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Summary of Sapiens by Yuval Noah Harari

This summary looks at the timeline of history, starting about 13.5 billion years ago, when matter, energy, time and space came into being.  The subsequent development is what we call history and this summary tells the story.

Part One: The Cognitive Revolution

Humans first evolved in East Africa about 2.5 million years ago. About 2 million years ago, they journeyed across the world and evolved into several distinct species, such as Homo neanderthalenis, Homo erectus, Homo soloensis, and Homo floresiensis. 

They were quite different, but they were all Homo, human beings. The main defining characteristics were the large brain humans developed, the use of tools, superior learning abilities and complex social structures. Humans also domesticated fire and used it to cook. More than anything else, though, Homo sapiens conquered the world due to our unique language.

The Cognitive Revolution occurred between 70,000 and 30,000 years ago. The most commonly believed theory argues that accidental genetic mutations changed the inner wiring of the brains of Sapiens, which enabled them to think in unprecedented ways and use a new type of language. Our language likely evolved in order to gossip and warn each other of nearby threats. Social cooperation is our key to survival and reproduction, so we need to be able to obtain and store lots of information. Gossip helped Homo sapiens form larger and more stable bands. Humans also share an imagined reality – something that everyone believes in and exists only as long as this communal belief persists.

For nearly the entire history of our species, Sapiens lived as foragers. Most Sapiens lived on the road, roaming from place to place in search of food. They also foraged for knowledge. To maximise the efficiency of their daily search for food, they required information about the growth patterns of each plant and animal. Foragers had a varied diet, which stopped them from being dependent on any single food, and reduced their chances of catching infectious diseases. Foragers shaped the world around us to a large degree.

The journey of the first humans to Australia is one of the most important events in history because it was the first time any human had managed to leave the Afro-Asian ecological system. It marked the moment humans cemented themselves at the top of the food chain. Soon after, humans made it to America. As we settled around the world, various animals went extinct. It’s hard to know for certain the cause, but there are good reasons to believe that Homo sapiens were at fault.

Part Two: The Agricultural Revolution

About 10,000 years ago, Sapiens began the Agricultural Revolution. Humans dedicated their time and energy to agriculture in hopes that it would provide them with more fruit, grain and meat. Some scholars think that the Agricultural Revolution happened because human brains evolved, but there is no evidence that people became more intelligent with time. Farmers actually had generally more difficult and less satisfying lives than those of foragers. They worked harder and longer, yet had fewer fruits of their labour at the end of the day. They domesticated animals which often caused severe suffering to the animals.

The Agricultural Revolution is one of the most controversial events in history. Some say it led humankind to prosperity and progress. Others say it ruined us. Whichever way it led us, it was irreversible. The majority of farmers lived in permanent settlements and “home” became an attachment.  The Agricultural Revolution made the future far more important than it had ever been. Farmers needed to think about the future and work in its service. Agriculture was uncertain, so farmers built up reserves. Imagined order began to rise. An objective phenomenon exists independently of human consciousness and beliefs. A subjective phenomenon exists depending on a single individual’s consciousness and beliefs. Inter-subjective is something that exists within the communication network linking the subjective consciousness of many individuals, such as law, money, god, and nations.  

Sapiens social order is not printed in our DNA; it is imagined. A conscious effort must be made to sustain laws, customs, procedures and manners. In the wake of the Agricultural Revolution, numbers became increasingly important. Most human brains could not handle it, so human social networks remained relatively small and simple. The Sumerians invented writing and changed everything. People began to write poetry, history books, prophecies and cookbooks, but the main purpose of writing was to record numbers.

Humans organised themselves into mass-cooperation networks, arranged in a hierarchy. Inequality was rampant. To the best of our understanding, these hierarchies are all the product of human imagination. There is no evidence that biological differences, such as skin colour or hair type, extend to intelligence or morality. Most rich people are rich because they were born into a rich family; most poor people are poor for the same reason. Most human societies have been patriarchal and valued men more than women, although we do not know the reason why.

Part Three: The Unification of Humankind

After the Agricultural Revolution, human societies grew larger and more complex. People learned to think in certain ways, to behave in accordance with certain standards and to observe certain rules. This network of artificial instincts is called ‘culture.’ Cultures are often filled with inconsistencies and therefore are constantly changing. As a whole, history is moving toward unity. Homo sapiens think in terms of “us” or “them.” During the last three millennia, people tried to establish an order that would be applicable for everyone everywhere.

Humans used to live in a barter economy, trading goods based on the relative prices of commodities. Eventually, peoples’ needs became too diverse and a universal system was needed – so we developed money.  Money is anything that people are willing to use in order to systematically represent the value of other things for the purpose of exchanging goods and services.  Money enables people to convert almost everything into almost anything else. It also allows people to store wealth. Money works because of universal convertibility and universal trust.  

