Book Takeaways- Sapiens: A Brief History Of Humankind

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One hundred thousand years ago, at least six human species inhabit the earth. Today there is just one. Us. Homo sapiens. How did our species succeed in the battle for dominance? Why did our foraging ancestors come together to create cities and kingdoms? How did we come to believe in god, nations, and human right; to trust money, books , and law; and to be enslaved by bureaucracy, timetables, and consumerism? And what will our world be like in the millennia to come?

There are 7.9 billion of us on a floating rock we call Earth. 🌎

We started as a group of hunter-gathers and now we live in cities. We now face global climate change and poverty as well as religious and racial conflicts.

How did this happen?

Yuval Noah Harari’s book Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind answer this along with other big questions about history.

Harari divides the book into four parts:

  • The Cognitive Revolution
  • The Agricultural Revolution
  • The Unification of Humankind
  • The Scientific Revolution

In this article, I will share with you my takeaways from the first three parts.

The Cognitive Revolution 🧠

  1. We, the Homo sapiens, once shared the Earth with other humans.
Photo by Eugene Zhyvchik on Unsplash

We often think that we are special because we haven’t seen any human other species for the longest time, but other species like the Neanderthals, Homo erectus, Homo floresiensis did exist. Two theories explain what happened to the others: the “Interbreeding Theory” and the “Replacement Theory.”

Interbreeding Theory explains that Sapiens bred with other species until the populations couldn’t be told apart. The Replacement Theory explains that Sapiens and other humans couldn’t bear futile children and nor did they want to mate with each other. Other homo species died off with their genes.

Well, how did they die off? One of the possible reasons for the end of other species is that we made them go extinct.

It may well be that when Sapiens encountered Neanderthals, the result was the first and most significant ethnic cleansing campaign in history.

2. We cooperated because of the collective belief in fiction and storytelling.

Photo by Volodymyr Hryshchenko on Unsplash

What makes us different than other animals and homo species? That would be our strength in numbers through cooperation. What allows us to cooperate? Language.

Language gave us the power to cooperate in bigger groups and warn others about possible dangers. But more importantly, language enabled us to collectively believe in concepts and objects that we can’t see or touch.

Stories give us reasons to work together. For example, in a tribal setting, the people worked together because they believed in a common god.

3. There isn’t a “natural way of life” for Homo sapiens.

Today, we assume that there’s a normal and natural way of life for us. Like to be in monogamous relationships and heterosexual, etc. But that isn’t true.

Harari explains that there’s a horizon of possibilities in how ancient humans lived.

The horizon of possibilities is described as “the entire spectrum of beliefs, practices, and experiences that are open before a particular society, give its ecological, technological, and cultural limitation.”

4. Our early ancestors weren’t any better than us in treating our environment.

Humans haven’t been doing a good job of being globally sustainable. Photo by Marcos Paulo Prado on Unsplash

Although our ancestors weren’t throwing nuclear bombs at each other or pumping greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, there weren’t environmental good guys either. When early humans moved to new lands, they brought with them calamity.

The first seafaring societies arriving in Australia is an important event to human history since it was the first time humans left Afro-Eurasia. But there’s also a darker side. They drastically changed the biodiversity and environmental landscape of Australia. Megafanas like the giant kangaroos and diprotodons died off due to their long pregnancies and few offsprings, making them especially vulnerable to humans. Geological records show a sudden vanish of numerous native species when humans arrived.

The same thing happened when humans moved to the Americas and remote islands.

We are guilty of hurting our environments for longer than we remember.

The Agricultural Revolution 🌱

5. The Agricultural Revolution was a fraud.

Species reproductive success ≠ individual happiness and satisfaction Photo by Alaina McLearnon on Unsplash

Humans as a species were able to multiply dramatically during the Agricultural revolution but otherwise, the revolution wasn’t anything good to human individuals. We started to work longer hours and worked against what our bodies were evolved to do(climbing trees and running from predators) and also feed ourselves restricted diets that aren’t healthier.

What makes this funny is that we weren’t aware of that at all because the change was incremental.

But there’s more to it, Harari adds:

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 wine, and expensive holidays. What are they supposed to do, go back to digging up root? No, they double their efforts and keep slaving away.

