• Alex Vikner

Sapiens by Yuval Noah Harari

Earth is 4.5 billion years old. In just a fraction of that time, one species among countless others has conquered it: us.

  • What makes us brilliant?

  • What makes us deadly?

  • What makes us sapiens?

Sapiens by Noah Yuval Harari explores who we are, how we got here and where we're going. These are my book notes.


Sapiens by Noah Yuval Narari: A Brief History of Humankind - Book Notes
Sapiens by Noah Yuval Narari

1. The Cognitive Revolution

An Animal of No Significance

  • About 14 billion years ago, matter, energy, time and space came into being in what is known as the Big Bang. The story of these fundamental features of our universe is called physics.

  • About 300,000 years after their appearance, matter and energy started to coalesce into complex structures, called atoms, which then combined into molecules. The story of atoms, molecules and their interactions is called chemistry.

  • About 4 billion years ago, on a planet called Earth, certain molecules combined to form particularly large and intricate structures called organsims. The story of organisms is called biology.

  • About 70,000 years ago, organisms belonging to the species Homo sapiens started to form even more elaborate structures called cultures. The subsequent development of these human cultures is called history.

  • Animal belong to the same species if they tend to mate with each other, giving birth to fertile offspring. Species that evolved from a common ancestor are bunched together under the heading 'genus'.

  • Lions, tigers, leopards, and jaguars are different species within the genus Panthera.

  • Homo sapiens: species sapiens (wise) of the genus Homo (man).

  • Genera are grouped into families, such as cats (lions, cheetahs, house cats), dogs (wolves, foxes, jackals). Homo sapiens, too, belongs to a family. Not only do we possess an abundance of uncivilized cousins, we once had quite a few brothers and sisters as well.

  • Humans first evolved in East Africa about 2.5 million years ago. About 2 million years ago. some of these archaic men and women left their homeland to journey through and settle vast areas of North Africa, Europe and Asia.

  • We assume that a large brain, the use of tools, superior learning abilities and complex social structures are huge advantages. It seems self-evident that these have made humankind the most powerful animal on earth. But humans enjoyed these advantages for a full 2 million years during which they remained weak and marginal creatures.

  • Humankind ascended to the top so quickly that the ecosystem was not given time to adjust. Moreover, humans themselves failed to adjust.

  • A significant step on the way to the top was the domestication of fire. However, despite the benefits of fire, 150,000 years ago humans were still marginal creatures.

  • Homo sapiens conquered the world thanks above all to its unique language.

The Tree of Knowledge

  • Every animal knows how to communicate but our language is amazingly supple. We can connect a limited number of sounds and signs to produce an infinite number of sentences, each with a distinct meaning.

  • Our language evolved as a way of gossiping.

  • Reliable information about who could be trusted meant that small bands could expand into larger bands, and Sapiens could develop tighter and more sophisticated types of cooperation.

  • The truly unique feature of our language is it's ability to transmit information about things that do not exist. Legends, myths, gods, and religions appeared for the first time with the Cognitive Revolution. The appearance of fiction meant that large numbers of strangers could cooperate successfully by believing in common myths.

  • There are no gods in the universe, no nations, no money, no human rights, no laws and no justice outside the common imagination of human beings.

  • People easily acknowledge that 'primitive tribes' cement their social order by believing in ghosts and spirits, and gethering each full moon to dance together around the campfire. What we fail to appreciate is that our modern institutions function on exactly the same basis.

  • Since large-scale human cooperation is based on myths, the way people cooperate can be altered by changing myths—by telling different stories.

A Day in the Life of Adam and Eve

  • The human collective knows far more today than did the ancient bands. But at the individual level, ancient foragers were the most knowledgeable and skilful people in history.

  • Average life expectancy was apparently just 30 to 40 years, but this was due largely to the high incidence of child morality. Children who made it through the perilous firs years had a good chance of reaching the age of 60. The foragers' secret to success, which protected them from starvation and malnutrition, was their varied diet.

The Flood

  • The journey of the first humans to Australia is one of the most important events in history, at least as important as Columbus' journey to America or the Apollo 11 expedition to the moon.

  • The moment the first hunter-gatherer set foot on an Australian beach was the moment that Homo sapiens climbed to the top rung in he food chain, and became the deadliest species ever in the 4-billiion-year history of life on earth. The settlers of Australia didn't just adapt, transformed the Australian ecosystem beyond recognition.

