Sapiens: A brief history of humankind – Yuval Noah Harari (Book review)


  • Humans = Everyone from the genu”homo”
  • Sapiens = Homo sapiens (Our species)
  • Species = Similar living organisms that can reproduce with each other.
    • Every two species that have a common ancestor were at one point two populations of the same species.

The book in a nutshell:

Why are humans so powerful?

Cognitive revolution:

  • We could communicate more information about the surrounding world
    • This allowed better planning and complex actions
  • We could gossip
    • Up to 150 people could cooperate
  • We invented fiction (Religion etc.)
    • Cooperation between EVEN more than 150 people!
    • Rapid behavior change! (Independent of our genes)

Agricultural revolution:

  • We started producing our food for ourselves, so we had more food per area and then we multiplied
  • We also started writing and using money

Scientific revolution:

  • We admitted ignorance and started using the scientific method.
  • Capitalism created growth
  • We started believing in progress!

Overall timeline

  • 13.5 billion years ago: Big bang
  • 4.5 billion years ago: Planet earth
  • 3.8 billion years ago: First organisms
  • 5-7 million years ago: First human ancestor evolved from the apes
  • 2 million years ago: Humans traveled through continents and evolved into different species
    • Homo sapiens evolved from the ones (Homo erectus among others) that had traveled to East Africa
  • 300.000 years ago: We started using fire daily
  • 150.000 years ago: Homo sapiens date back to this date at least
  • 70.000 years ago: Cognitive revolution
  • 12.000 years ago: Agricultural revolution
  • 10.000 years ago: Now homo sapiens are the only type of humans left.
  • 500 years ago: Scientific revolution

How the past shaped us

  • The agricultural revolution and everything from there on is the blink of an eye, compared to our years of hunting and gathering. So our bodies aren’t optimized for our modern environment
    • That’s why we binge on sweets and greasy food.
  • Foragers needed more skills and knowledge about the natural world than we do today
    • Today we only need specialized knowledge about our work, while relying on others for everything else
  • We rose quickly to the top of the food chain compared to other species.
    • This is the reason that we are still filled with fears and anxieties because we used to be in the middle of the food chain.

Cognitive revolution

  • Accomplishments from 70,000 to 30.000 years ago:
    • Boats
    • Clothing
    • We traveled to Australia
    • We made the first known art.
  • Living conditions:
    • Most sapiens lived on the road
    • They ate a more varied diet and were less likely to suffer from malnutrition.
  • It’s believed they were animists
    • So they believed that all objects have feelings, desires, awareness and could be communicated with.
  • Humans jumped to the top of the food chain:
    • We have walked on two legs, used tools, had complex thinking and complex social structures for millions for years
      • Still… It’s only in the last 100.000 years that we jumped to the top of the food chain
    • The proposed reasons we jumped to the top of the food chain:
      • We could communicate more information about the surrounding world
        • This allowed better planning and complex actions
      • We could gossip
        • Up to 150 people could cooperate
      • We invented fiction
        • Cooperation between EVEN more than 150 people!
        • Rapid behavior change!

The agricultural revolution

  • We started producing food for ourselves
  • This required settling down to one place
    • We significantly altered the places to suit our needs.
    • We treated animals in cruel ways
    • Luxuries (food) become necessities and often produce new responsibilities
    • We started worrying about the future because we somewhat had control over it and it affected the production of food.
    • People worked more but got a worse, less varied diet.
  • Since more food was available per area, humans multiplied exponentially.
    • Thereby, increasing our evolutionary success, because we get more copies of our DNA.
  • Money
    • The first kind of money (barley) was used 5000 years ago
    • Money is the most efficient and most universal system of mutual trust

The scientific revolution

  • It’s only in the last 500 years, that there has been a connection between science, technology, and war.
  • Before the scientific revolution, most people didn’t believe in progress
  • We started working according to clocks in the industrial revolution, because we only produced parts of products, and thereby were dependent on other people showing up.
  • Families and local communities used to be the norm but were now replaced with the state and the market.
    • You used to be as good as dead if you left your family and local community
  • We became individuals:
    • Choosing who we marry (Instead of our parents influencing us)
    • Choosing our job (Instead of working in the family business)
    • Choosing where to live (Even if we can’t visit our family weekly)

Why did the Europeans rule the world when we weren’t more advanced technologically?

  1. Modern science.
    • Three Characteristics:
      1. Admitting we don’t know (ANKI)
      2. Focus on observations and mathematical models
      3. Possibility of new technology
    • When the British conquered other countries they brought scientists with them
      • When they conquered India they examined ruins that Indians had ignored and discovered the first Indian civilizations.
    • Science is often financed with political, economical or religious agendas
  2. Capitalism
    • Economic history = Growth
    • We achieved growth by creating credit (Loaning from the future)
      • The reason we haven’t done this before is that, before the scientific revolution, people didn’t believe in progress.
      • Capitalism works when profits are reinvested in production
    • Should markets be completely free?
    • Slaves were sold to make sugar for Europeans because it made sense from the perspective of supply & demand.
      • Ethical considerations should also be made
      • Profits should be gained in a fair way

Advancements in the scientific revolution

  • Good things about our advancements:
    • In the nineteenth century, hospitals were still cutting off soldiers’ arms and legs (without anesthetics), because we didn’t know about antibiotics and sterilization methods.
    • All production used to come from the muscles of humans and animals.
      • Then came the steam engine, electricity, etc.
      • In the seventeenth hundred England, 1/3 of children die before age 15, while today it’s only 7 out of 1000.
    • Things have gotten more peaceful
      • In 2000 only 1.5% died because of war and violent crimes.
        • More people died because of car accidents
      • Reasons that we have less war:
        • Nuclear weapons make it expensive
        • It’s less profitable because the main form of wealth today is human capital.
        • Peace is profitable because of international trading.
  • Bad things about our advancements:
    • Bad for all animals
    • Bad for the living environment we can live in.
  • Today supply has outpaced demand
    • So what should buy all this stuff?
      • Consumerism is born
        • Consumerism = Get to paradise by buying stuff to satisfy your cravings!
        • Scarcity and frugality used to be the norm, but now the norm is consumerism

