Title: Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind
Author: Yuval Noah Harari
Year: First published: 2011; New edition published: 30/04/2015
Length: 498 pages
Genre: History, Nonfiction, Science
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Short Description: It took us million years to become the species who is currently wandering the planet Earth. Sapiens explains in a very modern and readable way the long road our kind walked to reach the current world dominance – from insignificant apes to rulers of the world. The book is basically a historical summary of the progress of human evolution – all in under 500 pages. The first history book that’s actually fun to read.
Seventy thousand years ago, there were at least six different human species on earth. They were insignificant animals, whose ecological impact was less than that of fireflies or jellyfish. Today, there is only one human species left: Us. Homo sapiens. But we rule this planet.
Sapiens by Yuval Noah Harari answer some really tough questions: How did our species succeed in the battle for dominance? Why did our ancestors come together to create cities and kingdoms? How did we come to believe in gods, nations and human rights, to trust money, books and laws, and to be enslaved by bureaucracy, timetables, and consumerism?
Dr. Yuval Noah Harari has a PhD in History from the University of Oxford and now lectures at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, specializing in World History. Sapiens is an international bestseller and is published in more than 30 languages worldwide. This book may change your life, the way you think, and the way you precept the world.
When you imagine a history book you will immediately think of series of hardcover volumes – thousands of pages taking months to read. Sapiens offers something unique. Something that will take you only a few days to read, and it will reveal the world before we were born in a very intriguing way. The book will walk you through our common history as species, starting from 13.5 billion years ago.
I’m not quite a fan of historical books, simply because most of them are full of facts you don’t necessarily need to know, but the way Yoah presents his research for our species is admirable. In under 500 pages, he was able to present a well-written summary of the progress of human evolution. The author follows how mankind evolved from the birth of the first person to nowadays. It’s one of those books you can’t simply put away. The writing is well balanced between historical facts and how they influenced our current lives.
The main idea that was stuck in my head after reading the books is this: people have to learn to live cohesively and together to seek ways through which they can achieve progress. Harari’s book says something that’s not a secret anymore: we’re slowly destroying our planet and only we are the ones capable of regenerating what was demolished.
Notes, thoughts, and essential takeaways that I want to remember from the book. My main goal is to leave you with curated content, to which you can easily return to in the future for reference, that’s also holding the main insights of the book without spoiling what the book is all about:
What we have we owe it to our language
Our language is supple. Theory agrees that our unique language evolved as a means of sharing information about the world around us. Prehistoric people used the language to alert others for possible threats ahead. With each passing year, this simple, at that point, feature humans learned, gave them unique superiority amongst other species. Thanks to the ability to clearly communicate with each other, they began to form groups, which allowed them to hunt much bigger and much stronger animals.
Even though every other animal has some kind of language that allows them to communicate – even insects know how to communicate in a sophisticated way. Ours is different. We can connect a limited number of sounds and signs to produce an infinite number of sentences, each with a distinct meaning.
Communication is key in every organization and relationship. How many times your wife has mumbled you because “you don’t talk anymore to each other?” A lot, right? Ask any owner of a company and he will tell you that not his competitors are the reason they’re losing market share. The reason is much more basic. It’s internal communication. With each new employee, a company will suffer. The bigger the organization the harder to communicate. That’s why smaller teams are formed. The smaller the unite, the faster the action.
Unfortunately, what we’re seeing nowadays is quite sad. People born after the year of 2000, lack this very basic skill. They’ve grown in an era of nonverbal communication. Text, tweets and online messages are taking over. These youngsters feel much more comfortable texting someone than actually speaking with him. Which, is quite disturbing. They grow up unable to clearly communicate, express their feelings, shy, and doubtful in their own actions.
So if you’re someone who lacks the vocabulary to speak with others, I will suggest to go out and speak as much as possible to the others around you.
How mankind managed to keep balance when they grew larger
According to the author’s research, data shows that the maximum “natural” size of a group bounded by a particular leader and purpose is about 150 individuals. Once that threshold is crossed, it causes a glitch. The communication inside the group becomes harder.
What kept us together as a species, allowed us to build towns, kingdoms, where thousands of people live together, is called fiction. Only by believing in a common myth, people can live together and cooperate.
People started believing in gods, symbols, phenomena, and other extraterrestrial things a long time ago. This combined belief, help them to form larger groups and fight for more lands. Nowadays, we are united by three major religions: Christianity, Islam, Buddhism. Even though in the past we fought wars in the name of Christianity, for example, currently, this religion, and the common belief in one and only god is the main reason we’re working together as a species. Thinking about it that way, a man’s faith can be shaken.
