Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind by Yuval Noah Harari

★★☆☆☆ (2/5)

A few thoughts penned whilst reading the book.

What started as a book full of mesmeric facts and a long journey through humanity’s past, has sorely turned into a sordid read, replete with sweeping comments, crass generalizations and ill founded, cynical statements that put humanity as a whole on a pedestal of chance occurring’s paired with intolerable cruelty and greed. The subservience of mankind to wheat crop and even writing seems interesting but not without its faults. The tone of despondency is prevalent which makes the highest accolades of human achievement seems infantile, needless and a product of ravages.

On the topic of religion, the author starts off by defining it as a great unifying force of humankind. Yet, the next few pages are solely dedicated not just to emergence of varying religions but also to religions being source of wars and discontent, how religions innately are borrowers from each other. The unifying aspect is barely highlighted. The book also seems ridiculously hostile to optimistic ideas of religion, experience and ideas that have prevailed throughout history. It takes a somewhat pessimistic view of humanity’s traces on this earth.

At one point, the book has taken a turn for the worst. The author is basically asserting that if Holy Books or God did not clearly state that E=mc2 to assist humans, then religions are just a product of human brain, a mass propaganda of control & unification.

Premodern traditions of knowledge such as Islam, Christianity, Buddhism and Confucianism asserted that everything that is important to know about the world was already known. The great gods, or the one almighty God, or the wise people of the past possessed all-encompassing wisdom, which they revealed to us in scriptures and oral traditions. Ordinary mortals gained knowledge by delving into these ancient texts and traditions and understanding them properly. It was inconceivable that the Bible, the Qur’an or the Vedas were missing out on a crucial secret of the universe – a secret that might yet be discovered by flesh-and-blood creatures.

The author keeps instigating the absurd notion of pitting religion against science. Why is it inconceivable that the two can be and are reconciled? Why is it unfathomable that religion fanned curiosity and discovery in the realm of knowledge too? Why disregard the importance of religion in humanity’s quest for progress and self-improvement?

This book slowly became more and more insufferable.

“In contrast, European imperialists set out to distant shores in the hope of obtaining new knowledge along with new territories.”

Really? Only an uninformed, pseudo-intellectual could concoct this type of, excuse my language, bullshit.

In the following statement why not also include the religious dimension? Religion at its peak pushed discovery to its zenith too.

Hence in order to comprehend how humankind has reached Alamogordo and the moon– rather than any number of alternative destinations– it is not enough to survey the achievements of physicists, biologists and sociologists. 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.

Next came sweeping generalizations, with no logic behind them.

When two strangers in a tribal society want to trade, they will often establish trust by appealing to a common god, mythical ancestor or totem animal.

Physicists define the Big Bang as a singularity. It is a point at which all the known laws of nature did not exist. Time too did not exist. It is thus meaningless to say that anything existed ‘before’ the Big Bang.

Lastly, the grand delusions of the author, akin to much of his other observations.

Whereas we and the Neanderthals are at least human, our inheritors will be godlike.

