Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind
Cover of Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind
|Author||Yuval Noah Harari|
|Original title||קיצור תולדות האנושות|
|Subject||History, human evolution|
|2011 (in Hebrew), 2014 (in English)|
|Followed by||Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow|
Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind (Hebrew: קיצור תולדות האנושות, [Ḳitsur toldot ha-enoshut]) is a book by Yuval Noah Harari first published in Hebrew in Israel in 2011, and in English in 2014. The book surveys the history of humankind from the evolution of archaic human species in the Stone Age up to the twenty-first century, focusing on Homo sapiens. The account is situated within a framework provided by the natural sciences, particularly evolutionary biology.
The reception of the book has been mixed. Scholars with relevant subject matter expertise have generally been very skeptical of the book. Public reaction to the book has been positive.
- 1 Summary
- 2 Synopsis
- 3 Reception
- 4 Bibliographic details
- 5 See also
- 6 Notes and references
- 7 External links
Harari's work situates its account of human history within a framework provided by the natural sciences, particularly evolutionary biology: he sees biology as setting the limits of possibility for human activity, and sees culture as shaping what happens within those bounds. The academic discipline of history is the account of cultural change.
Harari surveys the history of humankind from the evolution of archaic human species in the Stone Age up to the twenty-first century, focusing on Homo sapiens. He divides the history of Sapiens into four major parts:
- The Cognitive Revolution (c. 70,000 BC, when Sapiens evolved imagination).
- The Agricultural Revolution (c. 10,000 BC, the development of agriculture).
- The unification of humankind (the gradual consolidation of human political organisations towards one global empire).
- The Scientific Revolution (c. 1500 AD, the emergence of objective science).
Harari's main argument is that Sapiens came to dominate the world because it is the only animal that can cooperate flexibly in large numbers. He argues that prehistoric Sapiens were a key cause of the extinction of other human species such as the Neanderthals, along with numerous other megafauna. He further argues that the ability of Sapiens to cooperate in large numbers arises from its unique capacity to believe in things existing purely in the imagination, such as gods, nations, money, and human rights. Harari claims that all large-scale human cooperation systems – including religions, political structures, trade networks, and legal institutions – owe their emergence to Sapiens' distinctive cognitive capacity for fiction. Accordingly, Harari reads money as a system of mutual trust and sees political and economic systems as more or less identical with religions.
Harari's key claim regarding the Agricultural Revolution is that while it promoted population growth for Sapiens and co-evolving species like wheat and cows, it made the lives of most individuals (and animals) worse than they had been when Sapiens were mostly hunter-gatherers, since their diet and daily lives became significantly less varied. Humans' violent treatment of other animals is indeed a theme that runs throughout the book.
In discussing the unification of humankind, Harari argues that over its history, the trend for Sapiens has increasingly been towards political and economic interdependence. For centuries, the majority of humans have lived in empires, and capitalist globalization is effectively producing one, global empire. Harari argues that money, empires, and universal religions are the principal drivers of this process.
Harari sees the Scientific Revolution as founded on innovation in European thought, whereby elites became willing to admit to, and hence to try to remedy, their ignorance. He sees this as one driver of early modern European imperialism and of the current convergence of human cultures. Harari also emphasises the lack of research into the history of happiness, positing that people today are not significantly happier than in past eras. He concludes by considering how modern technology may soon end the species as we know it, as it ushers in genetic engineering, immortality, and non-organic life. Humans have, in Harari's chosen metaphor, become gods: they can create species.
Harari cites Jared Diamond's Guns, Germs, and Steel (1997) as one of the greatest inspirations for the book by showing that it was possible to "ask very big questions and answer them scientifically".
Part One: The Cognitive Revolution
Ch1. An Animal of No Significance
200,000 years ago, Homo sapiens evolves in East Africa. At the time, Homo sapiens was one of many human species, such as Neanderthals. Since 13,000 years ago, Homo sapiens has been the only surviving human species. Harari suggests that one of the key reasons why Sapiens is able to take control of the world is Sapiens' advanced language.
