Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind

Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind

by Yuval Noah Harari

100,000 years ago, at least six human species inhabited the earth. Today there is just one. Us. Homo sapiens.

In Sapiens, Dr Yuval Noah Harari spans the whole of human history, from the very first humans to walk the earth to the radical – and sometimes devastating – breakthroughs of the Cognitive, Agricultural and Scientific Revolutions. Drawing on insights from biology, anthropology, paleontology and economics, he explores how the currents of history have shaped our human societies, the animals and plants around us, and even our personalities.

Summary Notes

An Animal of No Significance

“There were humans long before there was history.”

Humans have been around for a long time - about six million years in fact. For the most part, we were an unremarkable species. We ate, slept, played, and formed close bonds much like every other animal, and our impact on Earth was largely insignificant. 

Two million years ago, humans evolved in many different directions to meet the demands of our different environments. For example: 

  • Homo neanderthalensis or Neanderthals evolved in Europe and western Asia and were better adapted to the cold climate.
  • Homo soloensis evolved in Java, Indonesia, and were suited for a tropical climate.
  • Homo floresiensis evolved in Flores, Indonesia, and were suited for an environment poor in resources.

Homo erectus, Homo rudolfensis, Homo denisova, Homo ergaster… There were once many more species of humans, beyond just us, Homo sapiens, coexisting on Earth. In fact, some of us Sapiens even have a small but significant amount of Neanderthal or Denisovan DNA. 

So how did we survive and thrive while all the other species of humans went extinct? The answer lies in The Cognitive Revolution: when we started building complex societies founded on common languages, stories, and beliefs. 

With the Cognitive Revolution came our ability to cooperate with each other on a much larger scale, possible only through a shared belief in common myths. Take churches, temples, or mosques for example - they’re rooted in common religious myths that enable strangers to come together and form a community. Similarly, two Norwegians who have never met might risk their lives to save one another because both believe in the existence of the Norwegian country, the Norwegian homeland, and the Norwegian flag. 

Humans now live in a dual reality. On one hand is the objective reality of things we can see and touch: rivers, trees, animals. On the other is the imagined reality of things we believe in: gods, nations, corporations. 

As time passes, this imagined reality has grown more and more powerful, so much so that the very survival of the rivers, trees, and animals depends on the grace of gods, nations, and corporations.

A Day in the Life of Adam and Eve

“Our eating habits, our conflicts, and our sexuality are all the result of the way our hunter-gatherer minds interact with our current post-industrial environment.”

For most of history, humans existed as hunter-gatherers. For the last 200 years, the urban laborer and office worker lifestyles have been replacing the previous lifestyles of farming and herding, which themselves lasted for 10,000 years. However, for tens of thousands of years before that, humans hunted and gathered. 

Looking at hunter-gatherer behavior may therefore help us understand much of current human behavior. Evolution takes thousands of years; our societies and lifestyles are changing too rapidly and constantly for our genes to catch up. Although we live in cities and use technology every day, our minds may best be adapted for a life of hunting and gathering. 

For example, what drives binge-eating behavior? It’s certainly not a rational habit, the risks and downsides are well known. One theory looks to our history: sweets and other high-calorie food were hard to come by and impossible to store for our hunter-gatherer ancestors. When presented with a huge amount of good food, the best thing to do would be to eat it all, before someone else - whether another human or an animal - came along and took it for themselves.

Essentially, our desire to finish an entire tub of ice cream in one sitting could be an evolutionary trait that helped us survive in the past. 

However, we can’t always find relevant answers in our history; we are limited in how much reliable information we can gather about past beliefs and customs. We can’t really draw conclusions from modern-day hunter-gatherers either. They’ve been influenced by the agricultural and industrial societies all around them, and there is significant variation even between tribes of the same country. 

Ultimately, there is no “natural way of life” for humankind. For thousands of years, we haven’t all followed one way of living; we’ve diversified into various cultures and explored millions of possibilities. Although our genes are adapted a certain way, our minds have evolved in countless different directions.

