Sapiens – A brief history of humankind

Once in a while you will read a book and it will bring a radical shift in your perspective. Sapiens is a book like that. This books tells us how an animal born with no significance grown to become god like. Dr. Yuval Noah Harari did a great job writing the entire human history in just 400 pages. His simple writing style and presentation with illustrations explains each and every concept perspicaciously.

This book is divided into four major sections The Cognitive Revolution, Agricultural Revolution, Unification of Humankind and Scientific RevolutionIn each of these sections Harari explains how human beings lived in that era and how this lifestyle affected their environment.

1. The Cognitive Revolution

Cognitive revolution started about 70,000 years ago. Unlike other animals Sapiens have the gift of imagination. No other animal can live in an imagined reality. They live in pure reality where a cow is a cow, but in human society we have different meaning for cow. It is no longer a normal cow it is considered as a mother and in some part of the world we worship it. Imagined reality opened new realms in human behavior. Now if you look around you see most of the things that we use daily like money, religions, companies, bank, nations, organisations are not real objects. You cannot touch and feel these things. They exists only in our collective imagination. We use myths and stories to build this universe of imagined reality.

“Telling effective stories is not easy. The difficulty lies not in telling the story, but in convincing everyone else to believe it. Much of history revolves around this question: how does one convince millions of people to believe particular stories about gods, or nations, or limited liability companies? Yet when it succeeds, it gives Sapiens immense power, because it enables millions of strangers to cooperate and work towards common goals.”

It is very difficult for one million apes to work together towards a common goal, because they don’t have this web of imagined reality. For them trusting each other takes a lot of time. But for sapiens trusting each other is simple because of imagined reality. If two people believe in one imagined reality there is a higher chance of them trusting each other. And today imagined reality is far more powerful than anything else. We can say that the existence of reality itself is depended on this imagined reality. As Harari put it

“As time went by, the imagined reality become ever more powerful, so that today the very survival of rivers, trees and lions depends on the grace of imagined entities such as United nations and Google.”

Harari is saying many of our present day social and psychological characters are developed during pre-agricultural era. For example we might have got craving for high calorie food from hunter-gatherer ancestors. At that time when you get some high calorie food the only way to use it was to eat more. There was no guarantee that you will get this again tomorrow.

“Today we may be living in high-rise apartments with over stuffed refrigerators, but our DNA still thinks we are in the savannah. That’s what makes us spoon down an entire tub of Ben&Jerry’s when we find one in the freezer and wash it down with a jumbo Coke.”

2. The Agricultural Revolution

The first chapter of this section is called History’s Biggest Fraud. Well, there is a reason behind it.

Agricultural revolution started around 10,000 years ago. Sapiens who hunted wild animals and gathered wild plants started sowing seeds, watering plants and domesticated animals. It was a revolution in the way humans lived. We heard many stories about how this revolution fueled the progress of humanity but there is no evidence that this actually made any progress in their life. Sapiens used to have a very good diet, they ate wide variety of food gathered from wilderness, but agriculture restricted it to very few. Also farming took a lot of effort and reduced time for leisure.

“The agriculture revolution certainly enlarged the sum total of food at the disposal of humankind, but the extra food does not translated into better diet or more leisure. Rather it translated into population explosions and pampered elites. The average farmer worked harder than the average forager, and got a worse diet in return. The agriculture revolution was history’s biggest fraud.”

Harari is saying

“We did not domesticate wheat. It domesticated us.”

May be this is true. Agriculture could be a trap that our ancestors fallen into and we still haven’t came out of it. But we should also see the other side. Why they fell for this trap in the first place?. Before farming food was the first priority and they spend almost their entire life for gathering food. But after agriculture started sapiens finally got some time to do other business as well. This paved the way for an entire new style of living. It is hard to say that agriculture changed the lives of sapiens for good or bad. If it didn’t happened we would be seeing it in a different perspective.

Agriculture solved the availability of food. People settle down around farms and this started bringing hierarchies in their social order.

Imagined Order
Harari is trying to see the world we live in as a combination of two things, imagination and reality. The reality around us is the trees, animals, minerals etc and the imaginary order is woven into this reality very closely.

The moment we are born society around us will start telling us stories about imagined order. Most of the people who believe in these stories think that their worth depends on their position in social hierarchy and what other people think about them. Most of our present day desires are created by romantic, nationalist, capitalist and humanist myths. It is very difficult to change an imagined order because it requires changing of collective imagination of billions of people. Harari is saying

“Inorder to change an existing imagined order, we must first believe in an alternate imagined order”

After agriculture revolution with the help of myths and stories humans organised themselves in imagined orders. Racism was one such thing created as a result of this ordering. Harari underlines that biologically and logically there is negligible difference between people in different social orders. So racism can be the result of chance events supported by myths.

Culture tends to argue that it forbids only that which is unnatural. But from a biological perspective, nothing is unnatural. Whatever is possible by definition also natural. A Truly unnatural behaviour, one that goes against the laws of nature, simply cannot exist, so it would need no prohibition.

3. Unification of Humankind

Now if you look around humankind is a one big family above the globe. We communicate and work together for the progress of this big family. But after agriculture revolution it was not like that. Humans were spread across different continents, cultures and societies. So what brings them together. There are three things that united human beings

1. Money and Trade
Trade started with barter system. But it had its own flaws. When money came into picture it became a universal medium of exchange also it became the most efficient system of mutual trust ever devised.

2. Imperialism
Rise and fall of empires played a large role in uniting human kind. Throughout the history empires ruled over large geographical areas and united them under common myths. In this process they did a lot of bloodshed. We can fill pages with good things and bad things about imperialism but the end result is that this process helped in uniting humankind.

3. Religion
Harari is defining religion as a system of human norms and values that is founded on a belief in a superhuman order. One theory about the origin of gods is that gods gained importance because they offered a solution to the problem of communication with plants and animals. This further led to the formation of polytheistic religions. Originated from polytheistic religions monotheists religions believed only in one supreme power. Over time it went through a lot of transformation.

“The monotheists religions expelled the gods through the front door with a lot of fanfare, only to take them back in through the side window.”

Religion is often considered as the source of discrimination and disunion but it was one of the three important things that united human beings in a larger scale.

4. Scientific Revolution

In this section Harari talks about the scientific revolution which begins 500 years ago. Scientific revolution triggered industrial revolution and that triggered information revolution and currently the biotechnological revolution. He is concluding this section with the mention of replacing natural selection with intelligent design and suspect that biological revolution might saw seeds for the end of Sapiens.

Overall I enjoyed reading this book. It really connected many dots in the evolution of human beings. I would  recommend this book to anybody who is interested in the story of sapiens.