  • The historical record makes Homo sapiens look like an ecological serial killer.

  • The Americas were a great laboratory of evolutionay experimentation but within 2000 years of the Sapies' arrival, most of the unique species were gone.

  • The fiirst wave of Sapien coloniissation was one of the biggest and swiftest ecological disasters tto befall the animal kingdom.

  • If we knew how many species we've already eradicated, we might be more motivated to protect those that still survive.

2. The Agricultural Revolution

History's Biggest Fraud

  • The transition to agriculture began around 9500-8500 BC in the hill country of south-eastern Turkey, western Iran and the Levant.

  • Agricultural revolutions erupted in the Middle East, China and Central America but not in Australia, Alaska or South Africa because mot species of plants and animals can't be domesticated. Of the thousands of species that our ancesstors hunted and gathered, only a few were suitable candidates for farming and herding. Those few species lived in particular places, and those are the places where agricultural revolutions occurred.

  • The Agricultural Revolution in left farmers with lives generally more difficult and less satisfying than those of foragers. Hunter-gatherers spent their time in more stimulating and varied ways, and were less iin danger of starvatiion and disease. It translated into population explosions and pampered elites. The average farmer worked harder than the average forager, and got a worse diet in return. The Agricultural Revolution was history's biggest fraud.

  • We did not domesticate wheat. It domesticated us.

  • It offered nothing for people as individuals but it did bestow something on Homo sapiens as a species. Cultivating wheat provided much more food per unit fo territory, and thereby enabled Homo sapiens to multiply exponentially.

  • It is wrong to judge thousands of years of history from the perspective of today.

  • The currency of evolution is neither hunger nor pain, but rather copies of DNA helices.

  • Yet, why would any sane person lower his or her standard of living just to multiply the number of copies of the Homo sapiens genome? Nobody agreed to this deal: the Agricultural Revolution was a trap.

  • The pursuit of an easier life resulted in much hardship, and not for the last time. It happens to us today. How many college graduates have taken demanding jobs in high-powered firms, vowing that they will work hard to earn money that will enable them to retire and pursue their real interests when they are 35? But by the time they reach that age, they have large mortgages, children to school, houses in the suburbs that necessitate at least two cars per family, and a sense that life is not worth living without really good wine and expensive holidays abroad. What are they supposed to do, go back to digging roots? No, they double their efforts and keep slaving away. One of history's iron laws is that luxuries tend to become necessities and to spawn new obligations.

  • Domesticated chickens and cattle may well be an evolutionary success story, but they are also among the most miserable creatures that ever lived. The domestication of animals was founded on a series of brutal practices that only became crueller with the passing of centuries.

  • A rare wild rhinoceros on the brink of extinction s probably more satisfied than a. calf who spends its short life inside a tiny box, fattened to produce juicy steaks. The contented rhinoceros is no less content for being among the last of its kind. The numerical success of the calf's species is no consolation for the suffering the individual endures. This discrepancy between evolutionary success and individual suffering is perhaps the most important lesson we can draw from the Agricultural Revolution.

Building Pyramids

  • Farming enabled populations to increase so radically and rapidly that no complex agricultural society could ever again sustain itself if it returned to hunting and gathering.

  • In the subsistence economy of hunting and gathering, there was an obvious limit to long-term planning. Paradoxically, it saved foragers a lott of anxieties. There was no sense in worrying about things they could not influence. The Agricultural Revolution made the future far more important than it had ever been before.

  • Sadly, the diligent peasants almost never achieved the future economic security they so craved through their hard work in the present. Everywhere, rulers and elites sprang up, living off the peasants' surplus food and leaving them with only a bare subsistence. These forfeited food surpluses fueled politics, wars, art and philosophy. They built palaces, forts, monuments and temples. Until the late modern era, more than 90% 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 s something that very few people have been doing while everyone else was ploughing fields and carrying water buckets.

  • Myths are stronger than anyone could have imagined. When the Agricultural Revolution opened opportunities for the creation of crowded cities and mighty empires, people invented stories about great gods, motherlands and joint stock companies to provide the needed social links.

  • Hammurabi and the American Founding Fathers alike imagined a reality governed by universal and immutable principles of justice, such as equality or hierarchy. Yet the only place where such universal principles exist is in the fertile imagination of Sapiens, and in the myths they invent and tell one another. These principles have no objective validity.