Ch2. The Tree of Knowledge
The emergence of Sapiens' language marks the beginning of the Cognitive Revolution happened in 70,000 years ago. Harari notes two distinctive features of Sapiens' language.
- The ability to signal other Sapiens about the world (such as an emergency) and to gossip about social relationships on a large scale. The scale of transmission is unseen of among other animals.
- The ability to transmit information about things that do not materially or objectively exist on a large scale. Not only is this ability absent among other animals, this has two important implications. This ability allows Sapiens to cooperate with strangers (other Sapiens not met before), and innovate social behaviors very quickly.
Ch3. A Day in the Life of Adam and Eve
- Foragers' diet was wholesome and full of variety because they gathered whatever made available to them.
- They had short working hours because they only had to gather food for what their band needed.
- They were unlikely to fall sick because they didn't have a permanent residence where germs could grow with time. They went after where they could gather food.
However, Harari notes that we shouldn't idealize foragers' life. In order to keep up with the harsh living conditions, some bands are found to be fairly violent. They had to kill weak members to make sure the band is sufficiently strong to compete with other bands.
Other than these lifestyles, Harari asserts that we know very little about foragers because of lack of conclusive evidence.
Ch4. The Flood
Since then, many large animals in Australia were extinct. Evidence points to Sapiens' arrival as a critical cause of the extinction.
Why were large animals affected, not small animals? Unlike the animals in Afro-Asian who learnt to be aware of the danger of Sapiens, animals in Australia, be it large or small, had not learnt to escape from Sapiens. The death rate outnumbered the birthrate. The circumstance hit large animals more terribly because their pregnancies are longer. Large animals which couldn't catch up with the high death rates were extinct.
Did climate change lead to the extinction? Harari doesn't disregard the impact of climate change on the population of large animals but argues that climate change itself can't explain the extinction. It can however in combination with the above two reasons.
Part Two: The Agricultural Revolution
Ch5. History's Biggest Fraud
About 12,000 years ago, Sapiens' lifestyle changed from being a hunter-gatherer to a farmer of wheat. Harari argues that this shift is one of the biggest mistakes Sapiens made for two things wheat doesn't provide.
- Planting wheat doesn't provide economic security to Sapiens as they only relied on one food source, unlike foragers who relied on a diverse sources of food.
- Planting wheat doesn't provide security against human violence. Because farms were everything Sapiens had and they relied on it heavily, they are more likely to engage in violent acts to defend their farms.
Given all the downsides, why did Sapiens shift to planting wheat? Harari argues that it provides something foragers couldn't obtain. It allows Sapiens to reproduce at a much higher rater, despite a harsher lifestyle.
Ch6. Building Pyramids
Farmers' concerns over the future and their growing population led to the creation of law and order. A social infrastructure "exists" because of Sapiens' unique language ability to conceptualize things don't objectively exist, as discussed in chapter 2.
How does an imagined order function?
- An imagined order is connected to the physical world, or the physical world helps justify an imagined order.
- It drives our desires. It motivates us.
- It is inter-subjective. The belief is shared among Sapiens. One's disbelief would have very little impact, if any, on the imagined order.
One may want to break out of an imagined order one is bounded to. But the moment we do, we would run into another order. There is no way of living an order-free life.
Ch7. Memory Overload
As Sapiens developed more imagined orders, they needed to find better ways to store the information than passing it down to the next generations. The old method has three key limitations.
- Sapiens' memory capacity is limited.
- One's knowledge would be gone when one dies.
- Sapiens evolves to be good at storing a large amount of information to survive as a forager. However, Sapiens was not adapted to be good at storing information with numbers.
Sapiens developed two ways to help solve the memory problem.
- Mathematical expressions to allow for systematic cataloging and an efficient bureaucracy.
- Writing to capture human consciousness.
Ch8. There is No Justice in History
One of the imagined orders is social hierarchy, founded on the basis such as economic class, gender, and race. The premise of a hierarchy is that people of a lower class can "pollute" the upper class, limiting the interactions of people of different classes.