Other topics from the book:


  • It’s not an evolutionary advantage to be happy all the time. Happiness needs to fade, so we are motivated to pursue new things.
  • We tend to stabilize at some happiness level, which is different for everyone.
  • What makes us happy?
    • Money helps up to a certain point
    • Family and community is important
    • Illness doesn’t affect long-term satisfaction
      • Unless:
        • It is getting worse
        • It is accompanied by too intense pain.
  • Happiness depends on our expectations
    • This is why mass media and advertising can destroy our happiness
  • Different perspectives
    • We only experience happiness because of chemicals in our body
    • We experience happiness if our life seems meaningful and worthwhile.
    • According to Buddhism our happiness neither depends on external events nor internal feelings

Meaning of life

  • From a scientific view, no meaning seems to exist for humans
    • The planet could go on existing without us.

Humans are moving towards unity / Globalization

  • From a birds-eyes-view, humans have moved towards bigger and more complex civilizations
    • 12.000 years ago we had thousands of disconnected human worlds that didn’t know about each other
    • 500 years ago we had just 5 disconnected worlds, where one of them contained 90%
    • Now all previously disconnected human worlds are influenced by each other. No original/authentic culture exists
  • Factors that facilitated the movement towards unity
    • Money
      • Reciprocity didn’t work with strangers, who would never return the favor.
      • Trading was inconvenient
      • The soviet union tried gathering and distributing according to everyone’s needs
        • This lead to people working as little as possible and taking as much as possible
    • Empires
      • We are all shaped a lot by the roman empire, Arab caliphate, and the European empires
      • In the 19th century the British empire covered more than half of the globe, and spread European ideas and norms, like:
        • Democracy
        • Science
        • Capitalism
        • Western religion
        • Religion


  • Most religions started as animism
    • Believing all object have awareness and desires
  • Then things turned towards polytheism
    • Because if there only was a single god, he wouldn’t have desires and biases
    • But often they still had some kind of universal creator
  • The first monotheist religions started around 350 BC.
    • Before this, there were also beliefs about an all-encompassing faith/atman, but now god also had biases and desires.
    • Monotheistic religions were more missionary
    • Doesn’t make sense why evil exists, if an all-encompassing loving God created everything.
  • Dualist religions
    • Believe in the battle between good & evil.
    • Are better at explaining why evil exists
    • Doesn’t explain the common laws between the fight of the good and the evil.
  • Other religions like Buddhism, Daoism, Confucianism, cynicism, and stoicism believed in natural laws, rather than divine will.
    • According to these religions: If gods exist, they are also governed by the same laws.
    • Buddhism believes the cause of suffering is craving, which is a product of the mind. Wanting bad things to go away and wanting more of the good things.
  • The book also sees communism, liberalism, nationalism, Nazism, etc. as religions
    • 3 types of humanists
      1. Liberal humanists: Every individual is sacred and should have freedom
      2. Socialist humanists: The collective is sacred, so we should have inequality
      3. Evolutionary/Nazi humanists: We should help those races with good genes while getting rid of the rest.

How homo sapiens are different

  • Most other species have close relatives
  • Multiple species of humans existed before us, and many at the same time, but the last one died 10.000 years ago.
    • Our closest living relatives now is the chimpanzees
    • Two theories of why the other human species went extinct
    • The interbreeding theory: We mated and mixed with the other species
      • There is some proof of this. Europeans DNA is 1-4% the same as Neanderthal DNA.
      • The replacement theory: We killed all other species
      • Most likely it is a mix of both
    • Humans are born prematurely compared to other species
      • Therefore, there is more time to educate and socialize the children
      • Tribes are needed for help because women can’t take care of these prematurely born children.
  • The most unique thing about our language is that we can talk about things that don’t exist
    • Examples of things that only exists in our collective imagination:
      • Religion, gods, nations, laws, justice, human rights, money, companies.
    • Three things that maintain these fictions
      1. They are manifested in the physical world
      2. They shape our desires
        • “Follow your heart” was implanted in our minds with romantic myths in the nineteenth century
        • Romantic ideas of having as big a variety of experiences as possible
        • Holidays
          • Egyptians build pyramids, but would never travel
          • Consumerism
      3. They exist across almost all peoples minds
    • Why is fiction so powerful?:
      • Biology sets the foundation, while fiction allows us to play more complex games.
        • We can change behavior based on fiction (nations, laws), while most animals can only change based on genetic alterations and environmental changes.
      • But they allow extremely flexible cooperation
        • Individuals in other species can only cooperate with a few trusted others or their relatives.
        • When looking at individuals one by one, we are not that different from chimpanzees, but the way we can cooperate and build on top of each other is what makes us powerful.
        • No other species engage in trade
  • We write
    • We first began writing about 5000 years ago
      • The first writing was for record-keeping (taxes)
      • Writing changed our thinking
  • Homo sapiens destroy/change the environment more than any other animal.
  • No other species cares about the rest of the species
    • We probably only care because of the recent globalization/movement towards unity
    • All other animals have a “us and them” mentality
  • The things that are considered masculine and feminine varies across time and cultures.

The end of sapiens

  • We can change the course of nature with intelligent design (Biological engineering)
  • Since we are motivated by saving lives, and science helps us in this pursuit, we are likely to move towards of world of superhumans

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