Afterthoughts: Sapiens by Yuval Noah Harari

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Sapiens is advertised as a brief history of humankind. I was, at first, incredulous of how one could capture our expansive history, but Harari gladly proved me wrong and produced one of my favourite books of all-time. He breaks down our history into four parts: the cognitive revolution, the agricultural revolution, the unification of humankind, and the scientific revolution. Harari weaves together research and his thoughts to tell a compelling and even-handed history of how we arrived at the world of 2014 (when we wrote this book). This includes how humankind has evolved, and particularly the inception and development of social structures, cultures, and ambitions. There is a simplicity and elegance to his writing, it is anything but academic and does really well to question our preconceptions of everything. At least that is how I felt reading it, and why I rate this book highly. In the remainder of these afterthoughts, I will explore some of the more explosive ideas I encountered while reading Sapiens.

The Cognitive Revolution

Harari argues the essential ingredient was the development of language. A way to communicate and share ideas, it served to differentiate us from other animals. It also offered us the ability to create new worlds: myths, legends, gods, and religions. These existing solely in our minds in contrast to the objective reality of rivers, trees and lions. Language is the pre-requisite for believing in social constructs like countries, laws, and companies. Doing so allows us to co-operate, theoretically, with billions of people.

Research has shown, time and again, that the maximum ‘natural’ group size bonded by gossip is around 150 people. We are unable to intimately know more than 150 human beings. This is where belief in the same social constructs begets co-operation. For example, we will happily order a ride from a stranger to go somewhere because we both believe in the following social constructs: Uber, money, safety laws. Without those shared beliefs, you probably wouldn’t or couldn’t trust that the driver was going to take you wherever you wanted to go.

Harari acknowledges that Evolutionary Psychology’s assessment of the human mind. Namely that many of our present-day social and psychological traits were shaped in the ancestral environment: tens of thousands of years ago in the pre-agricultural world. This point resonated with me having read The Moral Animal. Written by Robert Wright, he spends the entirety of the book explaining the nuances of how exactly how modern sensibilities were in fact shaped in the ancestral environment.

The Agricultural Revolution

Harari posits that it wasn’t us that domesticated agricultural products such as wheat – wheat domesticated us. When people began farming, their lifestyles changed irrevocably. Instead of being nomadic and living off the land, Sapiens needed to stay and tend to their crop. This mean’t that homes were built and roots took hold. The threat of thievery and barbarianism to their crop led to the fortification of these homes and surrounding lands. Granaries were built to store the wheat. Slowly but surely, Sapiens became anchored to their farms, to their homes, and most importantly to their source of food. As generations of Sapiens grew up and lived a farmer’s life, the nomadic hunter-gatherer identity and history faded away. After multiple generations, farming would be the only life that those Sapiens would have ever known. They would have gotten used to the lifestyle and the perks of farming to then leave and become hunter-gatherers again.

One of history’s few iron laws is that luxuries tend to become necessities and to spawn new obligations.

How many young 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 thirty-five? 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 up roots? No, they double their efforts and keep slaving away.

This discrepancy between evolutionary success and individual suffering is perhaps the most important lesson we can draw from the Agricultural Revolution.

The imagined order is what Harari labels the myths that are built on social constructs. Things like banking, social welfare, and retirement are part of the imagined order. He argues that it is not something that is easily escapable. It only exists in our minds, but it is reinforced into everything we engage or interact with. Our objective reality is filled with other people in different uniforms signalling to different parts of the imagined order e.g. police, banking, student, politician. Most people are probably oblivious to the imagined order, I was. There was never need to think of our lives as being guided by ‘imagined’ constructs because there was little point. As kids we might question what’s the point of school? That was us questioning the imagined order, or at least a part of it: education. The usual adult response would be: so that you can learn things and eventually find a job. More aspects of the imagined order. At that age, we would have no reason to question this.

Even if by some superhuman effort I succeed in freeing my personal desires from the grip of the imagined order, I am just one person. In order to change the imagined order I must convince millions of strangers to cooperate with me. For the imagined order is not a subjective order existing in my own imagination–it is rather an inter-subjective order, existing in the shared imagination of thousands and millions of people.

