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Sapiens Summary & Review

One Paragraph Summary In his fascinating bestseller, Harari, a professor at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, lays out the complete history of Homo sapiens and how he achieved to become the most dominant species on the planet.

Sapiens Summary

Sapiens—A Brief History of Humankind
A book by Yuval Noah Harari

  By writing this book summary, I learned the following three things:

  • The world has become a better place
  • Not all people can enjoy the riches
  • We will replace ourselves with a new species

Key Ideas

We just arrived

Where do we come from? How did our world come to be? We know that we are here, but most of us do not understand how we came here. Yuval Noah Harari provides a full picture of the history of our species.

We think we have a long history, and it was, therefore, a long way to get where we are today. But this is more of a feeling than the actual truth.

There is an excellent way to illustrate this. Take your two arms and spread them to the left and right, as far as you can. Now in this span, how much space would represent the age of the Homo sapiens? From your elbow to the end of your middle finger?

The answer is that you would need a powerful microscope to see the space that humanity is representing.

We have only been here for a short time.

Only one of the human species survived

About 2.5 million years ago, the first human species evolved from great apes, the Australopithecus.

There have been several human species, among others the Homo rudolfensis, the Homo erectus, and the Homo neanderthalensis.

The Homo sapiens first appeared 300,000 years ago and was the only human species that survived. All other human species died out.

Two theories are trying to explain why the Homo sapiens survived. There is the Interbreeding Theory and the Replacement Theory.

Replacement Theory suggests that Homo sapiens replaced the other species because it had superior skills and technology. Either Homo sapiens killed the other human species, or they took away the food sources.

Interbreeding Theory suggests that the Homo sapiens started to mate with the other species, which resulted in the species merging. This theory is backed up by the fact that modern Europeans have between one and four percent of the DNA of the Homo neanderthalensis species.

Scientists believe that the answer is probably a mixture of both theories.

The Cognitive Revolution

How was it possible that Homo sapiens spread around the globe from Africa to Europe, Asia, America, and even Australia?

Homo sapiens had to cross the Siberian passage to reach America. How could they withstand the cold and reduced food supply there?

The answer is that 70,000 years ago, the brain of the Homo sapiens went through an evolution which is called the Cognitive Revolution. This development resulted in a sudden improvement in brainpower.

With this advanced brain, they were now superior to their rivals and invented complex forms of hunting with tools and advanced techniques, which in turn allowed them to hunt mammoths in the Arctic.

The development of Intricate Language

The Cognitive Revolution not only allowed to develop better hunting techniques, but it also enabled Homo sapiens to form an Intricate Language.

This complex language allowed the species to build better communities. This way, the information could flow more freely between individuals, sharing essential lessons. For example, when an individual found a plentiful food resource, this information could be shared with the group.

Other animals can share similar information, for example, bees, but their language is not as flexible. Homo sapiens can develop and share abstract ideas such as gods and rights. All of these are creations of the human brain. Hariri calls these ideas Myths. These myths allowed the species to build more significant communities, cities, nations, and the global society as we know it today.

The Agricultural Revolution

Twelve thousand years ago, the Homo sapiens switched his lifestyle from a nomadic lifestyle as a hunter-gatherer to a non-nomadic lifestyle as a farmer. This change is known as the Agricultural Revolution.

We did not domesticate wheat. It domesticated us.―Yuval Noah Harari

It is not entirely clear why the Agricultural Revolution happened because it appears being a farmer is much more time consuming than being a hunter-gatherer. Furthermore, the kind of foods you ate as a hunter-gatherer was much better and healthier than that of a farmer. Early farmers only had a narrow range of cereals and domesticated animals. The hunter-gatherer, on the other hand, had access to meat, nuts, fruits, and fish full of nutrients and vitamins.

This is the essence of the Agricultural Revolution: the ability to keep more people alive under worse conditions.―Yuval Noah Harari

Although it is not clear why the change happened, it is evident that the advantage for the human species had been immense. Agriculture is far more efficient and resulted in much higher and constant supply of food. This stable supply allowed the population of the Homo sapiens to explode.

Money and Writing

The Agricultural Revolution gave the Homo sapiens some degrees of freedom. For example, now that the supply of food was much more stable, it allowed some people in the group to pursue other things than farming. Some were better at making clothes or tools for the community.

Now that some in the group did not produce food, a barter system evolved that allowed a blacksmith to trade his tools for food. But a barter system has inherent problems. How do you swap a device which is not ready today for the food you need now? How do you barter a single chicken for a cow?

As the barter system was insufficient to solve these kinds of problems, the need arose to find a better solution. And the Sumerians of Mesopotamia delivered. They had the idea to write economic symbols on clay tablets. And they used barley as money.

Empires and Religion

The Agricultural Revolution, the invention of writing, and money allowed societies to grow immensely. But with bigger civilizations, larger economies evolved, and with it, the need to ensure that the promises written on clay tablets were kept.

The need for hierarchical societies emerged to allow the standardization of laws and customs and the development of an effective bureaucracy.

1776 BC Babylonian King Hammurabi established an empire-wide collection of laws in which areas such as tax, theft, and murder had been governed. This collection is today know as the Hammurabi Code.