Some interesting highlights

  • Romanticism, which encourages variety, meshes perfectly with consumerism. Their marriage has given birth to the infinite ‘market of experiences’, on which the modern tourism industry is founded. The tourism industry does not sell flight tickets and hotel bedrooms. It sells experiences (experience need not be equated with consumerism and materialism.)
  • Despite its burgeoning navigational abilities, Homo sapiens was still overwhelmingly a terrestrial menace
  • Among all the world’s large creatures, the only survivors of the human flood will be humans themselves, and the farmyard animals that serve as galley slaves in Noah’s Ark
  • Wheat didn’t like rocks and pebbles, so Sapiens broke their backs clearing fields. Wheat didn’t like sharing its space, water and nutrients with other plants, so men and women laboured long days weeding under the scorching sun. Wheat got sick, so Sapiens had to keep a watch out for worms and blight. Wheat was defenceless against other organisms that liked to eat it, from rabbits to locust swarms, so the farmers had to guard and protect it. Wheat was thirsty, so humans lugged water from springs and streams to water it. Its hunger even impelled Sapiens to collect animal faeces to nourish the ground in which wheat grew.
  • We did not domesticate wheat. It domesticated us. The word ‘domesticate’ comes from the Latin domus, which means ‘house’. Who’s the one living in a house? Not the wheat. It’s the Sapiens
  • One of history’s few iron laws is that luxuries tend to become necessities and to spawn new obligations
  • Unfortunately, the evolutionary perspective is an incomplete measure of success. It judges everything by the criteria of survival and reproduction, with no regard for individual suffering and happiness
  • While agricultural space shrank, agricultural time expanded. Foragers usually didn’t waste much time thinking about next week or next month. Farmers sailed in their imagination years and decades into the future
  • Although there was enough food for today, next week, and even next month, they had to worry about next year and the year after that
  • The mere fact that one can feed a thousand people in the same town or a million people in the same kingdom does not guarantee that they can agree how to divide the land and water, how to settle disputes and conflicts, and how to act in times of drought or war. And if no agreement can be reached, strife spreads, even if the storehouses are bulging
  • 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
  • Cooperation’ sounds very altruistic, but is not always voluntary and seldom egalitarian
  • Imagined orders are not evil conspiracies or useless mirages. Rather, they are the only way large numbers of humans can cooperate effectively
  • For example, today people believe in equality, so it’s fashionable for rich kids to wear jeans, which were originally working-class attire. In the Middle Ages people believed in class divisions, so no young nobleman would have worn a peasant’s smock. Back then, to be addressed as ‘Sir’ or ‘Madam’ was a rare privilege reserved for the nobility, and often purchased with blood. Today all polite correspondence, regardless of the recipient, begins with ‘Dear Sir or Madam
  • Even what people take to be their most personal desires are usually programmed by the imagined order
  • An objective phenomenon exists independently of human consciousness and human beliefs
  • But human teenagers have no genes for football. They can nevertheless play the game with complete strangers because they have all learned an identical set of ideas about football. These ideas are entirely imaginary, but if everyone shares them, we can all play the game
  • Writing was born as the maidservant of human consciousness, but is increasingly becoming its master
  • Three important revolutions shaped the course of history: the Cognitive Revolution kick-started history about 70,000 years ago. The Agricultural Revolution sped it up about 12,000 years ago. The Scientific Revolution, which got under way only 500 years ago, may well end history and start something completely different. This book tells the story of how these three revolutions have affected humans and their fellow organisms.
  • Species that evolved from a common ancestor are bunched together under the heading ‘genus’ (plural genera).
  • Just 6 million years ago, a single female ape had two daughters. One became the ancestor of all chimpanzees, the other is our own grandmother.
  • The earth of a hundred millennia ago was walked by at least six different species of man. It’s our current exclusivity, not that multi-species past, that is peculiar – and perhaps incriminating.
  • Most mammals emerge from the womb like glazed earthenware emerging from a kiln – any attempt at remoulding will scratch or break them. Humans emerge from the womb like molten glass from a furnace. They can be spun, stretched and shaped with a surprising degree of freedom. This is why today we can educate our children to become Christian or Buddhist, capitalist or socialist, warlike or peace-loving.
  • Genus Homo’s position in the food chain was, until quite recently, solidly in the middle. For millions of years, humans hunted smaller creatures and gathered what they could, all the while being hunted by larger predators. It was only 400,000 years ago that several species of man began to hunt large game on a regular basis, and only in the last 100,000 years – with the rise of Homo sapiens – that man jumped to the top of the food chain.
  • One of the most common uses of early stone tools was to crack open bones in order to get to the marrow. Some researchers believe this was our original niche. Just as woodpeckers specialise in extracting insects from the trunks of trees, the first humans specialised in extracting marrow from bones.
  • Having so recently been one of the underdogs of the savannah, we are full of fears and anxieties over our position, which makes us doubly cruel and dangerous.
  • Had the Neanderthals survived, would we still imagine ourselves to be a creature apart? Perhaps this is exactly why our ancestors wiped out the Neanderthals. They were too familiar to ignore, but too different to tolerate.
  • Without an ability to compose fiction, Neanderthals were unable to cooperate effectively in large numbers, nor could they adapt their social behaviour to rapidly changing challenges.
  • The immense diversity of imagined realities that Sapiens invented, and the resulting diversity of behaviour patterns, are the main components of what we call ‘cultures’. Once cultures appeared, they never ceased to change and develop, and these unstoppable alterations are what we call ‘history’.
