Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind

One hundred thousand years ago, at least six different species of humans inhabited Earth. Yet today there is only one - Homo sapiens. What happened to the others? And what may happen to us?

Most books about the history of humanity pursue either a historical or a biological approach, but Dr. Yuval Noah Harari breaks the mold with this highly original book that begins about 70,000 years ago, with the appearance of modern cognition. From examining the role evolving humans have played in the global ecosystem to charting the rise of empires, Sapiens integrates history and science to reconsider accepted narratives, connect past developments with contemporary concerns, and examine specific events within the context of larger ideas.

Part One: The Cognitive Revolution

1 An Animal of No Significance

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,

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.

If the Replacement Theory is correct, all living humans have roughly the same genetic baggage, and racial distinctions among them are negligible. But if the Interbreeding Theory is right, there might well be genetic differences between Africans, Europeans and Asians that go back hundreds of thousands of years.

2 The Tree of Knowledge

The most common answer is that our language is amazingly supple. We can connect a limited number of sounds and signs to produce an infinite number of sentences, each with a distinct meaning. We can thereby ingest, store and communicate a prodigious amount of information about the surrounding world.

Just try to imagine how difficult it would have been to create states, or churches, or legal systems if we could speak only about things that really exist, such as rivers, trees and lions.

The Catholic Church has survived for centuries, not by passing on a ‘celibacy gene’ from one pope to the next, but by passing on the stories of the New Testament and of Catholic canon law.

One on one, even ten on ten, we are embarrassingly similar to chimpanzees. Significant differences begin to appear only when we cross the threshold of 150 individuals, and when we reach 1,000–2,000 individuals, the differences are astounding.

Biology sets the basic parameters for the behaviour and capacities of Homo sapiens. The whole of history takes place within the bounds of this biological arena.

3 A Day in the Life of Adam and Eve

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.

In other words, the average forager had wider, deeper and more varied knowledge of her immediate surroundings than most of her modern descendants.

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.

The peasant’s ancient ancestor, the forager, may have eaten berries and mushrooms for breakfast; fruits, snails and turtle for lunch; and rabbit steak with wild onions for dinner.

Just as foragers exhibited a wide array of religions and social structures, so, too, did they probably demonstrate a variety of violence rates. While some areas and some periods of time may have enjoyed peace and tranquillity, others were riven by ferocious conflicts.

4 The Flood

The evidence is circumstantial, but it’s hard to imagine that Sapiens, just by coincidence, arrived in Australia at the precise point that all these animals were dropping dead of the chills.3

Were the Australian extinction an isolated event, we could grant humans the benefit of the doubt. But the historical record makes Homo sapiens look like an ecological serial killer.

But in America, the dung ball cannot be dodged. We are the culprits. There is no way around that truth. Even if climate change abetted us, the human contribution was decisive.7

Long before the Industrial Revolution, Homo sapiens held the record among all organisms for driving the most plant and animal species to their extinctions. We have the dubious distinction of being the deadliest species in the annals of biology.

Part Two: The Agricultural Revolution

5 History’s Biggest Fraud

more than 90 per cent of the calories that feed humanity come from the handful of plants that our ancestors domesticated between 9500 and 3500 BC – wheat, rice, maize (called ‘corn’ in the US), potatoes, millet and barley.

The average farmer worked harder than the average forager, and got a worse diet in return. The Agricultural Revolution was history’s biggest fraud.2

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.

This is the essence of the Agricultural Revolution: the ability to keep more people alive under worse conditions.

Once people get used to a certain luxury, they take it for granted. Then they begin to count on it. Finally they reach a point where they can’t live without it.

6 Building Pyramids

And what are the characteristics that evolved in humans? ‘Life’, certainly. But ‘liberty’? There is no such thing in biology. Just like equality, rights and limited liability companies, liberty is something that people invented and that exists only in their imagination.

The imagined order is embedded in the material world. Though the imagined order exists only in our minds, it can be woven into the material reality around us, and even set in stone.

The imagined order shapes our desires. Most people do not wish to accept that the order governing their lives is imaginary, but in fact every person is born into a pre-existing imagined order, and his or her desires are shaped from birth by its dominant myths.

Romanticism tells us that in order to make the most of our human potential we must have as many different experiences as we can. We must open ourselves to a wide spectrum of emotions; we must sample various kinds of relationships; we must try different cuisines; we must learn to appreciate different styles of music.

The imagined order is inter-subjective. Even if by some superhuman effort I succeed in freeing my personal desires from the grip of the imagined order, I am just one person.

8 There is No Justice in History

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.

A good rule of thumb is ‘Biology enables, Culture forbids.’ Biology is willing to tolerate a very wide spectrum of possibilities. It’s culture that obliges people to realise some possibilities while forbidding others.

Since myths, rather than biology, define the roles, rights and duties of men and women, the meaning of ‘manhood’ and ‘womanhood’ have varied immensely from one society to another.

