Takeaways from Sapiens by Yuval Harari
This is the most engrossing history book you’ll ever read. I’d highly recommend it to anyone interested in where humanity has been and where it’s going.
Here, I’ll non-comprehensively summarize the parts I found interesting, and end with a few questions Sapiens got me thinking about. Italics in quotes are Yuval’s.
I’ll structure my narrative around humanity’s 3 key revolutions, and end with notes on happiness and patriarchy.
The Cognitive Revolution and Intersubjectives
Before the Cognitive Revolution, forager bands couldn’t band together in anything bigger than the Dunbar number of 150, the maximum group size Sapiens can organize to (which is still true today). Sapiens can’t remember more meaningful relationships than that, which means they can’t trust strangers. The Cognitive Revolution solved this problem with the invention of shared myths — ‘intersubjectives’ that exist for as long as people say they do.
“Ever since the Cognitive Revolution, Sapiens have been living in a dual reality. On the one hand, the objective reality of rivers, trees and lions; and on the other hand, the imagined reality of gods, nations and corporations. As time went by, the imagined reality became ever more powerful, so that today the very survival of rivers, trees and lions depends on the grace of imagined entities such as the United States and Google.”
Prime examples of intersubjectives are laws, money, gods, and nations. None of those things exist in the natural world, but because enough humans agree they exist, they are as real as mountains. Objective things exist independent of human consciousness, like radioactivity. Subjective things exist solely in one’s imagination, like a child’s imaginary friend.
“ The inter-subjective is something that exists within the communication network linking the subjective consciousness of many individuals. If a single individual changes his or her beliefs, or even dies, it is of little importance. However, if most individuals in the network die or change their beliefs, the inter-subjective phenomenon will mutate or disappear.”
Yuval uses the example of Peugeot, a limited liability corporation intersubjective. You could kill every employee and stakeholder in Peugeot, but the corporate entity would still exist. The building isn’t Peugeot — it can move offices. Peugeot could make planes rather than cars, so it isn’t what they do that defines them. The only thing that makes Peugeot Peugeot is everyone’s agreement that Peugeot exists, duly noted in the papers of some lawyer.
Human Rights Aren’t Real, But Don’t Tell Anyone
Intersubjectives exist for good reason. Laws exist for the benefit of society, but they’re made up by humans. Money is useless on its own, but if we say it holds value, it does. Gods and nations are some of the most powerful coordination technologies out there, allowing Sapiens to work, trust, and even die for complete strangers.
“You could never convince a monkey to die for you with the promise of limitless bananas in monkey heaven… Sapiens can cooperate in flexible ways with countless numbers of strangers. That’s why we rule the world, whereas ants eat our leftovers and chimps are locked up in zoos.”
Human rights are the squeamiest intersubjective. We all like to think that individual humans are important. But as Yuval points out, there’s nothing scientifically special about any individual Sapiens. Apparently our modern prioritization of the individual is a leftover from the Christian concept of souls.
“Voltaire said about God that ‘there is no God, but don’t tell that to my servant, lest he murder me at night’. Hammurabi would have said the same about his principle of hierarchy, and Thomas Jefferson about human rights. Homo sapiens has no natural rights, just as spiders, hyenas and chimpanzees have no natural rights. But don’t tell that to our servants, lest they murder us at night.”
The Agricultural Revolution — A Bad Idea?
At some point, Sapiens stopped foraging and started farming. Yuval notes that this was good for the overall quantity of humans, but it wasn’t good for individual people. Compared to foragers, peasants worked longer hours with higher risk of disease and malnutrition (immobile villages are dirty, and a wheat diet is less healthy than an omnivorous one), all for the benefit of (maybe) more food.
We subjugated ourselves to the survival (if not well-being) of crops and livestock. More people died from famines when inclement weather wiped out crops. Did we domesticate wheat, or did it domesticate us? Life sucked way more for peasants so that elites would suffer slightly less.
“(Agriculture’s) forfeited food surpluses fueled politics, wars, art and philosophy. They built palaces, forts, monuments and temples. Until the late modern era, more than 90 per cent of humans were peasants who rose each morning to till the land by the sweat of their brows. The extra they produced fed the tiny minority of elites — kings, government officials, soldiers, priests, artists and thinkers — who fill the history books. History is something that very few people have been doing while everyone else was ploughing fields and carrying water buckets.”
