Sapiens by Yuval Noah Harari aims at telling the story of the Homo Sapiens from the planes of East Africa until today -and the possible future developments-.
- We managed to colonize the world thanks to our cognitive abilities
- The agricultural revolution allowed for societies to form and populations to explode
- The scientific revolution threw the basis of our current world and runaway progress
The last part of Sapiens has an interesting research on happiness, but I don’t find Sapiens to be the best place to discuss happiness and will point the reader towards more focused resources.
Where We First Started
Humans appeared around 2.5 millions ago in East Africa, evolving from a genus of great apes known as Australopithecus.
These early humans were homo rudolfensis and homo erectus. From East Africa the first hominids spread out and evolved into homo neanderthalensis in Europe and Asia.
Homo Sapiens, such as us, only evolved around 300.000 years ago.
Apparently, there was noting too special about homo sapiens. And yet, they came to dominate the world. What happened?
There are two theories:
- Homo sapiens interbred with homo neanderthalensis
- Homo sapiens supplanted the other hominids (either by taking their food sources or straight killing them)
Probably both are correct. There has been some interbreeding (between 1 and 4% of European’s DNA is neanderthalensis DNA) and probably wacked quite a few of those other hominids (including, I’d add, a few of other sapiens intra-killing as well).
The Sapiens Advantage
But what is it that gave Homo Sapiens the advantage over other hominids?
It’s superior brain power.
Around 70.000 years ago the sapiens brain underwent what Yuval Noah Harari calls the cognitive revolution. In a relatively short timeframe, sapiens was now able to use the increased brainpower to:
- Form larger and more sophisticated groups
- Invent more effective hunting tools
- Develop more effective hunting techniques
- Establish the first trading networks
All those changes meant that the Homo Sapiens could find food, more easily, in more difficult times and more challenging environments.
That allowed to spread out everywhere.
For example, Homo Sapiens was able to hunt mammoths and use their skin for shoes and warm clothing. And with those, they could cross the icy Siberian passage to colonize America.
Homo Sapiens And Their Blood Trail
Wherever the Homo Sapiens went, it hunted the local game to extinction.
In Australia only until 50.000 years ago there were a multitude of mammals. But within a couple of thousand of years from the arrival of Homo Sapiens, they all but disappeared.
The Language Advantage
One of the biggest advantages of the Homo Sapiens over all other hominids and species is language. Language allowed to cooperate flexibly and in large number.
Language is the glue that keeps society together. From the smallest tribes to our current global world.
The Agricultural Revolution
Around 12.000 years ago Homo Sapiens learned to grow crop. That mean we didn’t need anymore to rely on hunting and gathering, but we could settle down somewhere specific and produce our own food.
Within “just” 10.000 years almost all humankind had adopted agriculture.
The Downsides of the Agricultural Revolution
Yuval Noah says that in the beginning agriculture didn’t make sense. It would require the whole day of work for a limited amount of crops, which weren’t even very digestible or nutrient.
However, he says, its adoption came over several generations and it also provided one big advantage: quantity. We could cram a high amount of plants into a relatively small piece of land, and that allowed for the Sapiens’ population to explode.
Bartering and Money
With the agricultural revolution not everyone was constantly in need to hunt, and some people could focus instead of making tools, or weaving clothes.
In the beginning they probably exchanged the first tools for food, but the complexities of growing trade and specialization rendered bartering very inefficient.
The author says that’s why around 3.000 years ago we invented writing and money.
That happened in Mesopotamia, with the Sumerians.
Kings and Religions
To keep economies and societies running smooth and to keep fraud in check, kings began to write down laws. Common laws across society allowed people to trade and act according to known customs and rules.
The author says that religion started as a way for the kings to legitimize their power. As the ancient empires grew and more of them sprouted around the world, so religion became more accepted.
My Note: I don’t agree with the idea that religion was promoted thanks to kings who wanted to legitimize their power. I believe it’s often more of an innate disposition of humans.
The author says that for a long time humanity didn’t evolve because it believe that they had no control over their lives. It was all up to God.
But that changed with the scientific revolution in the 16th century, towards the end of the Renaissance.
My Note: I believe this is really just wrong.
The Romans didn’t wait around in fear of God. You don’t need to take my word, just read Marcus Aurelius masterpiece Meditations.
Money and Capitalism
Today we live in a highly globalized world, we believe less in religions and we all believe in capitalism and showing off our material wealth.
There are many critics of globalization but, the author says, it allowed for a very peaceful time for us.
Some Historical Imperfection
I have read a few histories of the world tomes (yeah, geeky guy, I know), and I found some imperfections in Sapiens.
Opinions for Fact
There are lots of opinions in Sapiens that are presented as facts.
This history of the world seems to be very Western-centric. Many cultures were never very religious to begin with. And many cultures are as religious now as they were in the previous millennia (if not more).
Back Then It Was Better
Sapiens had a bit of that “back then was better” flair that I just can’t stand. I don’t know how can people say that hunter gatherers were happier than agricultural people, or that the agricultural revolution “wasn’t that good”.
Maybe it wasn’t but… Based on what exactly? Exactly, the author’s opinion..
I personally found Sapiens to have a bit of that “anti-white”, “anti-capitalism” bias.
Could Be Entertaining
It was an entertaining read for me up until we were in the pre-historian period. Then I started seeing a few mistakes and a few “opinions for facts” and I personally didn’t enjoy it as much anymore.
However, if you can look past it, it might still be good for you.
Can Add Knowledge
Sapiens can make you more aware and knowledgeable about our history.
Good Analysis on Scientific Revolution
I fully agree that it was indeed the scientific revolution that threw the basis for the western civilization to dominate the world and impose its culture.
And the scientific revolution made it possible for the world to experience such an unprecedented development.
If you’re looking for a balanced and more fact-based history of humans, I would not recommend Sapiens because it’s very thick with the author’s own opinions and assumptions.
And the main issue is that they are often presented as facts, which can be confusing to some.