“Sapiens: A Brief History Of Humankind” by Yuval Noah Harari

It took me several tries to get through “Sapiens: A Brief History Of Humankind” by Yuval Harari. Personally, I find it difficult to read books related to history so I put this book away the first time after 60 pages. A few months later, I came back to it and I am not surprised a lot of people read it and loved it. In general, Harari brings a unique view on history by taking a look at the global development of Sapiens through thousands of year and how we came to the world that we are in right now. The breadth of Harari’s writing is truly impressive and extremely eye-opening.

It is hard to review a book that already reviews history so I am going to outline the major periods Harari mentions and then list a few thoughts that were striking to me.

In Brief

Harari highlights three major revolutions in the development of Sapiens.

The Cognitive Revolution

What happened during the Cognitive Revolution?

  • Human domesticated fire and learned to cook
  • Prior, there were more than one human species on Earth alongside Homo Sapiens; Sapiens came to dominate the world and became the only species
  • Sapiens learned to transmit  larger quantities of information and maintain social relations which enabled them to communicate information about danger or build bigger tribes
  • Sapiens learned to share information that does not exist – e.g. common myths – which allowed them to cooperate even into bigger groups

Who was an average person at this time?

“Having so recently been one of the underdogs of the savannah, we are full of fears and anxieties about our position, which makes us doubly cruel and dangerous”.

Usually, it was a hunter-gatherer who would live in a small tribe and would constantly migrate from one place to the other. In general, they believed that every plant, animal or place has a spirit and feelings and can angry people. This type of belief is called animism.

Sapiens is not the strongest in the food chain, but because of the cognitive revolution, we managed to jump on the top of the food chain.

The Agricultural Revolution

Most of the history, Sapiens lived without affecting other plants and animals until Agricultural Revolution when:

  • Sapiens started manipulating a few animals and plants and their growth
  • This tied Sapiens to a specific location where they had fields and from hunter-gatherers, they became farmers
  • Their diet got less variable than of hunter-gathers and they became more prone to diseases
  • Cultivating crops provided more food which allowed Sapiens to multiply faster
  • More and more strangers were able to cooperate better because of the belief in the shared myths
  • Numbers became more and more important, for example, with the development of trade which changed the way humans think about the world – now, we tend to assign numbers on everything

Harari mentions that the transition from hunter-gatherers to farmers was also marked by making a life of an average person harder. On an average day, a hunter-gather would work for a few hours taking care of the food and then rest and have their pastime while an average farmer would need to work more to take care of their crops.

“We thought we were saving time; instead we revved up the treadmill of life to ten times its former speed and made our dates more anxious and agitated…The discrepancy between an evolutionary success and individual suffering is perhaps the most important lesson we can draw from the Agricultural Revolution”.

The Scientific Revolution

Scientific revolution enabled humans to cooperate across the world even more than ever before through several factors:

  • Trade: global trade allowed people to transcend the boundaries of countries and speed up the potential unification of humankind by erasing the division between ‘us vs. them’.
  • The invention of money which because a universal language that allows people to convert almost anything into something else.
  • Establishing of religions

Harari mentions that what enabled Sapiens to go so far with their scientific discoveries is that they have admitted their ignorance and the fact that “they do not know”. Thus, the admitting of their own ignorance pushed Sapiens to explore the surrounding, go on a quest to unknown lands and turn the world from the isolated nations into the connected human society.

The Scientific Revolution was also distinguished by Sapiens finding the ways to covert one type of energy into the other. And the energy conversation librated Sapiens from dependence on their ecosystem.

Fun fact:  humans also are converting the energy in their own bodies: they consume plants which take the energy from the sun and after, turn it into the energy that enables them to move (that’s a pretty impressive fact to me!).

Some Thoughts

On History In General

“Without the discovery of as yet unavailable research tools, we will probably never know what the ancient foragers believed or what political dramas they experienced. Yet it is vital to ask questions for which no answers are available, otherwise we might be tempted to dismiss 60,000, of 70,000 years of human history…”

“We study history not to know the future but to widen our horizons, to understand that our present situation is neither natural nor inevitable and that we consequently have many more possibilities before us than we imagine”.

On Humans And Other Living Creatures

“Among all the world’s creatures, the only survivors of the human flood will be humans themselves, and the farmyard animals that serve as gallery slaves in Noah’s Ark”.

What Are Shared Myths?

Principles that exist in the collective imagination of Sapiens but have no objective validity. For example, this can be a concept of a nation. Two strangers that are Italian will cooperate for the sake of their country because they believe in the existence of Italian nation.

Another concept that the author covers is the concept of hierarchies in societies. This is something that Harari calls an “inter-subjective order” – an order that exists in the imagination os the thousands of millions of people. For instance, the hierarchy between poor and rich people which enables ones to live in luxurious neighborhoods and dooms other to slums. But as long as we inter-subjectively believe in these hierarchies, they are going to exist and enable cooperation between strangers in larger societies.

On Gender And Sex

“To make things less confusing, scholars usually distinguish between ‘sex’, which is a biological category and ‘gender’, a cultural category. Sex is divided between men and women, and the qualities of this division are objective and have remained constant throughout history. Gender is divided between men and women (and some cultures recognize other categories). So-called ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’ qualities are inter-subjective and undergo constant changes”.

On Future Of Sapiens

Humans now have more power than ever and the possibilities in front of us are limitless. There are a lot of options that Harari explores closer towards the end of the book. His final thought is that we never know where history might take us but with the power that we have, it is worth asking ourselves not only “What do we want to be?” but also “What do we want?” in general.

Read Harari, there is so much depth he brings when exploring Sapiens, history and the way our Earth is now.

One Comment

  1. Тимур Сапаров

    Посмотри ещё на эти книги, если тебе понравился антропогенез:
    Дробышевский С. В. Достающее звено. Книга 1. Обезьяна и все-все-все.
    Дробышевский С. В. Достающее звено. Книга 2. Люди.

    Александр Марков. Эволюция человека. Книга 1. Обезьяны, кости и гены.
    Александр Марков. Эволюция человека. Книга 2. Обезьяны, нейроны и душа.

    Всё же антрополог (Дробышевский) и биолог (Марков) лучше и “научнее” пишут)

    Liked by 1 person

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