Did we really make all this up? Did our ancestors – a bit more than 2000 years ago – figure out that if different tribes continue to believe in different divinity’s, and if we continue to fight for different causes, this won’t do us any good as a species? We’ll probably never know the right answer. Because if it’s all fake, it’s carefully kept in secret. For a true worshiper of Christianity, the very thought in this direction is a sin.
What’s important, is that it really did help. Even if you don’t quite believe in Christ, it’s still something that helped us work together as a massive group towards making the world a better place.
Telling effective stories is not easy. The difficulty lies not in telling the story, but in convincing everyone else to believe in it. Much of history revolves around this question: how does one convince millions of people to believe particular stories about gods, or nations, immense power, because it enables millions of strangers to cooperate and work towards common goals. Just try to imagine how difficult it would have been to create states, or churches, or legal systems of we could speak only about things that really exist, such as rivers, trees and lions.” Yuval Noah Harari
Farming Slaved Humanity
Farming solved an important problem for humanity: hunger. Humans back in the days had to constantly move around in order to hunt for food. This, as you can imagine, was a daunting task. Agriculture allowed Homo sapiens to settle down and build permanent villages. This increase in food supply enforced tremendous population growth. The extra mouths, however, quickly wiped out food supplies, so even more fields had to be planted in order to keep the growing population fed.
With each passing year, growing wheat became more and more burdensome. People had to work harder in order to keep enough surpluses. Since humans were no longer hunting for food, they became dependant on a single source of food. On paper, their life looked easier: no more running around hunting deer, rabbits, wild boars. Since they settled down, they now had walls that kept them safe from wild animals. The future seemed brighter. However, that’s far from the truth. With the fast increment of the human population, new fields had to be planned, constantly. There was no turning back. Simply because they were already massively dependent on sowing.
The same applies to us today. We graduate and we start working a corporate job. Even though nowadays is easier to make a living doing what you love, with each passing year in the firm we slowly become dependent on our salary and the risk-free position. A car, a house, new clothes every month, children in school, expensive holidays. We get used to all luxuries and we give up on our dream of becoming a writer or a musician.
Success is no longer about climbing the corporate ladder. We now seek opportunities for doing what we love, not what our boss tells us. Unfortunately, if more from everything is what we seek, we will never be truly satisfied and we will never start to pursue our true passions.
Money can bridge almost any cultural gap
Though thousands of languages are currently being used from different cultures, there is only one language understood by all humans: the language of money. If you are in a foreign country and you don’t speak the local language, and nobody understands you, you can still manage if you have money. People may obey different rulers and worship distinct gods, but all belief in gold.
With money as a go-between, any two people can cooperate on any project. That’s why all of us are obsessed with gaining more money. Money means power, it opens doors for new opportunities, allows us to be more independent, and live the life we want.
Before money was invented, people exchanged goods. Barter was the common way to gain resources you need but don’t have. If you grow apples, and you want to eat meat, you had to visit the local butcher and exchange apples for meat. However, in time, it was becoming harder for people to determine how many apples should someone give for a piece of meat. And what if the butcher didn’t want apples but something else?
Money is considered the root of all evil for decades. Even now, if you’re clearly pursuing the all mighty dollar, you will be socially rejected. Still, money is more open-minded than language, state laws, cultural codes, religious beliefs and social habits. It’s the one thing that can bridge people of different nationalities and believes. In a way, it’s much more influential than religion. Of course, like everything else in life, we should strive to maintain a balance, and avoid blindly pursuing more money at all costs. That’s the only way you can stay sane.
What the future holds
After the author briefly explained what Homo sapiens did in the different ages, it is normal to ask ourselves, “is there a moral lesson?” There is no point in studying history unless we learn from it. The mistakes of our ancestors will help us to improve and become better inhabitants of planet Earth. That should be our main aim as a species.
The future is uncertain. We don’t know what will happen next. Even though the current mood is peaceful, we can’t be certain that it will be kept forever like that. For most of our time, we were warriors. Fighting for more land. The current leaders of the world aren’t much different. They still want more power, more money, more followers. We are more powerful than ever before, but have very little idea what to do with all that power. Even worse, it seems that we’re more irresponsible than ever. Wrecking, hunting our fellow animals and destroying our ecosystem. We are the current gods of this place but we’re never satisfied. That craving for more will either destroy us or help us conquer other worlds.
Towards the end of the book, Harari leaves us with one very difficult question. Question, which the answer to, will help us self-determine the direction we want to take: “What do we want to want?”
We have mastered our surroundings, increased food production, built cities, established empires and created far-flung trade networks. But did we decrease the amount of suffering in the world? Time and again, massive increases in human power did not necessarily improve the well-being of individual Sapiens, and usually caused immense misery to other animals.” Yuval Noah Harari
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