Sapiens

Author: Yuval Harari

Published: 2015 (416 pages)

Starting reading: 12.August.2016

Finished reading: 19.August.2016


Brief description

No mention of Churchill in this book, and only fleeting references to Caesar and Alexander the Great. So too, zero nods to Charlemagne and Attila, and you won’t find the names of Joan of Arc or Mandela anywhere. Nothing of Marie Curie or Aung San Suu Ki.

This isn’t a history of great men or women, it’s an examination of our species.

Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind discusses the English Empire, wars ancient and modern, medieval France and the Huns, apartheid South Africa, democracy in Asia, and the Scientific Revolution, but all from an oblique “spy satellite” perspective, as if an alien was observing the bizarre, meteoric and often bloody rise of a particular species (Homo Sapiens, us) from its homeland on the plains of Africa to global domination and the subjugation of all other species.

hand
“A human handprint made about 30, 000 years ago, on the wall of the Chauvet-Pont-Cave in southern France. Somebody tried to say, ‘I was here!'” – Yuval Harari, Sapiens

Author Yuval Harari structures Sapiens along three breakthroughs or “revolutions” of our species: cognitive, agricultural and scientific. The cognitive revolution describes how, 70, 000 years ago, sharing the earth with a number of other human species in our genus (Neanderthal, Homo floresiensus, Denisovan etc), what was probably a genetic mutation in a Sapiens brain allowed us the ability to communicate.

What was special about our language was not just that we could communicate larger chunks of information than, for example, some species of monkey, whose speech is limited to messages like “Look out! An Eagle”, but that we could speak in fiction. We have the ability to talk about things that aren’t really there.

Crucially, this enabled us to organise in groups larger than our genetically mandated tribes of about 150 people, because we could gather around myths: the nation-state, religion, money etc etc.

About 60, 000 years after the cognitive came the agricultural revolution, and this Harari describes as wheat domesticating us rather than vice versa. It was progress of a kind. Settling down on farms and cultivating plants and animals might have resulted in a subjectively worse experience for an individual Sapiens, who worried more and ate poorer than his hunter-forager ancestors, but as a species it enabled us time and resources to build cities, ideas and eventually science.

The book is full of truth bombs and orthogonal ways of thinking. One idea that I liked, for instance, is the thought that classism is our generation’s version of racism. Both prejudices involve judgements of people based on imagined inferiority. In the case of classism, it’s the idea that poor people somehow lack merit, when really being born into poor circumstances and limited opportunity are the key determinants. Just as with racial segregation in apartheid South or pre-civil rights America, today we see enclaves of rich and poor – private schools and hospitals, gated communities and the like.

Sapiens finishes by ruminating on the future of our species, how we can find happiness, and whether biotechnological breakthroughs will mean that in the future we may no longer be us.

An awesome book, superbly written and a must-read for anyone interested in the world.


Actionable insights

> The best way to debunk religious belief is, ironically, to study history. Once you see how religions developed, the diversity (and mutual exclusivity) of beliefs the world over, and that the major world religions are syncretic, you start to doubt that certain books are divinely inspired and you begin to understand how arbitrary it all is.

> Keep in mind that all political beliefs and social conventions are imaginary orders. This seems kind of obvious, but this insight is hard to grasp. Even seemingly just theories like liberal humanism are Homo Sapiens fictions – humans are not inherently equal or special. We choose to hold these truths as self-evident. But nothing in our biology indicates political or social truths. Understanding that almost everything in life is based off an imaginary order is important because it liberates you to being unconventional/entrepreneurial when you need to be and encourages you to call into question (and therefore better defend) even your most basic beliefs.

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