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Sapiens by Yuval Noah Harari - Summary and Book Notes

Sapiens Book Cover


"Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind" gives a fascinating overview of humanity's rapid expansion across the world. Yuval Noah Harari approaches the topic with a unique, often contrarian viewpoint that's sure to get you thinking. The author's clear writing style makes for an easy read.

A must read if you're unfamiliar with:

  • Early human development
  • The transition from hunter-gatherer to agricultural societies
  • The power of shared myths in shaping humankind

Some great insights here.

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Quick Summary:

  • Humankind ascended to the top so quickly that the ecosystem and our genetics were not given time to adjust.
  • Human language is unique in its ability to transmit information about things that do not exist at all. Large numbers of strangers can cooperate successfully by believing in common myths.
  • The Agricultural Revolution left farmers with lives generally more difficult than those of foragers. Luxuries tend to become necessities and to spawn new obligations
  • In order to change an existing imagined order, we must first believe in an alternative imagined order.
  • Writing and numbers enabled mankind to think in new ways with the help of external data-processing systems.
  • Every man-made order is packed with internal contradictions. Discord in our thoughts, ideas and values compel us to think, re-evaluate and criticise.
  • There is no basis for thinking that the most successful cultures in history are necessarily the best ones for Homo sapiens.
  • The next stage of history will include not only technological and organisational transformations, but also fundamental transformations in human consciousness and identity.
  • The real question facing the future of humanity is not ‘What do we want to become?’, but ‘What do we want to want?’
Recommendations for Further Reading

Book Notes

Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, Yuval Noah Harari

The most important thing to know about prehistoric humans is that they were insignificant animals with no more impact on their environment than gorillas, fireflies or jellyfish

I will often use the term ‘Sapiens’ to denote members of the species Homo sapiens, while reserving the term ‘human’ to refer to all extant members of the genus Homo.

  • Neanderthals, bulkier and more muscular than us Sapiens
  • Homo erectus, ‘Upright Man’, who survived there for close to 2 million years, making it the most durable human species ever.
  • On the island of Java, in Indonesia, lived Homo soloensis, ‘Man from the Solo Valley’, who was suited to life in the tropics.
  • Homo floresiensis, reached a maximum height of only 3.5 feet and weighed no more than fifty-five pounds.
  • previously unknown human species, which was named Homo denisova.
  • Homo rudolfensis, ‘Man from Lake Rudolf’,
  • Homo ergaster, ‘Working Man’,
  • our own species, which we’ve immodestly named Homo sapiens, ‘Wise Man’.

from about 2 million years ago until around 10,000 years ago, the world was home, at one and the same time, to several human species.

humans have extraordinarily large brains compared to other animals.

Firstly, they spent more time in search of food. Secondly, their muscles atrophied.

For more than 2 million years, human neural networks kept growing and growing, but humans had precious little to show for it.

What then drove forward the evolution of the massive human brain during those 2 million years? Frankly, we don’t know.

Tool production dates from about 2.5 million years ago

Humankind paid for its lofty vision and industrious hands with backaches and stiff necks.

An upright gait required narrower hips, constricting the birth canal – and this just when babies’ heads were getting bigger and bigger.

compared to other animals, humans are born prematurely

Genus Homo’s position in the food chain was, until quite recently, solidly in the middle.

only in the last 100,000 years – with the rise of Homo sapiens – that man jumped to the top of the food chain.

Other animals at the top of the pyramid, such as lions and sharks, evolved into that position very gradually, over millions of years. This enabled the ecosystem to develop checks and balances that prevent lions and sharks from wreaking too much havoc.

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

Some scholars believe there is a direct link between the advent of cooking, the shortening of the human intestinal tract, and the growth of the human brain.

Homo sapiens landed in Arabia, most of Eurasia was already settled by other humans. What happened to the other humans? There are two conflicting theories. The ‘Interbreeding Theory’The opposing view, called the ‘Replacement Theory’

1–4 per cent of the unique human DNA of modern populations in the Middle East and Europe is Neanderthal DNA. up to 6 per cent of the unique human DNA of modern Melanesians and Aboriginal Australians is Denisovan DNA.

it appears it was still just possible, on rare occasions, for a Sapiens and a Neanderthal to produce a fertile offspring.

why did they vanish? One possibility is that Homo sapiens drove them to extinction. Another possibility is that competition for resources flared up into violence and genocide.

even though these archaic Sapiens looked just like us and their brains were as big as ours, they did not enjoy any marked advantage over other human species, did not produce particularly sophisticated tools, and did not accomplish any other special feats.

scholars to speculate that the internal structure of the brains of these Sapiens was probably different from ours.

