A Brief History of Humankind
by Yuval Noah Harari
THE BIG IDEAS:
- HOMO SAPIENS.
- THE COGNITIVE REVOLUTION.
- EVOLUTIONARY SUCCESS & INDIVIDUAL SUFFERING.
- THE POWER OF “SHARED FICTIONS.”
- THE DOMINANT RELIGION: SYNCRETISM (?)
- MONEY = THE GREAT UNIFIER.
- THE SCIENTIFIC REVOLUTION.
- THE INDUSTRIAL REVOLUTION.
- THE STATE & THE MARKET.
- A SINGLE GLOBAL CULTURE.
- THE MODERN ERA
Our species, Homo sapiens, started out as just another, biologically insignificant, animal among countless others, but at some point made a very quick “jump” to domination over other species that has left man anxious, destructive, and often miserable despite all our efforts to be happy. Yuval Noah Harari’s book, ‘Sapiens,’ traces the origins, mechanisms, and effects of what we think of as “human progress” from small bands of hunter gatherers 100,000 years ago to the present-day global network through which our species has come to dominate the entire Earth. This bird’s-eye view of human history delves into the development of sapiens’ social organization and the structural features of human cultures through which our species has spread, replicated, and evolved, including the breakthroughs of human language with its infinite expressions, the use of the human imagination, and the rise of the concept of a better future that lies just beyond the horizon. Through these mechanisms, our species has evolved socially, rather than biologically, into a species that’s increasingly in control of our own destiny. This book considers not only how this evolution has occurred but questions of whether this “progress” has truly been beneficial and how we might, with our awareness of how we got here, decide where we want to go.
Here’s what you’ll learn about in this book summary:
- Although sapiens have not evolved biologically in 100,000 years, we have experienced radical evolutions in the social order driven by our ability to collectively imagine.
- History, overall, is moving in the direction of global unity of humankind.
- None of the outcomes of history have been inevitable, and the flexible nature of the social order may mean that our species can control its destiny.
The 70k years of social “progress” experienced by Homo sapiens may not have been good for us, but there’s no turning back now.
“We study history not to know the future but to widen our horizons, to understand that our present situation is neither natural nor inevitable, and that we consequently have many more possibilities before us than we imagine.”
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- Sapiens by Yuval Noah Harari – Book Summary (PDF)
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1) Our species, Homo sapiens, was once just one of several human species and was not particularly dominant among large mammals.
Harari tells us from the very beginning of the book, that one of the most important things to keep in mind about our prehistoric-human-ancestors is that they were relatively insignificant. In fact, prehistoric humans didn’t have any more of an impact on their environment than jellyfish or gorillas… So, how the heck did we evolve into where we are today?
The species Homo sapiens is one of the genus Homo, of which there were once a number of other species, all now extinct, many of which existed simultaneously on Earth. These other human species evolved as we did from a common ancestor. Humans, and in particular sapiens, first differentiated from other mammalian species by developing very large brains, which take a lot of energy to fuel. Humans were also different in that they walked upright on two legs. These two physical factors contributed heavily to the development of humankind’s unique social abilities as well as its problems, including the relatively premature birth of offspring compared to other animals and, as a result, the long period of time they must stay under the care of adults before they can become independent, which has meant a very long period of socialization of the young.
The need to support a large brain and cranial cavity to house it left sapiens relatively weak, physically, compared with other large mammals. Up until 70,000 years ago, the human species, including sapiens, remained somewhere in the middle of the food chain as both predator and prey, with no dominion or significant advantage over other animals. What they lacked in domination, however, they made up for in leisure and ease of life, as the work of gathering food did not generally consume the entire day.
Although sapiens were spread over a large area of the Eurasian landmass, they were spread very thinly, in small bands that were isolated and independent. Women nursed each new baby for a few years, and therefore would take measures to prevent having a new baby before one was at least three years old. Childhood mortality rates were low as there were almost no childhood diseases to speak of, and infectious diseases in general were rare. The secret of sapiens’ success was their varied diet. They foraged not only for food but for knowledge about the growth cycles and locations of food sources. For bands to survive, an individual sapiens needed to have an extraordinary range of personal knowledge and skills as well as physical prowess.
2) THE COGNITIVE REVOLUTION.
“Sapiens can cooperate in extremely flexible ways with countless numbers of strangers. That’s why sapiens rule the world, whereas ants eat our leftovers and chimps are locked up in zoos and research laboratories.”
Although sapiens has not evolved biologically for 100,000 years, it began a radical process of social revolution around 70,000 years ago in what is known as the Cognitive Revolution, a social development that enabled sapiens to spread across the world and achieve biological domination.
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