Sapiens is one of the few books I have in hard copy because it’s a book I refer to often. Personally, the significance of Sapiens comes in two-fold:
First, it helped me make sense of the world (e.g. how to think about religion/ideology, politics and capitalism) in ways that other books and people couldn’t. I have never taken an interest in history before Sapiens. It captivated me because it is punchy and relevant. The elementary framework on humankind offered by Yuval is useful and applicable in going about your daily business, enabling you to see the world through a different lens.
Second, it didn’t shy away from tackling the tougher questions, including ‘despite all the advancements, are we happier today than our ancestors?’ Which falls squarely within the realm of my obsession.
Timeline of history
- 2.5 million years ago – Evolution of the genus Homo in Africa.
- 200,000 – Homo sapiens evolve in East Africa. Species sapiens (wise) of the genus Homo (man)
- 70,000 – Cognitive Revolution
- 30,000 – extinction of Neanderthals
- 13,000 – Homo sapiens the last surviving human species
- 12,000 – Agricultural Revolution
- 500 – Scientific Revolution. Rise of capitalism
- 200 years ago – Industrial Revolution. State and market replacing family and community.
The Cognitive Revolution
- It takes a tribe to raise a human.
- Humans conquered the world thanks to above all its unique language.
- Fiction (our ability to imagine things that do no exist) enabled us not merely to imagine things, but to do so collectively. Such myths gave Sapiens the unprecedented ability to cooperate effectively in large numbers.
- A typical chimp troop consists of 20-50 individuals. Maximum natural size of a group bonded by gossip is about 150 individuals. So any large-scale human cooperation is rooted in common myth that exist only in people’s collective imagination.
- The human collective knows far more today than did the ancient bands. But at the individual level, ancient foragers were the most knowledgeable and skilful people in history.
- The journey of the first humans to Australia (45,000 years ago) is one of the most important events in history, who came from the Indonesian archipelago, the first people to developed seafaring societies. Important because the moment the first hunger-gatherers set foot on an Australian beach was the moment that Homo sapiens climbed to the top rung in the food chain on a particular landmass, leading to the extinction of the Australian mega fauna. Same thing happens in America 16,000 years ago.
- History record makes homo sapiens look like an ecological serial killer. Long before the industrial revolution, Homo sapiens held the record among all organisms for driving the most plant and animal species to their extinction.
- We did not domestic wheat. It domesticated us.
- Cultivating wheat provided much more food per unit of territory, and thereby enabled Homo sapiens to multiple exponentially. But evolutionary perspective is an incomplete measure of success. It judges everything by the criteria of survival and reproduction, with no regard for individual suffering and happiness.
- Luxuries tend to become necessities and spawn new obligations.
- With the agricultural revolution, attachment to ‘my house’ and separation from the neighbours became psychological hallmark of a much more self-centred creature.
- How did humans organise themselves in mass-cooperation networks, when they lacked the biological instincts necessary to sustain such networks?
- Humans created imagined orders and devised scripts to fill the gap left by biology.
- But there is no justice in these imagined orders or scripts, neither neutral nor fair.
- In order for an imagine orders to become one, it needs to claim to be natural and inevitable and everyone must believe it
- Biology enables, culture forbids. Whatever is possible is by definition also natural.
- From a biological perspective, nothing is unnatural. No culture has ever bothered to forbid men to photosynthesis, women to run faster than the speed of light, or negatively charged electrons to be attracted to each other.
- Unlike the laws of physics, which are free of inconsistencies, every man-made order is packed with internal contradictions. Cultures are constantly trying to reconcile these contradictions, and this process fuels change. Think equality vs individual freedom (free will – right to self determination).
- A male has one X and one Y chromosome and female has 2 Xs. There is some universal biological reason why almost all cultures valued manhood over womanhood. We do not know what this reason is.
The unification of humankind
- Human cultures are in constant flux. But this flux seems to have a direction, as history is moving relentlessly towards unity.
- Today, we are used to thinking about the whole planet as a single unit, but for most of history, each was in fact an entire galaxy of isolated human worlds.
- We study history not to know the future but to widen our horizons, to understand that our present situation is neither natural nor inevitable, and that we consequently have many more possibilities before us than we imagine.