  • We believe in a particular order not because it is objectively true, but because believing in it enables us to cooperate effectively and forge a better society. Imagined orders are the only way large numbers of humans can cooperate effectively.

  • An imagined order is always in danger of collapse because it depends upon myths, and myths vanish once people stop believing in them. In order to safeguard an imagined order, continuous and strenuous efforts are imperative. Some of these efforts take the shape of violence and coercion. Armies, police forces, courts and prisons are ceaselessly at work forcing people to act in accordance with the imagined order.

  • How do you cause people to believe in an imagined order such as Christianity, democracy or capitalism? First, you never admit that the order is imagined. You always insist that the order sustaining society is an objective reality created by the gods or by the laws of nature.

  • It follows that in order to change an existing imagined order, we must first believe in an alternative imagined order.

Memory Overload

  • Between the years 3500 BC and 3000 BC, Sumerians invented a system for storing and processing information outside of their brains. This data-processing system is what we now call 'writing'.

  • The first recorded name in history belongs to an accountant.

  • Writing was born as the maidservant of human consciousness, but is increasingly becoming its master. Eventually, computers might outperform human in the very fields that made Homo sapiens the ruler of the world: intelligence and communication.

There Is No Justice in History

  • The distinctions between free persons and slaves, whites and blacks, rich and poor are all rooted in fictions. Yet every imagined hierarchy disavows its fictional origins and claims to be natural and inevitable.

  • Modern Westerners are taught to scoff at the idea of racial hierarchy but the hierarchy of rich and poor seems perfectly sensible. Yet it's a proven fact that most rich people are rich for the simple reason that they were born into a rich family and conversely.

  • Unfortunately, complex human societies seem to require imagined hierarchies and unjust discrimination.

  • Hierarchies serve an important function. They enable complete strangers to know how to treat one another without wasting the time and energy needed to become personally acquainted.

  • Biology enables, culture forbids. Culture tends to argue that it forbids only that which is unnatural. But from a biological perspective, nothing is unnatural. Whatever is possible is by definition also natural. A truly unnatural behavior, one that goes against the laws of nature, simply cannot exist, so it would need no prohibition.

  • Since myths, rather than biology, define the roles, rights and duties of men and women, the meaning of 'manhood' and 'womanhood' have varied immensly from one society to another.

  • To make things less confusing, scholars usually distinguish between 'sex', which is a biological category (males vs. females), and 'gender', a cultural category.

  • 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?

3. The Unification of Humankind

The Arrow of History

  • After the Agricultural Revolution, human societies grew ever larger and more complex, while the imagined constructs sustaining the social order also became more elaborate. Myths and fictions accustomed people, nearly from the moment of birth, to think in certain ways, to behave in accordance with certain standards, to want certain things, and to observe certain rules. They thereby created artificial instincts that enabled millions of strangers to cooperate effectively. This network of artificial instincts is called 'culture'.

  • Unlike the laws of physics, which are free of inconsistencies, every man-made order is packed with internal contradictions. Cultures are constantly trying to reconcile these contradictions, and this process fuels change.

  • Ever since the French Revolution, people throughout the world have gradually. come to see both social equality and individual freedom as fundamental values. Yet, these two values contradict each other. Equality can be ensured only by curtailing the freedoms of those who are better off. Guaranteeing that every individual will be free to do as he wishes inevitably short-changes equality. The entire political history of the world since 1789 can be seen as a series of attempts to reconcile this contradiction.

  • But this is no defect. Such contradictions are an inseparable part of every human culture. In fact, they are the engines of cultural development, responsible for the creativity and dynamism of our species. Discord in our thoughts, ideas and values compels us to think, re-evaluate and criticize. Consistency is the playground of dull minds.

  • Perceiving the direction of history is really a question of vantage point. From the view-point of a cosmic spy satellite which scans millennia rather than centuries, it becomes crystal clear that history is moving relentlessly towards unity.

The Scent of Money

  • An economy of favors and obligations doesn't work when large numbers of strangers try to cooperate.

  • Money was created many times in many places. Its development required no technological breakthrougs—it was purely mental revolution. It involved the creation of a new inter-subjective reality that exists solely in people's shared imagination. Money is not coins and banknotes. Money is anything that people are willing to use in order to represent systematically the value of other thiings for the purpose of exchanging goods and services.

