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Key insights from

Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind

By Yuval Noah Harari

What you’ll learn

Seventy thousand years ago, organisms from the species Homo sapiens emerged on the scene. The study of their development and activities is called history. In his ambitious study, Yuval Noah Harari explains that human history has been propelled forward by three revolutions: the Cognitive Revolution, the Agricultural Revolution, and the Scientific Revolution. Humans have shown their capacity for profoundly impacting their environment, and each of the three revolutionary thresholds that we have crossed increased this capacity. Humankind ignores its powerful and often destructive tendencies at its own peril and the planet’s, but there is still reason to hope for a better tomorrow. Time will tell which path humanity will take. 

Read on for key insights from Sapiens.

1. Homo sapiens used to share the stage with other species of human.

As human beings, we like to think of ourselves as set apart from—and superior to—all other species of animal. This bias overlooks key aspects of our development. Firstly, let us not forget we Homo sapiens are animals, too. Homo sapiens literally means “Wise Man,” which betrays some hubris. We are, however, part of the “great ape” family on the taxonomy charts, making chimps and orangutans our cousins. Even closer than cousins, consider also that our species’ particular genus (Homo) housed at least six other species of humans for several millions of years, all equipped with similar physical and mental capacities to our own. These Homo species were in the middle of the food chain for hundreds of thousands of years, sucking marrow out of the bones that lions and hyenas had left on the African Savannah. Sapiens and our sibling species rose to the top of the food chain as we learned to make tools and control fire, but our physical bodies remained comparatively puny and unimpressive compared to other apex predators.

All other Homo groups began going extinct tens of thousands of years ago until only Sapiens remained. What happened to our sibling species like Neanderthals and Denisovans? How did Sapiens outlast the others? The answer is language.

2. Capacity for language and imagination made Sapiens dominant.

Evidence suggests that 100,000 years ago, the larger, sturdier Neanderthal groups faired well in altercations with Sapiens. 70,000 years ago, however, Sapiens became increasingly dominant. Over the next 40,000 years, they began to invent, engage in trade, develop social hierarchies, and show religious inclinations. Perhaps the most important development was their unique ability to communicate. Whether DNA or other factors are responsible for the emergence of this unique language, its consequences are of greater interest than its origins, as this was the decisive factor that began Sapien’s road to ascendancy, a period known as the Cognitive Revolution.

Many animals communicate, sometimes in complex ways. Animals can only communicate in terms of what is real, about a tree full of fruit or a warning about a nearby tiger. Humans, however, can work with an infinite combination of sounds to convey particular meaning. This enables us to communicate information to and about one another—gossip, in other words.

Though often frowned upon, gossip is actually a very useful mechanism for preserving group cohesion and cooperation. Gossip is sufficient to provide cohesion in a tribe of fewer than 150 people, but cities and civilizations require something more: they need fictions, made-up stories that create guiding codes of values and expected norms. Examples of powerful fictions include the modern state, the Catholic Church, the UN, and human rights. Unlike bees and ants, which cooperate in large numbers, but very inflexibly, humans have a language that is flexible, which makes human behavior more versatile. With the Cognitive Revolution, cultural evolution allowed humans to adapt to environments without waiting for their DNA to catch up. The myth-making ability made us dominant.

3. The Agricultural Revolution is the grandest hoax in human history.

Some historians have cast the Agricultural Revolution that began 12,000 years ago in a positive light. The painful truth is that this revolution is history’s biggest fraud.

Wheat is the culprit here. It used to be a common grass, left to grow wild. Today, wheat fields cover almost 900,000 square miles of the earth’s surface—that’s ten Great Britains! What probably began as seasonal squats to save the time and energy that nomadism required ended as year-round settlements. Ironically, the more concerted that farming efforts became, the more time was required to tend to the crops. Farming ended up being an energy-sucker instead of an energy saver.

Sapiens tried to colonize wheat, but in effect, wheat had colonized Sapiens. They were bound to a plot of land, worked long hours, and usually subsisted on a diet of one crop. This revolution brought some short-term benefits, but the trade-offs made the wheat bargain a raw deal that humanity could not go back on. Even if they had realized the price for domesticating plants like wheat, corn, and rice, they knew nothing else. They were too far removed from their ancestors’ keen hunter-gather instincts. Additionally, with the resultant population boom—which added violence and disease to the mix— hunting and foraging was out of the question, as resources were too scarce.

The corollary to the domestication of plants was the domestication of animals. It began around the same time as farming did. Animals were used for food, farming, and clothing. On the whole, treatment of domesticated animals has grown increasingly inhumane since the Agricultural Revolution. Today there are one billion pigs, one billion cows, and 25 billion chickens, many living under cruel conditions.

From an evolutionary standpoint, the Agricultural Revolution was a great boon for wheat and hogs, rice and chickens, but for most animals—including Sapiens—the tradeoff is individual suffering on a grand scale.

