Sapiens by Yuval Noah Harari

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Summary

Three important revolutions shaped the course of history:

  1. The Cognitive Revolution (70,000 years ago)
  2. The Agricultural Revolution (12,000 years ago)
  3. The Scientific Revolution (500 years ago)

Humankind ascended to the top [of the food chain] so quickly that the ecosystem was not given time to adjust. Being full of fears and anxieties over our position made us doubly cruel and dangerous.

Don’t believe tree-huggers who claim that our ancestors lived in harmony with nature. Long before the Industrial Revolution, Homo sapiens held the record among all organisms for driving the most plant and animal species to their extinctions.

Homo sapiens conquered the world thanks above all to its unique language. What is so special about our language? 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. Fiction has enabled us not merely to imagine things, but to do so collectively.

Sapiens can cooperate in extremely flexible ways with countless numbers of strangers. Large numbers of strangers can cooperate successfully by believing in common myths.

For nearly the entire history of our species, Sapiens lived as foragers. All this changed about 10,000 years ago, when Sapiens began to devote almost all their time and effort to manipulating the lives of a few animal and plant species.

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 Agricultural Revolution certainly enlarged the sum total of food at the disposal of humankind, but the extra food did not translate into a better diet or more leisure.

Cultivating wheat provided much more food per unit of territory, and thereby enabled Homo sapiens to multiply exponentially. The currency of evolution is ultimately neither hunger nor pain, but rather copies of DNA helices.

Also, settling down caused most peoples turf to shrink dramatically. The typical peasant developed a very strong attachment to his house. This was a far-reaching revolution, whose impact was psychological as much as architectural. Henceforth, attachment to ‘my house’ and separation from the neighbours became the psychological hallmark of a much more self-centred creature.

Why didn’t humans abandon farming when the plan backfired? Partly because it took generations for the small changes to accumulate and transform society and, by then, nobody remembered that they had ever lived differently.

[Later on] What potential did Europe develop in the early modern period that enabled it to dominate the late modern world? There are two complementary answers to this question: modern science and capitalism.

Modern Science is based on the willingness to admit ignorance. Capitalism believes that if we invest resources in research, things can improve. The entire global pie can grow. We may not like capitalism, but we cannot live without it.

However, despite the economic growth, today we are not happier or better off than in the past.

Book Notes

⇾ Three important revolutions shaped the course of history:

1) The Cognitive Revolution kick-started history about 70,000 years ago.

2) The Agricultural Revolution sped it up about 12,000 years ago.

3) The Scientific Revolution, which got underway only 500 years ago, may well end history and start something completely different.

⇾ Humankind ascended to the top so quickly that the ecosystem was not given time to adjust. Genus Homo’s position in the food chain was, until quite recently, solidly in the middle. With the rise of Homo sapiens – that man jumped to the top of the food chain. Having so recently been one of the underdogs of the savannah, we are full of fears and anxieties over our position, which makes us doubly cruel and dangerous.

⇾ The wandering bands of storytelling Sapiens were the most important and most destructive force the animal kingdom had ever produced. Planet Earth was separated into several distinct ecosystems, each made up of a unique assembly of animals and plants. Homo sapiens was about to put an end to this biological exuberance.

⇾ Don’t believe tree-huggers who claim that our ancestors lived in harmony with nature. Long before the Industrial Revolution, Homo sapiens held the record among all organisms for driving the most plant and animal species to their extinctions.

⇾ Homo sapiens conquered the world thanks above all to its unique language. The appearance of new ways of thinking and communicating, between 70,000 and 30,000 years ago, constitutes the Cognitive Revolution. What caused it? We’re not sure. The most commonly believed theory argues that accidental genetic mutations changed the inner wiring of the brains of Sapiens, enabling them to think in unprecedented ways and to communicate using an altogether new type of language.

⇾ What, then, is so special about our language? The most common answer is that our language is amazingly supple. We can connect a limited number of sounds and signs to produce an infinite number of sentences, each with a distinct meaning. We can thereby ingest, store and communicate a prodigious amount of information about the surrounding world.

⇾ What was so special about the new Sapiens language that it enabled us to conquer the world? It was not the first language. Every animal has some kind of language.

⇾ 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. You could never convince a monkey to give you a banana by promising him limitless bananas after death in monkey heaven. But fiction has enabled us not merely to imagine things, but to do so collectively. Sapiens can cooperate in extremely flexible ways with countless numbers of strangers. Large numbers of strangers can cooperate successfully by believing in common myths.

