Sapiens - A Brief History of Humankind

by Yuval Noah Harari 2015

Book Review by Ray Herrmann

History seems to evolve like life itself: chaotic, locally unpredictable and with disregard for individual constituents. Initially, we Sapiens had a lot of close relatives. Homo erectus survived almost 500,000 years (the longest surviving relative), but it is doubtful that Homo sapiens will last another thousand years (explanation given near the end).

Other close relatives were Homo neanderthalenis, Homo denisovan, homo rudolfensis, Homo ergaster and perhaps others. I'll summarize the book by listing roughly sequential facts as presented by the author (But I hardly do him justice to skip so much that's necessary for intrepetation. I have left soooo much out.)

A very plausible early History of Sapiens:

The Agricultural Revolution (12,000 years ago). For 2.5 million years, we had fed ourselves as hunter-gathers. Then we began to sow seeds, to water plants, to pull weeds, and to lead sheep to pastures (which we probably used fire to clear):

Money existed long before the invention of coinage. Cowry Shells were used as money for about 4000 years all over Africa, South Asia, East Asia and Oceania. (12,000 years ago).

Formation of Empires (First about 2250 BC) Represented a shared National Consciousness (shared myths). Multitudes functioned as a single political unit and their work was coordinated toward common goals.

Religion: A system of human norms and values that is founded on a belief of Superhuman order. Founded on two distinct criteria:
  1) Religions hold that there is a Superhuman order which is not the product of human whims or agreements.
  2) Based on Superhuman order, religion establishes norms and values that it considers binding.
But, the need to unite a large expanse of territory inhabited by disparate groups of people requires two more qualities (so it is perceived as legitimate).:
  3) Religion must espouse a universal Superhuman order that is true always and everywhere.
  4) Religion must insist on spreading this belief everywhere (reinforces legitimacy and truth).

The Scientific Revolution of the last 500 years has led to a phenomenal increase in growth of human power. Modern Science differs from previous traditions in 3 ways:
  1) A willingness to admit ignorance (so we will seek more understanding).
  2) The centrality of observation and math (a mechanism of documenting knowlege).
  3) The acquisition of new powers (comes with developing understandings).

Capitalism: Credit enables us to build the present at the expense of the future.

Investing and Stocks: The power of capitalist greed. As Banks started issuing "Credit" the ensuing growth convinced people to "invest" some of their money in businesses that showed promise, anticipating a return on their investment. This expectation motivated companies to show more profits in order to attract more investors (growth begets growth). Hence, the Europeans moved toward "Joint-Stock" companies.

Rise in Slavery: Slavery was almost unknown in Christian Europe until modern Capitalism.

Happiness: (defined as Subjective Well-being): Today, most of us enjoy a stable food supply, housing and creature comforts unheard of in the past. Yet are we happier? Understanding the importance of human expectations has far-reaching implications for understanding the history of Happiness.

Our Future: We are on the cusp of incredible advances in technology and medicine. Technology is freeing us from the constraints of Natural Evolution. …We are becoming gods!

The Animal that became a God: We are more powerful than ever, but have very little idea what to do with that power. Sapiens regime on earth has so far produced little that we can be proud of. We have mastered our surroundings, increased food production, built cities, established empires, and created far-flung trade networks. But did we decrease the amount of suffering in the world? Time and again massive increases in human power did not necessarily improve the well-being of individual sapiens and usually caused immense misery to other animals.

The book ends with: "We are wreaking havoc on our fellow animals and surrounding ecosystem, seeking little more than our own comfort and amusement. Yet never finding satisfaction. Is there anything more dangerous than dissatisfied and irresponsible gods who don't know what they want?"

The above items were taken from the book, but they do not do justice to the cohesive case the author makes as he explains, not how we adapted, but why we made the adjustments we did. To truly understand all the author's claims you have to read the book!.

This book was very well written and should be recommended reading for sociology and history students as well as for those who want to find a plausible, comprehensive history of mankind all in one place.