Harari argues that while we know a hierarchy is an unfair social construct and should be got rid of, unfortunately it's very hard to. History has shown:
- ... even after creators of a hierarchy left, the then conquered population still upheld the order.
- ... even after a country intentionally tried to correct for their wrongdoings and abandon a hierarchy, the population previously subject to the rule still viewed others with the prejudice.
Part Three: The Unification of Humankind
Ch9. The Arrow of History
Harari sees culture as dynamic and in constant flux, as opposed to static. Because culture is constantly influenced by other cultures, there is nothing we can call authentic. The world used to be separated into four more distinctive worlds, but now at a high level they are converging to a single global empire. Harari argues that the following three imagined orders are the principal drivers of the development of the global empire.
- The concept of money
- The concept of nation state
- Christianity, Buddhism, and Islam as the universal religions
Ch10. The Scent of Money
Prior to the invention of money, people traded in a barter economy through favors and obligations.
- No conversion problem. People can convert anything to and from money.
- Money in an abstract sense won't depreciate. People can use money to store wealth.
- Money can be transported easily.
How does money work? It works because of trust with others in our inter-subjective imagination. But how was trust established in the first place? Because it is recognized by the higher authority, e.g. money is used for paying taxes.
It worked for a nation, but how did it work internationally? The answer economists give, according to Harari, is that imagine two places with different value for the elements that used for creating money, e.g. gold. Merchants will start buying gold from cheaper places, driving up the demand and so as the price. Countries at the receiving end would have an influx of gold, lowering the demand and so as the price. Soon after, the cost of gold in the two places reaches an equilibrium, stabilizing the value of gold internationally.
Ch11. Imperial Visions
The overall trajectory of human society is the unification of smaller societies to larger and larger empires.
Harari defines an empire as:
- A political order ruling over a significant number of culturally diverse peoples (The number is not the key, but the diversity of the population is)
- One with flexible borders and a desire to expand indefinitely
Building an empire involves:
- Slaughtering large populations
- Exploiting subjects to leave legacies (think art, language, and religion)
- Claiming they are doing good to the subjects
Given the injustice an empire brings, many may want to stripe down the culture to its core prior to the imperial rule. But an empire often leaves behind a mix bag of good and bad things. How should one pick and choose? You hardly can.
Even if one tries to, they will find it challenging because doctrines taught in the past are often heavily internalized by the subjects, as previously discussed in chapter 8.
Ch12. The Law of Religion
Harari defines religion as "a system of human norms and values that is founded on a belief in a superhuman order" (note the "and" condition). According to Harari, a superhuman order is an order "ordained by an absolute and supreme authority".
Two key qualities of religion: universal and missionary.
Harari categorizes religion into: animism, polytheism, monotheism, and humanism. The three largest religions are either monotheism (Christianity and Islam) or humanism (Buddhism). Thus Harari writes about these two types of religion at greater length.
In monotheism, the superhuman is impartial, and has no interest in advancing interests of the followers. Monotheism often has qualities of polytheism and animism. Monotheism also works hand in hand and in conflict with dualism. While dualism helps monotheism explain the existence of an independent evil, it contradicts with monotheism's singularity order.
- Liberal humanism worships individualism by protecting the inner core and freedom of individuals
- Socialist humanism worships humanity as a collective by protecting equality
- Evolutionary humanism worships the ideas of "weeding out the bad apples" and of advancing the human race by protecting mankind from degeneration and encouraging evolution.
Ch13. The Secret of Success
Did we know we will get to where we are today? No, we didn't and we will never be able to predict our future in the long run, not even historians. The study of history is not deterministic because historical path consists of a series of chaotic events that react to predictions.
What historians are able to do is to explain "how" we reach where we are, but not "why" we reach where we are.
- One might think it's easy to explain "why" things happened the way they did, but that's because of hindsight fallacy.
- The answer to a "why" question requires us to also explain why history didn't go other possible ways when it could have, given the circumstances. On the other hand, a "how" question only demands us to describe events leading up to the end result.
While human history seems to be headed to the right direction, Harari argues that there is no proof that human's life quality is improving. He expands his concerns over human happiness further in chapter 19.