⇾ Our language evolved as a way of gossiping. According to this theory Homo sapiens is primarily a social animal. Social cooperation is our key for survival and reproduction. It is not enough for individual men and women to know the whereabouts of lions and bison. It’s much more important for them to know who in their band hates whom, who is sleeping with whom, who is honest, and who is a cheat. Reliable information about who could be trusted meant that small bands could expand into larger bands, and Sapiens could develop tighter and more sophisticated types of cooperation.

⇾ Telling effective stories is not easy. The difficulty lies not in telling the story, but in convincing everyone else to believe it. Much of history revolves around this question: how does one convince millions of people to believe particular stories about gods, or nations, or limited liability companies? Yet when it succeeds, it gives Sapiens immense power, because it enables millions of strangers to cooperate and work towards common goals.

⇾ An imagined reality is not a lie. Unlike lying, an imagined reality is something that everyone believes in, and as long as this communal belief persists, the imagined reality exerts force in the world.

⇾ Ever since the Cognitive Revolution, Sapiens has thus been living in a dual reality. On the one hand, the objective reality of rivers, trees and lions; and on the other hand, the imagined reality of gods, nations and corporations. Since large-scale human cooperation is based on myths, the way people cooperate can be altered by changing the myths – by telling different stories. This opened a fast lane of cultural evolution, bypassing the traffic jams of genetic evolution.

⇾ The immense diversity of imagined realities that Sapiens invented, and the resulting diversity of behaviour patterns, are the main components of what we call ‘cultures’. Once cultures appeared, they never ceased to change and develop, and these unstoppable alterations are what we call ‘history’. The Cognitive Revolution is accordingly the point when history declared its independence from biology.

⇾ For nearly the entire history of our species, Sapiens lived as foragers. The past 200 years, during which ever increasing numbers of Sapiens have obtained their daily bread as urban labourers 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.

Foragers lived in communes devoid of private property, monogamous relationships and even fatherhood. Members of a band knew each other very intimately, and were surrounded throughout their lives by friends and relatives. Loneliness and privacy were rare.

In most places and at most times, foraging provided ideal nutrition. Variety ensured that the ancient foragers received all the necessary nutrients.

⇾ All this changed about 10,000 years ago, when Sapiens began to devote almost all their time and effort to manipulating the lives of a few animal and plant species. From sunrise to sunset humans sowed seeds, watered plants, plucked weeds from the ground and led sheep to prime pastures.

⇾ Scholars once proclaimed that the agricultural revolution was a great leap forward for humanity. They told a tale of progress fuelled by human brain power. Evolution gradually produced ever more intelligent people. That tale is a fantasy. There is no evidence that people became more intelligent.

⇾ 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 Agricultural Revolution certainly enlarged the sum total of food at the disposal of humankind, but the extra food did not translate into a better diet or more leisure. Rather, it translated into population explosions and pampered elites. The average farmer worked harder than the average forager, and got a worse diet in return.

⇾ Who was responsible? Neither kings, nor priests, nor merchants. The culprits were a handful of plant species, including wheat, rice and potatoes. These plants domesticated Homo sapiens, rather than vice versa.

⇾ How did wheat convince Homo sapiens to exchange a rather good life for a more miserable existence? What did it offer in return? It did not offer a better diet. Wheat did not give people economic security. Nor could wheat offer security against human violence. It offered nothing for people as individuals. Yet it did bestow something on Homo sapiens as a species. Cultivating wheat provided much more food per unit of territory, and thereby enabled Homo sapiens to multiply exponentially.

The currency of evolution is neither hunger nor pain, but rather copies of DNA helices. Just as the economic success of a company is measured only by the number of dollars in its bank account, not by the happiness of its employees, so the evolutionary success of a species is measured by the number of copies of its DNA.

This is the essence of the Agricultural Revolution: the ability to keep more people alive under worse conditions.

⇾ Why didn’t humans abandon farming when the plan backfired? Partly because it took generations for the small changes to accumulate and transform society and, by then, nobody remembered that they had ever lived differently.

⇾ 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. What are they supposed to do, go back to digging up roots? No, they double their efforts and keep slaving away.

One of history’s few iron laws is that luxuries tend to become necessities and to spawn new obligations.

The evolutionary perspective is an incomplete measure of success. It judges everything by the criteria of survival and reproduction, with no regard for individual suffering and happiness.

Domesticated chickens and cattle may well be an evolutionary success story, but they are also among the most miserable creatures that ever lived.

