Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind by Yuval Noah Harari

  1. The book surveys the history of humankind from the evolution of archaic human species in the Stone Age up to the twenty-first century. Its main argument is that Homo sapiens dominates the world because it is the only animal that can cooperate flexibly in large numbers. The book further argues that Homo sapiens can cooperate flexibly in large numbers, because it has a unique ability to believe in things existing purely in its own imagination, such as gods, nations, money and human rights. The author claims that all large scale human cooperation systems – including religions, political structures, trade networks and legal institutions – are ultimately based on fiction. Money is based on mutual trust, capitalism is a religion rather than economic theory, empire has been the most successful political system of the last 2000 years, treatment of domesticated animals is one of the worst crimes in history, people today not much happier than those of past eras, humans currently in the process of upgrading themselves into gods
Key Takeaways
  1. Part 1 – The Cognitive Revolution
    1. Our ancestors were insignificant animals with no more impact on the world that fireflies or jellyfish
    2. Our closest animal relatives are gorillas, chimpanzees and apes
    3. In the past, there were many species of homo alive at any one time (homo floriensis)
    4. Giant brains are so rare because they are difficult to protect and consume very many calories. Sapiens spent much more time searching for food and our muscles atrophied
    5. Our unique niche at first might have been scavengers who used stone tools to break open bones to get to the calorie dense marrow
    6. Around 300,000 years ago nearly all homos were using fire, an important evolutionary step as it provided light, warmth and was a weapon against predators but more importantly it allowed us to cook food and get more nutrients out of it
    7. Homo sapiens were surely on the scene around 150,000 years ago in Africa. These ancestors would have looked very similar to us today
    8. Recently it had been proved (tentatively) that Homo sapiens interbred with other homo sapiens. However, it’s possible that we also displaced other homo sapiens simultaneously
    9. Debates remain as to why sapiens are the last humans but many think our success hinges on our unique language
    10. Between 30-70,000 years ago sapiens began migrating all over the world and invented boats, arrows, needles, art, religion, social castes and much more.
      1. A cognitive revolution which may have begun due to a genetic mutation – tree of knowledge mutation which also helped spark language.
      2. Our language is unique in that it is much more flexible and specific.
      3. Humans are very social and language is an integral part, often used to gossip.
      4. The most unique part is our ability to speak about fictions – gods, past, future, etc. these myths help band together large tribes to cooperate in unprecedented ways
    11. Telling effective stories allows us to form companies, states, countries and it relies on millions of people buying into this story
    12. There is no “natural” way for humans to live, only cultural differences which influence what we believe and how we act
    13. As a collective we of course know much more today but our individual ancestors knew more about their world. There’s even evidence our brain has been shrinking since the age of foraging
    14. Foragers faced many dangers but lived better lives that most peasants and industrial workers
    15. Anima – the belief that every animal, every plant can communicate directly with humans. There is no barrier between humans and other beings
      1. We have solid evidence foragers were animists but little do we know about their practices and sociopolitical beliefs
      2. It is difficult to know much about this period (30-70,000) years ago because there is scarce evidence about how they lived
    16. The spread of sapiens to Australia is a major feat of human ingenuity and exploration. We came from some Indonesian island and almost overnight had to adapt to a completely new environment with marsupials over two tons and lizards over 7 feet long
    17. By 10,000 BC humans had invited every corner of the world – showcasing our flexibility and adaptability. Our spread killed off animal species everywhere we went
  2. Part 2 – The Agricultural Revolution
    1. This change in lifestyle began about 9000 BC in SW Turkey, starting with wheat and goats
    2. The agricultural revolution in fact did not come about because people were slowly getting smarter and this lifestyle was often more brutal and dangerous than the foraging lifestyle. Yuval argues that it was in fact the plant species that domesticated us and not the other way around (a la Michael Pollan). The demanding work to take care of wheat often lead to many physical ailments that the human body wasn’t used to or designed for
    3. Luxury trap – Luxuries tend to become necessities and spawn new obligations. What we own come to own us
    4. Another argument is thy foragers knew the trade offs of the agricultural life but decided to do it anyway to pursue other hobbies (amazing pillar carvings)
    5. The development of individual homes lead to a much more selfish group of people
    6. Out of the agricultural revolution came for the first time concern about the future, future planning
    7. By around 1,000 BC, cities had grown so large and organized that they were able to keep an army of tens or hundreds of thousands of soldiers
    8. The Code of Hammurabi and the Declaration of Independence are two of the greatest examples of human coordination and cooperation in history
    9. Argues that humans are not all equal, that this is a man made myth. Evolution makes everyone different. Birds don’t fly because they have a right to, but because they have wings
    10. Can only sustain myths and order like Christianity, politics or countries by never admitting they are myths, by saying they come from some higher being, over educate people
    11. The order organizing people’s lives are purely in their minds but can be woven into our material world, the imagined order shapes our desires, the objective order is inter subjective
    12. Conscious effort is needed to sustain our myths as they cannot be encoded into our genomes