Part Four: The Scientific Revolution
Ch14. The Discovery of Ignorance
- The willingness to admit ignorance:
- Traditional knowledge admits two kinds of ignorance: individual's limit of not knowing all the important things, and the entire tradition's limit of not knowing unimportant things.
- But modern science admits a third kind of ignorance: a collective (which goes above and beyond the entire tradition) admitting their ignorance of important things which are used to be unimportant.
- The centrality of observation and mathematics. It connects observations into comprehensive theories using mathematics, as opposed to stories in traditional knowledge.
- The acquisition of new powers. The goal of acquiring new powers is to remedy the ignorance by developing technology and broadening knowledge to expand the economy.
Ch15. The Marriage of Science and Empire
Before Harari explains the marriage of science and empire, he explains the emergence of imperialism by answering the following two questions.
- How did Europeans break out of their corners? For example, how Captain James Cook conquered Australia when the their military-industrial-scientific complex was far behind the Ottoman Empire, the Mughal Empire, and the Chinese Ming and Qing dynasties? Willing to admit their ignorance, exemplified by empty maps.
- Captain James Cook was a British. How did other European countries catch up so quickly with the British, whereas the other empires didn't follow suit? It is because other European countries share similar values, myths, judicial and sociopolitical infrastructure as the British. In particular, they saw science and capitalism as the foundation of a successful empire long before imperialism came along. The other empires don't share this infrastructure.
What did the conquerors do when they claim new lands? They learnt about the territory they had control over. They then not only owned the territory, but also the knowledge about the place. For example, when the British took control over India from the Mughal Empire, they marked borders of the country and deciphered ancient scripts which later became the cornerstone of comparative linguistics.
The knowledge they built was often branded and perceived positively as progressive, benefiting the conquered populations. However, there are always two sides of a coin. Knowledge also served to legitimize unjust behaviors.
Ch16. The Capitalist Creed
Human capital has grown immensely since the modern age (from 1500 onward). What enables economic growth?
- The marriage between science and capitalism. Prior to the modern age, money only represented things that actually exist. This limited the ability on growth. Although the concept of credit existed then, Sapiens didn't believe they would be better off and the total wealth would increase over time. In a zero-sum game environment, they equated growth with greed and thus growth was discouraged. However, the paradigm of growth shifted later. The Scientific Revolution allows us to see the future as brighter than today. People started to understand how new scientific developments would lead to overall growth. Instead of "stealing" other people's slices of pie in a zero-sum game, the Scientific Revolution makes it possible to increase the total size of a pie.
- The essence of capitalism. A pie increases as the profits of production are re-invested in productions.
- The marriage between imperialism and growth. Rulers in Europe thought like businessmen. Their ambition was to maximize their returns on investments. This motivated them to conquer the world to expand their economy.
While capitalism increases the wealth of the entire population, Harari warns of the dark sides of this system, e.g. inequality, restriction on freedom, slavery, poor health choices, and hunger.
Ch17. The Wheels of Industry
Harari argues that while our energy usage and raw materials consumption increase, the amount available for our exploitation has increased. New technologies enable us to have better access to energy in two ways.
- Exploit already available resources more efficiently, such as converting one form of energy to another.
- Prior to Industrial Revolution, we had limited ability to convert energy. We had to rely on human or animal muscle power to do the conversion, e.g. using chemical energy in food to haul a rickshaw.
- Steam engine and other engines, such as internal combustion engine, were later invented to convert energy without humans' or animals' involvement. They were widely used during the Industrial Revolution.
- Discover energy sources already exist but unavailable to us before.
Cheap and largely available energy and raw materials help flourish the economy. But many things which contribute to these increased productions are treated in cruel ways. Harari uses the productions of meat and dairy as examples. Animals are increasingly viewed as machines and less so as living creatures which have complex emotional needs.
Ch18. A Permanent Revolution
Since the Industrial Revolution, there have been many major upheavals in human history.
- We used to live our lives surrounding sunrise, sunset, and growth cycles of plants. Since the Industrial Revolution, people's lives are synchronized around timetables at workplaces.
