Sapiens: A history of our species
Rating: 9/ 10
Author: Yuval Noah Harari
Release Date: 2011
Cover Price: $23.00 CAD
TL;DR: Thought provoking book about the rise of our species. Talks about how we managed to climb to the top of the food chain and what social constructs were needed to get us there. Goes through all the great revolutions and how each affected our species in an unique way. Learned a lot in this book, Highly Recommend.
Throughout this book Yuval Noah Harari gives us a look at the inventions and discoveries mankind has made throughout the years and how they gave us the ability to evolve as a species. A few of which being how the discovery of fire allowed us to better harness the nutrients in our food, how gossip brings us together as a community, how money and credit allowed millions of homo sapiens to exist together as a functioning community. We are given an analytical look into the lives and social constructs of our ancestors, giving us an opportunity to see how homo sapiens have managed to dominate over every other species and sit atop the food chain. Yuval does this in an interesting way, covering both the physical advantages homo sapiens have developed over the years (as in our brains and our mental capabilities, not so much our physical strength) as well as the social interactions and how they also developed over the years to be able to sustain larger and larger communities, giving us a natural edge over the competition.
In the book we explore what sets our species apart from our fellow animals. How our species was able to build the empirical communities that dominated the natural world througout our history, and why those communities never seemed to appear in any other part of the animal kingdom. Yuval contributes this a simple idea that becomes the cornerstone of this book: Fiction.
Yuval highlights fiction because allows humans to come together in large numbers, doing what gossip or family relations could never do. He explains this through the example of an LLC (Limited Liability Corporation), which technically only exists in our collective imagination. Many things we see as part of our daily lives turns out to be fiction: Money, Capital, Credit, Businesses, Schools, Religions, The Law, Government, and the list goes on. Yuval explains that all of these aspects that make our everyday lives run all are really just part of our collective imagination. Our collective imagination is credited with why our species has managed to build communities never seen before, for apes and other animals were never able to build the imaginary constructs that humans seem to draw up so easily.
The ability to sustain such large communities of humans was what allowed our species to become what it is today. Our shared imagination has given us great empires, businesses, and dynamic societies, none of which we could’ve done without. Our collective imagination is what allowed us to evolve through the millennia, and was the driving force behind our great revolutions.
Yuval pays special mind to each of the defining eras of human history: The cognitive revolution, the agricultural revolution, and the scientific revolution.
In the cognitive revolution Yuval describes the ability for mankind to be able to think for themselves, and how that was what lead to humans being able to one-up their stronger and faster animal counterparts. Through the use of cooperation and tools, humans were able to hunt and defeat many predators that would easily tear us to pieces if it were only a game of strength. This allowed us to survive long enough to gain a secure foothold in the animal kingdom, and provided the backbone for our conquest of the natural world.
Yuval then goes on to talk about how the agricultural revolution was likely the worst thing that had happened to the historic man. Farming forced our ancestors to depend on a diet of only a few foods, unlike their ancestors who hunted and gathered for a wide variety of foods. This made the farmers incredibly dependant on how good the weather was, often resulting in starvation en mass. Farming also forced our ancestors to work in fields every day, going directly against our evolutionary biology which taught us to run and hunt for our food. Humans simply weren’t designed to do the backbreaking work of plowing fields and planting seeds everyday. (Yuval describes the trouble and pain of a human living in this time in great detail, and in a way I obviously didn’t do justice.) However an interesting side effect of farming was that it allowed human population to bloom, enabling the global human population to exponentially grow and greatly advancing our global conquest.
The story wraps to a close with the scientific revolution. This chapter starts of with something truly profound to me. It talks about how the scientific revolution was kickstarted by the discovery of ignorance. Yep, Ignorance. Yuval talks about how it was only when the European Kings and Queens admitted they didn’t know everything to know about the world and sent out explorers and scientists to discover more about it. This is where Darwin’s theory of evolution started! Unlike their eastern counterparts who were still building their own “world-conquering” empires on already known knowledge, the europeans started to built new colonies in previously undiscovered parts of the world, and making new scientific discoveries everyday. This lead to the creation of rail networks, which sped up industrialization, which sped up scientific discovery, which then feeds right back into the loop Yuval calls the wheel of industry. This is what I think to be the most profound and thought provoking idea in the novel. To think how much farther our scientific world could be right now if only our ancestors had just doubted that they knew everything. The story gets wrapped up with a brief discussion of how our species could end, but that’s a conversation I’ll leave to be discovered by yourself.