  • Everyone always wants money because everyone else also always wants money, which means you can exchange money for whatever you want or need.

  • Because money can convert, store and transport wealth easily and cheaply, it made a vital contribution to the appearance of complex commercial networks and dynamic markets.

  • Money is the most universal and efficient system of mutual trust ever devised.

  • Christians and Muslims who could not agree on religious beliefs could nevertheless agree on a monetary belief, because whereas religion asks you to believe in something, money asks ys to believe that other people believe in something.

  • Money is based on the principles of universal convertability and trust. When everything is convertible and trust depends on anonymous coins, it corrodes local traditions, intimate relations and human values, replacing them with the cold laws of supply and demand. Human communities and families have always been based on belief iin 'priceless' things, such as honor, loyalty, morality, and love. Money has always tried to break these barriers.

  • Money has an even darker side. For although money builds universal trust between strangers, this trsut is invested not in humans, communities or sacred values, but in money itself and in the impersonal systems that back it. We do not trust the stranger but the coin they hold.

Imperial Visions

  • An empire is a political order with two important characteristics:

  1. It rules over a significant number of distinct peoples, each possessing a. different cultural identify and a s separate territory.

  2. It has flexible borders and a potentially unlimited appetite. It can swallow and digest more and more nations and territories without altering its basic structure or identity.

  • Empires were one of the main reasons for the drastic reduction in human diversity. The imperial steamroller gradually obliterated the unique characteristics of numerous peoples, forging out of them new and much larger groups.

  • The empire has been the world's most common form of political organization for the last 2500 years. It is also a very stable form of government.

  • To color all empires black and disavow all imperial legacies is to reject most of human culture. Today most of us speak, think and dream in imperial languages that were forced upon our ancestors by the sword.

  • In Chinese political thinking as well as Chinese historical memory, imperial periods. were henceforth seen as golden ages of order and justice. In contradiction to the Western view that a just world is composed of separate nation states, in China period of political fragmentation were seen as dark ages of chaos and injustice.

  • In the early 21st century, the world is still divided into 200 states. But none of these states is truly independent. They all depend on one another. Their economies form a single global network of trade and finance, shaped by immensely powerful currents of capital, labor and information. Most importantly, the 200 states increasingly share the same global problems.

The Law of Religion

  • Today religion is often considered a source of discrimination, disagreement and disunion. Yet, in fact, religion has been the third great unifier of humankind, alongside money and empires. Since all social orders and hierarchies are imagined, they area all fragile, and the larger the society, the more fragile it is.

  • Religion can thus be defined as a system of human laws that is founded on a belief in superhuman laws.

  • Since monotheists have usually believed that they are in possession of the entire message of the one and only God, they have been compelled to discredit all other religions.

  • According to Buddhist belief, suffering arises from craving; the only way to be fully liberated from suffering is to be fully liberated from craving; and the only way to be liberated from craving is to experience reality as it is.

  • The last 300 years are often depicted as an age of growing secularism, in which religions have increasingly lost their importance. If we are talking about theist religions, this is largely correct. But if we take into consideration natural-law religions, then modernity turns out to be an age of intense religious fervor, unparalleled missionary efforts, and the bloodiest wars of religion in history. The modern age has witnessed the rise of a number of new natural-law religions, such as liberalism, Communism, capitalism, nationalism and Nazism. These creeds do not like to be called religions, and refer to themselves as ideologies. But this is just a semantic exercise. If a religion is a system of human norms and values that is founded on a belief in a superhuman order, then the Soviet Communism was no less a religion than Islam.

  • Theist religions sanctify the gods. Humanist religions sanctify humanity, or more correctly, Homo sapiens. Humanism is a belief that Homo sapiens has a unique and sacred nature, which is fundamentally different from the nature of all other animals.

  • All humanists sanctify humanity, but they do not agree on its definition. Whereas liberal humanism seeks as much freedom as possible for individual humans, socialist humanism seeks equality between all humans.

  • Without recourse to eternal souls and a Creator God, it becomes embarrassingly difficult for liberals to explain what is so special about individual Sapiens.