The appearance of new ways of thinking and communicating, between 70,000 and 30,000 years ago, constitutes the Cognitive Revolution.

What, then, is so special about our language? The most common answer is that 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.

A second theory agrees that our unique language evolved as a means of sharing information about the world

Our language evolved as a way of gossiping. According to this theory Homo sapiens is primarily a social animal. Social cooperation is our key for survival and reproduction.

Yet the truly unique feature of our language is the ability to transmit information about things that do not exist at all.

Such myths give Sapiens the unprecedented ability to cooperate flexibly in large numbers

That’s why Sapiens rule the world

Under natural conditions, a typical chimpanzee troop consists of about twenty to fifty individuals. As the number of chimpanzees in a troop increases, the social order destabilises, eventually leading to a rupture and the formation of a new troop by some of the animals.

gossip helped Homo sapiens to form larger and more stable bands. maximum ‘natural’ size of a group bonded by gossip is about 150 individuals.

The secret was probably the appearance of fiction. Large numbers of strangers can 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 understand that ‘primitives’ cement their social order by believing in ghosts and spirits, and gathering 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.

if a certified lawyer followed all the proper liturgy and rituals, wrote all the required spells and oaths on a wonderfully decorated piece of paper, and affixed his ornate signature to the bottom of the document, then hocus pocus – a new company was incorporated.

Much of history revolves around this question: how does one convince millions of people to believe particular stories about gods, or nations, or limited liability companies?

Unlike lying, 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.

While the behaviour patterns of archaic humans remained fixed for tens of thousands of years, Sapiens could transform their social structures, the nature of their interpersonal relations, their economic activities and a host of other behaviours within a decade or two.

There are good reasons to be very careful in extrapolating from modern forager societies to ancient ones.

the 5 million to 8 million foragers who populated the world on the eve of the Agricultural Revolution were divided into thousands of separate tribes with thousands of different languages and cultures

The heated debates about Homo sapiens’ ‘natural way of life’ miss the main point. 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.

They usually travelled back and forth across the same home territory, an area of between several dozen and many hundreds of square miles.

humans set up permanent fishing villages – the first permanent settlements in history, long predating the Agricultural Revolution

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.There is some evidence that the size of the average Sapiens brain has actually decreased since the age of foraging

hunter-gatherers living today in the most inhospitable of habitats – such as the Kalahari Desert – work on average for just thirty-five to forty-five hours a week.

ancient foragers were less likely to suffer from starvation or malnutrition, and were generally taller and healthier than their peasant descendants.

Farmers tend to eat a very limited and unbalanced diet. ancient foragers regularly ate dozens of different foodstuffs.

Though they lived better lives than most people in agricultural and industrial societies, their world could still be harsh and unforgiving. Modern foragers occasionally abandon and even kill old or disabled people who cannot keep up with the band.

we have only the haziest notions about the religions of ancient foragers. We assume that they were animists

Some scholars argue that war and violence began only with the Agricultural Revolution, when people started to accumulate private property. Other scholars maintain that the world of the ancient foragers was exceptionally cruel and violent.

they probably demonstrate a variety of violence rates.

we might be tempted to dismiss 60,000 of 70,000 years of human history with the excuse that ‘the people who lived back then did nothing of importance’. The truth is that they did a lot of important things.

the foragers completely reshaped the ecology of our planet long before the first agricultural village was built.

colonisation of Australia some 45,000 years ago.

The settlers of Australia, didn’t just adapt, they transformed the Australian ecosystem beyond recognition.

Within a few thousand years, virtually all of these giants vanished. Food chains throughout the entire Australian ecosystem were broken and rearranged.

Was it all the fault of Homo sapiens?
Three pieces of evidence that weaken the climate alibi:

  • even though Australia’s climate changed it wasn’t a very remarkable upheaval
  • Secondly, when climate change causes mass extinctions, sea creatures are usually hit as hard as land dwellers. Yet there is no evidence of any significant disappearance of oceanic fauna 45,000 years ago.
  • Thirdly, mass extinctions akin to the archetypal Australian decimation occurred again and again in the ensuing millennia – whenever people settled another part of the Outer World.

The Maoris, New Zealand’s first Sapiens colonisers, reached the islands about 800 years ago. Within a couple of centuries, the majority of the local megafauna was extinct, along with 60 per cent of all bird species.

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

Why banish oneself to Siberia by choice? Perhaps some bands were driven north by wars, demographic pressures or natural disasters. mammoth-hunters did not just survive in the frozen north – they thrived.

all this happened in a mere millennium or two! By 10,000 BC, humans already inhabited the most southern point in America

American fauna 14,000 years ago was far richer than it is today. the first wave of Sapiens colonisation was one of the biggest and swiftest ecological disasters to befall the animal kingdom. Hardest hit were the large furry creatures.