Actions to take

The Flood

“The Agricultural Revolution is one of the most controversial events in history. Some partisans proclaim that it set humankind on the road to prosperity and progress. Others insist that it led to perdition.”

Humans first colonized Australia 45,000 years ago. Within a few thousand years of our arrival, more than 90% of the megafauna were extinct. The megafauna and local bird species of New Zealand were similarly decimated by the first Maori settlers, the mammoths retreated from Eurasia and North America before eventually going extinct as we colonized their homelands…

These patterns of ecological disaster can be broadly grouped into two waves. The First Wave (described above) accompanied the spread of our hunter-gatherer ancestors after the Cognitive Revolution. 

The Second Wave accompanied the spread of our farmer ancestors after the Agricultural Revolution. Countless native species went extinct across islands in the Pacific Ocean, Atlantic Ocean, Indian Ocean, Arctic Ocean, and the Mediterranean Sea. More recently, African islands such as Madagascar have experienced mass extinctions.

However, the Agricultural Revolution is better known for being the point in history when humankind learned how to domesticate plants and animals. When Sapiens first started cultivating wheat and domesticating goats around 9000 BC, it triggered a chain reaction that allowed our species to multiply exponentially. No longer were we limited by a lack of food - in fact, our fields and farms produced much more than we could consume! We continued domesticating: olives, peas, potatoes, llamas, pigs, bananas, sugar cane, and so on. 

We also began to work much more, toiling in the fields all day to produce a good harvest. 

So, although the Agricultural Revolution indirectly caused the extinction of several species, domestication helped other species thrive in terms of numbers. Evolutionarily speaking, isn’t this great?

Unfortunately, the evolutionary perspective doesn’t fully measure success - it doesn’t account for individual suffering or happiness. Domesticated chickens, cattle, and pigs may be at no risk of endangerment, but they are also among some of the most miserable creatures that ever lived. Evolutionary success is meaningless to the little calf torn away from its mother at birth and forced to live in a cage not much bigger than its own body. On the other hand, the rhinoceros is perfectly content being the last of his kind, free on the open savannah. 

Now, up until this point, the animals of the ocean, large and small, have been relatively unaffected. However, that’s not the case anymore. Industrial pollution and human overuse of oceanic resources have pushed many of them to the brink of extinction. The Third Wave of extinction, caused by the Industrial Revolution, is already in action. If nothing changes, our whales, sharks, and dolphins are likely to be ground into oblivion just like our mammoths, giant lemurs, and elephant birds.

Actions to take

Building Pyramids: The Unification of Humankind

“Unjust discrimination often gets worse, not better, with time.”

What makes things last? There are two factors: whether humans believe in it, and whether they write it down. 

Consider religion, the economy, democracy, and even our laws. If no one believed in them, they would fade into obscurity. If their principles weren’t written down, we wouldn’t be sure of what we believe in exactly. 

These principles create hierarchies in our society, but where we fall into place is determined by luck. You’re much better off being born a rich white man in America than a poor black woman, but you don’t decide which life to be born into. 

Society defines what is natural and unnatural, but the truth is that everything that exists is natural by definition - unnatural things are simply not possible. Although social definitions change, what they are defining remains the same. For example, the definition of “female” as a biological category has remained constant over the centuries. The definition of “womanhood”, on the other hand, is constantly changing - women couldn’t vote but now they can, they were considered legal property of their husbands or fathers, but they are now recognized as individuals.

Change is the one constant in life. Our cultures and beliefs are constantly evolving to correct previous contradictions, and this process fuels change. 

We don’t need to predict the future, it’s in our hands. By instead studying the past and how it happened, we will realize that our present situation isn’t inevitable, it was due to a series of several decisions, actions, uncontrollable factors, and even pure luck.

Actions to take

The Discovery of Ignorance

“Until about AD 1500, humans the world over doubted their ability to obtain new medical, military and economic powers.”

Over the last five hundred years or so, humans have been investing much of our efforts into scientific research. 

The dramatic shift in society’s mindset as a result of the Scientific Revolution cannot be understated. Real progress was possible - poverty, sickness, wars, famines, old age, and even death were not inevitable fates any longer. They were simply the result of our ignorance. 

