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Sapiens by Yuval Noah Harari Summary

Updated: Mar 14, 2021

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Sapiens is your one-stop guide for becoming an authority on the history of us – Homo Sapiens. It covers the Cognitive, Agricultural, and Scientific Revolution with a rich narrative that integrates many scientific and humanities fields of study. Key insights:

  1. The Cognitive Revolution: cooking led to smarter brains, led to language, led to cooperation

  2. The Agriculture Revolution – wheat domesticates Sapiens so they could invest in physical assets like houses, fences and dams

  3. The Scientific Revolution – knowing that we didn’t know incentivized us to seek new knowledge

  4. Sapiens were better than Homos Erectus and Neanderthals at using fire to cook food safely while increasing the amount of nature’s products that could become edible

  5. Money is 1000x more effective than barter in facilitating voluntary transactions and exchange

  6. Free markets dominate planned economies

  7. Sapiens have always been problematic for nature

  8. The industrial Revolution required new models for society, such as universal voting and child labor laws

  9. Consumerism and abundance replaced frugality and deprivation as the human norm

  10. We are unlikely to run out of X (food, fuel, water, air, …) as humans ability to invent new technology seems likely to continue to solve this problem.

Book details

Full title: Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, by Yuval Noah Harari

Length: 512 pages, or 15 hours and 18 mins on Audible

Buy the book (USA): Amazon (book, Kindle, Audible)

Buy the book (AUS): Amazon (book, Kindle, Audible), Booktopia (book, eBook, audio-book)

Key insight 1: The Cognitive Revolution: cooking -> smarter -> language -> cooperation

Whilst Homo Erectus, Neanderthals, and Sapiens used fire; it was Sapiens that used it to cook foods most effectively. Cooking not only made indigestible foods such as wheat, rice, and potatoes nutritious; it killed germs and parasites as well. Whereas apes spend five hours per day chewing raw food, Sapiens spend less than one hour per day eating. Cooking also dramatically increased potential food sources; and allowed Sapiens to have smaller teeth, shorter intestines, and grow a larger brain.

New ways of thinking and communicating for Sapiens emerged between 30-70,000 years ago – likely as a result of a genetic mutation that allowed Sapien brains to think in unprecedented ways. This was enabled by the larger and more capable brains resulting from cooking food. The real transformational change was the invention of complex language. Most animals can communicate, some quite well. Monkeys have difference sounds to call out to each other about the presence of an eagle or a lion; but Sapien language and communication is in another league altogether. From Harari:

“We can connect a limited number of sounds and signs to produce an infinite number of sentences, each with a distinct meaning. We can thereby ingest, store and communicate a prodigious amount of information about the surrounding world. A green monkey can yell to its comrades, ‘Careful! A lion!’ But a modern human can tell her friends that this morning, near the bend in the river, she saw a lion tracking a herd of bison. She can then describe the exact location, including the different paths leading to the area. With this information, the members of her band can put their heads together and discuss whether they should approach the river, chase away the lion, and hunt the bison.”

That’s some serious cooperation in the tribe enabled by complex language. However, language was only just getting started. More important than the ability to describe real situations like lions, bison, and rivers; is languages ability to describe things that do not exist at all – like gossip. The ability to gossip Harari posits, enabled Sapiens to form tribes as large as 150, much larger and ultimately more capable that ape tribes, because then could safely talk about and navigate tribe politics. But how did Sapiens manage to exist in towns and cities greater than 150 where they could not ‘know’ each other? Through the invention of fiction, Harari again:

“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. Two Catholics who have never met can nevertheless go together on crusade or pool funds to build a hospital because they both believe in God…States are rooted in common national myths. Two Serbs who have never met might risk their lives to save one another because both believe in the existence of the Serbian nation, the Serbian homeland and the Serbian flag. Two lawyers who have never met can nevertheless combine efforts to defend a complete stranger because they both believe in the existence of laws, justice, human rights – and the money paid out in fees.”

Key insight 2: The Agriculture Revolution – wheat domesticates Sapiens

Between 8,500-9,500BC starting in Turkey and Iran, Sapiens increasingly switched from a nomadic forager lifestyle to agriculture – so well-known Agriculture Revolution. In doing so the numbers of Sapiens exploded from perhaps 5-8 million in 9,500BC to 250 million (250,000,000) in 100AD. Harari posits the process was an incremental one where increasing rainfall and land clearing via fire enabled the wheat grain to prosper. In picking wheat and carrying it back to camp it spread and was trodden into the group to germinate again. In time tribes settled closer to ever growing wheat fields in settlements that became increasingly permanent. From Harari:

“Wheat and goats were domesticated by approximately 9,000BC; peas and lentils around 8,000BC; olive trees by 5,000BC; horses by 4,000BC; and grapevines by 3,500BC. Some animals and plants, such as camels and cashew nuts, were domesticated even later, but by 3,500BC the main wave of domestication was over…No noteworthy plant or animal has been domesticated in the last 2,000 years. If our minds are those of hunter-gatherers, our cuisine is that of ancient farmers.”

