Sapiens summary


Rating: 10/10

Author: Yuval Noah Harari Read The Original

High-Level Thoughts

A masterpiece. One of the greatest books I have ever read. There was so much hype around this book and now I understand why. Yuval Harari is truly a genius and one of the greatest minds teaching in the 21st century. So many of my preconceptions of history, capitalism, religion, etc were ripped apart. There are very few books that are able to fundamentally change the way I look at every facet in my left and Sapiens was able to do many times over. I recommend this book to everybody because it is 100% worth every penny and second you spend on it.

Sapiens Summary

  • Crash course on the past 200,000 years of human existence, from our hunter-gatherer days to the creation of the internet.
  • Debunks the misconceptions we have about imperialism, religion, capitalism happiness and so much more.
  • How the irresponsible behavior of human beings that have led to the extinction of thousands of species, and the horrendous mistreatment of the animals we consume and their environments.

Part One The Cognitive Revolution

  • Species that evolved from a common ancestor are bunched together under the heading ‘genus’
  • Homo sapiens – the species sapiens (wise) of the genus Homo (man).
  • The truth is that from about 2 million years ago until around 10,000 years ago, the world was home, at one and the same time, to several human species.
  • Homo sapiens conquered the world thanks above all to its unique language.
  • But once the threshold of 150 individuals is crossed, things can no longer work that way.
  • Large numbers of strangers can cooperate successfully by believing in common myths.
  • Two Catholics who have never met can go together on crusade or pool funds to build a hospital
  • Peugeot belongs to a particular genre of legal fictions called ‘limited liability companies’.
  • the UN, Libya and human rights are all figments of our fertile imaginations.
  • The Cognitive Revolution is accordingly the point when history declared its independence from biology.
  • The Stone Age should more accurately be called the Wood Age because most of the tools used by ancient hunter-gatherers were made of wood.
  • There is some evidence that the size of the average Sapiens brain has actually decreased since the age of foraging. Survival in that era required superb mental abilities from everyone.
  • The foragers’ secret of success, which protected them from starvation and malnutrition, was their varied diet.
  • Experts to define pre-agricultural forager societies as ‘the original affluent societies’.
  • the Sungir children are among the best pieces of evidence that 30,000 years ago Sapiens could invent sociopolitical codes that went far beyond the dictates of our DNA
  • foragers completely reshaped the ecology of our planet long before the first agricultural village was built.
  • The journey of the first humans to Australia is one of the most important events in history,
  • Large animals – the primary victims of the Australian extinction – breed slowly. Of the twenty-four Australian animal species weighing 100 pounds or more, twenty-three became extinct.
  • During the last million years, there has been an ice age on average every 100,000 years.
  • The elephant birds and the giant lemurs, along with most of the other large animals of Madagascar, suddenly vanished about 1,500 years ago – precisely when the first humans set foot on the island.
  • Don’t believe tree-huggers who claim that our ancestors lived in harmony with nature. Long before the Industrial Revolution, Homo sapiens held the record among all organisms for driving the most plant and animal species to their extinction.

Part Two The Agricultural Revolution

  • People in Central America domesticated maize and beans without knowing anything about wheat and pea cultivation in the Middle East.
  • The average farmer worked harder than the average forager, and got a worse diet in return. The Agricultural Revolution was history’s biggest fraud.
  • The culprits were a handful of plant species, including wheat, rice and potatoes. These plants domesticated Homo sapiens, rather than vice versa.
  • If the rains failed or clouds of locusts arrived or if a fungus-infected that staple species, peasants died by the thousands and millions.
  • In time, human violence was brought under control through the development of larger social frameworks – cities, kingdoms, and states.
  • Cultivating wheat provided much more food per unit of territory, and thereby enabled Homo sapiens to multiply exponentially.
  • If a species boasts many DNA copies, it is a success, and the species flourishes. From such a perspective, 1,000 copies are always better than a hundred copies. This is the essence of the Agricultural Revolution: the ability to keep more people alive under worse conditions.
  • As more effort was directed towards cereal cultivation, there was less time to gather and hunt wild species. The foragers became farmers.
  • Giving up the nomadic lifestyle enabled women to have a child every year.
  • 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?
  • 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. What are they supposed to do, go back to digging up roots? No, they double their efforts and keep slaving away.
  • Once people get used to a certain luxury, they take it for granted. Then they begin to count on it. Finally they reach a point where they can’t live without.
  • This discrepancy between evolutionary success and individual suffering is perhaps the most important lesson we can draw from the Agricultural Revolution. The Agricultural Revolution made the future far more important than it had ever been before. Farmers must always keep the future in mind and must work in its service.
  • History is something that very few people have been doing while everyone else was ploughing fields and carrying water buckets.
  • Evolution is based on difference, not on equality.
  • 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.
  • Imagined orders are not evil conspiracies or useless mirages. Rather, they are the only way large numbers of humans can cooperate effectively.
  • If people realise that human rights exist only in the imagination, isn’t there a danger that our society will collapse? Voltaire said about God that ‘there is no God, but don’t tell that to my servant, lest he murder me at night’.
  • Like Hammurabi's Code, the American founding document promises that if humans act according to its sacred principles, millions of them would be able to cooperate effectively, living safely and peacefully in a prosperous society. Just as the declaration believed in a God, Hammurabi's code created in 1776 BC was founded on believing in multiple Gods.
  • American democracy would not have lasted almost 250 years if the majority of presidents and congressmen failed to believe in human rights. The modern economic system would not have lasted a single day if the majority of investors and bankers failed to believe in capitalism.
  • Romanticism, which encourages variety, meshes perfectly with consumerism. The tourism industry does not sell flight tickets and hotel bedrooms, it sells experiences.
  • Like the elite of ancient Egypt, most people in most cultures dedicate their lives to building pyramids. Only the names, shapes and sizes of these pyramids change from one culture to the other.
  • Between the years 3500 BC and 3000 BC, some unknown Sumerian geniuses invented a system for storing and processing information outside their brains, one that was custom-built to handle large amounts of mathematical data.