  • The Cognitive Revolution is accordingly the point when history declared its independence from biology.
  • There’s hardly an activity, a belief, or even an emotion that is not mediated by objects of our own devising.
  • 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.
  • Culture tends to argue that it forbids only that which is unnatural. But from a biological perspective, nothing is unnatural. Whatever is possible is by definition also natural.
  • ‘You do not waste good iron to make nails,’ went a common Chinese saying, meaning that really talented people join the civil bureaucracy, not the army.
  • Myths and fictions accustomed people, nearly from the moment of birth, to think in certain ways, to behave in accordance with certain standards, to want certain things, and to observe certain rules. They thereby created artificial instincts that enabled millions of strangers to cooperate effectively. This network of artificial instincts is called culture’.
  • Just as medieval culture did not manage to square chivalry with Christianity, so the modern world fails to square liberty with equality.
  • money isn’t a material reality– it is a psychological construct.
  • Still, it was somewhat easier to build trust in barley as the first type of money, because barley has an inherent biological value. Humans can eat it. On the other hand, it was difficult to store and transport barley. The real breakthrough in monetary history occurred when people gained trust in money that lacked inherent value, but was easier to store and transport.
  • Christians and Muslims who could not agree on religious beliefs could nevertheless agree on a monetary belief, because whereas religion asks us to believe in something, money asks us to believe that other people believe in something. For thousands of years, philosophers, thinkers and prophets have besmirched money and called it the root of all evil. Be that as it may, money is also the apogee of human tolerance. Money is more open-minded than language, state laws, cultural codes, religious beliefs and social habits. Money is the only trust system created by humans that can bridge almost any cultural gap, and that does not discriminate on the basis of religion, gender, race, age or sexual orientation. Thanks to money, even people who don’t know each other and don’t trust each other can nevertheless cooperate effectively.
  • Money has an even darker side. For although money builds universal trust between strangers, this trust is invested not in humans, communities or sacred values, but in money itself and in the impersonal systems that back it.
  • It is therefore impossible to understand the unification of humankind as a purely economic process.
  • The imperial steamroller gradually obliterated the unique characteristics of numerous peoples (such as the Numantians), forging out of them new and much larger groups.
  • A significant proportion of humanity’s cultural achievements owe their existence to the exploitation of conquered populations.
  • Today religion is often considered a source of discrimination, disagreement and disunion. Yet, in fact, religion has been the third great unifier of humankind, alongside money and empires.
  • The fundamental insight of polytheism, which distinguishes it from monotheism, is that the supreme power governing the world is devoid of interests and biases, and therefore it is unconcerned with the mundane desires, cares and worries of humans. It’s pointless to ask this power for victory in war, for health or for rain, because from its all-encompassing vantage point, it makes no difference whether a particular kingdom wins or loses, whether a particular city prospers or withers, whether a particular person recuperates or dies. The Greeks did not waste any sacrifices on Fate, and Hindus built no temples to Atman.
  • So, monotheism explains order, but is mystified by evil. Dualism explains evil, but is puzzled by order.
  • Every point in history is a crossroads. A single travelled road leads from the past to the present, but myriad paths fork off into the future.
  • It is an iron rule of history that what looks inevitable in hindsight was far from obvious at the time.
  • The typical premodern ruler gave money to priests, philosophers and poets in the hope that they would legitimise his rule and maintain the social order. He did not expect them to discover new medications, invent new weapons or stimulate economic growth.
  • Science, industry and military technology intertwined only with the advent of the capitalist system and the Industrial Revolution. Once this relationship was established, however, it quickly transformed the world.
  • Science is unable to set its own priorities. It is also incapable of determining what to do with its discoveries.
  • In contrast, European imperialists set out to distant shores in the hope of obtaining new knowledge along with new territories.
  • For modern Europeans, building an empire was a scientific project, while setting up a scientific discipline was an imperial project.
  • The great door swung open, and out came a rush of ancient but lively voices– the bustle of Sumerian bazaars, the proclamations of Assyrian kings, the arguments of Babylonian bureaucrats.
  • Credit enables us to build the present at the expense of the future.
  • This is the basic lesson of evolutionary psychology: a need shaped in the wild continues to be felt subjectively even if it is no longer really necessary for survival and reproduction.
  • In contrast, most people today successfully live up 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.
  • The Industrial Revolution turned the timetable and the assembly line into a template for almost all human activities.
  • Ingenious German physicists found a way to determine the weather conditions in London based on tiny differences in the tone of the broadcast ding-dongs. This information offered invaluable help to the Luftwaffe.
  • Manchester United fans, vegetarians and environmentalists are other examples. They, too, are defined above all by what they consume. It is the keystone of their identity. A German vegetarian might well prefer to marry a French vegetarian than a German carnivore.
  • So maybe Third World discontent is fomented not merely by poverty, disease, corruption and political oppression but also by mere exposure to First World standards.

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