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Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind

by Yuval Noah Harari

read in Sep 2021

book info on goodreads

Harari’s book Sapiens is the most exciting history book I’ve ever read. It constructs a compelling argument about the intertwinement of history, culture, and the human species. The core idea of Sapiens rests on the thesis that with the rise of homo sapiens, humans became the first species that entered a dual reality of the physical world and the socially constructed, imagined world of religions, ideologies, and societies. Because the first reality is rooted in biology, changes depend on genetic mutations and are extremely slow. Because the second reality is socially constructed, changes in that world do not require genetic mutations and can thus come about rapidly. The stories that constitute an imagined reality can be passed on to future generations much quicker and easier than mutations in the genetic code. Myths and stories are what allowed humans to coordinate and collaborate in large numbers compared to the relatively small numbers of animals or hunter-gatherer tribes.

Culture is the diversity of these imagined realities of myths and stories. History, then, is the ongoing change and development of cultures. Today, most developments in the world that are concerned with humans can be explained through cultural and historical narratives rather than biological theories.

“To understand the rise of Christianity or the French Revolution, it is not enough to comprehend the interaction of genes hormones and organisms. It is necessary to take into account the interaction of ideas, images and fantasies as well.”

Cultures are in constant flux. They undergo transformation both from within and from the outside. Importantly, cultures are propelled forward to change through contradictions and discord in thought; different ideas and values compel us to re-think and re-evaluate.

The second revolution that Sapiens is concerned with is the Agricultural Revolution. The agricultural revolution radically changed people’s lives by making them permanently settled and requiring much more time from them than what was needed for hunting and gathering. From a purely evolutionary perspective, the agricultural revolution was a big success both for humans as it allowed more humans to be fed and for plants as few species (e.g., rice, wheat, cows, chicken) were able to significantly increase their population. From that perspective more copies of the same DNA under worse environmental conditions are better than fewer copies under better conditions. In other words, individual happiness and suffering was severely changed during that time by making lives for farmers much more miserable than it was previously for hunters and gatherers.

“The average farmer worked harder than the average forager, and got a worse diet in return. The Agricultural Revolution was history’s biggest fraud. Who was responsible? Neither kings, nor priests, nor merchants. The culprits were a handful of plant species, including wheat, rice and potatoes. These plants domesticated Homo sapiens, rather than vice versa.”

Because the agricultural revolution with all the change it brought about happened so quickly, humans had no time to adjust on a genetical level. Instead, the cooperation networks that were required for farming projects and organisation in cities to succeed were based on imagined orders. Imagined orders such as laws, ideologies, and religions are not objectively true, but enable humans to cooperate effectively in large societies.

Large societies require a much larger capability to process and store information, especially mathematical data. This capability emerged as the ability to write. Writing has significantly altered the way humans think, by making them view the world in terms of bureaucratic categories and through mathematical script.

“Writing was born as the maidservant of human consciousness, but is increasingly becoming its master. Our computers have trouble understanding how Homo sapiens talks, feels and dreams. So we are teaching Homo sapiens to talk, feel and dream in the language of numbers, which can be understood by computers. And this is not the end of the story. The field of artificial intelligence is seeking to create a new kind of intelligence based solely on the binary script of computers.”

Imagined orders and scripts filled the biological gaps that enabled humans to organise in mass-cooperation networks. Historically, imagined orders come with imagined categories in which humans are being classified. These categories are seldom just and often discriminate. For example, biology only knows male and female. Culture knows man and woman (and non-binary categories in some cultures), but the terms man and woman come with a lot of cultural baggage and not every male is a man and every female is a woman.

Sapiens is primarily a book about history. Harari makes several interesting arguments about the study of history.

“What is the difference between describing ‘how’ and explaining ‘why’? To describe ‘how’ means to reconstruct the series of specific events that led from one point to another. To explain ‘why’ means to find causal connections that account for the occurrence of this particular series of events to the exclusion of all others.”

This distinction between how and why makes historical analyses become more difficult the more one knows about a particular phenomenon or event. That is, the more one is able to answer the how question, the more difficult it becomes to answer the why question. For those who have only a superficial understanding of the history, the one path that history took appears as obvious, but for the knowledgeable historian it becomes less and less obvious why one path was chosen over the myriad of potential other paths. History is not deterministic. The future is unknown and difficult if not impossible to predict. Examples are the advent of the nuclear age in the 1940s (that did not happen) or the colonisation of the solar system by 2000 (which did not happen) or the emergence of the Internet (which no one predicted). External forces constrain its development, but leave ample room for serendipitous developments.

“A ‘horizon of possibilities’ means the entire spectrum of beliefs, practices and experiences that are open before a particular society, given its ecological, technological and cultural limitations.”

This becomes even more difficult because many cultures behave as level 2 chaotic systems (or performative phenomena). They are systems that cannot be predicted because they react to predictions about them and thereby prohibit accurate predictions. Studying history is nevertheless important not because it allows us to make predictions about the future but to understand the conditions that brought the current situation into being. More importantly, it sensitises us to the myriad of other possibilities that could have been possible and thus encourages us to question the assumptions underlying our current cultures and societies and that they may well be otherwise. Also because the dynamics of history and culture are not always directed toward human betterment.