The Rise of ‘Universal Orders of Humanity’
Once Sapiens settled down, the intersubjective became more powerful.
“The first millennium BC witnessed the appearance of three potentially universal orders, whose devotees could for the first time imagine the entire world and the entire human race as a single unit governed by a single set of laws. Everyone was ‘us’, at least potentially. There was no longer ‘them’.
The first universal order to appear was economic: the monetary order. The second universal order was political: the imperial order. The third universal order was religious: the order of universal religions such as Buddhism, Christianity, and Islam.
For the merchants, the entire world was a single market and all humans were potential customers. The tried to establish an economic order that would apply to all, everywhere. For the conquerors, the entire world was a single empire and all humans were potential subjects, and for the prophets, the entire world held a single truth and all humans were potential believers. They too tried to establish an order that would be applicable for everyone everywhere.”
Culture (defined as a collection of shared values) started becoming a force around this time as well. I found it interesting that kings and emperors didn’t touch culture in general — it was something local families enforced. Outside of taxes and conscription, the leaders didn’t care what you were doing on a daily basis. But your neighbors did — and generally, they were more restrictive than supportive.
Yuval takes a typically pragmatic approach to cultures and thought systems appealing to ‘the natural order of things’, noting that ever since the Agricultural Revolution, nothing has been natural for Sapiens. Biology and evolution are blind processes that don’t care what you think. Summed nicely:
Biology enables, while culture forbids. Whatever is possible is natural by definition.
I was intrigued by the way he painted religions as born of cultures. All religions have ‘objective yardsticks for goodness and beauty; how things ought to be’ — and since ‘should’ is forbidding, this is inherited from cultures. He refers to money as ‘the universal culture’, since it works if the other guy believes in it, unlike gods, which only work if you believe in it.
Then along came Science, ‘a unique tradition of knowledge that openly admits collective ignorance regarding the most important questions.’ It was the first thought system founded on skepticism and ignorance rather than truth and answers. Science stimulated our desire for exploration and discovery, which led to:
The Scientific Revolution and Imperialism
Science came around the middle ages, and it brought imperialism with it. Science cajoles humanity to go out and explore, to discover new things and learn about them. Why not conquer them at the same time? Apparently even Darwin’s voyage was equal parts a scientific and conquering.
Empires were powerful drivers of unification and technological advancement, though they didn’t usually end well for the subjugated. However, one must recognize that all empires conquered a conquering empire before them, so it is useless to bemoan only the most recent. Are those against the British Empire in India also against the Mughal Empire who conquered the subcontinent before them? You can’t be against a specific empire — you can only adopt a different cultural yardstick.
Before science, empires weren’t even that expansionist. For example, the Romans only got as far as they did to protect their new assets.“The Romans conquered Etruria in order to defend Rome (c.350–300 BC). They conquered the Po Valley in order to defend Etruria (c.200 BC). They subsequently conquered Provence to defend the Po Valley (c.120 BC), Gaul to defend Provence (c.50 BC), and Britain in order to defend Gaul (c. AD 50). It took them 400 years to get from Rome to London. In 350 BC, no Roman would have conceived of sailing directly to Britain and conquering it.”
Science is powerful. But it doesn’t develop on its own. It depends on research, funded by ‘the mutual reinforcement of science, politics, and economics.’ That’s why most technological breakthroughs come from the defense industry — the government spends a lot of money trying to make a bigger stick, and in the meantime we get stuff like microwaves, atomic energy, and DNA sequencing.
Modern Ideologies — Romanticism, Humanism, and More
Now we’re in the modern world, where even more belief systems run rampant. The only difference is that the new ideologies are quasi-scientific. Here’s what Yuval says about romanticism and two brands of humanism:
“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.
Like the elite of ancient Egypt, most people in most cultures dedicate their lives to building pyramids. Only the names, shapes and sizes of these pyramids change from one culture to the other. They may take the form of a suburban cottage with a swimming pool and an evergreen lawn, or a gleaming penthouse with an enviable view. Few question the myths that cause us to desire the pyramid in the first place.”