The First Wave Extinction, which accompanied the spread of the foragers, was followed by the Second Wave Extinction, which accompanied the spread of the farmers, and gives us an important perspective on the Third Wave Extinction, which industrial activity is causing today.

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

Why did agricultural revolutions erupt in the Middle East, China and Central America but not in Australia, Alaska or South Africa? There is no evidence that people became more intelligent with time.

the Agricultural Revolution left farmers with lives generally more difficult and less satisfying than those of foragers.

  • Hunter-gatherers were less in danger of starvation and disease.
  • the extra food did not translate into a better diet or more leisure.
  • The average farmer worked harder than the average forager, and got a worse diet in return.

The Agricultural Revolution was history’s biggest fraud.

wheat, rice and potatoes. These plants domesticated Homo sapiens, rather than vice versa.Think for a moment about the Agricultural Revolution from the viewpoint of wheat. Suddenly, within just a few short millennia, it was growing all over the world.

wheat provided much more food per unit of territory, and thereby enabled Homo sapiens to multiply exponentially. the evolutionary success of a species is measured by the number of copies of its DNA. This is the essence of the Agricultural Revolution: the ability to keep more people alive under worse conditions.

The Luxury Trap

At first they might have camped for four weeks during the harvest finally it became a permanent village. Paradoxically, a series of ‘improvements’, each of which was meant to make life easier, added up to a millstone around the necks of these farmers.

people thought, ‘Yes, we will have to work harder. But the harvest will be so bountiful! people did not foresee that the number of children would increase, more porridge and less breast milk would weaken their immune system, and that permanent settlements would be hotbeds for infectious diseases.

How many young college graduates work hard to earn money that will enable them to retire and pursue their real interests But by the time they reach that age, they have large mortgages, children to school, houses

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

Victims of the Revolution

Another deal was struck concerning the fate of animals such as sheep, goats, pigs and chickens.

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

Foragers usually didn’t waste much time thinking about next month or next summer. Farmers sailed in their imagination years and decades into the future. there was an obvious limit to such long-term planning. Paradoxically, it saved foragers a lot of anxieties.

Everywhere, rulers and elites sprang up, living off the peasants’ surplus food

The French Revolution was spearheaded by affluent lawyers, not by famished peasants. Yet it was at that moment of maximum affluence that the Roman political order collapsed into a series of deadly civil wars.

The problem at the root of such calamities is that humans evolved for millions of years in small bands of a few dozen individuals.

Creation of crowded cities

People invented stories about great gods, motherlands and joint stock companies to provide the needed social links.

Cooperation’ sounds very altruistic, but is not always voluntary and seldom egalitarian.

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.

The Americans got the idea of equality from Christianity

Evolution is based on difference, not on equality. Every person carries a somewhat different genetic code, and is exposed from birth to different environmental influences.

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men evolved differently, that they are born with certain mutable characteristics, and that among these are life and the pursuit of pleasure.

‘We know that people are not equal biologically! But if we believe that we are all equal in essence, it will enable us to create a stable and prosperous society.’ I have no argument with that. This is exactly what I mean by ‘imagined order’.

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. an imagined order can be maintained only if large segments of the population – and in particular large segments of the elite and the security forces – truly believe in it.

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 also educate people thoroughly. From the moment they are born, you constantly remind them of the principles of the imagined order, which are incorporated into anything and everything.
  • The imagined order is embedded in the material world. medieval value system left the imagination and was manifested in the stone of medieval castles. The castle rarely contained private rooms for children (or anyone else, for that matter).
  • The imagined order shapes our desires. For instance, the most cherished desires of present-day Westerners are shaped by romantic, nationalist, capitalist and humanist myths

Even what people take to be their most personal desires are usually programmed by the imagined order. Romanticism tells us that in order to make the most of our human potential we must have as many different experiences as we can. Consumerism tells us that in order to be happy we must consume as many products and services as possible. Romanticism, which encourages variety, meshes perfectly with consumerism. Their marriage has given birth to the infinite ‘market of experiences’,

A wealthy man in ancient Egypt would never have dreamed of solving a relationship crisis by taking his wife on holiday to Babylon. Instead, he might have built for her the sumptuous tomb she had always wanted.

The imagined order is inter-subjective.Understand the difference between ‘objective’, ‘subjective’, and ‘inter-subjective’.

  • An objective phenomenon exists independently of human consciousness and human beliefs.
  • The subjective is something that exists depending on the consciousness and beliefs of a single individual.
  • The inter-subjective is something that exists within the communication network linking the subjective consciousness of many individuals.