In just a few thousand years wheat went from just one of several wild grasses, to a plant that is grown around the world. Wheat 1 – Sapiens 0. In doing so wheat can be said to have broken Sapiens. Wheat liked irrigated fields clear of rocks and weeds, and to be protected from worms, blights, rabbits, and locusts. A little manure from animals help it grow as well. What was the impact of this servitude to wheat on Sapiens? Harari again:

“The body of Homo Sapiens had not evolved for such tasks. It was adapted to climbing apple trees and running after gazelles, not to clearing rocks and carrying water buckets. Human spines, knees, necks and arches paid the price. Studies of ancient skeletons indicate that the transition to agriculture brought about a plethora of ailments, such as slipped discs, arthritis and hernias. Moreover, the new agricultural tasks demanded so much time that people were forced to settle permanently next to their wheat fields. This completely changed their way of life. We did not domesticate wheat. It domesticated us.”

Harari calls The Agricultural Revolution history’s biggest fraud as left farmers with more difficult and less satisfying lives than foragers. The huge increase in populations led to cities, hierarchies, and eventually rulers and kings and other pampered elites. A final quote from Harari:

“This is the essence of the Agricultural Revolution: the ability to keep more people alive under worse conditions.”

Key insight 3: The Scientific Revolution – actually, there are things we don’t know

Since 1500AD to 2020 the world population has grown from 500 million to 7,795 million, a 15.6x increase. How did this happen? The answer is The Scientific Revolution. Harari believes that the Scientific Revolution occurred as a result of a dramatic shift in how Sapiens viewed the world. It was a four step process starting with an understanding of our ignorance.

1. We were willing to acknowledge our ignorance. As science improved so too did our ability to observe and measure the world around us; and we started to discover that religious descriptions for natural events were wrong. The most graphic example of this was Italian Galileo Galilei (1564-1642) who developed a telescope then discovered that Earth revolved around the Sun, not the other way around – a belief system then known as heliocentrism. This resulted in a 1633 Roman Catholic Inquisition and house arrest until his death. From Harari:

“The greatest scientific discovery was the discovery of ignorance. Once humans realized how little they knew about the world, they suddenly had a very good reason to seek new knowledge, which opened up the scientific road to progress.”

2. We emphasized observation and mathematics over religious dogma. Galileo was but one of many early scientists who made a string of natural world discoveries across astronomy (Copernicus, Kepler, and Newton), biology and medicine (Vesalius, Harvey, Fauchard, and Pare), chemistry (Agricola, and Boyle), and physics (Kepler, Descartes, Newton, and Gilbert). After this period of discovery the natural world looked very different, and religion was discounted as a source of scientific wisdom; thus bringing on the separation of church and state. More from Harari:

“The Scientific Revolution proposed a very different formula for knowledge: Knowledge = Empirical Data × Mathematics. If we want to know the answer to some question, we need to gather relevant empirical data, and then use mathematical tools to analyze the data.”

3. We strive for new knowledge to gain new industrial capability. While the initial pursuit of knowledge is a usually for pure purposes, the continued acquisition of knowledge in particular areas is to refine or industrialize knowledge. The continued development of the internal combustion engine, aircraft, or computing power are examples of this tendency to gain an industrial advantage through research and development. Harari:

“In 1620 Francis Bacon published a scientific manifesto titled The New Instrument. In it he argued that ‘knowledge is power’. The real test of ‘knowledge’ is not whether it is true, but whether it empowers us. Scientists usually assume that no theory is 100 per cent correct. Consequently, truth is a poor test for knowledge. The real test is utility. A theory that enables us to do new things constitutes knowledge.”

4. We believe the future will be better than the past. Before the Scientific Revolution societies elites and thinkers romanticized the ancient times and ancient thinkers like Plato, Socrates, and Aristotle. After the Scientific Revolution we believe that the future will always have better science and technology than the past.

Other insights from Sapiens

4. Homo Sapiens – the best cooks. Whilst Homo Erectus, Neanderthals, and Sapiens used fire; it was Sapiens that used it to cook foods most effectively. Cooking not only made indigestible foods such as wheat, rice, and potatoes nutritious; it killed germs and parasites as well. Whereas apes spend five hours per day chewing raw food, Sapiens spend less than one hour per day eating. Cooking also dramatically increased potential food sources; and allowed Sapiens to have smaller teeth, shorter intestines, and a larger brain.

