3 December 2021

Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind

Telling effective stories is not easy. The difficulty lies not in telling the story, but in convincing everyone else to believe it.

— Y. N. Harari

Human history is not carved in stone, and its topics are a matter of constant debate, as in any science. A deeper dive into a particular historical subject — which is typical in the modern world of narrow specializations — tends to deliver conflicting evidence. As a result, it requires the specific talent of being able to step back and look at a general picture, discovering universalities without getting lost in numerous details and peculiarities. Yuval Noah Harari masterfully applied such a skill in writing Sapiens: a brief history of humankind. And since the book was also written in a style comprehensible to people from any field of knowledge, this safeguarded its popularity.

Note that the quotes listed below do not provide full insight into the flow of the narrative and are far from exposing all the ideas presented in the book. They are formulations of a few noteworthy observations.

Part One: The Cognitive Revolution

The heated debates about Homo sapiens’ ‘natural way of life’ miss the main point. Ever since the Cognitive Revolution, there hasn’t been a single natural way of life for Sapiens. There are only cultural choices, from among a bewildering palette of possibilities.

Most importantly, alongside seas and rivers rich in seafood and waterfowl, humans set up permanent fishing villages – the first permanent settlements in history, long predating the Agricultural Revolution. Fishing villages might have appeared on the coasts of Indonesian islands as early as 45,000 years ago. These may have been the base from which Homo sapiens launched its first transoceanic enterprise: the invasion of Australia.

Evidence from fossilised skeletons indicates that ancient foragers were less likely to suffer from starvation or malnutrition, and were generally taller and healthier than their peasant descendants.

Agricultural societies are ravaged by famine when drought, fire or earthquake devastates the annual rice or potato crop. Forager societies were hardly immune to natural disasters, and suffered from periods of want and hunger, but they were usually able to deal with such calamities more easily.

The wholesome and varied diet, the relatively short working week, and the rarity of infectious diseases have led many experts to define pre-agricultural forager societies as ‘the original affluent societies’. It would be a mistake, however, to idealise the lives of these ancients. Though they lived better lives than most people in agricultural and industrial societies, their world could still be harsh and unforgiving.

Part Two: The Agricultural Revolution

The transition to agriculture began around 9500–8500 BC in the hill country of south-eastern Turkey, western Iran, and the Levant. It began slowly and in a restricted geographical area. Wheat and goats were domesticated by approximately 9000 BC; peas and lentils around 8000 BC; olive trees by 5000 BC; horses by 4000 BC; and grapevines in 3500 BC. Some animals and plants, such as camels and cashew nuts, were domesticated even later, but by 3500 BC the main wave of domestication was over.

The Agricultural Revolution certainly enlarged the sum total of food at the disposal of humankind, but the extra food did not translate into a better diet or more leisure. Rather, it translated into population explosions and pampered elites. The average farmer worked harder than the average forager, and got a worse diet in return. The Agricultural Revolution was history’s biggest fraud.

One of history’s few iron laws is that luxuries tend to become necessities and to spawn new obligations.

People found it difficult to leave their artificial islands. They could not abandon their houses, fields and granaries without grave risk of loss. Furthermore, as time went on they accumulated more and more things – objects, not easily transportable, that tied them down.

Nevertheless, in the subsistence economy of hunting and gathering, there was an obvious limit to such long-term planning. Paradoxically, it saved foragers a lot of anxieties. There was no sense in worrying about things that they could not influence.

The Agricultural Revolution made the future far more important than it had ever been before. Farmers must always keep the future in mind and must work in its service.

The most important impact of script on human history is precisely this: it has gradually changed the way humans think and view the world. Free association and holistic thought have given way to compartmentalisation and bureaucracy.

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.

Part Three: The Unification of Humankind

The first millennium BC witnessed the appearance of three potentially universal orders, whose devotees could for the first time imagine the entire world and the entire human race as a single unit governed by a single set of laws. Everyone was ‘us’, at least potentially. There was no longer ‘them’. The first universal order to appear was economic: the monetary order. The second universal order was political: the imperial order. The third universal order was religious: the order of universal religions such as Buddhism, Christianity and Islam.

Money was created many times in many places. Its development required no technological breakthroughs – it was a purely mental revolution. It involved the creation of a new inter-subjective reality that exists solely in people’s shared imagination.

The global empire being forged before our eyes is not governed by any particular state or ethnic group. Much like the Late Roman Empire, it is ruled by a multi-ethnic elite, and is held together by a common culture and common interests. Throughout the world, more and more entrepreneurs, engineers, experts, scholars, lawyers and managers are called to join the empire. They must ponder whether to answer the imperial call or to remain loyal to their state and their people. More and more choose the empire.

Religion can thus be defined as a system of human norms and values that is founded on a belief in a superhuman order.

In fact, monotheism, as it has played out in history, is a kaleidoscope of monotheist, dualist, polytheist and animist legacies, jumbling together under a single divine umbrella. The average Christian believes in the monotheist God, but also in the dualist Devil, in polytheist saints, and in animist ghosts.

This is one of the distinguishing marks of history as an academic discipline – the better you know a particular historical period, the harder it becomes to explain why things happened one way and not another. Those who have only a superficial knowledge of a certain period tend to focus only on the possibility that was eventually realised. They offer a just-so story to explain with hindsight why that outcome was inevitable. Those more deeply informed about the period are much more cognisant of the roads not taken.

Part Four: The Scientific Revolution

In short, scientific research can flourish only in alliance with some religion or ideology.

Native hygiene was far better than Spanish hygiene. When the Spaniards first arrived in Mexico, natives bearing incense burners were assigned to accompany them wherever they went. The Spaniards thought it was a mark of divine honour. We know from native sources that they found the newcomers’ smell unbearable.

Credit arrangements of one kind or another have existed in all known human cultures, going back at least to ancient Sumer. The problem in previous eras was not that no one had the idea or knew how to use it. It was that people seldom wanted to extend much credit because they didn’t trust that the future would be better than the present.

While VOC [the most famous Dutch joint-stock company Vereenigde Oostindische Compagnie. Y.E.] operated in the Indian Ocean, the Dutch West Indies Company, or WIC, plied the Atlantic. In order to control trade on the important Hudson River, WIC built a settlement called New Amsterdam on an island at the river’s mouth. The colony was threatened by Indians and repeatedly attacked by the British, who eventually captured it in 1664. The British changed its name to New York. The remains of the wall built by WIC to defend its colony against Indians and British are today paved over by the world’s most famous street – Wall Street.

The annual sugar intake of the average Englishman rose from near zero in the early seventeenth century to around eight kilograms in the early nineteenth century.

happiness consists in seeing one’s life in its entirety as meaningful and worthwhile.

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