How Did We Make It This Far? The History of Humankind in 5 Minutes
Humans are petty, selfish, brutal, and ambitious; we’re generous, foolish, whimsical, and fair. We are a complex composite of traits both good and bad—and we’re also evolutionary miracles. The making of the social and cultural marvel that is modern man is the story that Yuval Noah Harari sets out to tell in Sapiens.
Sapiens, the twelfth installment in Mark Zuckerberg’s A Year of Books, spins the dial back 70,000 years to take a historical and biological approach to modern man’s development. The book examines the roles that evolving humans have played, from the cognitive revolution through to empire and globalization, weaving together science and history to bring new perspective to modern man’s time on this planet. Harari entreats us to look back to the past in order to divine what might happen in the future as humans continue to evolve the abilities to design the world around us and ourselves.
A Year of Books Pick #12: Sapiens, by Yuval Noah Harari
What’s it about?
Sapiens traces the evolution of our species from the rise of our most ancient ancestors to our current place in the modern, technological age. How have we, a species of hairless, tailless ape, managed to completely dominate the entire planet? Harari reports on the changes and trends that have allowed Homo sapiens to rise to the top, from the development of language to the creation of money. He touches upon why farming actually made people worse off, not better, why writing was really invented, and why the past few decades have been the world’s most peaceful.
Who wrote it?
Yuval Noah Harari works as a professor at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, and specializes in world and military history. Sapiens is his first international bestseller and has been translated into 26 languages. He specializes in World History and macro-historical processes, researching the relation between history and biology, the difference between Homo sapiens and other animals, and whether there is justice in history.
3 Things You Should Know from Sapiens
1. With the Cognitive Revolution, Homo sapiens acquired thinking and communication skills that allowed them to conquer the globe.
About 70,000 years ago the human brain took an Olympics-level evolutionary leap known as the Cognitive Revolution. With the relatively sudden improvement in brainpower, Homo sapiens were able to outperform their rivals. They began to form larger, more sophisticated communities, invented better hunting tools and techniques, and they even began to establish primitive trade networks.
These advancements helped early modern humans venture into the remotest corners of the globe. Starting in Africa, they spread out and colonized Europe, Asia, America, and even Australia. Homo sapiens was also now able to find food and resources—even in the harshest of environments—far easier than the other species of human. For example, in order to reach America, Homo sapiens had to be able to withstand the Arctic conditions of the Siberian passage. They rose to the challenge and learned to team together to hunt the large, nutrient-packed mammoths, and to make snowshoes and warm clothing out of the skin and fur.
2. Developing complex language was one of Homo sapiens’ greatest achievements—and allowed us to build and thrive in communities.
Harari points to the development of intricate language as one of the most important factors in Homo sapiens’ rise to primacy. Homo sapiens are social animals that live in communities, so language is quite important. It allows for information to flow freely between individuals within communities, meaning that important lessons—about food (what’s safe and what isn’t), predators or even dangerous, untrustworthy individuals within the group—can be shared.
The magic of language is that it helps create a common understanding between members of a group. Through language, Homo sapiens were not only able to share information about the physical world, but also to discuss abstract ideas, like gods, history and rights. These ideas —sometimes referred to as common myths—are creations of the human brain and cornerstones of human culture; they are only possible because of our capacity for language.
3. Homo sapiens’ transition from foraging to farming incited the population boom that changed everything.
ory, Homo sapiens lived a nomadic lifestyle. The vast majority of our ancestors spent their lives hunting prey and gathering vegetation. Rather than settling in one area, they travelled to wherever food was plentiful. Around 12,000 years ago, however, that all changed.
What we call the Agricultural Revolution is when Homo sapiens stopped relying solely on hunting and gathering, and instead began cultivating crops and domesticating animals. Within 10,000 years or so, almost all of humankind had settled into agriculture—a truly revolutionary shift.
Agriculture’s biggest advantage was that it was far more efficient: on just a small patch of land, farmers could grow a mass of edible plants. This increase in the food supply meant that human societies could sustain much higher populations. Homo sapiens’ population exploded, and all kinds of new systems—money, writing, religion, and political empire to name just a few—had to be invented and implemented to give society shape. This, in turn, shaped future society.
One smart fact from Sapiens:
Life before the agricultural revolution was relatively simple. If you were low on something, you could ask your neighbors to share and have a reasonable expectation that they’d help you out. But with the development of agriculture, this economy of favors developed into a barter system.
Because of its efficiency, agriculture enabled people to produce enough food for the community, which relieved them of the pressure to hunt for the next meal. With more time on their hands, people developed new trades, like blacksmithing and weaving. They’d then trade their finished goods – a knife, say, or a shovel – with farmers who needed them.
But as the trading market continued to grow, it became harder to find someone whose goods you wanted and who wanted your goods in return. For example, if you were trying to get a fat goose from a farmer in return for your knife, what do you do when he already has plenty of knives? Or what if he needed a knife, but didn’t yet have a goose to slaughter? He could promise to give you a goose in the future, but how do you know he’d keep his word?
It was in response to such problems that, in about 3,000 BC, Homo sapiens developed writing and money. In order to store the information needed for complex trades, they began etching people’s transactions on clay tablets, using simplistic economic symbols.
Around the same time, they started using barley money as a standardized method of pay. This way, you could pay the farmer in a currency easily convertible into whatever else he might need. Or if he promised you a goose, you could record the transaction and hold him to his promise when the date arrived.
One surprising fact from Sapiens:
Globalization has its negatives (anyone ever noticed that the center of most grand European cities looks exactly the same?), but, as Harari points out, one of its most significant pluses is that it’s made us a more peaceful people.
Simply put, modern nations depend on each other for their prosperity. And in a globalized world, networks of trade and investment stretch across many different countries. A war or instability in one area will have secondary economic effects for all.
As a result, almost all of America’s, Europe’s and Asia’s leaders take a very strong interest in maintaining world peace. And, for the most part, it works. Since 1945, no recognized independent nation has been conquered and eliminated by another.
If you remember only one thing, make it this:
Although our health, wealth and knowledge has vastly improved, are we actually happier apes? Subjective well-being questionnaires, issued and reviewed by psychologists, have shown that, while humans experience short-term rises in happiness or sadness, in the long-term and on an individual level, our happiness hovers around the same level.
On a societal level, the conclusions are just as “meh:” with all the improvements in our quality of life, you’d think we must be happier than previous generations. Some of us are—the privileged. Most of the prosperity generated by human advancement has found its way into the pockets of a few white men. But for those outside of this group, be they indigenous tribes, women or people of color, life has not improved to anywhere near the same levels, and neither has their happiness.
Pick up Yuval Noah Harari’s Sapiens to learn more about our evolution as a species, or get a comprehensive summary of human times by barely batting an eyelash over at Blinkist. The Sapiens summary will only take you ten minutes to get through—and you can read for free!