Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind by Yuval Noah Harari (2015)

sapiensJust imagine how difficult it would have been to create states, or churches, or legal systems if we could speak only about things that really exist, such as rivers, trees and lions. 31

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Harari sketches the general arc of sapiens’ (modern humans) history, from their lowly beginnings as just another variety of human, to their current status as earth’s dominant species. He chunks the story into major revolutions: the cognitive revolution—when we out-thought and out-communicated the other varieties of humans; the agricultural revolution—which allowed for much larger populations and institutions; the unification of humans—through imperialism, money, religion, and imaginary concepts; and the scientific revolution—which provided the technology to control our experiences to an unprecedented degree. Within these sections, Harari explores many unconventional and politically incorrect ideas.

Agriculture, he argues, was one of the worst mistakes in human history, subjecting humans to a monotonous life fraught with poverty, ill-health, and insecurity. Path dependence ensured that we cannot deviate from what Harari might label our true original sin.

We haven’t abandoned the mythology of religion, he claims. Instead, we’ve constructed other fantasies: humanism, capitalism, imperialism, communism. These are all “inter-subjective” constructions, no less arbitrary than the rules governing children’s games. These myths are precisely what has allowed humans to benefit from large societies and large-scale cooperation.

The scientific revolution was not caused by a confluence of natural resources, human ingenuity, and governance. It was the result of a specific change in attitude: “the discovery of ignorance”, or what might be thought of as the birth of belief in progress. Ancient societies tended to believe that all knowledge was divinely revealed, or that the world was cyclical, unchanging, or decaying.

For the ancients, there was nothing new to be discovered. Ignorance could be remedied by asking a king or priest. There was no use to pursuing ignorance, no benefit to solving mysteries, because the world would continue on as it had regardless. Europeans began to view ignorance as an opportunity, and started to catalog it systematically in hopes of building a corpus that could bring about tangible improvement—technology.

Harari closes by considering the usefulness of all of our human endeavors. What has it brought us? Are we better off than the first sapiens? How have we affected livestock, or the broader global ecosystem? In terms of happiness, has sapiens’ creation of humanity paid off? He doesn’t seem convinced.

The book has a smooth narrative structure, with few citations and notes, and no bibliography, making for a streamlined, easy read. Nevertheless, the text brims with ideas. Harari is clever, cynical, and funny, but also demonstrates a very human concerns—with the welfare of animals and the question of human happiness. Very enjoyable and thought provoking—what an incredible species.

Ideas per Page: 9/101 (high)

Related Books: Straw Dogs, The Soul of the Marionette, The Silence of Animals, by John Gray; The World Until Yesterday by Jared Diamond

Recommend to Others: Highly recommend to everyone

Reread personally: probably not, very good, dense with ideas, but too many other books, maybe, it was so good


24 “You could never convince a monkey to give you a banana by promising him limitless bananas after death in monkey heaven.”

27, 28 “ Two lawyers who have never met can nevertheless combine efforts to defend a complete stranger because they both believe in the existence of laws, justice, human rights—and the money paid out in fees.

Yet none of these things exists outside the stores that people invent and tell one another. There are no gods in the universe, no nations, no money, no human rights, no laws, and no justice outside the common imagination of human beings.”

32 “Most human-rights activists sincerely believe in the existence of human rights. No one was lying when, in 2011, the UN demanded that the Libyan government respect the human rights of its citizens, even though the UN, Libya and human rights are all figments of our imagination.”

Paraphrase of p. 37 chart:

Communicating info about the natural world –> planning complex actions

Communicating about social world –> building collations of up to 150 sapiens

Communicating about imagined entities –> huge collations, viral spread of behaviors

49 “The human collective knows far more today than did the ancient bands. But at the individual level, ancient foragers were the most knowledgeable and skillful people in history.”

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

109 “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”

109 “Equally, there are no such thing as rights in biology. There are only organs, abilities and characteristics. Birds fly not because they have a right to fly, but because they have wings.”

110 “So here is that line from the American Declaration of Independence translated into biological terms:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men evolved differently, that they are born with certain mutable characteristics, and that among these are life and the pursuit of pleasure.”

177 “Money is not coins and banknotes. Money is anything that people are willing to use in order to represent systematically the value of other things for the purpose of exchanging goods and services.”

178 “More than 90 per cent of all money –more than $50 trillion appearing in our accounts—exists only on computer servers.”

178 “This is perhaps its most basic quality. Everyone always wants money because everyone else also wants money, which means you can exchange money for whatever you want or need.”

186 “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. Thanks to money, even people who don’t know each other and don’t trust each other can nevertheless cooperate effectively.”

395, 396 “Indeed, the significance we give our feelings, the more we crave them, and the more we suffer.”

1 A measure of the number of new or distinct ideas introduced per page. 10/10 would be conceptually dense, like a textbook. 1/10 would be almost completely fluff.




One thought on “Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind by Yuval Noah Harari (2015)

  1. To imagine

    that yet is to

    is to create

    one cannot

    In a lack
    of letting go,

    the things of life
    we’ve yet to know,

    we move about
    as if they were,

    in so doing
    they do occur.



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