This idea could be extended to many other people. For high schoolers, some of us spend our days studying to get into an elite college, leaving fun for later. And in college, we strive to buckle down into one subject of study that may be easy to find work in but we don’t have an interest in.

But it doesn't stop there. Before we even started to mass slaughter animals with industrialized machines, pigs, chickens, and cows were already treated terribly. Farmers in New Guinea gouged out pigs’ eyes so they can’t see and have them be dependent on us, and we slaughtered children of milking animals so we can get the most milk.

6. The Agricultural Revolution lead to the creation of imagined orders.

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The increase in population along with the continued sharing of myths generated further cooperation and formation of cities, towns, and kingdoms.

Two examples explained in the book are the American Declaration of Independence and the Code of Hammurabi. The Declaration of Independence claims that all people are equal, while the Code of Hammurabi people is in a hierarchy.

Neither statements are true because both claims are imagined, and do not exist anywhere but in our imaginations. But we still believe in imagined orders because they are inter-subjective.

Inter-subjective is something that exists in the consciousness of many within a communication network. Some examples include law, money, gods, and nations.

Imagined orders do not change when one person stops believing in it, but when many go against it.

7. To combat our unreliable memory, we formed written languages like Arab numerals. 🔢

Today, numbers are a growing superpower. Numbers could be translated to ideas like poverty and honesty with the poverty line and credit rating. Numbers are also used in AI and computers through binary scripts.

8. To sustain mass cooperation networks, we created unfair imagined orders.

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These unfair imagined orders include wealth, racial, and gender hierarchies. All these hierarchies are not real or hold any truth to them, but they kept people in large societies working together.

What makes it worse is that these hierarchies don’t end when we realize they are myths. They are sustained through vicious cycles.

One example given in the book is how African Americans continue to live at the bottom of the social hierarchy in America. Blacks are given fewer opportunities to begin with because of the chance historical event that gave whites leverage on the Blacks. And when they were freed, they don’t suddenly gain status because the system makes it harder for Blacks to get an education job, etc. And the cycle just continues.

The Unification of Humankind 👨‍👨‍👧‍👦

9. The overall direction of the human race is towards unification rather than fragmentation.

At a micro level, humans may seem to unite only to fragment again like the Mongol Empire, but looking from a further perspective, it’s very clear that we are moving towards unification.

When we fight against each other, we are using the same weapons and concepts. We think spaghetti with tomato sauce is authentic Italian food, but tomatoes are from Mexico.

Ever since the Cognitive Revolution, humans went against the automatic norm of dividing ourselves into “us” and “them”. We began to cooperate with strangers and befriend them. And with the rise of religion, money, or imperial order potentially everyone could become “us”.

10. “Money is the most universal and most efficient system of mutual trust ever devised.” 💵

Money is intrinsically worthless. Photo by Jp Valery on Unsplash

We trust in money because our social circle trusts in it. They trust in money because their social circle does too. The spread of money increased tolerance in humans. Governments were willing to receive tax from foreign coins that spread messages that were against the state like “there is no god except Allah.”

But money is also dangerous because of its quality to be universally converted and trusted.

11. Ideologies are pretty much religions as well.

Harari defines religion as “a system of human norms and values that is found a belief in a superhuman order.” If we call Buddhism a religion although there isn’t a god, Communism can be a religion too. Instead of a god, Communists believe in natural and immutable laws.

12. History is cannot be predicted or explained deterministically.

We can explain how an event occurred but never explain why something happened and be sure. To explain why is “to find causal connections that account for the occurrence of this particular series of events to the exclusion of all others.” What makes explaining history strange is that the more you know about an event, the less sure you are because you are more informed consider the other possible reasons more.

History is unpredictable because of its nature of being a Level Two chaos. This means that history reacts to predictions about it.

13. History doesn’t happen for the benefit of humans.

Although we may like history to be thinking about us, that isn’t true at all. Cultures do not disappear because they are bad nor do good ones live because they are good.

Harari compares culture to a parasite. It spreads and damages its host with no care for them.

Here are my takeaways from reading the first three parts of Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind but I would highly recommend and encourage you to read the book yourself if you haven’t done so yet!