There is no way out of the imagined order. When we break down our prison walls and run towards freedom, we are in fact running into the more spacious exercise yard of a bigger prison.

Harari argues that because the Sapiens’ social order is imagined, it is impossible to preserve critical elements for running it without having it recorded somewhere. This was what necessitated writing and script. Sumer, pharaonic Egypt, ancient China and the Inca Empire, were some of the first cultures to develop good methods for archiving, cataloguing and retrieving written records. Doing so encouraged Sapiens to change they way they viewed the world: compartmentalisation and bureaucracy over free association and holistic thought.

Writing was born as the maidservant of human consciousness, but is increasingly becoming its master. Our computers have trouble understanding how Homo sapiens talks, feels and dreams. So we are teaching Homo sapiens to talk, feel and dream in the language of numbers, which can be understood by computers.

The caste system of India, the nobles and serfs of medieval Europe, the consuls and plebeians of Rome; all hierarchical systems were the result of accidental circumstances that happened to be perpetuated and refined over generations. Harari argues that the evolution of hierarchy is a “vicious circle: a chance historical situation is translated into a rigid social system.” It is not something I had thought about explicitly myself, but makes so much sense on reflection.

This evolution of hierarchy is just a part of the never-ending cultural transformation. Harari underlines a distinction between biology and culture: the former enables while the latter forbids. He argues that biology tolerates an expansive range of possibilities. Culture, on one hand, illuminates a subset of these possibilities for Sapiens, but on the other hand, forbids some of these possibilities as well. For example, biology enables homosexuality, but some cultures throughout history (and even today) forbid it citing some myth from the imagined order.

The Unification of Mankind

Sapiens have evolved to think of fellow Sapiens as either part of ‘us’ or ‘them’. In the pre-agricultural era, ‘us’ were people of your nomadic Sapiens hunter-gatherer group while ‘them’ were other roaming Sapien groups. It wasn’t until the introduction of three pillars in the imagined order that Sapiens saw all other Sapiens as ‘us’. These three universal orders were the monetary system, the imperial order, and religion.

Money is the only trust system created by humans that can bridge almost any cultural gap, and that does not discriminate on the basis of religion, gender, race, age or sexual orientation. Thanks to money, even people who don’t know each other and don’t trust each other can nevertheless cooperate effectively.

Empires are defined as an extensive group of villages, towns, or states ruled by a single monarch or oligarchy. From the Romans, Byzantines, and Mongols, to the modern British Empire; they have been histories most durable form of government. Empires naturally amalgamated small cultures into fewer big cultures. In doing so, ideas, people, goods, and technology spread more easily compared to a politically-diverse region of independent groups.

An interesting consequence that Harari highlighted is how the generations between conquest and acceptance often lived harsh lives. For example, if you lived in a village that was conquered in the name of the Roman Empire, the villagers would understandably stay true to their culture and identity. Those in the next generation would have this culture passed down from their parents, and would probably still try to stay true to it. But the Romans would have inevitably introduced more elements of their culture into the village. Behaving according to the old conquered village’s culture would have been met harshly as their Roman overlords would have wanted them to see themselves as Roman. More and more Romans would have moved in. This would continue to happen in the second, third, and fourth generations. Eventually, native Romans would outnumber the original villagers. It would become more difficult for the native villagers to hold on to the identity and culture of their ancestors. After a few generations, it will reach a point where they see themselves not as a descendant of their ancestors, but as a Roman through and through. Acceptance of the culture takes a long time, in the time leading up to it, it would not have been easy to keep the memory of their ancestors alive.

This multi-generational journey of acceptance of the new culture makes the decolonisation process of the last couple of centuries particularly interesting.

There are schools of thought and political movements that seek to purge human culture of imperialism, leaving behind what they claim is a pure, authentic civilisation, untainted by sin. These ideologies are at best naive; at worst they serve as disingenuous window-dressing for crude nationalism and bigotry. Perhaps you could make a case that some of the myriad cultures that emerged at the dawn of recorded history were pure, untouched by sin and unadulterated by other societies. But no culture since that dawn can reasonably make that claim, certainly no culture that exists now on earth. All human cultures are at least in part the legacy of empires and imperial civilisations, and no academic or political surgery can cut out the imperial legacies without killing the patient.