4. History is a story of the gradual unification of economies, civilizations, and faiths.

If we look at history’s trajectory from a bird’s-eye view, we see that, despite moments of fragmentation and collapse, history is moving toward unity with remarkable speed. Around 10,000 BC, there were thousands of relatively isolated “worlds.” By 2,000 BC, there were hundreds. By about 1500 AD, about ninety percent of the world’s population lived in the massive Afro-Asian world; the other ten percent—Mesoamerican World, Andean World, Australian World, and Oceanic World—were gradually gobbled up in imperial pursuits over the centuries that followed, drawing the outliers into the economic, political, and religious spheres of the mega-world. To speak of the world as a whole, to talk about global events, is a recent phenomenon in human history. It is now common to think of the Sapiens species in its entirety rather than isolated, warring tribes. The primary drivers of unification have been money, the growth of expansive empires, and religion. The vision of global unification began around 1,000 BC, and the trends in that direction are evident in economic, political, and religious developments.

Within the hunter-gatherer tribal structure, favors, obligations, and small-scale bartering would have been the currency of the day. This was likely the case even as the Agricultural Revolution gathered steam. As populations grew, villages became towns and cities and networks developed between those hubs. The systems of favors, obligations, and bargaining were no longer sustainable. Money was useful because it enabled people to assess the value of numerous goods and services quickly, it made exchange easier, and it was far easier to store than goods like barley and livestock.

Money is yet another mental construct that humans have invented, and it is arguably the most successful one in human history. People from every nation have bought into it, which gives the myth its power. We may not trust strangers, approve of a regime’s political policies, or like a region’s religious practices, but we all trust in money. Thus, money has played a significant role in the trend toward global unification.

On the political front, empires served to move the world swiftly toward unity. Empires are comprised of numerous people groups, and, through that the norms that the rulers instantiate in their realms, empires digest particular cultural practices and traditions. Empires homogenize large, diverse groups.

It is likely that there will be a single, unifying political order that will develop in the interest of safeguarding the rights of not just Americans or Japanese or Nigerians, but all human beings. Nationalistic rhetoric is receding. Global public opinion, an international court system, and interdependent global market structures are significant steps in that direction. What is more, with problems of global proportion like climate change, it is likely that the global empire will fly a green flag.

Religion is the third major global unifier. Hierarchies are imagined constructs, and thus, susceptible to challenge and overturning. Religion has been used to legitimize myths and put them beyond human reach by giving them supernatural mystique.

For a religion to be a world unifier, it must be considered universally true for all people, and it must be missionary in its philosophy. The largest religions with these world-unifying qualities—Christianity, Buddhism, and Islam—did not emerge until the first millennium BC. Each borrows ideas and rituals from animistic, dualist, monotheistic, and polytheistic practice. Syncretism could very well be the way toward a single universal world religion.

Add to the mix the worship of Man, which has emerged over the past 300 years. Followers of modern religions like liberal humanism, socialist humanism, and evolutionary humanism each obey and organize according to supreme commandments: respectively, promoting human freedom, promoting equality, and promoting humanity’s evolution into a superhuman and protecting the race from devolving into subhumans.

5. The Scientific Revolution has brought discovery, a spirit of optimism, and a hunger for progress.

The most dramatic shifts in human history have occurred within the last 500 years. In 1500 AD, there were half a billion humans—their gross production totaled $250 billion, and they consumed thirteen trillion calories per day. Today, there are over seven billion humans—the value of annual human production comes out to $60 trillion, and we consume over 1,500 trillion calories daily. With all the momentous changes, the most defining was the first successful atom bomb detonation in 1945. It signaled humankind’s capacity to not just alter life dramatically, but to end it.

The Scientific Revolution was fueled by the discovery of ignorance. As far as the premodern was concerned, everything worth knowing was contained in sacred texts, so there was no need to ask questions that the religious texts had not answered. Curiosity about the natural world and the universe drove the quest for knowledge. The open admission of uncertainty has made modern science the most dynamic tradition in history.

Science’s ignorance revolution fostered a spirit of optimism and hunger for progress. Francis Bacon believed that the future can be better than the present and that scientific discoveries can give us the power to alter the world for the better. Hunger, poverty, and even death are the result of technical problems that simply require the right technical solutions. Infant mortality and life expectancy rates have dramatically improved; so it could be that Death itself is approaching Death’s door. The Gilgamesh Project is an example of an organization actively seeking to achieve immortality. While traumatic accidents can always be life-ending, the aim is to eliminate all other causes of death.

This, of course, depends on political and economic backing, and science will always require a guiding ideology to push research projects forward. Pure science does not exist. Scientific research has and remains intimately intertwined with the economics of capitalism and politics of empires.

6. Capitalism has led to booming business, but not without oppression.

If we conceive of science and imperialism as twin engines, capital was the fuel that propelled the military-industrial-scientific complex. Modern economic history is a story of explosive growth. Throughout most of human history, even through the Agricultural Revolution, capitalism could not have thrived because people were risk-averse. This is understandable: if a baker has no money, he cannot hire a contractor to build a shop and oven, which means he cannot bake or sell bread, which means he cannot make money. You need capital to get started. An injection of credit thawed the frozen cycle.

