Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind – by Yuval Noah Harari
Date read: 3/21/17. Recommendation: 10/10.
This takes the cake as my favorite nonfiction book...ever. It's one of the most important books you'll read and tackles some of the biggest questions we face. Harari tracks human evolution and the implications of the cognitive revolution through the agricultural, industrial, and scientific revolutions. There's a reason it's so popular and highly regarded. Just read it.
See my notes below or Amazon for details and reviews.
Part One: The Cognitive Revolution
The most important thing to know about prehistoric humans is that they were insignificant animals with no more impact on their environment than gorillas, fireflies or jellyfish.
It's a common fallacy to envision these (human) species as arranged in a straight line of descent...The truth is that from about 2 million years ago until around 10,000 years ago, the world was home, at one and the same, to several human species...It's our current exclusivity, not that multi-species past, that is peculiar – and perhaps incriminating.
This is a key to understanding our history and psychology. Genus Homo's position in the food chain was, until quite recently, solidly in the middle...and only in the last 100,000 years – with the rise of Homo sapiens – that man jumped to the top of the food chain.
That spectacular leap from the middle to the top had enormous consequences. Other animals at the top of the pyramid, such as lions and sharks, evolved into that position very gradually, over millions of years. This enabled the ecosystem to develop checks and balances...
By 150,000 years ago, East Africa was populated by Sapiens that looked just like us.
Over the past 100,000 years, Homo Sapiens has grown so accustomed to being the only human species that it's hard for us to conceive of any other possibility. Our lack of brothers and sisters makes it easier to imagine that we are the epitome of creation...
Yet the truly unique feature of our language is not its ability to transmit information about men and lions. Rather, it's the ability to transmit information about things that do not exist at all...This ability to speak about fictions is the most unique feature of Sapiens language.
Sociological research has shown that the maximum 'natural' size of a group bonded by gossip is about 150 individuals...Even today, a critical threshold in human organizations falls somewhere around this magic number. BUT larger numbers of strangers can cooperate successfully by believing in common myths.
Any large-scale human cooperation is rooted in common myths that exist only in people's collective imaginations (religious myths, national myths, legal myths).
There are no gods in the universe, no nations, no money, no human rights, no laws, and no justice outside the common imagination of human beings.
For nearly the entire history of our species, Sapiens lives as foragers. The past 200 years, during which ever increasing numbers of Sapiens have obtained their daily bread as urban laborers and office workers, and the preceding 10,000 years, during which most Sapiens lived as farmers and herders, are the blink of an eye compared to the tens of thousands of years during which our ancestors hunted and gathered.
Before the Agricultural Revolution, the human population of the entire planet was smaller than that of today's Cairo.
Foragers mastered not only the surrounding world of animals, plants and objects, but also the internal world of their own bodies and senses...varied and constant use of their bodies made them fit as marathon runners.
The foragers' secret of success, which protected them from starvation and malnutrition, was their varied diet. Farmers tend to eat a very limited and unbalanced diet.
Ancient foragers also suffered less from infectious diseases. Most of the infectious diseases that have plagued agricultural and industrial societies (such as smallpox, measles and tuberculosis) originated in domesticated animals and were transferred to humans only after the Agricultural Revolution...Moreover, most people in agricultural and industrial societies lived in dense, unhygenic permanent settlements - ideal hotbeds for disease.
Part Two: The Agricultural Revolution
For 2.5 million years humans fed themselves by gathering plants and hunting animals that lived and bred without their intervention. All this changed about 10,000 years ago, when Sapiens began to devote all their time and effort to manipulating the lives of a few animal and plant species.
No noteworthy plant or animal has been domesticated in the last 2,000 years. If our minds are those of hunter-gatherers, our cuisine is that of ancient farmers.
There is no evidence that people became more intelligent with time. Foragers knew the secrets of nature long before the Agricultural revolution, since their survival depended on an intimate knowledge of the animals they hunted and the plants they gathered. Rather than heralding a new era of easy living, the Agricultural Revolution left farmers with lives generally more difficult and less satisfying than those of foragers. Hunter-gatherers spent their time in more stimulating and varied ways, and were less in danger of starvation and disease.
The average farmer worked harder than the average forager, and got a worse diet in return. The Agricultural Revolution was history's biggest fraud.
The body of Homo sapiens had not evolved for such tasks (cultivating crops). It was adapted to climbing apple trees and running after gazelles, not to clearing rocks and carry water buckets. Human spines, knees, necks and arches paid the price.
The currency of evolution is neither hunger nor pain, but rather copies of DNA helixes...This is the essence of the Agricultural Revolution: the ability to keep more people alive under worse conditions.
The average person in Jericho of 8500 BC lived a harder life than the average person in Jericho of 9500 BC or 13,00 BC. But nobody realized what was happening.
The pursuit of an easier life resulted in much hardship, and not for the last time. It happens to us today. How many young college graduates have taken demanding jobs in high-powered firms, vowing that they will work hard to earn money that will enable them to retire and pursue their real interests when they are thirty-five? But by the time they reach that age, they have large mortgages, children to school, houses in the suburbs that necessitate at least two cars per family, and a sense that life is not worth living without really good wine and expensive holidays abroad.
One of history's few iron laws is that luxuries tend to become necessities and to spawn new obligations.
Evolution is based on difference, not on equality. Every person carries a somewhat different genetic code, and is exposed from birth to different environmental influences. This leads to the development of different qualities that carry with them different chances of survival. 'Created equal' should therefore be translated into 'evolved differently'.
We believe in a particular order not because it is objectively true, but because believing in it enables us to cooperate effectively and forge a better society. Imagined orders are not evil conspiracies or useless mirages. Rather, they are the only way large numbers of humans can cooperate effectively.