Many of history’s most important drivers are inter-subjective: law, money, gods, nations. A change of such magnitude can be accomplished only with the help of a complex organisation, such as a political party, an ideological movement, or a religious cult.

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

Memory Overload

Large systems of cooperation that involve not ten but thousands or even millions of humans require the handling and storage of huge amounts of information, much more than any single human brain can contain and process.

evolutionary pressures have adapted the human brain to store immense quantities of botanical, zoological, topographical and social information. Not numerical information.

The first to overcome the problem were the ancient Sumerians, who lived in southern Mesopotamia.

system for storing and processing information outside their brains, one that was custom-built to handle large amounts of mathematical data.

The first texts of history contain no philosophical insights, no poetry, legends, laws, or even royal triumphs. They are humdrum economic documents,

The Wonders of Bureaucracy

Between 3000 BC and 2500 BC more and more signs were added to the Sumerian system, gradually transforming it into a full script that we today call cuneiform.

roughly the same time, Egyptians developed another full script known as hieroglyphics. Other full scripts were developed in China around 1200 BC and in Central America around 1000–500 BC.

What set apart Sumer, as well as pharaonic Egypt, ancient China and the Inca Empire, is that these cultures developed good techniques of archiving, cataloguing and retrieving written records.

they did have catalogues, and far more importantly, they did create special schools in which professional scribes, clerks, librarians and accountants were rigorously trained in the secrets of data-processing.

The most important impact of script on human history is precisely this: it has gradually changed the way humans think and view the world. Free association and holistic thought have given way to compartmentalisation and bureaucracy.

With rare exceptions, human brains are simply incapable of thinking through concepts like relativity and quantum mechanics. they set aside the traditional human way of thinking, and learn to think anew with the help of external data-processing systems.

Crucial parts of their thought process take place not in the head, but inside computers or on classroom blackboards.

There is No Justice in History

it is an iron rule of history that every imagined hierarchy disavows its fictional origins and claims to be natural and inevitable.

scholars know of no large society that has been able to dispense with discrimination altogether.

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.

Of course, differences in natural abilities also play a role in the formation of social distinctions. But such diversities of aptitudes and character are usually mediated through imagined hierarchies.

The Vicious Circle

In most cases the hierarchy originated as the result of a set of accidental historical circumstances and was then perpetuated

They chose to import slaves from Africa rather than from Europe or East Asia

  • Firstly, Africa was closer,
  • Secondly, in Africa there already existed a well-developed slave trade
  • Thirdly, and most importantly, American plantations were plagued by malaria and yellow fever Africans had acquired partial genetic immunity

people don’t like to say that they keep slaves of a certain race or origin simply because it’s economically expedient. Religious and scientific myths were pressed into service to justify this division

Notably, this was the first and only time in history that a large number of slaveholding societies voluntarily abolished slavery. these prejudices became more and more entrenched as time went by. Since all the best jobs were held by whites, it became easier to believe that blacks really are inferior.

Money comes to money, and poverty to poverty

He and She

People everywhere have divided themselves into men and women. And almost everywhere men have got the better deal, at least since the Agricultural Revolution.

How can we distinguish what is biologically determined from what people merely try to justify through biological myths? A good rule of thumb is ‘Biology enables, Culture forbids.’

from a biological perspective, nothing is unnatural. Whatever is possible is by definition also natural

our concepts ‘natural’ and ‘unnatural’ are taken not from biology, but from Christian theology.

It is far more likely that even though the precise definition of ‘man’ and ‘woman’ varies between cultures, there is some universal biological reason why almost all cultures valued manhood over womanhood. We do not know what this reason is.

The most common theory points to the fact that men are stronger than women, and that they have used their greater physical power to force women into submission. Two problems:

  • First, the statement that ‘men are stronger than women’ is true only on average, and only with regard to certain types of strength. Women are generally more resistant to hunger, disease and fatigue than men. women have, throughout history, been excluded mainly from jobs that require little physical effort (such as the priesthood, law and politics), while engaging in hard manual labour in the fields, Even among chimpanzees, the alpha male wins his position by building a stable coalition with other males and females, not through mindless violence.
  • Another theory explains that masculine dominance results not from strength but from aggression. men indeed have more aggressive and violent tendencies, and are therefore, on average, better suited to serve as common soldiers granted that the common soldiers are all men, does it follow that the ones managing the war and enjoying its fruits must also be men? That makes no sense. there’s any truth in these stereotypes, then women should have made excellent politicians and empire-builders, this rarely happened in the real world. It is not at all clear why not.