Large numbers of strangers can cooperate successfully by believing in common myths. Any large-scale human cooperation – whether a modern state, a medieval church, an ancient city or an archaic tribe – is rooted in common myths that exist only in people's collective imagination.―Yuval Noah Harari

To be able to enforce the Hammurabi Code, King Hammurabi needed to ensure that people accepted his authority. He did this through the use of religion. He declared that the gods gave him the laws to rule over Mesopotamia.

Scientific Revolution

For a long time, people had been a rather pessimistic herd. No one believed in his own abilities because faith in God had been cultivated instead. There seemed to be no point in acquiring knowledge as long as the gods determined the fate of each individual.

But this view suddenly changed in the 16th and 17th centuries. People wanted to change society themselves and not only obey the rules of churches. People started to observe, think, explore, and experiment. Which, in turn, led to knowledge in medicine, astronomy, and physics. All these discoveries improved society and the lives of people within it.

Kings and emperors realized this to be an excellent opportunity to use that knowledge to grow their power and wealth. Therefore governments gave money to those explorers. For example, King of Castile financed the journey of Columbus, which led to the discovery of the Americas.

The Global Society

Science has allowed governments to enhance their riches and reach. For example, in the 19th century, the British empire covered half the globe.

European mega-cultures replaced local customs, cultures, and laws. One of the new mega-cultural norms is capitalism. We all believe in the importance and power of money.

How do you cause people to believe in an imagined order such as Christianity, democracy, or capitalism? First, you never admit that the order is imagined.―Yuval Noah Harari

Many religious principles have been disproved. Who still believes that God has created the world in seven days?

Because many people ceased to believe most of what the churches broadcast as verities, people now start to worship capitalism. Why wait for happiness in the afterlife, when we can maximize our pleasures now?

Peace

The world today is more globalized than ever before. Critics of globalization claim that cultural diversity is suffering.

Even if this might be the case, globalization brings one significant benefit; it makes the world more peaceful. In a globalized world, there are many networks of trades and investments, and almost all leaders have an extreme interest in maintaining world peace because of these networks.

Nowadays, only one percent of adult male deaths are violent. Scientists estimate that at the times of hunter-gathers, 30 percent of all male death have been of a violent nature. Mostly this is because we nowadays have laws enforced by hierarchically structured societies.

Still, we need to be aware of the enormous gift world peace is and that we need to take great care to maintain it.

Happiness

Our health, wealth, and knowledge have improved over the last 300,000 years. That begets one question: Has our happiness improved as well?

Humans want to be happier; they strive for happiness. But it seems although humankind has made significant leaps in evolution, there has not been a big leap in joy.

The lack of improved happiness is because our happiness always stays around the same level. We experience short-term rises of our joy, but it will regress to normal levels. It seems that the human brain is wired that way. And there is probably no way to escape this. It appears that we humans need this balance between complacency and despair.

Replacing Homo Sapiens

Advances in science and wealth will not stop. That raises the question of where we'll go as a species.

Today we are making significant progress in fields such as anti-aging and bionics. We can already operate bionic arms through our thoughts alone. And in the area of anti-aging scientists have doubled the lifespan of worms. Next, scientists will try to increase the life expectancy of mice as well. It is only a question of when we will be able to do the same for the human species.

Today, it is not the discovery of new knowledge that inhibits our development, but rather legal restrictions and ethical concerns.

One thing is sure, though, if we humans find the key to immortality, we will use that knowledge, as we ever did. And probably we will not be able to call our species Homo sapiens anymore because we will be half organic and half machine.

First Insight: The world has become a better place

A friend of mine asked me an interesting question lately. What do you think is true that most people around you don't? He asked.

My answer was that I think that the world is becoming a better place over time. There may be sticks and stones in the way, but overall I believe this to be true.

It was refreshing to read through Sapiens to contemplate such a long period in which the Homo sapiens has evolved. The book gave me consolation that I might not be totally wrong after all.

One of history's few iron laws is that luxuries tend to become necessities and to spawn new obligations.―Yuval Noah Harari

Second Insight: Not all people can enjoy the riches

Each year the US population spends more money on diets than the amount needed to feed all the hungry people in the rest of the world.―Yuval Noah Harari

Harari says that this a good time to live because the world is a more peaceful place today than it used to be. And I certainly agree.

But he also claims that most of the wealth is in the hand of a few white people. Many of the people living today cannot enjoy the same riches as we do in the United States and the European Union.

This imbalance will be a challenge we need to address sooner than later, or we might lose the peaceful time.

Third Insight: We will replace ourselves with a new species

Biology enables, Culture forbids.―Yuval Noah Harari

What will come after Homo sapiens? I think the ideas that Harari lays out at the end of his book are not too far fetched. There will be enormous discoveries in the fields of anti-aging and bionics, to name only two areas.

Artificial intelligence would be another field where the societies, as of today, are unprepared for.

The combinations of discoveries in these new scientific areas will probably breed a totally new species.

Sapiens Review

Harari's summary of the history of the Homo sapiens is a captivating read. The book is informative and entertaining at the same time.

You will learn about a lot of things: Cognitive Revolution, Agricultural Revolution, the invention of money and religion, the discovery of the Intricate Language, the emergence of empires.

Especially the end of the book and the outlook where the Homo sapiens might be going is a fascinating outlook.

Sapiens Summary—related resources

  Read more about Yuval Noah Harari on his website.

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If you liked reading the Sapiens Summary, you might also like read Triggers Book Summary.

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