- Families and communities used to be the foundation of one's social network, providing help and support. Since the Industrial Revolution, families' and communities' roles are replaced by the state and the market. At first, the involvement of the state and the market faced resistance from families and communities. In combination with the Industrial Revolution, the state and the market gained power to build things that families and communities couldn't have earlier. For example, they can build massive transportation and communication networks. Harari argues that the success of the state and the market lies upon an offer of individualism they make to free people from families and communities.
While change is constant and many conceptualize the world today as violent, Harari argues that the world is more peaceful than ever. In addition to using statistics, he provides three reasons for this argument.
- The price of war is up drastically
- The benefits is down, due to high cost of integration of other country's wealth
- Peace is more lucrative than going to war as it provides stable sociopolitical environment for trade
Ch19. And They Lived Happily Every After
Most existing research in happiness measures the subjective well-being. It shows that external circumstances, such as wealth, health, and community, increase happiness, but only for a short period of time. The moment people reach those external circumstances, they feel deprived. For survival and reproduction purposes, evolution makes sure we experience change in happiness but only momentary. Harari concludes that happiness depends on the difference between external conditions and subjective expectations (which is now increasingly driven by mass media and the advertising industry to raise people's expectations).
If one's happiness doesn't change over the long run, how could we explain the difference in levels of happiness among people? Harari draws upon biologists' findings that people's range of happiness is determined mainly by their biochemistry (i.e. hormonal levels). Where exactly it tips on the scale depends on the external events one experiences.
Harari then takes a step back and argues that equating "subjective well-being" with happiness is limiting because meanings to life also drive happiness. But attributing meanings that doesn't exist objectively to life could sometimes be delusional.
Rather than trying to re-engineer one's biochemistry system or giving delusional meanings to life, Harari turns to Buddhism's pursuit of happiness as a third way out. The approach is to take things as they are, neither try to crave for pleasure nor to avoid suffering.
Ch20. The End of Homo Sapiens
Humans are becoming, in Harari's chosen metaphor, gods. They can create species. While life-extension projects are highly regarded in science, Harari warns us of a possibility of creating species superior to us, like the Frankenstein's monster, who may have very different cognitive and emotional responses than Sapiens.
As the future may consist of superior species very different from us, Harari believes that we shouldn't be asking who we want to become, but asking questions to understand our motivations of "upgrading" Sapiens.
First published in Hebrew in 2011 and then in English in 2014, the book was translated into 45 languages (as of June 2017). It also made to The New York Times best-seller list and won the National Library of China's Wenjin Book Award for the best book published in 2014. Writing four years after its English-language publication, Alex Preston wrote in The Guardian that Sapiens had become a "publishing phenomenon" with "wild success" symptomatic of a broader trend toward "intelligent, challenging nonfiction, often books that are several years old". Concurrently, The Guardian listed the book as among the ten "best brainy books of the decade". The Royal Society of Biologists in the UK shortlisted the book in its 2015 Book Awards.
Anthropologist Christopher Robert Hallpike reviewed the book and did not find any "serious contribution to knowledge". Hallpike suggested that "...whenever his facts are broadly correct they are not new, and whenever he tries to strike out on his own he often gets things wrong, sometimes seriously". He considered it an infotainment publishing event offering a "wild intellectual ride across the landscape of history, dotted with sensational displays of speculation, and ending with blood-curdling predictions about human destiny."
Reviewing the book in The Washington Post, evolutionary anthropologist Avi Tuschman points out problems stemming from the contradiction between Harari's "freethinking scientific mind" and his "fuzzier worldview hobbled by political correctness", but nonetheless wrote that "Harari’s book is important reading for serious-minded, self-reflective sapiens."
Reviewing the book in The Guardian, philosopher Galen Strawson concluded that among several other problems, "Much of Sapiens is extremely interesting, and it is often well expressed. As one reads on, however, the attractive features of the book are overwhelmed by carelessness, exaggeration and sensationalism."
Reviewing the book in The New Atlantis, John Sexton, graduate student at the University of Chicago, concluded that "The book is fundamentally unserious and undeserving of the wide acclaim and attention it has been receiving".