A third type of biological explanation: men and women evolved different survival and reproduction strategies. men competed against each other for the opportunity to impregnate fertile women, the masculine genes that made it to the next generation were those belonging to the most ambitious, aggressive and competitive men.

if she wanted her children she needed to carry them in her womb for nine arduous months, and then nurture them for years. the woman had little choice but to agree to whatever conditions the man stipulated. the feminine genes that made it to the next generation belonged to women who were submissive caretakers.

problematic is the assumption that women’s dependence on external help made them dependent on men, rather than on other women, and that male competitiveness made men socially dominant

matriarchal society: all-female social networks that help each member raise her children. How did it happen that in the one species whose success depends above all on cooperation, individuals who are supposedly less cooperative (men) control individuals who are supposedly more cooperative (women)? At present, we have no good answer.

Part Three - The Unification of Humankind

The Arrow of History During the first half of the twentieth century, scholars taught that every culture was complete Today, most scholars of culture have concluded that the opposite is true. beliefs, norms and values, but these are in constant flux.

The culture may transform itself in response to changes in its environment or through interaction with neighbouring cultures. But cultures also undergo transitions due to their own internal dynamics. every man-made order is packed with internal contradictions.

people throughout the world have gradually come to see both equality and individual freedom as fundamental values. Yet the two values contradict each other.

The entire political history of the world since 1789 can be seen as a series of attempts to reconcile this contradiction.

Just as medieval culture did not manage to square chivalry with Christianity, so the modern world fails

Such contradictions are an inseparable part of every human culture. In fact, they are culture’s engines, responsible for the creativity and dynamism of our species.

discord in our thoughts, ideas and values compel us to think, re-evaluate and criticise. Consistency is the playground of dull minds.

most important stage in the process of global unification occurred in the last few centuries, empires grew and trade intensified

Homo sapiens evolved to think of people as divided into us and them. no social animal is ever guided by the interests of the entire species to which it belongs.

The first millennium BC witnessed the appearance of three potentially universal orders,

  • first universal order to appear was economic: the monetary order.
  • The second universal order was political: the imperial order.
  • The third universal order was religious: the order of universal religions such as Buddhism, Christianity and Islam.

People who do not believe in the same god or obey the same king are more than willing to use the same money.

The Scent of Money

Hunter-gatherers had no money. Little of this changed with the onset of the Agricultural Revolution The rise of cities and kingdoms and the improvement in transport infrastructure brought about new opportunities for specialisation Most societies developed money.

The sum total of money in the world is about $60 trillion, yet the sum total of coins and banknotes is less than $6 trillion. More than 90 percent of all money – more than $50 trillion appearing in our accounts – exists only on computer servers.

Money is thus a universal medium of exchange that enables people to convert almost everything into almost anything else.

How Does Money Work?

Trust is the raw material from which all types of money are minted.The real breakthrough in monetary history occurred when people gained trust in money that lacked inherent value, but was easier to store and transport

The first coins in history were struck around 640 BC by King Alyattes of Lydia, in western Anatolia

Money is the only trust system created by humans that can bridge almost any cultural gap,

Money is based on two universal principles: Universal convertibility: Universal trust:

When everything is convertible, and when trust depends on anonymous coins it corrodes local traditions, intimate relations and human values, replacing them with the cold laws of supply and demand.

An empire is a political order with two important characteristics:

  • First, to qualify for that designation you have to rule over a significant number of distinct peoples, each possessing a different cultural identity and a separate territory.
  • Second, empires are characterised by flexible borders and a potentially unlimited appetite.
  • Empires were one of the main reasons for the drastic reduction in human diversity.

contemporary critique of empires commonly takes two forms:

  • Empires do not work. In the long run, it is not possible to rule effectively over a large number of conquered peoples.
  • Even if it can be done, it should not be done, because empires are evil engines of destruction and exploitation.
  • From a historical perspective, the first statement is plain nonsense, and the second is deeply problematic.

Most humans during these two and a half millennia have lived in empires. Empire is also a very stable form of government. Most empires have found it alarmingly easy to put down rebellions. In general, they have been toppled only by external invasion or by a split within the ruling elite.

In many cases, the destruction of one empire hardly meant independence for subject peoples. Instead, a new empire stepped into the vacuum created when the old one collapsed or retreated.

modern Jews, for example, owe far more to the empires under which they lived during the past two millennia than to the traditions of the ancient kingdom of Judaea. There were neither synagogues, volumes of Talmud, nor even Torah scrolls in ancient Judaea.

The standard imperial toolkit included wars, enslavement, deportation and genocide To colour all empires black and to disavow all imperial legacies is to reject most of human culture.

A significant proportion of humanity’s cultural achievements owe their existence to the exploitation of conquered populations.

