I’ve heard the title “Sapiens” thrown around since probably the first week that I dove into reading. The idea of reading about evolution, though, especially after I read The Selfish Gene (great book, but too dense for me at the time), wasn’t something I wanted to do.
Eventually, I succumbed to the constant recommendations, and glad I did. This book was awesome. Would highly recommend everyone read it early on.
There are a lot of takeaways that I had from the book, but I’m putting the biggest ones below.
The world used to be SO different
We don’t think about this very often, but there is so much that we have now that 10 years ago didn’t exist, and if you think back farther (say 200 years), it’s even more wild.
An interesting example that Yuval Noah Harari gave was of fire. Before we (as a species) discovered fire, it took us a significant amount of time to eat, since we weren’t able to cook any of the food. This meant that we had bigger, stronger teeth to deal with harder foods and that we had larger intestines to process this food. When fire came along, not only did it free up a significant amount of time that we spent literally just sitting and eating, but it decreased the size of our teeth and intestines, which actually allowed us to have bigger brains (crazy right?).
These changes, like the discovery of fire, being able to live indoors, etc. had a big impact on our compositional makeup, since, over an extended period of time, we were able to evolve differently.
On a more granular level, there are a lot of changes that have occurred in recent years that haven’t changed the way we are composed, but they have certainly changed everyday life. These advanced often go unthought of and underappreciated, but they shouldn’t. I was talking to a cousin of mine about a month ago, for example, and he was telling me how they used to have to pull out a huge map before heading off on a roadtrip to make sure they were going the right way. Most of us today don’t even need a general sense of where we are since our phones will just tell us.
That’s one example, but there are countless others.
Despite these advances, are we any happier?
This idea was the most thought-provoking in Sapiens for me. There’s no indication that people today are happier than people were many years ago. There’s less war today and a higher life expectancy, but we aren’t necessarily happier, as a collective. I didn’t want to do research, but I know for a fact that mental health issues are on a huge rise, as an example.
Think about that for a moment. I can take out my phone instead of having to understand a map. I can get a car to pick me up within 3 minutes instead of having to plan a day in advance to make it happen. I can even decide to take a road trip next weekend and have a cheap place to stay, and know exactly what activities to do in the cities I am visiting.
Yet, as a whole, we aren’t necessarily any happier than people were a long time ago. Why is that?
On the surface, you could say it’s because happiness is purely subjective and it’s very often anchored against our expectations. People 10 years ago thought that pulling out a map was the only option so they didn’t mind it.
At a more fundamental level, though, wouldn’t you think that all of the amazing additions to life would give us more time to be able to spend doing what we love? In theory, that’d be awesome, but I think we are actually becoming busier (don’t quote me on that). That idea, that we aren’t generally happier is crazy to me, and something I’m probably going to be thinking a lot about.
We’re definitely not super appreciative, and any individual person can take a lot of steps to increase their happiness (as we might coin it), but as a society, it’s quite fascinating.
I don’t want to dive too deep into this, but Harari talks a lot about inter-subjective realities, things that don’t really exist but that we perceive to be totally present. The best example is money. Thinking about how money is actually worth nothing, but is also one of the greatest advances and most powerful forces in the world gives an interesting lens to view society through.
Pursuit of knowledge
This is one of the greatest things that has transformed over time, in my opinion. It used to be that everything we ever needed to know was already known, and we could just ask someone who was more wise than us about it. If they didn’t know the answer, then it wasn’t important. The addition of exploration and solving the unknown has become encouraged both in a social sense (where exploring the unknown isn’t frowned upon), and with potential fame and fortune. I find this to be a beautiful thing as it encourages people to think about hard problems and learn more about the world. Nice tie in here with what I’m currently reading about Albert Einstein, but I’ll save that.
Another idea that was brought up in Sapiens that is totally crazy, but also makes complete sense. I won’t get into the history, but if you don’t know much about it, I suggest doing a little bit of exploration (or ask me, I can give you a run down in 5 minutes). The foundation and importance that capitalism plays in society is also a beautiful thing that has enabled so much social mobility and exponential growth in potential impact.
As a society we have made so much progress. I eluded to it above, but the amount of death by fighting is lower than it has ever been by a large margin. Our life expectancies are longer, and there are some pretty amazing things happening and being built throughout the world. It’s easy to forget that, but reading Sapiens reminded me that the time we live in is incredible. There is so much that’s happening in the world right now, so much that needs change, and we are very well equipped to participate in that change.
These points just touch the surface on this book. It also dove into empires, exploration, the agricultural revolution (it was so important), the future, and more. Definitely add it to the top of your list.
Year 1, Book 6.
If you ever want to discuss this more or get in touch, don’t hesitate to reach out. My email is firstname.lastname@example.org