The optimism that the Scientific Revolution ushered in was critical. A growing trust in the future led to the appearance of credit. Even if a person would not see an immediate return, he would lend money if he thought the enterprise might be successful. The entrepreneur could pay the contractor to build the bakery and pay back the lender with the bakery’s profits over time.

Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations points out a principle that we now take for granted: profit surpluses can be used to hire more workers to produce more products which leads to even more profits. This system works as long as business owners continue to reinvest their capital; however, an increasing proportion of capital is put to superfluous, non-productive ends. This necessitates some form of regulation to ensure more equitable distribution. Free market economies may increase the size of the pie, but many subsist on a shrinking sliver of that pie. Moreover, the clearest example of unfettered free market greed—and, sadly, far from the only—was the transatlantic slave trade. It was not racism, but the rat race that fueled such a cruel market.

The capitalist reply is that, like it or not, we cannot live without a capitalist system now, and it is far better than the Marxist alternative. This is true. The second rebuttal is that, while capitalism cannot deliver on equitable distribution of goods, a time of relative prosperity for all is likely just around the corner. This could be the case, too.

7. For the first time in history, supply is outpacing demand.

Production requires energy and raw materials. The most significant discovery in the history of energy conversion was turning heat into energy. It began with the steam engine in Britain’s mineshafts around 1700. The combustion engine and electricity were other critical discoveries. Such developments fueled the Industrial Revolution, which could also be considered the Second Agricultural Revolution. Farm equipment became larger and mechanized, requiring only a handful of people to be farmers instead of an entire peasant class. In today’s United States, only two percent of the population provides produce for the entire country and exports massive surpluses.

With increasingly efficient means of production, supply is outpacing demand for the first time in history. For the system to function, people have to keep buying. Consumerism is the powerful new myth that grew up with the Industrial Revolution. It has reversed the ethic of frugality as virtue and luxury as vice. Self-restraint is now seen as oppressive. The consumerist-capitalist ethic is easy to live up to because the self is served by obeying the supreme command to buy more.  

8. The Industrial Revolution has created a pattern of continuous radical change.

The growing fires of industry and population explosion have many worried that we are in danger of using up our resources. This fear is overplayed. Between increasingly efficient ways of using resources and discoveries of alternative sources of energy, we have reason to be optimistic about the future. The sun and literal oceans of potential energy are available for harnessing.

The Industrial Revolution has led to numerous upheavals that have reshaped basic patterns in society. The rise of youth culture, urbanization, the transformation of peasantry and urban proletariat, the decline of patriarchy, and democratization are all significant changes. Probably the most notable shift is the disintegration of the community and family bonds and the state’s and market’s move to fill the emotional void. Courts settle family feuds, police forces curb violence, nursing homes can house the elderly instead of families, and public schools teach social and nationalistic values. These all serve as “imagined communities” that state and market have developed to compensate for a fraying social fabric. Individualism is the doctrine that progressively loosened family ties. With an emphasis on the value of the individual, decisions are being based increasingly on individual preference rather than on the needs of the community or nuclear or extended family. Today’s tribes tend to be based upon consumer preferences: sports, veganism, and musicians, for instance.

The malleability of society makes the modern era about as easy to describe as a chameleon’s colors. Generations of cultural and family traditions have been diluted or lost in the rapid shuffle. Even the most conservative politicians market themselves as agents of change.

Despite headlines of terrorism and tribal flare-ups, we are currently enjoying one of the most peaceful eras of history. Oppenheimer deserves the Nobel Peace Prize to rule them all for his development of the atom bomb. Mutually assured destruction has been the best insurance against warfare and invasions. Violence levels are low and imperialists have withdrawn in a fairly peaceable manner. Choosing peace has become the shrewdest course for most polities. Time will tell if this is short-lived or an unprecedented enduring peace.

9. We are becoming powerful, aimless gods on Earth.

Intelligent design is true, though not as the Creationists present it: in the twenty-first century we are no longer bound by the random, impersonal forces of natural selection, but can modify organisms and create them with new features.

There are three potential directions that intelligent design could take. One course is the creation of superhumans. We could genetically improve not only life expectancy and immune systems but intelligence, emotion—even virtue. What is more, we could even bring back extinct species. Scientists from several countries have mapped the entire mammoth genome and are ready to infuse that genetic material into elephant embryos. Just a few years ago, a Brazilian bio-artist created a florescent green rabbit by infusing DNA from a glowing jellyfish into a rabbit embryo.

Another potential route we could take is cyborg technology, which blends organic and inorganic elements. People already have glasses, cell phones, hearing aids, and prosthetic limbs. It is likely that these technologies will become increasingly integrated into human bodies.

Yet another direction intelligent design could go is artificial intelligence. What if we created a technology that had the ability to adapt and reproduce itself independently?

This is not Brave New World or Jurassic Park: these are real scenarios that scientific advancements and technology have made possible. The only constraints will be ethical and political. This is understandable, as developments will have implications not only for social orders but also for human identity itself. Humankind has become increasingly powerful, but also discontented and directionless.


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