Yet most of today’s cultures are based on imperial legacies. If empires are by definition bad, what does that say about us?

More and more people believe that all of humankind is the legitimate source of political authority

The Law of Religion

In order to unite under its aegis a large expanse of territory it must be universal and missionary.

the majority of ancient religions were local and exclusive.

Gods such as the fertility goddess, the sky god and the god of medicine took centre stage the gods’ main role was to mediate between humans and the mute plants and animals.

Polytheism is inherently open-minded, and rarely persecutes ‘heretics’ and ‘infidels’. Even when polytheists conquered huge empires, they did not try to convert their subjects. in these three centuries, the polytheistic Romans killed no more than a few thousand Christians.

during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, Catholics and Protestants killed each other by the hundreds of thousands.

Paul of Tarsus, reasoned that if the supreme power of the universe has interests and biases, and if He had bothered to incarnate Himself in the flesh and to die on the cross for the salvation of humankind, then this is something everyone should hear about, not just Jews.

Monotheists have tended to be far more fanatical and missionary than polytheists.

Christianity, for example, developed its own pantheon of saints, whose cults differed little from those of the polytheistic gods.

Dualistic religions espouse the existence of two opposing powers: good and evil. Dualism has its own drawbacks. While solving the Problem of Evil, it is unnerved by the Problem of Order. if Good and Evil battle for control of the world, who enforces the laws governing this cosmic war?

So, monotheism explains order, but is mystified by evil. Dualism explains evil, but is puzzled by order.

There is one logical way of solving the riddle: to argue that there is a single omnipotent God who created the entire universe – and He’s evil. But nobody in history has had the stomach for such a belief.

most important of dualistic religions – Zoroastrianism It exerted a major influence on almost all subsequent Middle Eastern and Central Asian religions, and it inspired a number of other dualist religions, such as Gnosticism and Manichaeanism.

Belief in heaven (the realm of the good god) and hell (the realm of the evil god) was also dualist in origin. There is no trace of this belief in the Old Testament, which also never claims that the souls of people continue to live after the death of the body.

The average Christian believes in the monotheist God, but also in the dualist Devil, in polytheist saints, and in animist ghosts.simultaneous avowal of different and even contradictory ideas and the combination of rituals and practices taken from different sources. It’s called syncretism.

The modern age has witnessed the rise of a number of new natural-law religions, such as liberalism, Communism, capitalism, nationalism and Nazism.

If a religion is a system of human norms and values that is founded on belief in a superhuman order, then Soviet Communism was no less a religion than Islam.Like other religions, Communism too has its holy scripts and prophetic books,

Today, the most important humanist sect is liberal humanism, which believes that ‘humanity’ is a quality of individual humans, and that the liberty of individuals is therefore sacrosanct. Even though liberal humanism sanctifies humans, it does not deny the existence of God, and is, in fact, founded on monotheist beliefs.

Another important sect is socialist humanism. They hold as sacred not the inner voice of each individual, but the species Homo sapiens as a whole. socialist humanism is built on monotheist foundations.

The only humanist sect that has actually broken loose from traditional monotheism is evolutionary humanism, whose most famous representatives are the Nazis. Biologists have since debunked Nazi racial theory.

The Hindsight Fallacy

To describe ‘how’ means to reconstruct the series of specific events that led from one point to another. To explain ‘why’ means to find causal connections that account for the occurrence of this particular series of events to the exclusion of all others. the people who knew the period best – those alive at the time – were the most clueless of all.

To acknowledge that history is not deterministic is to acknowledge that it is just a coincidence that most people today believe in nationalism, capitalism and human rights. History cannot be explained deterministically and it cannot be predicted because it is chaotic.

Level one chaos is chaos that does not react to predictions about it. The weather, for example, is a level one chaotic system.

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. Politics, too, is a second-order chaotic system. Revolutions are, by definition, unpredictable. A predictable revolution never erupts.

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.

cultural evolution is based on the replication of cultural information units called ‘memes’. Postmodernist thinkers speak about discourses rather than memes as the building blocks of culture. Yet they too see cultures as propagating themselves with little regard for the benefit of humankind.

the dynamics of history are not directed towards enhancing human well-being. There is no basis for thinking that the most successful cultures in history are necessarily the best ones for Homo sapiens.

Part Four The Scientific Revolution

In the year 1500, there were about 500 million Homo sapiens in the entire world. Today, there are 7 billion. Human population has increased fourteen-fold, production 240-fold, and energy consumption 115-fold.)

the single most remarkable and defining moment of the past 500 years came at 05:29:45 on 16 July 1945. From that point onward, humankind had the capability not only to change the course of history, but to end it.