The Scientific Revolution
- Over the past 500 years, human population increased 14x, production 240x and energy consumption 115x
- Sun’s energy that reaches Earth amounts to 3.7m exajoules of energy per year (joule = amount you expend to life a small apple one metre straight up and exajolule = a billion billion joules. Watt = joule per second). All the world’s plants capture only about 3,000 exajoules through photosynthesis. All human activities and industries put together consumer about 500 exajoules annually, equivalent to amount of energy received from sun in 90 minutes.
- The Scientific Revolution began with the discovery that humans do not know the answers to their most important Qs, we openly admit collective ignorance regarding the most important Qs
- Truth is a poor test for knowledge. The real test is utility. A theory that enables us to do new things constitutes knowledge.
- Most scientific studies are funded because someone believes they can help attain some political, economic or religious goal.
- Science can explain what exists in the world, how things work and what might be in the future. By definition, it has no pretensions to knowing what should be in the future. Only religion and ideologies seek to answer such questions.
- More than 90% of all money – more than $50 trillion appearing in our accounts – exists only on computer servers. History’s first known money is the Sumerian barley.
- Rise of British empire: In 1775 Asia accounted for 80% of the world economy, by 1900 European firmly controlled the world’s economy and most of its territory – owing to a culture embedded in the belief that we do not know everything and modern imperialism – military-industrial-scientific complex and technological wizardry. Chinese and Persians, while much more powerful at the time, couldn’t do what British did, because they lacked the values, myths, judicial apparatus and sociopolitical structures that took centuries to form and mature in the West, they simply organised their societies differently. European imperialists set out in the hope of obtaining new knowledge along with new territories.
- Capitalism: To understand modern economic history, you need to understand just a single world. The word is growth.
- What is money? Money is something that asks us to believe that other people believe in something. It is the apogee of human tolerance. Money is the only trust system created by humans that can bridge almost any cultural gap, and that does not discriminate on the basis of religion, gender, race, sex or sexual orientation. Even people who don’t know each other and don’t each other can nevertheless cooperate effectively. For although money builds universal trust between strangers, this trust is invested not in humans. We do not trust the strangers, or the next-door neighbour, we trust the coin they hold.
- What enables the entire economy to survive and flourish is our trust in the future.
- Credit is the difference between today’s pie and tomorrow’s pie.
- Profits of production must be reinvested in increasing production. Capitalism distinguishes capital from mere wealth. Capital consists of money, goods and resources that are invested in production.
- A country’s credit rating is far more important than its natural resources.
- The supreme commandment of the rich is ‘Invest!’ The supreme commandment of the rest of us is ‘Buy!’
- Modern industry sanctifies precision and uniformity.
- The most momentous social revolution: the collapse of the family and local community and their replacement by the state and market
- Liberation of the individual, offered by state and market, was an offer too good to refuse. But it comes at a cost, many of us now bewail the loss of strong families and communities. Millions of years of evolution have designed us to think and live as community members. Within a mere two centuries we have become alienated individuals.
- The late modern era has seen unprecedented levels not only of violence and horror, but also of peace and tranquility. While debatable whether violence within the states have increased or decreased since 1945, international violence has dropped to an all-time low.
- Since 1945, no independent country recognised by the UN has been conquered or wiped off the map. The tightening web of international connections erodes the independence of most countries, we are witnessing the formation of a global empire.
- Real peace is not the mere absence of war. Real peace is the implausibility of war.
- Shares thee basic insight that happiness results from processes occurring within one’s body, and not from events in the outside world
- Our feelings are no more than fleeting vibrations, changing every moment, like the ocean waves
- Real root of suffering is the never-ending and pointless pursuit of ephemeral feelings
- True happiness is also independent of our inner feelings
- Too many opportunities are opening too quickly and that our ability to modify genes is outpacing our capacity for making wise and far-sighted use of the skill.
- We may be fast approaching a new singularity, when all the concept that give meaning to our world – me, you, men, women, love and hate – will become irrelevant.
- History teaches us that what seems to be just around the corner may never materialise due to unforeseen barriers, and that other unimagined scenarios will in fact come to pass.
- What do we want? What do we want to become? We remain unsure of our goals and we seem to be as discontented as ever.
- Is there anything more dangerous than dissatisfied and irresponsible gods who don’t know what they want?