Anyone who has ever wondered why humans have managed to dominate the planet will enjoy this scientific account of human history. Harari explains in great detail the genetic and psychological traits that were most valuable to humans to be able to conquer other human species and non-human species. Readers will marvel at the ingenuity of the human spirit, borne from our unique genetics.
My key Takeaways from “Sapiens" by Yuval Noah Harari:
Takeaway #1 Our Evolution
Takeaway #1 Our Evolution
Evolving from a genus of great apes some 2.5 million years ago in East Africa, early humans (Homo rudolfensis and Homo erectus) migrated to more promising lands which, due to adapting to their new environment, resulted in new forms of Homo eventually leading to modern humans, Homo sapiens, who walked the land some 300,000 years ago. All other human species died out so why did Homo sapiens survive when there was nothing particularly special about them, what gave us the upper hand?
The Interbreeding Theory that is backed up by DNA (modern European humans having 1% to 4% of Neanderthal DNA) suggests that the different species gradually merged together due to breeding. Another theory is the Replacement Theory which suggests that other species died out due to Homo sapiens possessing slightly superior skills allowing them to kill the other humans off whether by taking away their food sources or more violent means.
Both theories are likely to be partly correct, all of this made possible thanks to an evolutionary leap some 70,000 years ago which saw Homo sapiens gain brain improvement known as Cognitive Revolution allowing them to develop language and not only to outperform their rivals with more complex forms of hunting, more advanced communities, and the establishment of primitive trade networks but also to expand into remote corners of the globe.
Takeaway #2 From Forager to Farmer
Leading a nomadic hunting and foraging lifestyle until 12,000 years ago, the agricultural revolution saw humans transformed from foragers to farmers with an explosion in population growth. Within 10,000 years almost all humans had entered into the world of agriculture but with farming so time consuming, compared with the former hunter gather lifestyle, it is puzzling why our ancestors made this radical shift especially when you take into account the poor quality food they were producing which lacked the nutrients which were readily available in the form of animals, nuts and berries. As before, two theories exist. The first is that the change to agriculture was gradual, the process becoming ingrained with each generation so that by the time it was realised that farming had its downsides, it was too late to turn back to the hunter gatherer lifestyle. Secondly, despite its faults, farming was efficient with an increase in food which was much needed to sustain the population growth.
Due to people no longer living hand to mouth, different trades such as blacksmithing and weaving became common practise which saw the the bartering system invented with a shovel, for example, traded for food allowing the farmer to farm more effectively using the tools he needed and the blacksmith to feed himself and his family. However, there were only so many tools farmers needed meaning the simple bartering system soon became inadequate.
Takeaway #3 Why Writing Was Invented
As trading became more complex (how could you ensure a pig farmer would keep his word and give you your meat if you had already given him the knife he needed to slaughter it with?!) enter the occurrence of writing and money around 3,000 BC with the Sumerians of Mesopotamia using barley money as what is thought to be the first standardised method of payment, this resulting in laws and authority systems to ensure that people's behaviour was regulated, this ultimately leading to hierarchical societies.
Takeaway #4 Why The Last Decades Have Been the Most Powerful
The scientific revolution that took place in the 16th-17th centuries in Europe saw humans acquiring new knowledge, taking progress into their own hands rather than relying on an almighty god to determine their future. Experimentation, exploration and observation allowed humans to make gigantic leaps in the fields of medicine, physics, and astronomy whilst discovering previously unknown lands which held valuable resources such as gold resulting in countries building great empires and later, the creation of capitalism and globalization, the latter helping to make the world more peaceful.
We can only imagine where our Homo sapien story will end, perhaps with the invention of a brand new species; the superhuman?!
My Favorite Quotes from Sapiens
"...the root of suffering is neither the feeling of pain nor of sadness nor even of meaninglessness. Rather, the real root of suffering is this never-ending and pointless pursuit of ephemeral feelings, which causes us to be in a constant state of tension, restlessness and dissatisfaction. Due to this pursuit, the mind is never satisfied. Even when experiencing pleasure, it is not content, because it fears this feeling might soon disappear, and craves that this feeling should stay and intensify. People are liberated from suffering not when they experience this or that fleeting pleasure, but rather when they understand the impermanent nature of all their feelings, and stop craving them."
"Large numbers of strangers can cooperate successfully by believing in common myths. Any large-scale human cooperation – whether a modern state, a medieval church, an ancient city or an archaic tribe – is rooted in common myths that exist only in people’s collective imagination.... 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...."
"Is there anything more dangerous than dissatisfied and irresponsible gods who don’t know what they want?...You could never convince a monkey to give you a banana by promising him limitless bananas after death in monkey heaven."
"The history of ethics is a sad tale of wonderful ideals that nobody can live up to.."
"Biology enables, Culture forbids... Biology is willing to tolerate a very wide spectrum of possibilities. It’s culture that obliges people to realize some possibilities while forbidding others. Biology enables women to have children – some cultures oblige women to realize this possibility. Biology enables men to enjoy sex with one another – some cultures forbid them to realize this possibility. 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."
"..if planet earth were to blow up tomorrow morning, the universe would probably keep going about its business as usual. As far as we can tell at this point, human subjectivity would not be missed..."
"happiness does not really depend on objective conditions of either wealth, health or even community. Rather, it depends on the correlation between objective conditions and subjective expectations."
― Yuval Noah Harari, Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind