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Sapiens is a book which “does what it says on the tin” - it is a brief history of humankind. Yuval Noah Harari guides the reader through the history of humankind from our hunter-gatherer ancestors to modern-day consumers. Harari argues there have been three defining revolutions that occurred in our history which have irreversibly shaped our society and the environment around us. Finally, Harari makes some predictions about the future of human society by extrapolating recent advances in science, highlighting some tough ethical decisions humankind will have to face as we become masters of our environment and our biology.
Human society has been shaped by three major revolutions: the Cognitive Revolution; the Agricultural Revolution and the Scientific Revolution.
Each has had a lasting and irreversible(?) impact on society and the world around us.
The Cognitive Revolution occurred 70,000 years ago when humans learned to gain control of their surroundings (e.g. via fire) and developed superior forms of communication to allow large numbers of strangers to cooperate successfully.
The Agricultural Revolution occurred around 12,000 years ago with the advent of farming and the domestication of crops and animals. Human society changed from hunter-gatherer nomads to increasingly large settlements. This was the first time humans built up surplus (wealth) and led to the emergence of hierarchical societies. Harari argues that during the Agricultural Revolution, individuals became worse off, however, society as a whole could flourish.
The Scientific Revolution occurred 500 years ago. This was as much a revolution in thinking as it was a revolution in knowledge. The realisation that you must first admit ignorance before you can make technological progress turbo charged global growth.
Who should read it?
Anyone who has an interest in learning about the journey of humankind and the key events that have shaped our current globalised and capitalist society - it hasn’t always been this way…
Believing in common ‘myths’ and values is vital for our functioning society
- Throughout history, humans have invented many ‘myths’ and intangible concepts which allow us to collaborate effectively in large numbers. This is unique amongst the animal kingdom.
- For example, the invention of money. Money only has value because we believe it has value yet it enables people of all languages, cultures and creeds to trade effectively with each other.
- Limited liability companies are another example. While we don’t normally think about it, a ‘company’ is an intangible entity - it is not a physical thing. It is a concept imagined and enshrined in our legal framework but it is a highly effective mechanism allowing many employees, investors and customers (who can be complete strangers to one another) collaborate and work together under a common brand.
Many times throughout human history society has fallen victim to unforeseen consequences of seemingly logical actions
- “DNA replicates via survival of the fittest, not necessarily survival of the ‘happiest’"
- During the agricultural revolution, humans traded a nomadic hunter-gatherer lifestyle for a more static and labour intensive farming regime. This was logical as it allowed humans to generate a surplus of food and sustain higher populations. However, this came at the detriment of individuals who on the whole had a less varied diet, were subjected to greater levels of disease and a more laborious life working the fields. These unforeseen consequences were only realised many generations later by which time it was too late to turn back.
- A modern-day example could be the rapid adoption of technology to make our lives more ‘convenient’ and save us time. However, in reality, we fill our newfound time with other stuff and lead life at a much faster pace which increases stress and anxiety. Are we really any better off and ‘happier’ than our grandparents were before internet technology?
- Today, I fear we might be living through another transition with unforeseen consequences. Working from home. I love the freedom of working from home, saving time and money on commuting. However, I already notice I am working longer hours as it is easy to continue working in the evenings and there is an increasing culture of instant messaging as colleagues know you are never too far away from your computer. Is this another case where we were perhaps better off in the office - even with its downsides? At least it is the devil you know!
We are living through truly revolutionary times
- The world of even 20 years ago would be unrecognisable to young teenagers of today. Almost every year we have a revolutionary new product or leap forward in technology.
- Looking back through history, changes in technology and society occurred at a glacial pace - it was very common for nothing substantial to change in one’s lifetime. Today, global GDP grows at roughly 2% a year. Over the course of our lifetime 2% compounding growth leads to a very large number. The world will be unrecognisable once again in 2050.
- Sometimes I think we forget just how fast the world is moving in the context of human history. Similar to the observation in the second takeaway, I wonder if the speed of change will lead to any unforeseen consequences. All of which will, of course, be obvious in hindsight.
Top 3 Quotes
“Large numbers of strangers can cooperate successfully by believing in common myths”
“The Scientific Revolution has not been a revolution of knowledge. It has been above all a revolution of ignorance. The great discovery that launched the Scientific Revolution was the discovery that humans do not know the answers to their most important questions.”
“…happiness is synchronising one’s personal delusions of meaning with the prevailing collective delusions. As long as my personal narrative is in line with the narratives of the people around me, I can convince myself that my life is meaningful, and find happiness in that conviction. This is quite a depressing conclusion. Does happiness really depend on self-delusion?”
- Humans are born prematurely compared to most species. As humans are born underdeveloped, they have a long period in which to be looked after by parents. During this time they can be educated and socialised to a far greater extent than any other animal. This helps develop communication skills and transfer of knowledge.
- Social cooperation is key for survival and reproduction. Our language evolved as much as a way to form social interactions as it was to warn of dangers (e.g. watch out, there is a lion hiding in the grass). Many other animals, such as monkeys, have calls for describing dangers, however, humans are unique in using language for social interactions (e.g. gossip).
- Large numbers of strangers can cooperate successfully by believing in common myths. For example, religion, money, limited liability companies etc. Fiction has enabled us not to merely imagine things, but to do so collectively. This is potentially why culture is so important and so emotive - people who share the same cultures and values are able to work together more effectively.
- Humans did not settle in New Zealand until AD 1200 - this was surprising to me as that is relatively recently!
- The Agricultural Revolution generally resulted in poorer conditions for individuals. They had a less varied diet, they were more susceptible to disease and worked for longer hours in the fields leading to physical ailments. However, society as a whole was better off as more people could be sustained with the higher quantity of food production.
- There is a discrepancy between evolutionary success and individual suffering. DNA replicates via survival of the fittest, not necessarily survival of the ‘happiest’. Farmers likely had tougher lives than hunter-gathers, however, from a DNA replication point of view, agricultural societies were more successful as they could sustain more people - potentially at the detriment of the individuals themselves.
- Over time “Luxuries tend to become necessities and to spawn new obligations”. While humans thought they were making the right choice by gaining the ability to generate a surplus of food, they condemned themselves to long days working in fields, rather than the more leisurely life of hunter-gathers. In a similar way, in modern society, we have a number of tools and services to make our lives ‘easier’ and give us more time. However, we inevitably fill this newly gained time with more ‘stuff’ and end up increasing the speed of life making us more anxious and agitated.
- Consumerism tells that in order to be happy we must consume as many products and services as possible. Consumerism is a relatively new phenomenon. In previous societies it was a virtue to be content with what you had. In modern society we are always told there is something missing from our lives and this particular product or service will fill this gap.
- “Hierarchies serve an important function. They enable complete strangers to know how to treat one another without wasting the time and energy needed to become personally acquainted.”
- In modern society, social equality and individual freedom are seen as fundamental values. However, the two values contradict each other. Equality can be ensured only by curtailing the freedoms of those who are better off. This contradiction is inevitably the cause of much friction in society. Most people agree it is abhorrent to have a hierarchy based on race, however, it is normal and accepted to have a hierarchy based on wealth. Why are some hierarchies which breed inequality acceptable and others aren’t?
- As the world becomes more and more interconnected, society will converge to a single ‘mega-culture’. Historically, there were thousands of cultures independent of each other except for contact with a few local tribes. For example, the Aztecs were blissfully unaware of Europeans (until 1519). Today, almost all humans share the same (or very similar) geopolitical, economic and legal systems.
- Our ability to trust in common currency (money) allows humans to trade effectively. Money is coins and banknotes, it is anything that people are willing to use in order to systematically represent the value of something for the purpose of exchanging goods and services.
- The scientific revolution occurred from about AD 1500 and was a revolution of ignorance as much as it was a revolution of knowledge. Before this period, humans generally doubted their ability to obtain new medical, military and economic powers - if something needed to be known, it should have been described in religious scriptures, why doubt the omniscience of God? Admitting you do not know everything allows you to explore new ideas and challenge existing methods of doing things.
- Along with the scientific revolution, the creation of economic systems led to great advances in society. The wide adoption of ‘credit’ in particular increased the ability of people to invest in the future. “Credit enables us to build the present at the expense of the future. It’s founded on the assumption that our future resources are sure to be far more abundant than our present resources…. Credit is the difference between today’s pie and tomorrow’s pie”.
- By many metrics, we live in the most peaceful society in human history (despite the 24-hour news cycle and focus on negative headlines). For most of history, most wealth has consisted of physical items e.g. fields, cattle, gold etc. so it was easy for invading nations to loot and occupy. Today, wealth consists mainly of human capital and intellectual property. It is difficult to invade and exploit these intangible assets - if you invaded California what would you do when all of Google’s engineers migrate to a different country? Consequently, it has never been more profitable to develop peaceful trading relations with countries rather than invading them.
- Happiness is largely determined by two factors: genetics and expectations. Some people are genetically predisposed to being more happy than others, as they generate larger amounts of dopamine. However, expectations and comparisons play a significant role in how happy people are. Outside influences brought on by global media and advertising mean we can compare ourselves to everyone in the world, not just our neighbours. Now you can see and compare yourself to the smartest, fastest, most beautiful people in the world, not just your small community which will inevitably lead to an inferiority complex. Our ancient ancestors had already worked this out - “prophets, poets and philosophers realised thousands of years ago that what you already have is far more important than getting more than what you want”
- “Happiness is synchronising one’s personal delusions of meaning with the prevailing collective delusions” - as long as your personal narrative is in line with other peoples expectations you can convince yourself that life is meaningful and in turn you find happiness in that conviction. Unfortunately, this rather depressing conclusion hits close to home.
- We are living through an exceptional time in human history. Every year is revolutionary - the world is changing so rapidly, the world of 30 years ago is alien to teenagers of today both in terms of technology but also society’s attitudes and culture. For most of human history, social and technological change progressed at glacial rates compared to today’s standards.