religions.

In discussing the unification of humankind, Harari argues that over its history, the trend for Sapiens has increasingly been towards political and economic interdependence. For centuries, the majority of humans have lived in empires, and capitalist globalization is effectively producing one, global empire. Harari argues that money, empires and universal religions are the principal drivers of this process. He concludes by considering how modern technology may soon end the species as we know it, as it ushers in genetic engineering, immortality and non-organic life. Humans have, in Harari’s chosen metaphor, become gods: they can create species.

Rating: 5/5

Guns, Germs, and Steal: The Fates of Human Societies (also titled Guns, Germs and Steel: A short history of everybody for the last 13,000 years

 by Jarod Diamond  

The prologue opens with an account of Diamond’s conversation with Yali, a New Guinean politician. The conversation turned to the obvious differences in power and technology between Yali’s people and the Europeans who dominated the land for 200 years, differences that neither of them considered due to any genetic superiority of Europeans. Yali asked, using the local term “cargo” for inventions and manufactured goods, “Why is it that you white people developed so much cargo and brought it to New Guinea, but we black people had little cargo of our own?” (p. 14)

Diamond realized the same question seemed to apply elsewhere: “People of Eurasian origin … dominate … the world in wealth and power.” Other peoples, after having thrown off colonial domination, still lag in wealth and power. Still others, he says, “have been decimated, subjugated, and in some cases even exterminated by European colonialists.” (p. 15)

The peoples of other continents (sub-Saharan Africans, Native Americans, Aboriginal Australians and New Guineans, and the original inhabitants of tropical Southeast Asia) have been largely conquered, displaced and in some extreme cases – referring to Native Americans, Aboriginal Australians, and South Africa’s indigenous Khoisan peoples – largely exterminated by farm-based societies such as Eurasians and Bantu. He believes this is due to these societies’ technologic and immunologic advantages, stemming from the early rise of agriculture after the last Ice Age.

In short: basically, everyone who has ever lived in the last 13,000 (since the last ice age) have succumbed to disease, killed by guns, or died looking for metal.

Rating: 4.5/5

The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference 

by Malcolm Gladwell

Using the three basic laws of epidemics, Gladwell outlines a simple three-point plan to get your product to its own tipping point.

  1.  The Law of the Few

An epidemic begins when a few highly infectious individuals become viral vectors for a product or idea by adopting it themselves and spreading the word. 

  1.  The Stickiness Factor

Epidemic spreads when the contagious agent, the product, is naturally infectious, or ‘sticky’ to use the broadcasting term.  A show is ‘sticky’ when we don’t want to switch channels, and Gladwell gives examples from television and books to show how small tweaks to increase relevance, talk-ability and memorability can have a massive effect on success. 

  1. The Power of Context

Finally, the spread of an epidemic will depend on whether the context is right.  Ideas and products that fit the context into which they are launched spread fast and wide, whilst others that don’t fit their context, don’t spread.

Rating: 4/5

Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking by Malcolm Gladwell

Gladwell ever so eloquently points out that the average person makes a decision within 2 seconds of being presented with something. He teaches people to step back and think more critically before making decisions. The author describes the main subject of his book as “thin-slicing”: our ability to use limited information from a very narrow period of experience to come to a conclusion. This idea suggests that spontaneous decisions are often as good as—or even better than—carefully planned and considered ones. The book argues that intuitive judgment is developed by experience, training, and knowledge. 

Rating: 4.5/5

Outliers: The Story of Success

 by Malcolm Gladwell

Gladwell examines why the majority of Canadian ice hockey players are born in the first few months of the calendar year, how Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates achieved his extreme wealth, how The Beatles became one of the most successful musical acts in human history, how Joseph Flom built Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flominto one of the most successful law firms in the world, how cultural differences play a large part in perceived intelligence and rational decision making, and how two people with exceptional intelligence, Christopher Langan and J. Robert Oppenheimer, end up with such vastly different fortunes. Throughout the publication, Gladwell repeatedly mentions the “10,000-Hour Rule”, claiming that the key to achieving world-class expertise in any skill, is, to a large extent, a matter of practicing the correct way, for a total of around 10,000 hours, though the authors of the original study this was based on have disputed Gladwell’s usage.

Rating: 4/5

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