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Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind – Yuval Noah Harari


Overview

Written by Yuval Noah Harari, a PhD in History from the University of Oxford. The book walks through our entire human history, from its evolutionary roots to the age of capitalism and genetic engineering, to uncover why we are the way we are.

The book focuses on key processes that shaped humankind and the world around it, such as the advent of agriculture, the creation of money, the spread of religion and the rise of the nation state

  • History shows that the rapid growth of technology hasn't always made our lives better


  • The creation of social media as an example has in many cases reduced human productivity

  • Email is another example, you think the speed will save you time but the expectation to answer quickly has resulted in people spending too much time on email

  • Agriculture revolution made people more dependent on wheat which domesticated and restricted them as opposed to being hunter gatherers which allowed them to have more flexibility in their way of life

    • Agriculture caused humans to become stationary in a certain area to take care of wheat. Wheat and other framing given the amount of resources that goes into nurturing it has domesticated the human. Hunter gathers had much more flexibility to roam the world by living off what was present and available

  • In 1700s equality only meant same opportunities available for poor and rich but no structure and only helped white men

  • Slave trade started with Africa purely because it was closer then Asia and then it was easier to keep getting slaves from an existing market then a new one

  • Men biologically are not always stronger than women. Women are less susceptible to fatigue disease and famine then men

  • Money is the apathy of humans, it is the only trust system that removes any cultural gap and does not discriminate based on anything. Money allows anyone to cooperate with anyone

  • Money is based on two principles, convertibility and universal trust

  • Money allows strangers to cooperate easily and quickly

  • Money however does cause things to happen that didn’t happen before like children being sold to slavery, loyal knights being bought to betray their lords.

  • Sapiens are inherently xenophobic

  • Capitalism is what led Christopher Columbus to discover North America and for Armstrong to land on the moon

Three revolutions:

1. Cognitive revolution - 70,000 years ago

2. Agricultural revolution 12,000 years ago

3. Scientific revolution 5,000

  • Homo Neanderthals - Strong and bulky human

  • Homo Erectus - Durable humans around for a while

  • Why did some species of homo survive, and others die?

    • Evolution favored those that was able to create strong social ties

Interbreed vs Replace Theory

  • Interbreed: Humans are not pure bred, mix of Sapiens and Neanderthals

  • Replacement theory that Sapiens replaced Neanderthals

  • 1-4% of the unique populations in the middle east and Europe has Neanderthal DNA

  • What allowed homo sapiens to out preform other creatures is our ability to communicate with each other in long detail.

    • People able to communicate eloquently is a key skill that allowed us to succeed over other animals

    • Monkey: "There is danger" vs Human: "There is a lion on the side of the bridge but it is a baby lion so don’t worry too much but be careful"

Religion

  • In reality religion has been an immense unifier

  • The larger the society the more fragile it is

  • Gives super human legitimacy to these fragile structures

  • Fundamental belief for all religions:

    • A superhuman order, which is not the product of humans

    • Establishes rules which are binding

  • Must possess 2 further qualities

    • Must be universal

    • Must be missionary

  • Romans are known for killing Christians and killed a couple thousand Christians due to them not following the empire; however, Christians have wiped out more than millions of each other based on subtle different interpretations of the religion

    • Catholics - believe you must do good deeds to others to be led into heaven

    • Protestants - believe you must follow and worship Jesus and will be allowed to go into heaven

  • You cannot explain the human race without science but also without the humanities that create our social connection - Sapiens does a phenomenal job showing us how that is all linked

    • Need to understand we are part of the animal kingdom but we also do have key differences to them in how we connect with one another

  • This is the issue with academic institutions they make people specialize in either the sciences or the humanities but do not allow students to be able to simultaneously learn and interweave the two

  • As an example history PhDs are forced to learn about such a small event within human history because nobody can truly write a PhD on the history of the world and this causes people to think so narrowly and miss the larger picture preventing us from looking at the future holistically as well

  • Publish and perish is a poor mentality that prevents academics from exploring things outside their narrow field and to make broader connections that are more useful for humanity

    • Yuval only was able to expand beyond is focus after he got Tenure and saw job stability

  • You can now summarize 150 years of biology since Darwin in three words today: "Organisms or Algorithms"

  • Humans became the dominant species we are today because of our ability to create myths and tell stories

  • We may have been better off before the industrial revolution and agriculture revolution

    • At some point, humans stopped foraging and started farming. This was good for the overall quantity of humans, but it wasn’t good for individual people. Compared to foragers, peasants worked longer hours with higher risk of disease and malnutrition (immobile villages are dirty, and a wheat diet is less healthy than an omnivorous one), all for the benefit of potentially more food.

  • Religion may be just another method humans use for organizing society, similar to politics or economics

Quotes:

  • "Large numbers of strangers can cooperate successfully by believing in common myths. Any large-scale human cooperation – whether a modern state, a medieval church, an ancient city or an archaic tribe – is rooted in common myths that exist only in people’s collective imagination.... How do you cause people to believe in an imagined order such as Christianity, democracy or capitalism? First, you never admit that the order is imagined...."

  • "Happiness does not really depend on objective conditions of either wealth, health or even community. Rather, it depends on the correlation between objective conditions and subjective expectations."

  • "Is there anything more dangerous than dissatisfied and irresponsible gods who don’t know what they want?...You could never convince a monkey to give you a banana by promising him limitless bananas after death in monkey heaven."

  • "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 family, and a sense that life is not worth living without really good wine and expensive holidays abroad"

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