2016-12-03: Sapiens


A Brief History of Humankind (2015)

by Yuval Noah Harari (1976-)

Sapiens has a very large scope: the entire history, and some of the future, of humankind.It is largely about the various revolutions (in the broad sense) that have created and changed humankind. Harari points out the effects of each revolution, including how it didn’t necessarily improve the lot of humans.

In the introduction, he provides a Timeline of History:

  • 13.5G ya (years ago) – Matter and energy appear. Beginning of physics. Atoms and molecules appear. Beginning of chemistry.
  • 4.5G ya – Formation of planet Earth.
  • 3.8G ya – Emergence of organisms. Beginning of biology.
  • 6M ya – Last common grandmother of humans and chimpanzees.
  • 2.5M ya – Evolution of genus Homo in Africa. First stone tools.
  • 2M ya – Humans spread from Africa to Eurasia.
  • 500k ya – Neanderthals evolve in Europe and the Middle East.
  • 300k ya – Daily use of fire.
  • 200k ya – Homo sapiens evolves in East Africa.
  • 70k ya – The Cognitive Revolution. Emergence of fictive language. Beginning of history. Sapiens spread out of Africa.
  • 45k ya – Sapiens settle in Australia. Extinction of Australian megafauna.
  • 30k ya – Extinction of Neanderthals.
  • 16k ya – Sapiens settle America. Extinction of American megafauna.
  • 13k ya – Extinction of Homo floresiensis. Homo sapiens the only surviving human species.
  • 12k ya – The Agricultural Revolution. Domestication of plants and animals. Permanent settlements.
  • 5k ya – First kingdoms, script and money. Polytheistic religions.
  • 4,250 ya – First empire – the Akkadian Empire of Sargon.
  • 2,500 ya – Invention of coinage – a universal money. The Persian Empire – a universal political order ‘for the benefit of all humans’. Buddhism in India -a universal truth ‘to liberate all beings from suffering’.
  • 2,000 ya – Han Empire in China. Roman Empire in the Mediterranean. Christianity.
  • 1,400 ya – Islam.
  • 500 ya – The Scientific Revolution. Humankind admits its ignorance and begins to acquire unprecedented power. Europeans begin to conquer America and the oceans. The entire planet becomes a single historical arena. The rise of capitalism.
  • 200 ya – The Industrial Revolution. Family and community are replaced by state and market. Massive extinction of plants and animals.
  • The Present – Humans transcend the boundaries of planet Earth. Nuclear weapons threaten the survival of humankind. Organisms are increasingly shaped by intelligent design rather than natural selection.
  • The Future – Intelligent design becomes the basic principle of life? Homo sapiens is replaced by super humans?

Harari starts with the Cognitive Revolution, the developments in the mental organization and capabilities that distinguish Sapiens from other humans, and from other animals. He is a bit vague about the exact nature of these developments, but emphasizes language, and its utility in spreading information about the world, about the relationships among members of a group (i.e., gossip), and about things that do not actually exist (e.g., spirits, tribes and races, human rights, corporations). The only domestic animal known prior to the Agricultural Revolution was the dog, at least 15k ya. Trade among different groups was primarily in prestige items such as shells, amber and pigments. “There is no evidence that people traded staple goods like fruits and meat, or that the existence of one band depended on the importing of goods from another.” People living in these times probably worked less than six hours a day, foraging or hunting. They had practically no chores, except to maintain their clothing, hunting/foraging, cooking and housing materials. For those who survived their first few years, they could live to their sixties. They had a varied and nutritious diet. They weren’t exposed to the pathogens carried by domestic animals, and suffered less infectious diseases. On the other hand, they were subject to accidents and hardship, and conflict between neighboring groups when competition became too intense.

The Agricultural Revolution resulted in reliance on growing plant crops and confining certain animals, and the need to establish settlements. The average farmer worked harder than foragers, and had a worse diet. The increased production of food expanded the constraints on population. Harari assigns blame: “The culprits were a handful of plant species, including wheat, rice and potatoes. These plants domesticated Homo sapiens, rather than vice versa.” Agricultural society includes specialized groups such as farmers and rulers, with various intermediary roles, and with uneven allocation of production. The resulting lifestyles for the farmers are not an improvement over foraging, but the process was a gradual ratcheting up of small changes, with no non-revolutionary way to unwind it. Another effect of this revolution was an expansion of time horizons. Foragers might look ahead a season or a year. Farmers and their rulers looked forward and back several years or even decades, seeing the result of the work prior years building projects (e.g., houses, irrigation systems, public works), and planning new ones.


Harari emphasizes the role of myths in organizing a society, by which he means not just pagan religious mythology, but also such myths as the rule of law and the belief in human rights. These myths support an imagined order, and must be installed by indoctrination. Three factors prevent people from realizing that the order is imaginary:

  1. Embedding the order in the visible, tangible world through symbols and rituals.
  2. Shaping our desires, for possessions, entertainment, experiences and relationships.
  3. It is inter-subjective, the result of beliefs (memes) shared by the vast majority of members of a society.

Agricultural society required a persistent way to organize surplus production. This was enabled by the invention of script, which originally supported accounting (i.e., mostly addition and subtraction), and later expanded to support general-purpose writing and mathematics. Money, an abstract but tangible representation of purchasing power, was invented for this purpose.

Harari spends many pages describing the expansion of agricultural society and the resulting empires. It’s mostly quite interesting.

Harari characterizes the Scientific Revolution in three parts:

  1. Admission of ignorance, and the possibility of disproving a belief
  2. Observation and modeling (e.g., with mathematics)
  3. Using theories to develop new abilities, and new abilities to develop new theories

The Scientific Revolution led to the notion of progress, fueled by the application of new abilities to economic or political goals. The worldwide enterprise of science doesn’t set its own priorities, but is funded by others with their own objectives. The interaction of science and money led to economic growth and capitalism. Capitalism is based on trust, and before the notions of progress and growth, no one would extend much credit because there was no expectation that things would improve enough to collect on the credit. The industrial revolution is an aspect of the Scientific Revolution.

Harari wraps up with two discussions: one on happiness, and one on the future of Sapiens as a species. Both are interesting, if a little depressing.


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