Even if we were to completely disavow the legacy of a brutal empire in the hope of reconstructing and safeguarding the ‘authentic’ cultures that preceded it, in all probability what we will be defending is nothing but the legacy of an older and no less brutal empire. Those who resent the mutilation of Indian culture by the British Raj inadvertently sanctify the legacies of the Mughal Empire and the conquering sultanate of Delhi. And whoever attempts to rescue ‘authentic Indian culture’ from the alien influences of these Muslim empires sanctifies the legacies of the Gupta Empire, the Kushan Empire and the Maurya Empire. If an extreme Hindu nationalist were to destroy all the buildings left by the British conquerors, such as Mumbai’s main train station, what about the structures left by India’s Muslim conquerors, such as the Taj Mahal?

Harari uses the following definition for religion: a system of human norms and values founded on a belief in a superhuman order. This is an interesting definition because if the latter half of the definition eliminated, football could feasibly fit under the first half. But we don’t call football a religion, at least not seriously. The second criteria is that the norms and values must be binding, thus precluding ghosts and fairytales. He goes on to examine the religion as it evolved throughout history. While recent history favours monotheistic religions like Christianity and Islam, there was a time when polytheistic and dualistic religions were popular. More recently, he argues, instead of theist religions – focussing on the worship of gods – a humanist religion worshipping humanity is growing in popularity. The modern secular state’s religion is humanism and while most don’t recognise it as such, it fits the definition of religion defined earlier.

… history is what is called a ‘level two’ chaotic system. Chaotic systems come in two shapes. Level one chaos is chaos that does not react to predictions about it. The weather, for example, is a level one chaotic system. Though it is influenced by myriad factors, we can build computer models that take more and more of them into consideration, and produce better and better weather forecasts. Level two chaos is chaos that reacts to predictions about it, and therefore can never be predicted accurately. Markets, for example, are a level two chaotic system. What will happen if we develop a computer program that forecasts with 100 per cent accuracy the price of oil tomorrow? The price of oil will immediately react to the forecast, which would consequently fail to materialise.

The Scientific Revolution

Harari describes the scientific revolution of recent history as being caused by the discovery of ignorance. 10,000 years ago, if we didn’t know something, we would ask the village elder. If they didn’t know, then we would accept that there was no answer to be had. There was no need to discover something nobody knew. The village shared ignorance in the same areas in that sense. Science, however, gave Sapiens the framework to discover answers for ourselves. We didn’t need to seek out the village elder, we just needed to conduct the scientific process.

In every age, even the most pious and conservative, there were people who argued that there were important things of which their entire tradition was ignorant. Yet such people were usually marginalised or persecuted–or else they founded a new tradition and began arguing that they knew everything there is to know. For example, the prophet Muhammad began his religious career by condemning his fellow Arabs for living in ignorance of the divine truth. Yet Muhammad himself very quickly began to argue that he knew the full truth, and his followers began calling him ‘the Seal of the Prophets’. Henceforth, there was no need of revelations beyond those given to Muhammad.

The scientific method flourished as it aligned with Sapiens imperial inclinations. Kings and Emperors were not conquering land just to expand their territory, but also to accelerate their scientific capability. Such was the backdrop for Charles’ Darwin journey on the H.M.S Beagle where he sowed the seeds for the theory of evolution. There was an understanding, particularly in western cultures, that investment into science was the route towards prosperity. Such was the seed that birthed the industrial revolution.

The Industrial Revolution turned the timetable and the assembly line into a template for almost all human activities. Shortly after factories imposed their time frames on human behaviour, schools too adopted precise timetables, followed by hospitals, government offices and grocery stores. Even in places devoid of assembly lines and machines, the timetable became king. If the shift at the factory ends at 5 p.m., the local pub had better be open for business by 5: 02.


Highly Recommended. I put off reading this because I became incredulous of its quality given the hype and hysteria surrounding Sapiens. In short, I was wrong. Harari shattered my preconceptions in pretty much every chapter. There are too many to name. If ever you take notes on a book, Sapiens is the one that deserves it.

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