Personally, I value experiences because I think that maximizing the breadth and depth of consciousness is valuable. But I love Yuval’s objective spirit of questioning assumptions and one’s underlying beliefs.
“Humanism is built on monotheist foundations. The idea that all humans are equal is a revamped version of the monotheist conviction that all souls are equal before God. The only humanist sect that has actually broken loose from traditional monotheism is evolutionary humanism, whose most famous representatives are the Nazis. What distinguished the Nazis from other humanist sects was a different definition of ‘humanity’, one deeply influenced by the theory of evolution. In contrast to the other humanists, the Nazis believed that humankind is not something universal and eternal, but rather a mutable species that can evolve or degenerate. Man can evolve into superman, or degenerate into a subhuman.
Socialist humanists believe that ‘humanity’ is a collective rather than individualistic. They hold as sacred not the inner voice of each individual, but the species Homo sapiens as a whole. Whereas liberal humanism seeks as much freedom as possible for individual humans, socialist humanism seeks equality between all humans. According to socialists, inequality is the worst blasphemy against the sanctity of humanity, because it privileges peripheral qualities of humans over their universal essence. When the rich are privileged over the poor, it means that we value money more than the universal essence of all humans, which is the same for rich and poor alike.
Ever since the French Revolution, people throughout the world have gradually come to see both equality and individual freedom as fundamental values. Yet the two values contradict each other. Equality can be ensured only by curtailing the freedoms of those who are better off.”
These are big points.
How can equality and capitalism coexist when money bestows freedom? Unless the rich can’t spend their money, they will always have more freedom than the poor. This is a paradox we have been trying to solve for decades. As a technologist, I believe we can solve it through workforce automation, but that’s a separate story.
Are all forms of consciousness equal? Through the agricultural industry, we have indirectly agreed that Sapiens’ consciousness is superior to animal forms. Does that mean transhumanist consciousnesses are superior to Sapiens ones? Such questions remind me of Douglas Hofstader’s excellent I Am A Strange Loop, or the more approachable Consciousness Staircase at WaitbutWhy — but none of them have strict conclusions.
None Of These Revolutions Made Us Happy
A dominant theme in the book is the sense that Sapiens aren’t better off now than we were way back before the Agricultural Revolution. Farming increases diseases due to a limited diet and crammed villages, hurts our spines from working the fields bent over all the time, and even introduced class and sexual barriers that are still present today. Jared Diamond went as far as to call it The Worst Mistake In The History of The Human Race. Yuval:
“While people in today’s affluent societies work an average of forty to forty-five hours a week, and people in the developing world work sixty and even eighty hours a week, hunter-gatherers living today in the most inhospitable of habitats — such as the Kalahari Desert — work on average for just thirty-five to forty-five hours a week. They hunt only one day out of three, and gathering takes up just three to six hours daily. In normal times, this is enough to feed the band.
It may well be that ancient hunter-gatherers living in zones more fertile than the Kalahari spent even less time obtaining food and raw materials. On top of that, foragers enjoyed a lighter load of household chores. They had no dishes to wash, no carpets to vacuum, no floors to polish, no nappies to change and no bills to pay.”
In some ways, foragers are even smarter than us, as the ultimate generalists next to our specialists. We have data storage and retrieval tools like writing, iPhones, and the Internet that let us be stupid — why memorize the stars when you have Google Maps? Evolution died with the rise of agriculture.
“Survival in (the forager) era required superb mental abilities from everyone. When agriculture and industry came along people could increasingly rely on the skills of others for survival, and new ‘niches for imbeciles’ were opened up. You could survive and pass your unremarkable genes to the next generation by working as a water carrier or an assembly-line worker.”
Hunter gatherers were probably happier than modern Westerners, on an overall basis. Our environment of plenty comes entirely from subjugating the developing world to give us resources. Is our isolated suburban lifestyle, without family or friends, truly better than the varied life of a hunter gatherer who spent days with all his friends, with leisure to spare? In terms of happiness, I think they have us beat.