5. Money simplifies barter trade. Harari: “In a barter economy, every day the shoemaker and the apple grower will have to learn anew the relative prices of dozens of commodities. If one hundred different commodities are traded in the market, then buyers and sellers will have to know 4,950 different exchange rates. And if 1,000 different commodities are traded, buyers and sellers must juggle 499,500 different exchange rates! How do you figure it out?”

6. Free markets beat planned economics. Harari: “Some societies tried to solve the problem by establishing a central barter system that collected products from specialist growers and manufacturers and distributed them to those who needed them. The largest and most famous such experiment was conducted in the Soviet Union, and it failed miserably. ‘Everyone would work according to their abilities, and receive according to their needs’ turned in practice into ‘everyone would work as little as they can get away with, and receive as much as they could grab’.”

7. Sapiens have always been problematic for nature. From Harari: “Don’t believe tree-huggers who claim that our ancestors lived in harmony with nature. Long before the Industrial Revolution, Homo sapiens held the record among all organisms for driving the most plant and animal species to their extinctions. We have the dubious distinction of being the deadliest species in the annals of biology.”

8. The Industrial Revolution required new models for society. From Harari: “In the nineteenth century the Industrial Revolution created new conditions and problems that none of the existing social, economic, and political models could cope with. Feudalism, monarchism, and traditional religions were not adapted to managing industrial metropolises, millions of uprooted workers, or the constantly changing nature of the modern economy. Consequently, humankind had to develop completely new models—liberal democracies, communist dictatorships, and fascist regimes—and it took more than a century of terrible wars and revolutions to experiment with these models, separate the wheat from the chaff, and implement the best solutions. Child labor in Dickensian coal mines, the First World War, and the Great Ukrainian Famine of 1932–33 constituted just a small part of the tuition fees humankind had to pay.”

9. Consumerism replaces frugality. For most of human history resources were scarce and frugality was the norm. Supply wasn’t meeting demand and consumers went without. Now we have the reverse; our ability to produce exceeds consumers ability to purchase – even after they take on record debt. And curiously, it is the rich who are frugal and invest (to increase their wealth), while the poor are encouraged to spend by going into debt.

10. Are resources really finite? We have identified better ways to exploit current resources (e.g. increase solar panel efficiency), and continue to find new resources to exploit (Gen IV nuclear reactors which consume spend fuel). So the centuries old concerns about running out of resources and over-population seem increasingly wrong.

Why you should read this book if you’re under 30

As you get older you’ll start having different conversations with your friends and acquaintances on history, politics, economics, and other societal matters. At some point someone will cite the lessons of history to justify the point they are trying to make. And it’s probable that they’ll be wrong – as we just aren’t taught that much history during school.

By reading Sapiens you understand how Sapiens moved from being just one of five fragile Homo species, to the most dominant species on the planet. And you’ll know how the major revolutions happened along the way and what lessons we can apply from that journey to today. Of course if you’re interested in history generally, then this is a great introductory book that covers the complete journey of Homo Sapiens. Which is a fascinating story worth reading for its own sake.

#2 – Factfulness. This book introduces a more robust way to think about societies progress over the past 200 years and so dovetails nicely with Sapiens.

#8 – A Little History of Philosophy. This book covers some of the philosophers introduced in Sapiens in some more detail and shows there relationship with other thinkers of their time.

#9 – The Righteous Mind. This book addresses the different moralities of societies across the world; most notably how Western, Educated, Industrial, Rich, and Democratic societies differ from other societies. An understanding of how Sapiens developed will add depth to the discussion of moralities.

#10 – 50 Economics Ideas You Really Need To Know. This book covers in much more detail the systems and functioning of a modern economy that brings so much prosperity to modern Sapiens.

#11 – Don’t Burn This Book. This book covers some of the political aspects of modern society and so builds on the discussion in Sapiens.

#13 – 12 Rules for Life. This book discusses some aspects of our human evolution and societal development in the discussion of the author’s 12 rules. And understanding of Sapiens development will add context to this book.

Book resources

About the author

Yuval Noah Harari (born 1976) is an Israeli public intellectual, historian and professor in the Department of History at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Harari first specialized in medieval history and military history in his studies from 1993 to 1998 at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. He completed his PhD degree at Jesus College, Oxford, in 2002. From 2003 to 2005 he pursued postdoctoral studies in history. He now specializes in world history and macro-historical processes.

Harari twice won the Polonsky Prize for "Creativity and Originality", in 2009 and 2012. In 2011 he won the Society for Military History's Moncado Award for outstanding articles in military history. In 2012 he was elected to the Young Israeli Academy of Sciences. His book Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind was originally published in Hebrew in 2011 based on the 20 lectures of an undergraduate world history class he was teaching. It was then released in English in 2014 and has since been translated into some 45 additional languages. Sapiens was on The New York Times Best Seller list in position 1-3 for 96 consecutive weeks.

External links

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