From our landing on the moon to nuclear power, from the invention of the microscope to medicine and biofuel production… The Scientific Revolution created an almost self-sustaining system where research produced monetized results, turning enough profits to finance more research. 

Take nuclear research for example it helped us create nuclear power stations, which provide cheap electricity for various industries, which then pay taxes to the government, which uses some of these taxes to finance further research. 

Scientific research cannot exist on the scale it does today without the support of external structures, such as companies, governments, or ideologies, to justify its costs. Much of what topics get researched depends on economics, politics, and religion - let’s say there are two scientists for example. Professor X wants to study a disease that causes 10% less milk production in cows. Professor Y wants to study mental distress in mothers separated from their calves. Who gets the (limited) funding? 

In a society committed to animal rights, or in a strict Hindu society, Professor Y would have a better chance. However, in a society that prioritizes production efficiency and profits, Professor X would be chosen. Unless of course, Professor Y rephrases her research along the lines of: “Depression leads to a decreased milk production in cows - understanding these patterns allows us to develop psychiatric medication, which has a global annual market of $250 million.”

Regardless, scientific research is the reason for much of our progress today. It’s driven the colonization of remote and unfriendly terrains, the connection of complex networks of cities, towns and villages with a country, and the invention of a multitude of gadgets and technologies to make our lives easier.

Actions to take

The Capitalist Creed

“For better or worse, in sickness and in health, the modern economy has been growing like a hormone-soused teenager.”

Our economy has exploded over the last few centuries. In 1500, the global production of goods and services was around $250 billion, whereas today, it’s around $60 trillion. 

More importantly, in 1500, the yearly production of goods and services averaged about $550. Today, the average person produces $8,800 a year. 

One of the main reasons for this explosion is that money is now backed by our trust in the future. Consider this simple example: a contractor deposits his earnings from his first big job in the bank: $1 million. An experienced chef gets a loan of $1 million dollars from the bank to open a new restaurant; the banker credits it into their account. The baker hires the contractor to build the restaurant and pays them $1 million via cheque. The contractor deposits the cheque. 

  • The contractor now has $2 million in the bank.
  • The bank only has $1 million in cash.

A couple of months into the job and the contractor needs another $1 million due to unforeseen circumstances. The chef isn’t too happy, but they manage to convince the bank to lend them another $1 million. They pay the contractor via cheque. 

  • The contractor now has $3 million in the bank.
  • The bank still only has $1 million in cash.

As this process repeats, more and more money is accumulated. Backed only by the promise of future cash, it grows through investments. 

For capitalism to work, consumerism must thrive. The more people spend on products, the more profits companies turn, and the more products they can manufacture, in a self-fulfilling loop. 

Yet, there is a distinct imbalance between capitalists and consumerists: one makes the money, and the other spends it.

Actions to take

A Permanent Revolution

“The Industrial Revolution gave the market immense new powers, provided the state with new means of communication and transportation, and placed at the government’s disposal an army of clerks, teachers, policemen, and social workers.”

Individualization only exists because of the industrial revolution. The state and market provide us with work, insurance, pensions, education, loans, mortgages, healthcare, and so on. We are no longer forced to subscribe to the nuclear family mindset, instead, we are encouraged to set out on our own. 

However, our individuality comes at a cost: the risk of exploitation. States and markets dictate the terms of the benefits they provide. Without strong family and community bonds, they can easily intervene in the lives of alienated individuals. 

We can compare the concepts of traditional and modern-day romance as an example. Traditionally, courting was done at home, today it’s done in bars and restaurants. Traditionally, the family was the main matchmaker, and money passed from the hands of one to the other. Today, the market shapes our romantic and sexual preferences, and money passes from the hands of lovers to waitresses.

Apart from the practical benefits, states and markets also fulfill the emotional bonds of families through imaginary communities: the nation tribe (community of the state) and the consumer tribe (community of the market). Essentially, nationalism and consumerism work to make us feel like millions of strangers belong to the same community as ourselves, that we all have a common past, common interests, and a common future.

Actions to take

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