True Happiness Comes From Within — But Not For Long
Yet Yuval notes that we may finally have the ability to solve that pesky problem once and for all in the near future, ending on a decidedly transhumanist note. “Happiness does not really depend on objective conditions of wealth, health or even community. Rather, it depends on the correlation between objective conditions and subjective expectations.” And now, with our ability to manipulate brain chemicals like never before, we could make a happier tomorrow — using drugs.
We will soon have the power to change ourselves and our environment to the point that we’d no longer be Sapiens. We will be something new and more powerful, yet retaining our same destructive and unhappy behaviors from before. Yuval notes ominously “Is there anything more dangerous than dissatisfied and irresponsible gods who don’t know what they want?”
There’s a bigger question here — does technology make us happier? If we could figure out some way to reconcile capitalism’s indifference to human values beyond profit, I think the answer is yes.
I prefer my lifestyle to that of a forager, but I am a Westerner. If we can automate the global workforce such that Ethiopian farmers don’t have to break their backs for foreign devils and do as they please, we will have succeeded. And we are almost there!
Technology won’t make you happy, but it‘ll make your work more efficient. It’s up to you to find happiness in the leisure time technology gives you.
Why Is Patriarchy So Widespread?
Yuval takes a mildly progressive stance on patriarchy, asking “If, as is being demonstrated today so clearly, the patriarchal system has been based on unfounded myths rather than on biological facts, what accounts for the universality and stability of this system?” It’s a good question, and apparently one which historians are still struggling to answer. Patriarchy is everywhere — but why?
The myths he shoots down in the book are thus: male aggression, male strength, and male desire for competition. With a wry, logical air, he points out that none of these are important for being a good leader. Rather, it is ‘the diplomatic ability to forge ties amongst varied groups’ and be a servant leader that makes one successful. Physical size, hot headedness, and ambition are only loosely correlated with this, while women’s ‘famed ability to empathize, appease, and manipulate appears much better suited’. He leaves this question unanswered, noting it is ‘one of the biggest riddles in human society’.
In interviews, he doesn’t accept the ‘women need time for childcare’ argument either, because this means they have to be doubly diplomatic to take care of themselves while caring for another. Bonobo societies are ruled by females for this very reason.
Blame Patriarchy on Farmers?
I wouldn’t rule out the male superlatives entirely. In fact, my friend Joytika Jit wrote her senior thesis on the agricultural revolution, and I daresay she has a better explanation.
Perhaps when humans first became farmers, forager power dynamics were preserved, but as Sapiens realized what kinds of skills florished in the field, the stronger, heartier men became more important. They could till longer and harder than women, which led them to be possessive about the land they had worked so hard on. Now that had a little farm and maybe a wife, he was jealous of both.
Therefore, women depended on men for food since they were relegated to housework rather than tilling, as opposed to hunting/gathering alongside the men. And ever since, women were treated like property, even after we stopped farming. It’s all about those damn land rights!
It certainly deserve further exploration.
Conclusions and Questions Raised
Is the Romantic ideal of a variety of experiences truly valuable? How can equality and capitalism coexist when money bestows freedom? Does technology make us happier? Are all forms of consciousness equal? Why is patriarchy almost universal?
Such great questions! Each could have their own book, and probably do. If you know any books relating to the above topics, I’d love to hear about them.
Read This Book! Even If It’s Too Neat
Read this book! It’s waaaaay more fun than Guns Germs and Steel. And explains so much. My only complaint is that sometimes Yuval’s causal relationships are a bit too neat and tight, at risk of mis-explaining.
For instance, he describes the end of World War 2 like this: “American generals told President Harry S. Truman that an invasion of Japan would cost the lives of a million American soldiers and would extend the war well into 1946. Truman decided to use the new bomb. Two weeks and two atom bombs later, Japan surrendered unconditionally and the war was over.”
Well, he’s not lying, but nukes didn’t beat Japan — Stalin did, which isn’t common knowledge. What other causal relationships did Yuval oversimplify just as neatly elsewhere in human history? I don’t know, but given how neatly his account of history fits together, I’m sure there’s more. Nonetheless, these small oversights do not detract from the whole.