The book cover

Notes from reading ‘Sapiens,’ a brief history of humankind

Our species, Homo sapiens, first grew powerful by banding together through myth-making. That self-deception is our strength and our curse.

That is something like the thesis of Sapiens, a kind of pop anthropology anthology that has — like all books that generalize heady issues — caught both praise and derision. Written by Yuval Noah Harari, it was first published in Hebrew in Israel in 2011 and in English in 2014. I was gifted a copy by a collaborator of mine, Deborah Diamond and I ready it in a couple weeks. I’m sharing here some of what I got from reading it.

Public intellectuals seem to face a harrowing choice. Either dive deeply into their subject matter to influence their peers but risk their ideas remaining obscure, or focus on translating and synthesizing for a broader audience, and attract scorn from those deeper situated in the academic. Harari is squarely in the latter category, garnering a 2018 New York Times profile focused on the adulation he’s received from tech executives, despite his criticism of their work.

Like a breakout hit in linguistics that I read, I approach these books with neither extreme. I find them fun, discover ideas to dive deeper into and often get inspiration. That was my experience with Harari’s book — even though I found myself ignoring extended passages of his extrapolation. I enjoyed it.

Here are a few broad concepts I found valuable that I took away from his book:

  • History follows physics and biology as the story of our development
  • Human history can be understood in broad stages: differentiation of Homo sapiens in East Africa; Cognitive Revolution (70,000 years ago) as our brains expanded; Agricultural Revolution (10,000 years ago) and the modern Scientific Revolution in the last 500 years.
  • 70,000 years ago, as language was likely becoming more complex, Homo sapiens were an unremarkable animal, one of six species of humans
  • The luxury trap: “Luxuries tend to become necessities and spawn new obligations”
  • The traditional view of evolutionary success (species expansion and continuation via niche) ignores the individual experience (for example, a single endangered rhinoceros is likely happier than a calf in a box destined to be slaughtered for veal)
  • The first convergence of home (identity) and house (physical location) came with agricultural settlements from wide-ranging foragers
  • The power of collaborative Homo Sapiens came from myths: consider the stories from 1776 BC Babylon and 1776 AD USA that allow for massive cooperation. (Individual and small groups of chimpanzees and humans aren’t so different, but on a scale of thousands and millions through complex society is where we differentiate)
  • “There is no God, but don’t tell that to my servant, lest he murder me at night:” Voltaire
  • “A single priest can do the work of a hundred soldiers — and far more cheaply.”
  • From 70,000-30,000 years ago, humans had a cognitive revolution and started spreading around the world, knocking out the remaining human species. It was the greatest ecological disaster ever. From 14,000 BC to 12,000 BC, humans went global — in the Americas the 20-foot ground sloth and two-ton armadillos went extinct, among thousands of other species. “We are grand serial killers
  • The first likely named human is Kushim, who in 3000 BC signed a Sumerian clay tablet that was likely an accounting document
  • Early China, Incan and Egyptian empires succeeded not because they could write or feel but because they had filing cabinets. They could order their massive, complex layers of information
  • “Scholars know of no large and complex society that did not have built in discrimination”
  • “Biology enables, culture forbids”
  • All of the world’s political fights since the 1789 French Revolution can be seen as a battle between the contradictions of equality and individuality, like chivalry and Christianity from medieval Europe
  • “Religion asks if we believe in something. Money asks if someone else believes in something.”
  • The primary insight from polytheism was that their ultimate power (i.e. Fate for the Greeks, Atman for Hindus, Olodumare for Yoruba) did not care about individual acts of man. So individuals prayed to many smaller deities, which were in turn were governed by a powerful god. These minor deities were like middle-management. This still began to elevate man to a relationship with gods rather than Animism which made man an equal to animals around them.
  • Where monotheistic belief systems led to logic that for it to survive, all people had to believe. In contrast, Polytheistic powers did not have crusades to mandate a single, consistent belief system. (Romans, Egyptians and Aztecs were all diverse, multi-religious states); Romans had limited persecutions of Christians, killing a few thousand in the three hundred years from crucifixion to Constantine’s conversion; By contrast in the following 1,500 years millions of Christians killed Christina’s in the Catholicos and Protestant wars
  • Think of Christianity as a fringe Jewish sect following Jesus of Nazareth that miraculously ultimately took over the extraordinary Roman Empire.
  • Christianity’s saint worship was influenced by polytheism. Its satan (and heaven / hell and body / soul) has origins in dualistic religions. None of this is in Old Testament. These are all compromises as more people were brought into the sect.
  • European science infused imperialism was both cruel and positive. It made our worldview today that even allows the critical thinking of that past. Great leaders make the next generation demand better
  • Trust in the future is what really backs capitalism and the money system (Believing in the future justifies the extension of credit. That is what powered fledgling European powers into globally dominant powers.)
  • Isabella as venture capitalist with Columbus as other kingdoms turned him down. This transformed the Spanish kingdom, a 100x kind of return.
  • As credit systems expanded, there was an effort to distribute risk (beyond a single kingdom financing a risky venture), which resulted in the limited liability joint stock corporation
  • The Dutch overcame the Spanish to become the global superpower in 1600s, and then the smaller English beat larger) French in 1700s by being more dependable to financial markets, securing credit to fund expansion
  • In medieval Europe, the rich live in excess and the poor lived frugally. Now the rich manage assets while the poor go into debt
  • Historians have rarely focused on happiness, which should probably be the point: do our efforts make more people happier?
  • We know now that happiness is a chemical reaction but our view of it is subjective. Material wealth doesn’t change much (once beating abject poverty). Whether you live in a mud hut or penthouse, happiness was about expectations. (Still as a reader, I have to think that complex societies got us to this science to even understand happiness, to then make decisions around that.)
  • If science gets us to be a mortal will we live even more nervously of a car accident? (See work by the Gilgamesh Project)
  • At the precipice of technology and science likely transforming Homo sapiens entirely, we should ask What do we want to want?