⇾ With the move to permanent villages and the increase in food supply, the population began to grow. Giving up the nomadic lifestyle enabled women to have a child every year.

⇾ In most agricultural societies at least one out of every three children died before reaching twenty. Yet the increase in births still outpaced the increase in deaths; humans kept having larger numbers of children.

⇾ Settling down caused most peoples turf to shrink dramatically. The typical peasant developed a very strong attachment to his house. This was a far-reaching revolution, whose impact was psychological as much as architectural. Henceforth, attachment to ‘my house’ and separation from the neighbours became the psychological hallmark of a much more self-centred creature.

⇾ European imperialists set out to distant shores in the hope of obtaining new knowledge along with new territories. For the modern European conqueror, like the modern European scientist, plunging into the unknown was exhilarating.

⇾ What potential did Europe develop in the early modern period that enabled it to dominate the late modern world? There are two complementary answers to this question: modern science and capitalism.

⇾ Modern Science is based on the willingness to admit ignorance. It accepts that the things that we think we know could be proven wrong as we gain more knowledge. No concept, idea or theory is sacred and beyond challenge.

⇾ Money is anything that people are willing to use in order to systematically represent the value of other things for the purpose of exchanging goods and services.

⇾ Money is thus a universal medium of exchange that enables people to convert almost everything into almost anything else.

⇾ For thousands of years, philosophers, thinkers and prophets have besmirched money and called it the root of all evil. Be that as it may, money is also the apogee of human tolerance. Money is more open-minded than language, state laws, cultural codes, religious beliefs and social habits. Money is the only trust system created by humans that can bridge almost any cultural gap, and that does not discriminate on the basis of religion, gender, race, age or sexual orientation.

⇾ Behind the meteoric rise of both science and empire lurks one particularly important force: capitalism. Were it not for businessmen seeking to make money, Columbus would not have reached America, James Cook would not have reached Australia, and Neil Armstrong would never have taken that small step on the surface of the moon.

⇾ We may not like capitalism, but we cannot live without it.

⇾ Money has been essential both for building empires and for promoting science.

⇾ To understand modern economic history, you really need to understand just a single word. The word is growth. The Scientific Revolution brought the idea of progress. The idea of progress is built on the notion that if we admit our ignorance and invest resources in research, things can improve.

The entire global pie can grow. But when growth becomes a supreme good, unrestricted by any other ethical considerations, it can easily lead to catastrophe.

⇾ The Industrial Revolution yielded an unprecedented combination of cheap and abundant energy and cheap and abundant raw materials. The Industrial Revolution brought about dozens of major upheavals in human society. Adapting to industrial time is just one of them. Other notable examples include urbanisation, the disappearance of the peasantry, the rise of the industrial proletariat, the empowerment of the common person, democratisation, youth culture and the disintegration of patriarchy.

⇾ In 1700 the world was home to some 700 million humans. In 1800 there were 950 million of us. By 1900 we almost doubled our numbers to 1.6 billion. And by 2000 that quadrupled to 6 billion. Today there are just shy of 7 billion Sapiens.

⇾ [Today we are not happier than we were in the past] Compare a medieval French peasant to a modern Parisian banker. The peasant lived in an unheated mud hut overlooking the local pigsty, while the banker goes home to a splendid penthouse with all the latest technological gadgets and a view to the Champs-Elysées. Intuitively, we would expect the banker to be much happier than the peasant. However, mud huts, penthouses and the Champs-Elysées don’t really determine our mood. Serotonin does. When the medieval peasant completed the construction of his mud hut, his brain neurons secreted serotonin, bringing it up to level X. When in 2014 the banker made the last payment on his wonderful penthouse, brain neurons secreted a similar amount of serotonin, bringing it up to a similar level X. It makes no difference to the brain that the penthouse is far more comfortable than the mud hut.

⇾ Money, social status, plastic surgery, beautiful houses, powerful positions – none of these will bring you happiness. Lasting happiness comes only from serotonin, dopamine and oxytocin.

As far as we can tell, from a purely scientific viewpoint, human life has absolutely no meaning. Humans are the outcome of blind evolutionary processes that operate without goal or purpose.

⇾ Within a decade or two we could have an artificial human brain inside a computer that could talk and behave very much as a human does. If successful, that would mean that after 4 billion years of milling around inside the small world of organic compounds, life will suddenly break out into the vastness of the inorganic realm, ready to take up shapes beyond our wildest dreams.

⇾ If the curtain is indeed about to drop on Sapiens history, we members of one of its final generations should devote some time to answering one last question: what do we want to become?

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