Part Three The Unification of Humankind

  • Equality can be ensured only by curtailing the freedoms of those who are better off. Guaranteeing that every individual will be free to do as he wishes inevitably short-changes equality.
  • Democrats want a more equitable society, even if it means raising taxes to fund programmes to help the poor, elderly and infirm. But that infringes on the freedom of individuals to spend their money as they wish. Why should the government force me to buy health insurance if I prefer using the money to put my kids through college?
  • Republicans, on the other hand, want to maximise individual freedom, even if it means that the income gap between rich and poor will grow wider and that many Americans will not be able to afford health care.
  • Cognitive Dissonance is often considered a failure of the human psyche. In fact, it is a vital asset. Had people been unable to hold contradictory beliefs and values, it would probably have been impossible to establish and maintain any human culture. Freedom vs equality, Christianity loving your neighbors, but at the same waging crusades and killing millions.
  • The first universal order to appear was economic: the monetary order. The second universal order was political: the imperial order. The third universal order was religious: the order of universal religions
  • More than 90 per cent of all money – more than $50 trillion appearing in our accounts – exists only on computer servers.
  • The crucial role of trust explains why our financial systems are so tightly bound up with our political, social and ideological systems, why financial crises are often triggered by political developments, and why the stock market can rise or fall depending on the way traders feel on a particular morning.
  • Merchants travelling between India and the Mediterranean would notice the difference in the value of gold. In order to make a profit, they would buy gold cheaply in India and sell it dearly in the Mediterranean. Consequently, the demand for gold in India would skyrocket, as would its value. At the same time the Mediterranean would experience an influx of gold, whose value would consequently drop.
  • 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
  • People rely on money to facilitate cooperation with strangers, but they’re afraid it will corrupt human values and intimate relations. With one hand people willingly destroy the communal dams that held at bay the movement of money and commerce for so long. Yet with the other hand they build new dams to protect society, religion and the environment from enslavement to market forces.
  • THE ANCIENT ROMANS WERE USED TO being defeated. Like the rulers of most of history’s great empires, they could lose battle after battle but still win the war. An empire that cannot sustain a blow and remain standing is not really an empire.
  • The chief goddess of Celtic Ireland prior to the coming of Christianity was Brigid. When Ireland was Christianised, Brigid too was baptized. She became St Brigit, who to this day is the most revered saint in Catholic Ireland.
  • Suffering is caused by the behaviour patterns of one’s own mind.
  • Great gods can send us rain, social institutions can provide justice and good health care, and lucky coincidences can turn us into millionaires, but none of them can change our basic mental patterns.
  • A person who does not crave cannot suffer.
  • the only way to be liberated from craving is to train the mind to experience reality as it is.
  • The first principle of monotheist religions is ‘God exists. What does He want from me?’ The first principle of Buddhism is ‘Suffering exists. How do I escape it?’
  • Scientists studying the inner workings of the human organism have found no soul there. They increasingly argue that human behaviour is determined by hormones, genes and synapses, rather than by free will
  • It is an iron rule of history that what looks inevitable in hindsight was far from obvious at the time. Today is no different. Are we out of the global economic crisis, or is the worst still to come?
  • one chaos is chaos that does not react to predictions about it. The weather, for example, is a level one chaotic system.
  • Level two chaos is chaos that reacts to predictions about it, and therefore can never be predicted accurately. Markets, for example, are a level two chaotic system.
  • Memetics -> evolution is based on the replication of organic information units called ‘genes’, so cultural evolution is based on the replication of cultural information units called ‘memes’.
  • Postmodernist thinkers speak about discourses rather than memes as the building blocks of culture.

