Sapiens, written by the Israeli professor Yuval Noah Harari, is a mind boggling account of history. It so beautifully sets time in perspective and hits you hard in terms of your understanding of history (as we know it). The best part is it makes you realise our history, as we’ve been taught, pertains to a minuscule chunk of the history of this planet & the learning derived from this short span is still incomplete. The magnanimous pride we have put on our brains & egos is not doubt worthy of a praise but the damage it has done in the natural flow of things is something that must not be ignored.

Below is my interpretation of the book –

  • 3 important revolutions shaped the course of human history:
    1. Cognitive Revolution kick started history about 70k years ago
    2. Agricultural Revolution sped it up about 12k years ago
    3. Scientific Revolution which got underway only 500 years ago may well end history and start something completely different
  • It is a common fallacy to envision these species as arranged in a straight line of descent, with Ergaster begetting Erectus, Erectus begetting the Neanderthals and then evolving into us. Linear model gives a mistaken impression that at any particular moment only one type of human inhabited the earth
  • Humans have extraordinarily large brains compared to other animals (mammals 200cc to early humans 600cc to modern sapiens 1200cc). The fact is that a jumbo brain is a jumbo drain on the body. It consumes 25% of body’s energy at rest compared to 8% in other apes. Like a government diverting money from defence to education, humans diverted energy from biceps to Neurons. A chimp cannot win an argument but can rip a man apart like a rag doll
  • Our jump in the food chain from middle to top in such a short time that the ecosystem couldn’t evolve to maintain the balance. We lacked majestic touch that other top predators had. We were like a banana republic dictator that made us double cruel and dangerous. Domestication was also evolutionary due to agricultural revolution as some animals became more submissive in order to survive
  • Fiction and gossip have enabled us not merely to imagine things, but to do so collectively. Large numbers of strangers can cooperate successfully by believing in common myths. There are No Gods in the universe, No Nations, No Money, No Human Rights, No Laws and No Justice outside the common imagination of human beings
  • The ‘Gorging Gene’ theory is widely accepted. Today, we may be living in high rise apartments with over stuffed refrigerators, but our DNA still thinks we are in the savannah
  • The human collective knows far more today than did the ancient bands. But at the individual level, ancient foragers were the most knowledgeable and skilful people in history. This is because survival required a high understanding of one’s surroundings
  • Humans don’t come across as particularly dangerous. They don’t have sharp long teeth or muscular, lithe bodies. So when a Diprotodon, the largest marsupial ever to walk the earth, set eyes for the first time on this frail looking ape, he gave it one glance and continued chewing leaves. These animals had to evolve a fear of humankind, but before they could do so, they are gone!
  • Think for a moment. Wheat was just a wild grass, one of many, confined to a small range in the Middle East. Suddenly, within a few short millennia, it was growing all over the world. 2.25 million km is covered in what today. 10 times the size of Brazil! We went against our nature to feed it and nurture it. We didn’t domesticate it, it domesticated us! All it gave us back was multiplicity. Neither full nutrition nor economic support, but copies of DNA helixes was termed as success
  • One of history’s few iron laws is that luxuries tend to become necessities and to spawn new obligations. Eg in the snail mail era, it took a lot of effort but people wrote only what was necessary when necessary. But today multiple emails (mostly unnecessary & lacking concise message) are exchanged within minutes. Life did not become relaxed despite improving processes. In evolutionary terms, cattle represent one of the most successful animal species ever, but they’re some of the most miserable species as well. A rare wild rhinoceros on the brink of extinction is probably more satisfied than a calf who spends its short life in a tiny box, fattened to produce juicy steaks
  • Species evolved from a common ancestor are bunched together under the heading ‘genus’. Eg Panthera Leo is lion. History is something that very few people have been doing while everyone else was ploughing fields and carrying water buckets
  • The problem at the root of such calamities is that humans evolved for millions of years in small bands of a few dozen individuals. The handful of millennia separating the agricultural revolution from the appearance of cities, kingdoms and empires was not enough time to allow and instinct for mass cooperation to evolve. While human evolution was crawling at its usual snail’s pace, the human imagination was building astounding networks of mass cooperation, unlike any other ever seen on earth
  • A natural order is a stable order. There’s no way gravity will stop functioning tomorrow if people cease to believe it. An imagined order is always in danger of collapse as it is dependent on myths. A priest often does the work of a hundred soldiers, far more cheaply and effectively!
  • Writing was born as the maid servant of human consciousness, but is increasingly becoming its master. Our computers have trouble understanding how Homo sapiens talk, feel and dream. So we’re teaching Homo sapiens to talk, feel and dream in numbers, which can be understood by computers
  • There is no scientific proof of the complex human society requiring imagined hierarchy and discrimination. Hierarchies serve an important function. They enable complete strangers to know how to treat one another without wasting the time and energy needed to become personally acquainted. If you want to keep any human group isolated, the best way to do it is convince everyone that these people are a source of pollution
  • Unlike the laws of physics, which are free of inconsistencies, every man made order is packed with internal contradictions. Cultures are constantly trying to reconcile these contradictions, and this process fuels change
  • When we view millennia and not just centuries, the history moves in the direction of unity (not diversity). The first universal order was Economic, the second was Political and the third was Religious
  • History is what is called a level two chaotic system. Weather is a level one chaotic system. Though it is influenced by myriad factors, we can build computer models that take more and more of them into consideration and produce better results. Level two chaos is chaos that reacts to predictions about it, and therefore can never be predicted accurately. Financial Markets are also an example of level two.
  • Unlike physics and economics, history is not a means for making accurate predictions. We study history to widen our horizon and know that there could be endless possibilities before us
  • We have to take into account the Ideological, Political and Economic forces that shaped Physics, Biology and Sociology, pushing them in certain directions while neglecting others. Investments flow only where the belief of polity & business directs it!
  • European imperialism was entirely unlike all other imperial projects in history. Previous seekers of empire tended to assume that they already understood the world. Conquest merely utilised and spread their view of the world. Europeans admitted ignorance – ‘I don’t know what’s out there’
  • Many Christians did not imitate Christ, most Buddhist failed to imitate Buddha. In contrast most people today live up successfully to the capitalist-consumerist ideal. The new ethic promises paradise on condition that the rich remain greedy and spend their time making more money, and that the masses give free rein to their cravings and passions- and buy more and more. This is the first religion in history whose followers actually do what they are asked to do! Shopping is the biggest religion on this planet!
  • The price of war soared, while its profits declined. Nuclear force means a collective suicide. Today, wealth consists mainly of human capital and organisational know how which cannot be won by war!
  • Human happiness is like the air conditioning system set at a temperature. It always returns to the set temperature. The average set temperature is different for people. Lasting happiness comes only from serotonin, dopamine and oxytocin. Most people link physical pleasure to happiness. But, raising a baby is one of the most physically excruciating experience which gives one of the most fulfilling joy to most people
  • As Nietzsche put it, if you have a ‘Why’ to live, you can bear any ‘How’. Any meaning that people ascribe to their lives is just a delusion. Scientifically, our actions are not part of some divine cosmic plan, and if planet earth were to blow up tomorrow, the universe will probably keep going about its business as usual. The other worldly meanings that medieval people found in their lives were no more deluded than the humanist, nationalist and capitalist meanings modern people found

Some insights that definitely shall leave you with some food for thought –

  • On Future – We’re making the transition from laws of Natural Selection to laws of Intelligent Design (imagine what impact AI & genetic modification will have)
  • On Incapability Bias – Biology Enables, Culture Forbids!
  • On Money – Money isn’t a material reality. It is a psychological construct

Do share your views/feedback in the comments section

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