  • Our liberal political and judicial systems are founded on the belief that every individual has a. sacred inner nature, indivisible, and immutable, which gives meaning to the world, and which is the source of all ethical and political authority. This is a reincarnation of the traditional Christian belief in a free and eternal soul that resides within each individual. Yet over the last 200 years, the life sciences have thoroughly undermined this belief. Scientists studying the inner workings of the human organism have found so soul there. They increasingly argue that human behavior is determined by hormones, genes, and synapses, rather than by free will—the same forces that determine the behavior of chimpanzees, wolves, and ants. Our judicial and political systems largely try to sweep such inconvenient discoveries under the carpet. Butt in all frankness, how long can be maintain the wall separating the department of biology from the departments of law and political science.

The Secret of Success

  • Commerce, empires and universal religions have eventually brought virtually every Sapiens on every continent into the global world we live in today.

  • Every point in history is a crossroads. A single travelled road leads from the past to the present, but myriad paths fork off into the future.

  • It is an iron rule of history that what looks inevitable in hindsight was far from obvious at the time. Today is no different.

  • History, politics and markets are are second-order chaotic systems meaning that chaos reacts to predictions about it, and therefore can never be predicted accurately.

  • We study history not to know the future but to widen our horizons, to understand that our present situation is neither natural nor inevitable, and that we consequently have many more possibilities before us than we imagine.

4. The Scientific Revolution

The Discovery of Ignorance

  • At 5:29:45 on 16 July 1945, American scientists detonated the first atomic bomb at Alamogordo, New Mexico. From that point onward, humankind had the capability not only to change the course of history, but to end it.

  • Modern science differs from all previous traditions of knowledge:

  1. Willingness to admit ignorance

  2. Centrality of observation and mathematics

  3. Acquisition of new powers

  • The Scientific Revolution has not been a revolution of knowledge. It has been above all a revolution of ignorance. The great discovery that launched the Scientific Revolution was that humans do not know the answers to their most important questions.

  • Science enjoys immense prestige because of the new powers it gives us. Presidents and generals may not understand nuclear physics, but they have a good grasp of what nuclear bombs can do.

  • Until the Scientific Revolution most human cultures did not believe in progress.

  • Of all mankind's ostensibly insoluble problems, one has remained the most vexing, interesting and important: the problem of death itself. Most faiths turned death into the main source of meaning in life. For men of science, death is not an inevitable destiny, but merely a technical problem. People die not because the gods decreed it, but due to various technical failures—a heart attack, cancer, an infection. And every technical problem has a technical solution.

  • Most scientific studies are funded because somebody believed they can help attain some political, economic or religious goal.

  • Science is unable to set its own priorities. It is also incapable of determining what to do with its discoveries.

  • Scientific research can only flourish in alliance with some religion or ideology. The ideology justifies the costs of the research. In exchange, the ideology influences the scientific agenda and determines what to do with the discoveries.

The Marriage of Science and Empire

  • The Scientific Revolution and modern imperialism were inseparable.

  • In 1775 Asia accounted for 80% of the world economy. The combined economies of India and China alone represented 2/3 of global production.

  • The global center of power shifted to Europe only between 1750 and 1850, when Europeans humiliated the Asian powers in a series of wars and conquered large parts of Asia. By 1900, Europeans firmly controlled the world's economy and most of its territory. In 1950 western Europe and the US together accounted for more than half of global production, whereas China's portion had been reduced to 5%.

  • From 1850 onward European domination rested to a large extent on the military-industrial-scientific complex and technological wizardry.

  • The Chinese and Persians did not lack technological inventions. They lacked the values, myths, judicial apparatus and sociopolitical structures that took centuries to form and mature int he West and which could not be copied and internalized rapidly.

  • Modern science and capitalism allowed Europe to dominate the late modern world.

  • Previous seekers of empire tended to assume that they already understood the world. Conquest merely utilized and spread their view of the world. European imperialists set out to distant shores in the hope of obtaining new knowledge along with new territories.

  • The discovery of America was the foundational event of the Scientific Revolution. It not only taught Europeans to favor present observations over past traditions, but the desire to conquer America also obliged Europeans to search for new knowledge at breakneck speed.

  • The Europeans were drawn to the blank spots on the map as if they were magnets, and promptly started filling them in.

  • The European imperial expeditions transformed the history of the world: from being a series of histories of isolated peoples and cultures, it became the history of a single integrated human society.

  • Due to their close cooperation with science, these empires wielded so much power and changed the world to such an extent that perhaps they cannot be simply labelled as good or evil. They created the world as we know it, including the ideologies we use in order to judge them.

