Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind

By Yuval Noah Harari, Published in 2014 by Harvill Secker  

It is hard to know where to start in describing this amazing book. It is so incredibly far reaching in its scope and relentlessly fascinating in its content, that when I finished the book I immediately turned back to page 1 to start again. It is the most captivating history lesson I’ve ever had, and I feel that I could read this book another 10 times and still have more to learn and understand from each reading.

100,000 years ago, at least 6 human species inhabited the earth. Today, there is just one. Us. Homo sapiens. This book is the fascinating story of our rise to power among the human species. What made us different? Why are we still here? What happened to the others?

Three important revolutions shaped the course of history: the Cognitive Revolution kick-started history about 70,000 years ago, the Agricultural Revolution sped it up about 12,000 years ago, and the Scientific Revolution started about 500 years ago. This book tells the story of how these three revolutions have affected humans.

Throughout the book, the author takes us on a journey of our development and shines a light on many historical events from an entirely different perspective from any I have read before. He reflects on history with a longer-term, evolutionary view.

Without trying to summarise the book, because that would be impossible, I’ve included below a few snippets which I found particularly interesting.

For instance, as humans, we tend to think of ourselves as the undisputed ruler of the food chain, but until quite recently, genus Homo’s position in the food chain was solidly in the middle. For millions of years, humans hunted smaller creatures, gathered what they could, living mainly on plants, scooping up insects and eating the carrion left behind by more powerful carnivores. It was only 400,000 years ago that several species of man began to hunt large game on a regular basis and only in the last 100,000 years – with the rise of Homo sapiens – that man jumped to the top of the food chain. An interesting perspective.

The Cognitive Revolution refers to the new ways of thinking and communicating which started about 70,000 years ago. The theory is that accidental genetic mutations changed the inner wiring of the brains of Sapiens enabling them to think in unprecedented ways and to communicate in a new type of language. As an example, our previous language abilities may have allowed us to communicate simplistically such as “Careful! A lion!” whereas the more supple and nuanced language that developed allowed Sapiens to communicate that one of their clan saw a lion hunting bison down near the bend in the river, so perhaps we should put together a hunting group and go down to the river, chase away the lion and hunt the bison.

Another key milestone in the development of Sapiens was the ability to believe in common myths. This allows us to believe in and structure a modern state, a religion, a city or a business, as well as laws, justice, human rights and currency. All of these things are really just common myths. This ability to create an imagined reality out of words enables large numbers of strangers to cooperate effectively, and even to change our social behaviour by changing the common myths.

According to the author, the Agricultural Revolution is perhaps history’s biggest fraud. For 2.5 million years, humans fed themselves by gathering plants and hunting animals that lived and bred without intervention. All this changed about 10,000 years ago when Sapiens began to manipulate a few animal and plant species. From sunrise to sunset, humans started to sow seeds, water plants, pluck weeds and herd animals to better pastures. The work would provide them with more fruit, grain and meat. Even today, more than 90% of the calories that feed humanity come from the handful of plants that our ancestors domesticated between 9500 and 3500 BC – wheat, rice, maize, potatoes, millet and barley.

The fraud is that rather than herald a new era of easy living with ample food for all, the Agricultural Revolution left farmers with lives generally more difficult and less satisfying than those of foragers. Hunter-gatherers spent their time in more stimulating and varied ways and were less in danger of starvation and disease. While more food became available, it didn’t lead to a better diet or more leisure. Rather, it translated in to population explosions, worn out bodies from tiring labour, the break out of disease and illness, more tribal violence from raiding neighbours, and pampered elites. The average farmer worked harder than the average forager and got a worse lifestyle in return. And not only was the Agricultural Revolution a fraud, it was also a trap. As soon as the population exploded, it became impossible for Sapiens to turn back from this way of life.

One section of the book I particularly enjoyed reading about was the development of currency. Money was created many times in many places and it required no technological breakthroughs – it was a purely mental revolution that existed (and still exists) solely in people’s shared imagination and is ultimately a system of mutual trust. “This coin is worth $1 if I believe it is worth $1, and so does my neighbour and her neighbour and the person in the next street… and so forth.” When the majority of people stop believing that the currency holds value, it indeed stops holding value. With the rise of Bitcoin over recent years, and the majority of people not trusting in its value yet, this section was particularly interesting.

The last 500 years has witnessed a phenomenal and unprecedented growth in human power: this is the Scientific Revolution. In the year 1500, there were about 500 million Homo sapiens in the entire world. Today there are 7 billion. A single modern battleship could make driftwood of the armadas of 500 years ago without sustaining a scratch. A modern computer could store every word and number from all the codex books and scrolls from every medieval library, with room to spare. And any large modern bank would hold more money than all the world’s premodern kingdoms put together. The most common urban noises were human and animal voices, with the occasional hammer and saw at work, and the blackness of night was penetrated by only the occasional flickering candle or torch. What caused and enabled such a rapid transformation of our civilisation?

During the Scientific Revolution, humankind obtained their enormous new powers by investing resources in scientific research. While government and wealthy patrons had previously allocated funds to education and scholarship, the aim was generally to preserve existing capabilities rather than acquire new ones. The typical premodern ruler gave money to priests, philosophers and poets in the hope that they would legitimise his rule and maintain the social order. He did not expect them to discover new medications, invent new weapons or stimulate economic growth.

One of the ways that modern science differs from all previous traditions of knowledge is in our willingness to admit ignorance. By accepting that we don’t know everything we create a mindset where we admit that there is more to learn and therefore open the gates to discovery.

Premodern traditions of knowledge such as Islam, Christianity, Buddhism and Confucianism asserted that everything that is important to know about the world was already known. They admitted just two types of ignorance: an individual might be ignorant of something important (but he could simply ask somebody wiser, such as the local priest) or the entire tradition might be ignorant of something unimportant (for instance, knowing how spiders weaved their webs must have been unimportant or God would have included an explanation in the scriptures).

The willingness to admit ignorance has made modern science more dynamic, supple and inquisitive than any previous tradition of knowledge. This has hugely expanded our capacity to understand how the world works and our ability to invent new technologies.

Modern science was driven by the European empires, hand-in-hand with the imperial expansion of Spain, Portugal, Britain, France, Russia and the Netherlands. While the other civilisations of the world produced minds as intelligent and curious as the Europeans, and they continued to make important contributions to the Scientific Revolution, they did not produce anything that comes even close to Newtonian physics or Darwinian biology. For the Europeans, the driving factor was the unique bond formed between science and imperialism. For example, the plant-seeking botanist and the colony-seeking naval officer shared a similar mindset and began admitting ignorance – “I don’t know what’s out there.” They both felt compelled to go out there and make new discoveries. As time went by, the conquest for knowledge and the conquest for territory became ever more tightly intertwined, so much so that by the 18th and 19th centuries, almost every important military expedition that left Europe had on board scientists. When Napoleon invaded Egypt in 1798, he took 165 scholars with him.

The modern explore and conquer mentality is nicely illustrated by the development of world maps. Many cultures drew world maps long before the modern age. None of them knew the whole of the world and yet there were no empty spaces in any of their maps. Unfamiliar areas were left out or filled with imaginary monsters and wonders which gave the impression of familiarity with the entire world. Symbolically, they refused to admit ignorance. However, during the 15th and 16th centuries, Europeans began to draw world maps with lots of empty spaces which indicated the development of the scientific mindset as well as the European imperial drive. The empty maps were a psychological and ideological breakthrough.

This is a remarkable book, filled with fascinating insights, humorous anecdotes, head-scratching observations and astounding realisations. Prepare to be enthralled.

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