How do you cause people to believe in an imagined order such as Christianity, democracy or capitalism? First, you never admit that the order is imagined.
Culture tends to argue that it forbids only that which is unnatural. But from a biological perspective, nothing is unnatural. Whatever is possible is by definition also natural. A truly unnatural behavior, one that goes against the laws of nature, simply cannot exist.
Part Three - The Unification of Humankind
Money is the most universal and most efficient system of mutual trust ever devised.
Christians and Muslims who could not agree on religious beliefs could nevertheless agree on a monetary belief, because whereas religion asks us to believe in something, money asks us to believe that other people believe in something.
Money has an even darker side. For although money builds universal trust between strangers, this trust is invested not in humans, communities or sacred values, but in money itself and the impersonal systems that back it.
Empires were one of the main reasons for the drastic reduction in human diversity. The imperial steamroller gradually obliterated the unique characteristics of numerous peoples.
This does not mean, however, that empires leave nothing of value in their wake...Imperial elites used the profits of conquest to finances not only armies and forts but also philosophy, art, justice and charity.
Present-day Egyptians speak Arabic, think of themselves as Arabs, and identify wholeheartedly with the Arab Empire that conquered Egypt in the seventh century and crushed with an iron fist the repeated revolts that broke out against its rule.
Evolution has made Homo sapiens, like other social mammals, a xenophobic creature. Sapiens instinctively divide humanity into two parts, 'we' and 'they'.
In Chinese political thinking as well as Chinese historical memory, imperial periods were henceforth seen as golden ages of order and justice. In contradiction to the modern Western view that a just world is composed of separate nation states, in China periods of political fragmentation were seen as the dark ages of chaos and injustice.
As the twenty-first century unfolds, nationalism is fast losing ground. More and more people believe that all humankind is the legitimate source of political authority...The global empire being forged before our eyes is not governed by any particular state or ethnic group.
Religion morphed from animism, to polytheism, to monotheism.
In these three centuries, the polytheistic Romans killed no more than few thousand Christians. In contrast, over the course of the next 1,500 years, Christians slaughtered Christians by the millions to defend slightly different interpretations of the religion of love and compassion.
Monotheists have tended to be far more fanatical and missionary than polytheists.
Regarding evil forces: How can a monotheist adhere to such a dualistic belief (which by the way is nowhere to be found in the Old Testament)? Logically it is impossible. Either you believe in a single omnipotent God or you believe in two opposing powers, neither of which is omnipotent. Still, humans have a wonderful capacity to believe in contradictions.
Part Four - The Scientific Revolution
Modern science differs from all previous traditions of knowledge in three critical ways: The willingness to admit ignorance, the centrality of observation and mathematics, and the acquisition of new powers.
Premodern traditions of knowledge such as Islam, Christianity, Buddhism and Confucianism asserted that everything that is important to know about the world was already known.
What potential did Europe develop in the early modern period that enabled it to dominate the late modern world? Modern science and capitalism.
That's why capitalism is called 'capitalism'. Capitalism distinguishes 'capital' from mere 'wealth'. Capital consists of money, goods and resources that are invested in production. Wealth on the other hand, is buried in the ground or wasted on unproductive activities.
When growth becomes a supreme good, unrestricted by any other ethical considerations, it can easily lead to catastrophe. Some religions, such as Christianity or Nazism, have killed millions out of burning hatred. Capitalism has killed millions out of cold indifference coupled with greed.
Just as the Atlantic slave trade did not stem from hatred towards Africans, so the modern animal industry is not motivated by animosity. Again, it is fueled by indifference. Most people who produce and consume eggs, milk and meat rarely stop to think about the fate of chickens, cows or pigs whose flesh and emissions they are eating.
Consumerism sees the consumption of ever more products and services as a positive thing. It encourages people to treat themselves, spoil themselves, and even kill themselves slowly by overconsumption. Frugality is a disease to be cured.
Obesity is a double victory of consumerism. Instead of eating little, which will lead to economic contraction, people eat too much and then buy diet products - contributing to economic growth twice over.
As in previous eras, there is today a division of labour between the elite and the masses. In medieval Europe, aristocrats spent their money carelessly on extravagant luxuries, whereas peasants lived frugally, minding every penny. Today, the tables have turned. The rich take great care in managing their assets and investments, while the less well-heeled go into debt buying cars and televisions they don't really need.
In 1880, the British government took the unprecedented step of legislating that all timetables in Britain must follow Greenwich (for train timetable purposes). For the first time in history, a country adopted a national time and obliged its population to live according to an artificial clock rather than local ones or sunrise-to-sunset cycles.
The Syrian, Lebanese, Jordanian and Iraqi nations are the product of haphazard borders drawn in the sand by French and British diplomats who ignored local history, geography and economy.
Manchester United fans, vegetarians and environmentalists...defined above all by what they consume. It is the keystone of their identity.
Perhaps we are out of touch with our inner hunter-gatherer, but it's not all bad. For instance, over the last two centuries modern medicine has decreased child mortality from 33 percent to less than 5 percent. Can anyone doubt that this made a huge contribution to the happiness of not only those children who would otherwise have died, but also of their families and friends?
If happiness is determined by expectations, then two pillars of our society – mass media and the advertising industry – may unwittingly be depleting the globe's reservoirs of contentment.
Happiness and misery play a role in evolution only to the extent that they encourage or discourage survival and reproduction.
Happiness is not the surplus of pleasant over unpleasant moments. Rather, happiness consists in seeing one's life in its entirety as meaningful and worthwhile...As Nietzsche put it, if you have a why to live, you can bear almost any how. A meaningful life can be extremely satisfying even in the midst of hardship, whereas a meaningless life is a terrible ordeal no matter how comfortable it is.