  • Behind the meteoric rise of both science and empire lurks one particularly important force: capitalism. Were it not for businessmen seeking to make money, Columbus would not have reached America, James Cook would not have reached Australia, and Neil Armstrong would never have taken that small step on the surface of the moon.

The Capitalist Creed

  • Banks are allowed to loan $10 for every $1 they actually possess, which means that 90% of all the money in our bank accounts is not covered by actual notes and coins.

  • What enables banks—and the entire economy—to survive and flourish is our trust in the future. This trust is the sole backing for most of the money in the world.

  • However, before the modern era this ability was limited. In most cases, money coyld represent and convert only things that actually existed in the present. This imposed a severe limitation on growth, since it made it very hard to finance new enterprises.

  • Credit enables us to build the present at the expense of the future.

  • The problem in the previous eras was not that no one had the idea or knew how to use it. It was that people seldom wanted to extend much credit because they didn't trust that the future would be better than the present.

  • Business looked like a zero-sum game.

  • Then came the Scientific Revolution and the idea of progress. The idea of progress is built on the notion that if we admit our ignorance and invest resources in research, things can improve. This idea was soon translated into economic terms.

  • This trust created credit; credit brought real economic growth; and growth strengthened the trust in the future and opened the way for even more credit.

  • In the new capitalist creed, the first and most sacred commandment is: 'The profits of production must be reinvested in increasing production.'

  • The mercantile empires were simply shrewder in financing their conquests. Nobody wants to pay taxes, but everyone is happy to invest.

  • In 8500 BC one could cry bitter tears over the Agricultural Revolution, but it was too late to give up agriculture. Similarly, we may not like capitalism, but we cannot live without it.

  • Yet can the economic pie grow indefinitely? Every pie requires raw materials and energy. Prophets of doom warn that sooner of later Homo sapiens will exhaust the raw materials and energy of planet Earth. And what will happen then?

The Wheels of Industry

  • Whenever a shortage of energy or raw materials has threatened to slow economic growth, investments have flowed into scientific and technological research. These have invariably produced not only more efficient ways of exploiting existing resources, but also completely new types of energy and materials.

  • At heart, the Industrial Revolution has been a revolution in energy conversion.

  • Clearly the world does not lack energy. All we lack is the knowledge necessary to harness and convert it to our needs.

  • Around the time that Homo sapiens was elevated to divine status by humanist religions, farm animals stopped being viewed as living creatures thatt could feel pain and distress, and instead came to be treated as machines.

  • Just as the Atlantic slave trade did not stem from hatred toward Africans, so the modern animal industry is not motivated by animosity. Again, it is fuelled by indifference.

  • This is the basic lesson of evolutionary psychology: a need shaped in the wild continues to be felt subjectvely even if it is no longer necessary for survival and reproduction. The tragedy of industrial agriculture is that it takes great care of the objective needs of animals, while neglecting their subjective needs.

  • In Medieval Europe, aristocrats spent their money carelessly on extravagant luxuries, whereas peasants lived frugally, minding every penny. Today, the tables have turned. The rich take great care of managing their assets and investments, while the less well-heeled go into debt buying cars and televisions they don't really need. The supreme commandment of the rich is 'Invest!' The supreme commandment of the rest of us is 'Buy!'

A Permanent Revolution

  • As the world was molded to fit the needs of Homo sapiens, habitats were destroyed and species went extinct. Our once green and blue planet is becoming a concrete and plastic shopping center.

  • The Industrial Revolution turned the timetable and the assembly line into a template for almost all human activities.

  • Prior to the Industrial Revolution, the daily life of most humans ran its course within three ancient frames: the nuclear family, the extended family and the local intimate community.

  • The state and the market approached people with an offer that could not be refused. 'Become individuals,' they said.

  • Any attempt to define the characteristics of modern society is akin to defining the color of a chameleon. The only characteristic of which we can be certain is the incessant change.

  • These days, every year is revolutionary.

  • Most people just don't appreciate just how peaceful an era we live in. As wars become more rare they attract more attention.

  • Real peace is not the mere absence of war. Real peace is the implausibility of war.

  • Never before has peace been so prevalent that people could not even imagine war.

  • Nuclear weapons have turned war between superpowers into collective suicide, and made it impossible to seek world domination by force of arms.

  • While war became less profitable, peace became more lucrative than ever.

