Sapiens, by Yuval Noah Harari

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This book had been making the rounds last year, and everybody who had read it recommended it (including Bill Gates), so I was happy to finally get it from the library.

Subtitled A Brief History of Humankind, Sapiens traces the rise of humans from prehistoric hunter gatherers to world-dominating titans. What I like about the book is that he posits theories as to what differentiated humans, and enabled them to be so successful. He also asks some tough questions as to whether we as a species are wise enough to make the right choices for this planet given the power we now have. It was a thoughtful and provocative book, and I’d love to discuss it more with others.

Harari posits that the first leap forward for Homo Sapiens was what he calls the “Cognitive Revolution”. It wasn’t just that Sapiens had big brains, as Neanderthals and other human species had big brains as well. He believes it was the appearance of language, and more importantly, myths. Language enabled Sapiens to coordinate their actions on a larger scale, able to hunt larger animals and plan for the longer term. By keeping track of social relationships, Sapiens could see who was contributing to the common good and hold the slackers accountable. And myths allowed Sapiens to create larger social groups, starting with tribes and scaling to nations and corporations.

Harari first describes the life of a typical hunter gatherer tribe before detailing the explosion of Homo Sapiens across the globe, first wiping out the other human species including the Neanderthals in Europe, before wiping out every other large species across the globe. The archeological evidence is clear that soon after Sapiens reached a continent, all large species on that continent were wiped out. The ability for Sapiens to coordinate larger groups in a plan far outweighed their lack of size and natural weapons.

The next big step forward was the Agricultural Revolution. By increasing the amount of resources available, agriculture enabled the formation of much larger communities as well as specialization – some people could do something other than collect food with their days. Agriculture enabled art, commerce, science, and many other activities that we consider uniquely human.

Interestingly, Harari thinks that agriculture was an evolutionary trap. It vastly increased the number of humans, and so tribes that adopted it won from a Survival of the Fittest perspective. But he thinks that each individual human was worse off in their standard of living – instead of a varied diet with lots of leisure time, most humans became peasants, tied to a single crop in a single place, which made them subject to famines (when their crops were wiped out by floods or disease), attacks (hunter/gatherers could just move if attacked, peasants were tied to their fields), disease (higher concentration of humans, and a less varied diet made people frailer), and exploitation (more resources were produced, but much of it was confiscated by tribal chiefs or lords). As he puts it, “a dramatic increase in the collective power and ostensible success of our species went hand in hand with much individual suffering.” I think Harari is being somewhat dramatic in this interpretation, but he raises an interesting question of when we should value the success of the collective over the individual experience – this is a trap we continue to fall into today with regard to valuing corporation success vs. individual well-being.

The next big rise in humans depend on what he calls imagined realities. I really like this concept – imagined realities are myths that unite people such that they can cooperate even if they don’t know each other. They are what allow humans to work together beyond the tribe, and at the scale of millions of people. Imagined realities include nations, churches, empires, money, corporations, human rights, etc. Nation-states do not exist in any observable way – no experiment will detect them. But yet, they have great power, as do these other imagined realities. As Harari puts it, “an imagined reality is something that everyone believes in, and as long as this communal belief persists, the imagined reality exerts force in the world.”

Markets and states supply tribal bonds by fostering ‘imagined communities’ that contain millions of strangers, and which are tailored to national and commercial needs. An imagined community is a community of people who don’t really know each other, but imagine that they do. … The two most important examples for rise of such imagined communities are the nation and the consumer tribe. The nation is the imagined community of the state. The consumer tribe is the imagined community of the market.

The success of imagined realities depend on cementing their worldview into a population. Harari points out that this can happen in a few ways:

  • embedding the order in the material world – the Berlin Wall would be an extreme example of how the Soviet Union did this.
  • shaping our desires – capitalism, or more accurately consumerism, does this with advertising. Churches do this by using heaven and hell to get people to sacrifice today for an eternal afterlife.
  • the imagined order is inter-subjective – it is a consensus reality of most people. If I decide that money is worthless and is just pieces of paper, it will carry on existing and being useful because everybody else believes in it. And, in fact, the only way you can coordinate enough people into not believing in it is by replacing their belief with something else. In his words, “it follows that in order to change an existing imagined order, we must first believe in an alternative imagined order.”

Harari also notes that because of the power of these imagined realities to shape the world to support them, we can end up with very contingent realities – it didn’t have to be a certain way, but once we started down a path, it hardened into an observable reality. As he puts it, we have “a vicious circle [where] a chance historical situation is translated into a rigid social system”. He uses the example of race in the United States, where so many societal structures were built around slavery that we are still feeling the effects centuries later. The caste system in India has a similar history. He spends several pages investigating possible causes for sexism, and doesn’t come up with a good answer of how it arose, and yet it is present to this day.

Harari spends the remainder of the book discussing the most successful of our imagined realities, with chapters on:

  • money – how the concept of money fostered trade and capitalism and the worldwide global economy. In particular, I liked his description of capitalism as a virtuous circle, where belief in future growth leads to the creation of credit so as to benefit from that future growth which leads to investment and faster growth, so it compounds thanks to the shared imagined reality of growth.
  • empires – the consolidation of tribes into nations, and now trans-national alliances
  • religion from animism to polytheism to monotheism
  • science – as he titles it, “The Discovery of Ignorance” as a spur for greater understanding.

He also explores the relationship between these – how the European empires used science to expand their power. As he points out, this is another contingent reality – Asian empires had similar levels of science and technology, but their political leaders did not embrace those tools. The world could have been much different if leaders had made different choices – e.g. India is heavily influenced by having been a British colony, when it could have been the other way around.

Harari ends the book by returning to the question of the Agricultural Revolution trap. We are not wise nor happy animals despite our vastly increased power. He suggests that we need to first understand ourselves better to understand what will maximize our well-being and happiness. It is too easy to optimize for the existing imagined realities such as nations or corporations – we need to create a new imagined reality that values happiness (I’ve discussed the question of what to optimize for before). This is especially important as the power of biology and technology grows, such that we are designing (whether consciously or not) the future of this world and its inhabitants.

Sapiens is a thought-provoking book that goes beyond just telling what happened, but describes theories to explain the sequence of events. I don’t agree with all of Harari’s theories, but I enjoyed getting his perspective, and will be using some of these concepts in my own thinking going forward. I also appreciated his story telling skills, as this book was surprisingly easy to read. Highly recommended.

P.S. I particularly like the idea of imagined realities because I posited something similar in a blog post on the MonkeySphere a long time ago, where I said “The way in which we handle the case of America seems to be that we have created a “friend” called “America” which we include in our monkeysphere. And anybody else who’s “friends” with “America” is automatically included in our monkeysphere.” I also posited the question then of how to design institutions and stories to better bind us together. It’s good to know my interests haven’t changed much in 12 years 🙂

One thought on “Sapiens, by Yuval Noah Harari

  1. Mind you, the imagined community is coined by Benedict Anderson.
    I have read Harari’s books, and while appreciating how he has put together the chain of humans, nature, and innovation, I am astonished how a scholar can leave out the key original sources and authors, from which he borrows to elaborate on. For this reason, I stopped reading him, and will stick to the original literature and those who do give a damn to give credit to them.

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