Sapiens - By Yuval Noah Harari

Date read: 
July 13, 2018
See My Collection of 50+ Book Notes

My Thoughts

Most accessible history of humankind I've ever read. Economics, government, sociology, and much more, all condensed into one book. Does jump to conclusions here and there but delivers great thoughts on what it means to be human and why we are the way we are. One of the best pop-science books of 2010's.

Summary Notes

In a given environment, animals of the same species will tend to behave in a similar way.

Our modern environment, which gives us more material resources and longer lives than those enjoyed by any previous generation often make us feel alienated, depressed and pressured.

Ever since the Cognitive Revolution, there hasn’t been a single natural way of life for Sapiens. There are only cultural choices, from among a bewildering palette of possibilities.

(about the trap of luxury:) “The pursuit of an easier life resulted in much hardship, and not for the last time. It happens to us today.”

One of history’s few iron laws is that luxuries tend to become necessities and spawn new obligations. Once people get used to a certain luxury, they take it for granted.

Back in the snail-mail era, people usually only wrote letters when they had something important to relate. Rather than writing the first thing that came into their heads, they considered carefully what they wanted to say and how to phrase it. They expected to receive a similarly considered answer. Most people wrote and received no more than a handful of letters a month and seldom felt compelled to reply immediately. Today, I receive dozens of emails each day, all from people who expect a prompt reply. We thought we were saving time; instead we revved up the treadmill of life to ten times its former speed and made our days more anxious and agitated.

Hunter-gatherers made few deliberate changes to the lands in which they roamed. Farmers, on the other hand, lived in artificial human islands that they laboriously carved out of the surrounding wilds.

Ancient farmers might seem to us dirt poor, but a typical family possessed more artifacts than an entire forager tribe.

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.

There is no God, but don’t tell that to my servant, lest he murder me at night” – Voltaire

It is impossible to organize an army solely by coercion. At least some of the commanders and soldiers must truly believe in something, be it God, honor, motherland, manhood or money.

“Cynics don’t build empires.”

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

  • The imagined order is embedded in the material world
  • The imagined order shapes our desires
  • The imagined order is inter-subjective

For medieval noblemen, being laughed at was a horrible indignity. Noblemen taught their children to protect their good name whatever the cost. They were always on display and always had to take into account what others saw and said.

Every person is born into a pre-existing imagined order, and his or her desires are shaped from birth by its dominant myths.

Let’s consider, for example, the popular desire to take a holiday abroad. There is nothing natural or obvious about this.

Money comes to money, and poverty to poverty. Education comes to education, and ignorance to ignorance.

An aggressive brute is often the worst choice to run a war. Much better is a cooperative person who knows how to appease, how to manipulate and how to see things from different perspectives. This is the stuff empire-builders are made of.

Consistency is the playground of dull minds.

It becomes crystal clear that history is moving relentlessly towards unity. The sectioning of Christianity and the collapse of the Mongol Empire are just speed bumps on history’s highway.

For the conquerors, the entire world was a single empire and all humans were potential subjects.

Empire has been the world’s most common form of political organization for the last 2500 years.

“We are conquering you for your own benefit” said the Persians, Cyrus wanted the people he subjected to love him and count themselves lucky to be Persian vassals. “… rule the entire world for the benefit of all its inhabitants.”

If a ruler lacks the Mandate of Heaven, then he lacks legitimacy to rule even a single city. If a ruler enjoys the mandate, he is obliged to spread justice and harmony to the entire world.
(If one is fit to rule a city, he ought to be fit to rule the entire world. If he’s not fit to rule the entire world, he’s not fit to rule a city.)

The Mandate of Heaven was bestowed upon the emperor not in order to exploit the world, but in order to educate humanity.

Standardisation was a boon to emperors.

Since Swedes, Indonesians and Nigerians deserve the same human rights, wouldn’t it be simpler for a single global government to safeguard them?

No sovereign state will be able to overcome global warming on its own.

The modern Mandate of Heaven will be given by humankind to solve the problems of heaven, such as the hole in the ozone layer and the accumulation of greenhouse gasses.

The global empire being forged before our eyes is not governed by any particular state or ethnic group. Much like the late Roman Empire, it is ruled by a multi-ethnic elite, and is held together by a common culture and common interests.

No matter what the mind experiences, it usually reacts with craving, and craving always involves dissatisfaction.

Hence even the greatest kings are doomed to live in angst, constantly fleeing grief and anguish, forever chasing after greater pleasures.

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 train the mind to experience reality as it is.

If the mind of a person is free of all craving, no god can make him miserable.

Humanism is a belief that Homo Sapiens has a unique and sacred nature, which is fundamentally different from the nature of all other animals and of all other phenomena.

The transition from many small cultures to a few large cultures and finally to a single global society was probably an inevitable result of the dynamics of human history.

Saying that a global society is inevitable is not the same as saying that the end result had to be the particular kind of global society we now have.

The better you know a particular historical period, the harder it becomes to explain why things happened one way and not the other.

What looks inevitable in hindsight was far from obvious at the time.

In a few decades, people will look back and think that the answers to all of our questions were obvious.

Geographical, biological and economic forces create constraints. Yet these constraints leave ample room for surprising developments, which do not seem bound by any deterministic laws.

Determinism implies that our world and our beliefs are a natural and inevitable product of history.

It is just a coincidence that most people today believe in nationalism, capitalism and human rights,

A predictable revolution never occurs.

History is not a means for making accurate predictions. We study history not to know the future but to widen our horizons.

History’s choices are not made for the benefit of humans.

If the banking system is a fraud, then the entire modern economy is a fraud.

Smith said that, in fact, greed is good, and that by becoming richer I benefit everybody, not just myself. Egoism is altruism.

The basic idea of successful capitalism is “The profits of production must be reinvest in increasing production.”

A society of wolves would be extremely foolish to believe that the supply of sheep would keep on growing indefinitely.

“Everybody is terrified that the current economic crisis may stop the growth of the economy. So they are creating trillions of dollars, euros and yen out of thin air, pumping cheap credit into the system, and hoping that scientists, technicians and engineers will manage to come up with something really big, before the bubble bursts.”

As Nietzsche put it, if you have a why to live, you can bear almost any how.

Related Notes

Sign Up For Friday Favorites!

Join the 500+ people who receive my Friday Favorites newsletter in their inbox every week. It's a mash-up of the most interesting links, books, and ideas I came across that week, as well as my latest articles and book notes. If you're curious and looking for high-quality information, you should definitely join.
Thank you! Your submission has been received!
Oops! Something went wrong while submitting the form.