    13. Writing first began with cuneiform in order to keep track of debts and trade. These clay tablets needed to be organized and needed people who knew how to read and write which lead to some of the first schools. Writing has gradually changed how people think and view the world
  3. Part 3 – The Unification of Humankind
    1. Hierarchies are always rationalized through myths, human imagination as hierarchies are universal, it is believed they are necessary to organize complex societies. The lower castes were always portrayed as somehow being inherently “pollutive”
    2. Can cut through a lot by seeing what biology enables but what culture forbids (equality of men and women, homosexuality)
    3. Physical power does not lead to being higher on the totem poll but, rather, through better social skills which helps build support and allies
    4. Culture can be thought of as artificial instincts, helping people and tribes to work together and survive
    5. Contradicting beliefs or cognitive dissonance is necessary for culture
    6. If looking at a long term view of history, it becomes very clear that we are moving towards unity
    7. Money more than anything else helps unify and connect people around the world. Barter systems are limited and money helps make trade more efficient and relies on universal convertibility and mutual trust among everyone
    8. Ancient Roman coins were called Dinarius and it lasts today to certain currencies in the Middle East called Dinars
    9. Empires must rule over many different groups of people and have flexible borders. While there is a lot of violence required to forge empires, their success has lead to unprecedented cultural accomplishments. People, ideas and goods can move much more easily within an empire. Eventually minority cultures (barbarians) are incorporated into the majority
    10. The three great unifiers of mankind are money, empire and religion
    11. Religions hold that there is a universal and timeless superhuman order and based on this order creates norms and values which are binding. It must also try to convert all people to this set of beliefs (missionary)
    12. Agricultural revolution turned plants and animals into spiritual equivalents into our possessions
    13. Polytheism raised humans as we thought our actions had some consequence on the world around us. Polytheism tends to be more open than monotheism
    14. Saints have simply replaced the myriad of gods in polytheistic religions
    15. Other religions such as Buddhism, Jainism and Stoicism espoused a religion of natural laws instead of super humans
    16. Suffering arises from craving. Eliminate craving and you cannot suffer
    17. Can think of communism, nazism and other “ideologies” as religions as well
    18. Evolution like history does not move forward or take into account human happiness
  4. Part 4 – The Scientific Revolution
    1. The scientific revolution was more about admitting and dealing with our ignorance than anything else. For the first time it was ok and encouraged to seek answers to questions we didn’t know
      1. Not until this age did technology and knowledge come to mean almost the same thing
    2. Up until recently wars were won mostly due to politics and strategy, not technological dominance
    3. Europeans came out of relative obscurity to dominate the world with the their technology and scientific method
    4. Belief in the future is absolutely vital for the continued stability and success of our culture and economy. Credit existed in the past as well but most did not believe the future would be better than the present and this stifled economies
    5. Adam Smith’s argument that greed is good not only for me but everyone was revolutionary. Growth spurs more growth through reinvestment
    6. The incredible amounts of money being printed are relying on the future being much better than today. If it isn’t, we are all in big trouble
    7. The Dutch were able to become the richest state in Europe in less than a century because of their intelligent use of credit. Paying debts in a timely manner and a reliable rule of law also helped separate the Dutch from Spain and other superpowers
    8. French Mississippi company promised paradise near Louisiana and its stock soared. It became a bubble and soon after burst, leaving the government and many small investors broke. The world lost faith in the French government and Britain started its path to dominance in the 18th century
    9. Steam engine revolutionized the world as work could now be done mechanically instead of with only muscle power
    10. Industrial revolution allowed less people to work in agriculture and specialize in other areas. This lead to consumerism and the adoption of a worldwide timetable. Communities and families started falling apart and being replaced by states and markets
    11. The improbability of war in today’s world is a new phenomenon and will continue to decrease as wealth comes more from technological savvy than material goods and as the world becomes even more interdependent
    12. We have seen unprecedented growth in the last century but are humans happier overall. We look at a lot of trends and ask a lot of questions but this all important question is often overlooked
    13. More than anything happiness depends on expectations
    14. The emergence of intelligent design technological breakthroughs maybe one of the biggest revolutions in evolutionary history speaks about the future and what it might hold with new technological inventions such as cyborgs and collective consciousness
    15. We have come very far in the last couple millennia but what have we really done. Are people happier today than they used to be?
    16. As we get further and further in the technological revolution we may soon get to the point where we are designing beings and cyborgs with artificial intelligence who are much smarter than humans. At this point we need to start thinking about what kind of people we want to fail and what we want to want those people to want
What I got out of it
  1. Extremely interesting read. The importance of being able to flexibly cooperate in huge numbers never really occurred to me and the idea that we can come to believe truly imaginary and abstract concepts and that these concepts rule our lives in so many ways is fascinating

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