Almost all people in the twenty-first century are the offspring of one empire or another. An empire is a political order that rules over a significant number of distinct people. Empires are characterised by flexible borders and potentially unlimited appetite. Ideas, people, goods and technology spread more easily within the borders of an empire, so empires are responsible for amalgamating many small cultures into fewer bigger cultures. Now, we are moving fast toward a single, global empire.

Today, we think of religion as a source of discrimination, disagreement and disunion. However, religion has been the third great unifier of humankind, next to money and empires. Religion has ensured social stability because it asserts that a supreme authority ordains our laws.  Religion establishes norms and values that it considers binding. Religion helps answer the fundamental concerns of human thought – why is there evil in the world? Why is there suffering? Why do bad things happen to good people?

History cannot be explained and it cannot be predicted because it is chaotic. There is no proof that cultures that are beneficial to humans must succeed and spread, while less beneficial cultures disappear. Different cultures define ‘good’ differently, so we have no proof that human well-being improves as time goes on. History disregards the happiness of individual organisms, and individuals are usually too ignorant and weak to influence the course of history.

Part Four: The Scientific Revolution

The last 500 years have had unprecedented growth in human power, known as the Scientific Revolution. The Scientific Revolution brought lots of progress and the idea that we as humans have the power to actually make changes and improvements in our world. The single most defining moment of the past 500 years was when American scientist detonated the first atomic bomb because it gave humankind the capability to change the course of history – and to end it.

Modern science flourished because of European empires and their desire to explore and conquer new lands. If they wanted to control the new territories, they had to gather enormous amounts of new data about the geography, climate, flora, fauna, languages, cultures and history of the new continent. Thus, empires financed the study of linguistics, botany, geography and history.

Credit was invented in the modern era as a way to represent goods that do not exist in the present. The Scientific Revolution is built on the notion that if we admit our ignorance and invest resources in research, things can improve. Soon, this translated into economic terms. People put more trust in the future, and this trust created credit. Capitalism played a role in the rise of modern science and also in the emergence of European imperialism. Capitalism says economic growth is the supreme because justice, freedom and happiness require economic growth.

The modern economy grows because of our trust in the future and the willingness of capitalists to reinvest their profits in productions. Yet economic growth also requires energy and raw materials, and these are finite. Until the Industrial Revolution, human behaviour was largely dictated by solar energy and plant growth. Then, we discovered the internal combustion engine and electricity. The Industrial Revolution combined cheap and abundant energy with cheap and abundant raw materials which resulted in an explosion of human productivity, and with that, the rise of consumerism.

The Industrial Revolution turned the timetable and assembly line into a template for almost all human activities. Cheap but precise portable clocks became ubiquitous. The Industrial Revolution gave the market new powers and, over time, states and markets weakened the traditional bonds of family and community – they told people to become individuals and do whatever they wanted. Imagined communities became more important, specifically the nation and the consumer tribe. Those communities made us believe that we all have a common past, common interests and a common future. We live in one of the most peaceful times in history. International violence has dropped to an all-time low.

In the past 500 years, the earth has been united into a single ecological and historical sphere. The economy has grown exponentially and humankind today enjoys the kind of wealth that used to only exist in fairy tales. Science and the Industrial Revolution have given humankind superhuman powers and practically limitless energy. However, historians have yet to answer any questions about how this has influenced human happiness. 

The generally accepted definition of happiness is ‘subjective well-being’ which is quite difficult to measure. However, studies suggest that money does bring happiness, but only up to a certain point. Another interesting finding is that illness decreases happiness in the short term, but is only a source of long-term distress if a person’s condition is constantly deteriorating or if the disease involves ongoing and debilitating pain. Family and community seem to have more impact on our happiness than money and health. The most important finding is that happiness does not really depend on the objective conditions of wealth, health or community. It depends on the correlation between objective conditions and subjective expectations.

Biologists say that our mental and emotional world is governed by biochemical mechanisms and our happiness is determined by a complex system of nerves, neurons, synapses and biochemical substances. Some people are born with a cheerful biochemical system and some people are not. Another theory is that happiness is based on the feeling that life is meaningful. For many traditional philosophies and religions, the key to happiness is to know the truth about yourself – to understand who you really are.

For close to 4 billion years, every organism evolved because of natural selection. But in recent decades, humans have begun to evolve according to intelligent design. Intelligent design may replace natural selection through biological engineering – deliberate human intervention on the biological level, cyborg engineering – combining organic with non-organic parts, or the engineering of inorganic life, such as computers. The next stage of human history will not only involve biological and technological changes, but also changes in human consciousness and identity. Changes that are this fundamental will call the very term “human” into question. The future is unknown, but we are at the verge of overcoming natural selection and becoming gods. But first we need to decide what we want to want. 

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