It is far more likely that even though the precise definition of ‘man’ and ‘woman’ varies between cultures, there is some universal biological reason why almost all cultures valued manhood over womanhood. We do not know what this reason is. There are plenty of theories, none of them convincing.

Part Three: The Unification of Humankind

9 The Arrow of History

Cognitive dissonance is often considered a failure of the human psyche. In fact, it is a vital asset. Had people been unable to hold contradictory beliefs and values, it would probably have been impossible to establish and maintain any human culture.

No chimpanzee cares about the interests of the chimpanzee species, no snail will lift a tentacle for the global snail community, no lion alpha male makes a bid for becoming the king of all lions, and at the entrance of no beehive can one find the slogan: ‘Worker bees of the world – unite!’

10 The Scent of Money

When the natives questioned Cortés as to why the Spaniards had such a passion for gold, the conquistador answered, ‘Because I and my companions suffer from a disease of the heart which can be cured only with gold.’1

‘Everyone would work according to their abilities, and receive according to their needs’ turned out in practice into ‘everyone would work as little as they can get away with, and receive as much as they could grab’.

Money was created many times in many places. Its development required no technological breakthroughs – it was a purely mental revolution. It involved the creation of a new inter-subjective reality that exists solely in people’s shared imagination.

Because money can convert, store and transport wealth easily and cheaply, it made a vital contribution to the appearance of complex commercial networks and dynamic markets.

People are willing to do such things when they trust the figments of their collective imagination. Trust is the raw material from which all types of money are minted.

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.

11 Imperial Visions

Whatever path we take, the first step is to acknowledge the complexity of the dilemma and to accept that simplistically dividing the past into good guys and bad guys leads nowhere. Unless, of course, we are willing to admit that we usually follow the lead of the bad guys.

12 The Law of Religion

In order to unite under its aegis a large expanse of territory inhabited by disparate groups of human beings, a religion must possess two further qualities. First, it must espouse a universal superhuman order that is true always and everywhere. Second, it must insist on spreading this belief to everyone. In other words, it must be universal and missionary.

Scholars of religion have a name for this simultaneous avowal of different and even contradictory ideas and the combination of rituals and practices taken from different sources. It’s called syncretism. Syncretism might, in fact, be the single great world religion.

The first principle of monotheist religions is ‘God exists. What does He want from me?’ The first principle of Buddhism is ‘Suffering exists. How do I escape it?’

Whereas Buddhists believe that the law of nature was discovered by Siddhartha Gautama, Communists believed that the law of nature was discovered by Karl Marx, Friedrich Engels and Vladimir Ilyich Lenin.

Religion is a system of human norms and values that is founded on belief in a superhuman order. The theory of relativity is not a religion, because (at least so far) there are no human norms and values that are founded on it. Football is not a religion because nobody argues that its rules reflect superhuman edicts.

Our judicial and political systems largely try to sweep such inconvenient discoveries under the carpet. But in all frankness, how long can we maintain the wall separating the department of biology from the departments of law and political science?

13 The Secret of Success

There is no proof that history is working for the benefit of humans because we lack an objective scale on which to measure such benefit. Different cultures define the good differently, and we have no objective yardstick by which to judge between them.

No matter what you call it – game theory, postmodernism or memetics – the dynamics of history are not directed towards enhancing human well-being. There is no basis for thinking that the most successful cultures in history are necessarily the best ones for Homo sapiens.

Part Four: The Scientific Revolution

14 The Discovery of Ignorance

But the single most remarkable and defining moment of the past 500 years came at 05:29:45 on 16 July 1945. At that precise second, American scientists detonated the first atomic bomb at Alamogordo, New Mexico. From that point onward, humankind had the capability not only to change the course of history, but to end it.

One of the things that has made it possible for modern social orders to hold together is the spread of an almost religious belief in technology and in the methods of scientific research, which have replaced to some extent the belief in absolute truths.

Most scientific studies are funded because somebody believes they can help attain some political, economic or religious goal.

It is obvious that a liberal government, a Communist government, a Nazi government and a capitalist business corporation would use the very same scientific discovery for completely different purposes, and there is no scientific reason to prefer one usage over others.

15 The Marriage of Science and Empire

Both scientist and conqueror began by admitting ignorance – they both said, ‘I don’t know what’s out there.’ They both felt compelled to go out and make new discoveries. And they both hoped the new knowledge thus acquired would make them masters of the world.

Due to their close cooperation with science, these empires wielded so much power and changed the world to such an extent that perhaps they cannot be simply labelled as good or evil. They created the world as we know it, including the ideologies we use in order to judge them.

16 The Capitalist Creed

Credit enables us to build the present at the expense of the future. It’s founded on the assumption that our future resources are sure to be far more abundant than our present resources.

What Smith says is, in fact, that greed is good, and that by becoming richer I benefit everybody, not just myself. Egoism is altruism.