  • We are witnessing the formation of a global empire. Like previous empires, this one, too, enforces peace within its borders. And since its borders cover the entire globe, the World Empire effectively enforces world peace.

And They Lived Happily Ever After

  • The last 500 years have witnessed a breathtaking series of revolutions. But are we happier? Historians seldom ask such questions. Yet these are the most important questions one can ask of history.

  • If we accept a mere tenth of what animal-rights activists are claiming, then modern industrial agriculture might well be the greatest crime in history. When evaluating global happiness, is it wrong to count the happiness only of the upper classes, of Europeans or of men? Perhaps it is also wrong to consider only the happiness of humans.

  • Money does indeed bring happiness. But only up to a point, and beyind that point it has little significance.

  • Illness decreases happiness in the short term, but is a source of long-term distress only if a person's condition is constantly deteriorating or if the disease involves ongoing and debilitating pain.

  • Family and community seem to have more impact on our happiness than money and health. This raises the possibility that the immense improvement in material conditions over the last two centuries was offset by the collapse of the family and the community.

  • But the most important finding of all is that happiness does not really depend on objective conditions of either wealth, health or even community. Rather, it depends on the correlation between objective conditions and subjective expectations.

  • If happiness is determined by expectations, then two pillars of our society—mass media and the advertising industry—may unwittingly be depleting the globe's reservoirs of contentment.

  • Biologists hold that our mental and emotional world is governed by biochemical mechanisms shaped by millions of years of evolution. People are made happyy by pleasant sensations in their bodies.

  • Unfortunately for our hopes of creating heaven on earth, our internal biochemical system seems to be programmed to keep happiness levels relatively constant.

  • On a scale of 1 to 10, some people are born with a cheerful biochemical system that allows their mood to swing between levels 6 and 10, stabilizing with time at 8. Others are cursed with a gloomy system that swings between 3 and 7 and stabilizes at 5.

  • Most biologists maintain that happiness is determined mainly by biochemistry, but they agree that psychological and sociological factors also have their place.

  • If we accept the biological approach to happiness, then history turns out to be of minor importance, since most historical events have had no impact on our biochemistry.

  • Huxley's vision of he future in Brave New World is far more troubling than Orwell's in 1984. Huxley's world seems monstrous to most readers, but it is hard to explain why. Everybody is happy all the time—what could be wrong with that?

  • Kahneman found that happiness is not the surplus of pleasant over unpleasant moments. Rather, happiness consists in seeing one's life in its entirety as meaningful and worthwhile.

  • As Nietzsche put it, if you have a why to live, you can bear almost any how. A meaningful life can be extremely satisfying even in the midst of hardship, whereas a meaningless life is a terrible ordeal no matter how comfortable it is.

  • According to Buddhism, the real root of suffering is the never-ending and pointless pursuit of ephemeral feelings, which causes us to be in a constant state of tension, restlessness and dissatisfaction. People are liberated from suffering when they understand the impermanent nature of all their feelings, and stop craving them. It is like a man standing for decades on the seashore, embracing certain 'good' waves and trying to prevent them from disintegrating, while simultaneously pushing back 'bad' waves to prevent them from getting near him. Day in, day out, the man stands on the beach, driving himself crazy with this fruitless exercise. Eventually, he sits down on the sand and just allows the waves to come and go as they please. How peaceful!

The End of Homo Sapiens

  • At the time of the writing, the replacement of natural selection by intelligent design could happen in any of three ways: through biological engineering, cyborg engineering, or the engineering of inorganic life.

  • Physicists define the Big Bang as a singularity. It is a point at which all the laws of nature did not exist. Time too did not exist. It is thus meaningless to say that anything existed 'before' the Big Bang. We may be fast approaching a new singularity, when all the concepts that give meaning to our world—me, you, men, women, love and hate—will become irrelevant. Anything happening beyond that point is meaningless to us.

  • If the curtain is indeed about to drop on Sapiens history, we members of its final generations should devote some time to answering one last question: what do we want to become?

  • But since we might soon be able to engineer our desires too, the real question facing us is 'what do we want to want?'

Last Words

Sapiens by Noah Yuval Harari is the most intriguing history book I have read. After reading it, I have a better understanding of our history as a species. More importantly, it made me question and reflect on my actions, beliefs and why certain things are the way they are. Sapiens is a book I believe everyone should read, at least once.