During the last five centuries, humans increasingly came to believe that they could increase their capabilities by investing in scientific research. Science needs more than just research to make progress. It depends on the mutual reinforcement of science, politics and economics.

modern science differs from all previous traditions of knowledge in three critical ways:

  • The willingness to admit ignorance.
  • The centrality of observation and mathematics.
  • The acquisition of new powers.

Ancient traditions of knowledge admitted only two kinds of ignorance. First, an individual might be ignorant of something important. Second, an entire tradition might be ignorant of unimportant things. If this were a vital piece of information, necessary for human prosperity and salvation, God would have included a comprehensive explanation in the Bible.

But it presents us with a serious problem that most of our ancestors did not have to cope with. Our current assumption that we do not know everything, extends to the shared myths that enable millions of strangers to cooperate effectively.how can we hold society together?

All modern attempts to stabilise the sociopolitical order have had no choice but to rely on either of two unscientific methods:

  • Take a scientific theory, and in opposition to common scientific practices, declare that it is a final and absolute truth. This was the method used by Nazis and Communists
  • Leave science out of it and live in accordance with a non-scientific absolute truth. This has been the strategy of liberal humanism, which is built on a dogmatic belief in the unique worth and rights of human beings.

A new branch of mathematics was developed over the last 200 years to deal with the more complex aspects of reality: statistics. in order to understand the human mind and cure its illnesses you must first study statistics.

Scientists usually assume that no theory is 100 per cent correct. Consequently, truth is a poor test for knowledge. The real test is utility.

Up until the nineteenth century, the vast majority of military revolutions were the product of organisational rather than technological changes. technologically speaking, Rome had no edge over Carthage, Macedonia or the Seleucid Empire.

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

Perhaps social poverty can never be eradicated, but in many countries around the world biological poverty is a thing of the past.

The problem of death itself.

‘Defeat death?! What nonsense! We are only trying to cure cancer, tuberculosis and Alzheimer’s disease,’ they insisted. The leading project of the Scientific Revolution is to give humankind eternal life.

Until the eighteenth century, religions considered death and its aftermath central to the meaning of life. Beginning in the eighteenth century, religions and ideologies such as liberalism, socialism and feminism lost all interest in the afterlife.

Only rarely do scientists dictate the scientific agenda. Science is unable to set its own priorities.

It is also incapable of determining what to do with its discoveries. scientific research can flourish only in alliance with some religion or ideology. The ideology justifies the costs of the research.

The Marriage of Science and Empire

Was Cook’s ship a scientific expedition protected by a military force or a military expedition with a few scientists tagging along? It was both. The Scientific Revolution and modern imperialism were inseparable.

Today all humans are, to a much greater extent than they usually want to admit, European in dress, thought and taste.

Why did the military–industrial–scientific complex blossom in Europe rather than India?

The world’s first commercial railroad opened for business in 1830, in Britain. By 1850, Western nations were criss-crossed by almost 25,000 miles of railroads – but in the whole of Asia, Africa and Latin America there were only 2,500 miles of tracks.

The Chinese and Persians could not catch up as quickly because they thought and organised their societies differently.

from 1500 to 1850 Europe did not enjoy any obvious technological, political, military or economic advantage. yet the continent built up a unique potential, whose importance suddenly became obvious around 1850.

The modern ‘explore and conquer’ mentality is nicely illustrated by the development of world maps. During the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, Europeans began to draw world maps with lots of empty spaces – one indication of the development of the scientific mindset, as well as of the European imperial drive.

The first modern man was Amerigo Vespucci, an Italian sailor who took part in several expeditions to America in the years 1499–1504.

America also obliged Europeans to search for new knowledge at breakneck speed. These European explore-and-conquer expeditions are so familiar to us that we tend to overlook just how extraordinary they were.

Many scholars argue that the voyages of Admiral Zheng He of the Chinese Ming dynasty heralded and eclipsed the European voyages of discovery Between 1405 and 1433, Zheng led seven huge armadas from China to the far reaches of the Indian Ocean. crucial difference. Zheng did not try to conquer or colonise the countries he visited. When the ruling faction in Beijing changed during the 1430s, the new overlords abruptly terminated the operation.

What made Europeans exceptional was their unparalleled and insatiable ambition to explore and conquer.

The first Chinese world map to show America was not issued until 1602 – and then by a European missionary!

Only in the twentieth century did non-European cultures adopt a truly global vision. This was one of the crucial factors that led to the collapse of European hegemony.

science gave the empires ideological justification. Imperialists claimed that their empires were not vast enterprises of exploitation but rather altruistic projects conducted for the sake of the non-European races. Rudyard Kipling’s words, ‘the White Man’s burden’:

The European empires did so many different things on such a large scale, that you can find plenty of examples to support whatever you want to say about them. 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.