Part Four: The Scientific Revolution

  • Statistic courses are now part of the basic requirements not just in physics and biology, but also in psychology, sociology, economics and political science.
  • Truth is a poor test for knowledge. The real test is utility. A theory that enables us to do new things constitutes knowledge.
  • the US Department of Defense is transferring millions of dollars to nanotechnology and brain laboratories for work on these and other such ideas.
  • Gunpowder was invented accidentally, by Daoist alchemists searching for the elixir of life.
  • The story of the Tower of Babel, the story of Icarus, the story of the Golem and countless other myths taught people that any attempt to go beyond human limitations would inevitably lead to disappointment and disaster.
  • if the proper funding were unavailable, no intellectual brilliance could have compensated for that.
  • The feedback loop between science, empire and capital has arguably been history’s chief engine
  • In 1775 Asia accounted for 80 per cent of the world economy.
  • modern science began as a European speciality, but is today becoming a multi-ethnic enterprise.
  • Both scientist and conqueror began by admitting ignorance – they both said, ‘I don’t know what’s out there.’ They both felt compelled to go out and make new discoveries.
  • There is poetic justice in the fact that a quarter of the world, and two of its seven continents, are named after a little-known Italian whose sole claim to fame is that he had the courage to say, ‘We don’t know.’
  • There are very few scientific disciplines that did not begin their lives as servants to imperial growth and that do not owe a large proportion of their discoveries, collections, buildings and scholarships to the generous help of army officers, navy captains and imperial governors.
  • Banks are allowed to loan $10 for every dollar they actually possess, which means that 90 percent of all the money in our bank accounts is not covered by actual coins and notes.
  • What enables banks – and the entire economy – to survive and flourish is our trust in the future. This trust is the sole backing for most of the money in the world.
  • If the global pie stayed the same size, there was no margin for credit. Credit is the difference between today’s pie and tomorrow’s pie = zero sum game
  • Because credit was limited, people had trouble financing new businesses. Because there were few new businesses, the economy did not grow. Because it did not grow, people assumed it never would, and those who had capital were wary of extending credit. The expectation of stagnation fulfilled itself.
  • That’s why capitalism is called ‘capitalism’. Capitalism distinguishes ‘capital’ from mere ‘wealth’. Capital consists of money, goods and resources that are invested in production. Wealth, on the other hand, is buried in the ground or wasted on unproductive activities.
  • The Mississippi Bubble was one of history’s most spectacular financial crashes.
  • Most people don’t appreciate just how peaceful an era we live in.
  • The decline of violence is due largely to the rise of the state.
  • The industrial revolution brought the adaptation of a time everyone adhered to because factories workers all started and ended at the same time, buses would have to adhere to this and pubs as well.
  • Biggest change was shift from family and community life to government/market life.
  • Before we married people in our communities -> married people outside our community within the country -> now a French vegetarian is more likely to marry a german vegetarian than a French carnivore.
  • Prophets, poets and philosophers realised thousands of years ago that being satisfied with what you already have is far more important than getting more of what you want.
  • Some scholars compare human biochemistry to an air-conditioning system that keeps the temperature constant, come heatwave or snowstorm. Events might momentarily change the temperature, but the air-conditioning system always returns the temperature to the same set point.
  • History can change the external stimuli that cause serotonin to be secreted, yet it does not change the resulting serotonin levels, and hence it cannot make people happier.
  • Lasting happiness comes only from serotonin, dopamine and oxytocin.
  • A meaningful life can be extremely satisfying even in the midst of hardship, whereas a meaningless life is a terrible ordeal no matter how comfortable it is.
  • The scientist who says her life is meaningful because she increases the store of human knowledge, the soldier who declares that his life is meaningful because he fights to defend his homeland, and the entrepreneur who finds meaning in building a new company are no less delusional than their medieval counterparts who found meaning in reading scriptures, going on a crusade or building a new cathedral.
  • Imagine that a psychologist embarks on a study of happiness among drug users. He polls them and finds that they declare, every single one of them, that they are only happy when they shoot up. Would the psychologist publish a paper declaring that heroin is the key to happiness?
  • The problem, according to Buddhism, is that our feelings are no more than fleeting vibrations, changing every moment, like the ocean waves. If five minutes ago I felt joyful and purposeful, now these feelings are gone, and I might well feel sad and dejected. So if I want to experience pleasant feelings, I have to constantly chase them, while driving away the unpleasant feelings. Even if I succeed, I immediately have to start all over again, without ever getting any lasting reward for my troubles.
  • Buddhism, the key to happiness is to know the truth about yourself – to understand who, or what, you really are. Most people wrongly identify themselves with their feelings, thoughts, likes and dislikes.
  • Mapping the first human genome required fifteen years and $3 billion. Today you can map a person’s DNA within a few weeks and at the cost of a few hundred dollars.20
  • Physicists define the Big Bang as a singularity. It is a point at which all the known laws of nature did not exist. Time too did not exist. It is thus meaningless to say that anything existed ‘before’ the Big Bang.
  • The only thing we can try to do is to influence the direction scientists are taking. But since we might soon be able to engineer our desires too, the real question facing us is not ‘What do we want to become?’, but ‘What do we want to want?’ Those who are not spooked by this question probably haven’t given it enough thought.

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