In premodern times, people believed that production was more or less constant. So why reinvest your profits if production won’t increase by much, no matter what you do?

This is why today a country’s credit rating is far more important to its economic well-being than are its natural resources. Credit ratings indicate the probability that a country will pay its debts. In addition to purely economic data, they take into account political, social and even cultural factors.

The slave trade was not controlled by any state or government. It was a purely economic enterprise, organised and financed by the free market according to the laws of supply and demand.

It cannot ensure that profits are gained in a fair way, or distributed in a fair manner. On the contrary, the craving to increase profits and production blinds people to anything that might stand in the way.

17 The Wheels of Industry

We flick our fingers and it prints books and sews clothes, keeps our vegetables fresh and our ice cream frozen, cooks our dinners and executes our criminals, registers our thoughts and records our smiles, lights up our nights and entertains us with countless television shows. Few of us understand how electricity does all these things, but even fewer can imagine life without it.

All the world’s plants capture only about 3,000 of those solar exajoules through the process of photosynthesis.3 All human activities and industries put together consume about 500 exajoules annually, equivalent to the amount of energy earth receives from the sun in just ninety minutes.4

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.

For the first time in human history, supply began to outstrip demand. And an entirely new problem was born: who is going to buy all this stuff?

Obesity is a double victory for consumerism. Instead of eating little, which will lead to economic contraction, people eat too much and then buy diet products – contributing to economic growth twice over.

The capitalist and consumerist ethics are two sides of the same coin, a merger of two commandments. The supreme commandment of the rich is ‘Invest!’ The supreme commandment of the rest of us is ‘Buy!’

18 A Permanent Revolution

Back then, each British city and town had its own local time, which could differ from London time by up to half an hour. When it was 12:00 in London, it was perhaps 12:20 in Liverpool and 11:50 in Canterbury. Since there were no telephones, no radio or television, and no fast trains – who could know, and who cared?2

The Industrial Revolution brought about dozens of major upheavals in human society. Adapting to industrial time is just one of them. Other notable examples include urbanisation, the disappearance of the peasantry, the rise of the industrial proletariat, the empowerment of the common person, democratisation, youth culture and the disintegration of patriarchy.

Romantic literature often presents the individual as somebody caught in a struggle against the state and the market. Nothing could be further from the truth. The state and the market are the mother and father of the individual, and the individual can survive only thanks to them.

But the liberation of the individual comes at a cost. Many of us now bewail the loss of strong families and communities and feel alienated and threatened by the power the impersonal state and market wield over our lives.

Millions of years of evolution have designed us to live and think as community members. Within a mere two centuries we have become alienated individuals. Nothing testifies better to the awesome power of culture.

Consumerism and nationalism work extra hours to make us imagine that millions of strangers belong to the same community as ourselves, that we all have a common past, common interests and a common future.

It turns out that in the year following the 9/11 attacks, despite all the talk of terrorism and war, the average person was more likely to kill himself than to be killed by a terrorist, a soldier or a drug dealer.

19 And They Lived Happily Ever After

The crucial importance of human expectations has far-reaching implications for understanding the history of happiness. If happiness depended only on objective conditions such as wealth, health and social relations, it would have been relatively easy to investigate its history.

If happiness is determined by expectations, then two pillars of our society – mass media and the advertising industry – may unwittingly be depleting the globe’s reservoirs of contentment.

Rather, it is determined by a complex system of nerves, neurons, synapses and various biochemical substances such as serotonin, dopamine and oxytocin.

A person who just won the lottery or found new love and jumps from joy is not really reacting to the money or the lover. She is reacting to various hormones coursing through her bloodstream, and to the storm of electric signals flashing between different parts of her brain.

Nothing captures the biological argument better than the famous New Age slogan: ‘Happiness Begins Within.’ Money, social status, plastic surgery, beautiful houses, powerful positions – none of these will bring you happiness. Lasting happiness comes only from serotonin, dopamine and oxytocin.1

That’s one option. Another is that the findings demonstrate that happiness is not the surplus of pleasant over unpleasant moments. Rather, happiness consists in seeing one’s life in its entirety as meaningful and worthwhile.

As Nietzsche put it, if you have a why to live, you can bear almost any how.

Most people wrongly identify themselves with their feelings, thoughts, likes and dislikes. When they feel anger, they think, ‘I am angry. This is my anger.’ They consequently spend their life avoiding some kinds of feelings and pursuing others. They never realise that they are not their feelings, and that the relentless pursuit of particular feelings just traps them in misery.

20 The End of Homo Sapiens

Tinkering with our genes won’t necessarily kill us. But we might fiddle with Homo sapiens to such an extent that we would no longer be Homo sapiens.

Ask scientists why they study the genome, or try to connect a brain to a computer, or try to create a mind inside a computer. Nine out of ten times you’ll get the same standard answer: we are doing it to cure diseases and save human lives.