The original Hebrew publication was first issued in 2011 as קיצור תולדות האנושות [Ḳitsur toldot ha-enoshut] (Or Yehuda: Kinneret, Zmora-Bitan, Dvir).
The English translation was first published in 2014 as Yuval Noah Harari, Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, "translated by the author with the help of John Purcell and Haim Watzman", simultaneously in London by Harvill Secker ISBN 9781846558238 (hardback), ISBN 9781846558245 (trade paperback) and in Canada by Signal (ISBN 978-0-7710-3850-1 (bound), ISBN 978-0-7710-3852-5 (html)). It was then republished under the same title but without the information about the translators in London by Vintage Books, apparently in 2015 (ISBN 9780099590088 (paperback)).
- Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow
- The Outline of History (H. G. Wells)
- Guns, Germs and Steel: A short history of everybody for the last 13,000 years (Jared Diamond)
Notes and references
- Harari, Yuval Noah; Vintage (2014). Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind. ISBN 9780099590088.
- Strawson, Galen (11 September 2014). "Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind by Yuval Noah Harari – review". The Guardian. Retrieved 29 October 2014.
- Payne, Tom (26 September 2014). "Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind by Yuval Noah Harari, review: 'urgent questions'". The Telegraph. Retrieved 29 October 2014.
- Ben Shephard. Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind review – thrilling story, dark message, The Guardian, 21 September 2014.
- Book overview at Yuval Noah Harari's website
- Harari, Yuval Noah. Were we happier in the stone age?, The Guardian, September 5, 2014.
- CBC Radio 1, IDEAS with Paul Kennedy (January 12, 2015). "Sapiens".
- N.,, Harari, Yuval. Sapiens : a brief history of humankind. Harari, Yuval N.,, Purcell, John (Translator),, Watzman, Haim, (First U.S. ed.). New York. ISBN 9780062316097. OCLC 896791508.
- N.,, Harari, Yuval. Sapiens : a brief history of humankind. Harari, Yuval N.,, Purcell, John (Translator),, Watzman, Haim, (First U.S. ed.). New York. ISBN 9780062316097. OCLC 896791508.
- author., Smith, Adam, 1723-1790,. The wealth of nations. ISBN 9781680920963. OCLC 1030441487.
- Barnea, Nahum (2017-06-16). "Lifnei she-Sorfim et ha-Machashefoth (Before they burn the witches)" (Ha-Musaf la-Shabat, weekend supplement). Yedioth Ahronoth.
- China Book Award, CCTV News, April 23, 2015.
- What makes us human, China Daily, May 18, 2016, p. 20.
- Preston, Alex (July 29, 2018). "How the 'brainy' book became a publishing phenomenon". The Guardian. Archived from the original on July 31, 2018.
- "Best 'brainy' books of this decade". The Guardian. July 29, 2018. Archived from the original on July 31, 2018.
- Hallpike, C. R. A Response to Yuval Harari's 'Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind', New English Review, December 2017.
- Mann, Charles C. (6 February 2015). "How Humankind Conquered the World". Wall Street Journal. Retrieved 15 June 2016.
- Tuschman, Avi (16 June 2016). "How humans became human". The Washington Post. Retrieved 16 June 2016.
- Strawson, Galen (11 September 2014). "Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind by Yuval Noah Harari – review". The Guardian. Retrieved 15 June 2016.
- "A Reductionist History of Humankind". The New Atlantis. Retrieved 2018-08-15.
- Cambridge University Library catalogue, http://hooke.lib.cam.ac.uk/cgi-bin/bib_seek.cgi?cat=ul&bib=5796565
- Yuval Harari interviewed by Alan Philps about his book, The World Today, September 2015, Volume 71, Number 5.
- Bill Gates. How Did Humans Get Smart?, Gates Notes, May 17, 2016.
- Dirk Lindebaum. Sapiens: A brief history of humankind (Book Review), Management Learning, 46 (5) 2015, pp. 636–638. DOI: 10.1177/1350507615602981