I have a friend who is on the Paleo diet, which is mildly inconvenient for our relationship. We can’t have wine and cheese nights; instead, it’s dates and hummus (perfectly good foodstuffs but certainly not as good as wine and cheese). According to “Sapiens,” however, the comestibles of our hunter-gatherer ancestors, upon which Paleo is based, actually comprised a much more balanced and enjoyable diet – and, indeed, furnished a more comfortable and fulfilling lifestyle – than those of their agriculturalist successors. That’s despite the fact that we often think of the agricultural revolution as a leap forward, that those who farmed were much more intelligent than those who hunted and gathered, and that we are better off as a result.
In “Sapiens,” Yuval Noah Harari explores how Homo sapiens went from being an organism with as much impact on the planet as a jellyfish to the animal that rules Earth. This includes a recounting – with a heavy dose of myth-busting – of the organism’s evolution, including changes in diet. But Homo sapiens’ takeover was primarily, he argues, due to our capacity to cooperate flexibly and effectively in large numbers. The only reason we can do this is because of our ability to construct shared myths that exist not in the physical world but in our collective imagination – from Catholicism to economics to the Bill of Rights to a company like Peugeot. It is only through these stories invented by Homo sapiens that we are able to both control the world and maintain ordered societies. Without them, all would be chaos.
“Sapiens” is a recounting of both our species’ biological evolution and the evolution of our shared myths across history. They are, of course, closely linked; without our shared myths, Homo sapiens would likely not have been able to make the technological advances that propelled our species’ development from the Stone Age to today. That history is, by its nature, something of a slog, and while I have to admit I haven’t finished it yet, Harari makes it digestible, fascinating and revelatory. I think GPF readers will very much enjoy “Sapiens,” but if you’re pressed for time, this Ted Talk by Harari is an excellent and entertaining distillation of the book.
Emma Pennisi, editor
Like many people of my generation, I grew up hearing stories of my grandfathers’ service during World War II and my grandmothers’ work with the Red Cross and church groups. One of my grandfathers landed on the beaches of Normandy just days after June 6. And so, on the 75th anniversary of D-Day just a few weeks ago, I dug up my family’s copy of “Symphony in B-Flak,” a book written by, for and about Battery B of the 115th AAA Gun Battalion. (The book isn’t available for purchase, but thanks to the son of one battery member, a copy of the text is available online.)
The dedication calls it “a souvenir of our experiences together in Antiaircraft Artillery.” It was never meant to be widely circulated; it was written more like a diary than a textbook – narrated in an oddly detached yet slightly sentimental voice. From the beginning, it’s clear that the authors aren’t professional writers, but they assume and embrace this role and dutifully compose the text to the best of their ability.
The book chronicles the training, deployment and missions of Battery B between April 1943 and July 1945. During this time, the group leaves England, passes through Normandy and Avranche, crosses France, supports the Battle of the Bulge, and finally holds positions in Germany. As time passes and the men become more seasoned in battle, their shift from playful recruits to serious soldiers is noticeable – they no longer even blink when they hear fighter planes or gunfire. In fact, as noted in the title, such noises sound almost like music to the soldiers. The book reflects on their struggle to find some humanity amid the fighting – it combines stories of military orders and combat with stories of the local culture, history and beauty of the countryside. It captures the human spirit at its best and worst – from the warm, grateful receptions of the soldiers in England to stories of locals in liberated towns shaving the heads of and burning swastikas onto women who had supported the Germans.
The book also details the mindset of a soldier and the amazing logistical capabilities of the U.S. military. Mundane chores became logistical challenges. Securing food to eat, finding a place to sleep and finding water for showers and laundry were difficult tasks. Battery B was not on the front lines, though toward the end they were very close. Their ability to protect key infrastructure played a vital role in troop mobility and holding conquered territory. They, in turn, were supported by a host of others bringing in fuel and ammunition. All of the support and logistical groups had a role to play, and their jobs were critical to the outcome of each battle. Sure, there were delays and things didn’t always go as planned, but given the circumstances, it’s incredible how many people were maneuvered and supplied. Meanwhile, the patriotism of the men of Battery B persevered, as did their loyalty to each other. It may not be a professionally written work of literature, but it gives rare insight into the experiences of those who fought and won the war.
Allison Fedirka, analyst