Without imperial support, it is doubtful whether modern science would have progressed very far.

Behind the meteoric rise of both science and empire lurks one particularly important force: capitalism.

you really need to understand just a single word. The word is growth.

Banks are allowed to loan $10 for every dollar they actually possess,

But if it’s a fraud, then the entire modern economy is a fraud. The fact is, it’s not a deception, but rather a tribute to the amazing abilities of the human imagination.

What enables banks – and the entire economy – to survive and flourish is our trust in the future.Credit enables us to build the present at the expense of the future.

problem in previous eras was 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 This idea was soon translated into economic terms. Over the last 500 years the idea of progress convinced people to put more and more trust in the future.

In 1776 the Scottish economist Adam Smith published The Wealth of Nations, probably the most important economics manifesto of all time. when a landlord, a weaver, or a shoemaker has greater profits than he needs to maintain his own family, he uses the surplus to employ more assistants, in order to further increase his profits.

It follows that an increase in the profits of private entrepreneurs is the basis for the increase in collective wealth and prosperity. Smith’s claim that the selfish human urge to increase private profits is the basis for collective wealth is one of the most revolutionary ideas in human history

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

All this depends, however, on the rich using their profits to open new factories and hire new employees, rather than wasting them on non-productive activities.

Capitalism began as a theory about how the economy functions Its principal tenet is that economic growth is the supreme good, because justice, freedom and even happiness all depend on economic growth. Capitalism’s belief in perpetual economic growth flies in the face of almost everything we know about the universe.

The human economy has nevertheless managed to keep on growing throughout the modern era, thanks only to the fact that scientists come up with another discovery or gadget every few years

So they are creating trillions of dollars, euros and yen out of thin air, pumping cheap credit into the system, and hoping that the scientists, technicians and engineers will manage to come up with something really big, before the bubble bursts.

And it was European imperialism that created the capitalist credit system in the first place.

credit financed new discoveries; discoveries led to colonies; colonies provided profits; profits built trust; and trust translated into more credit.

In order to increase the number of potential investors and reduce the risk they incurred, Europeans turned to limited liability joint-stock companies. the joint-stock company collected money from a large number of investors, each risking only a small portion of his capital.

The secret of Dutch success was credit. they secured the trust of the burgeoning European financial system at a time when the Spanish king was carelessly eroding its trust in him.

in the early modern age it was common for private companies to hire not only soldiers, but also generals and admirals, cannons and ships, and even entire off-the-shelf armies.

This is why today a country’s credit rating is far more important to its economic well-being than are its natural resources. Credit ratings indicate the probability that a country will pay its debts.

The Cult of the Free Market

There simply is no such thing as a market free of all political bias. Markets by themselves offer no protection against fraud, theft and violence. It is the job of political systems to ensure trust

In a completely free market, unsupervised by kings and priests, avaricious capitalists can establish monopolies or collude against their workforces.

The slave trade was not controlled by any state or government. It was a purely economic enterprise, organised and financed by the free market according to the laws of supply and demand.

Capitalism has killed millions out of cold indifference coupled with greed.

The only serious attempt to manage the world differently – Communism – was so much worse in almost every conceivable way that nobody has the stomach to try again.

we may not like capitalism, but we cannot live without it. The second answer is that we just need more patience – paradise, the capitalists promise, is right around the corner.

Yet can the economic pie grow indefinitely? Every pie requires raw materials and energy. Whenever a shortage of either has threatened to slow economic growth, investments have flowed into scientific and technological research

At heart, the Industrial Revolution has been a revolution in energy conversion. Every few decades we discover a new energy source, so that the sum total of energy at our disposal just keeps growing. Yet the Industrial Revolution was above all else the Second Agricultural Revolution.

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

The tragedy of industrial agriculture is that it takes great care of the objective needs of animals, while neglecting their subjective needs.

Today in the United States, only 2 per cent of the population makes a living from agriculture, For the first time in human history, supply began to outstrip demand. And an entirely new problem was born: who is going to buy all this stuff?

Yet it’s not enough just to produce. Somebody must also buy the products, a new kind of ethic appeared: consumerism.

Obesity is a double victory for consumerism. people eat too much and then buy diet products – contributing to economic growth twice over.

How can we square the consumerist ethic with the capitalist ethic of the business person, according to which profits should not be wasted, and should instead be reinvested in production?

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 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!’

most people today successfully live up to the capitalist–consumerist ideal. This is the first religion in history whose followers actually do what they are asked to do.

A Permanent Revolution

Ecological degradation is not the same as resource scarcity.

The future may see Sapiens gaining control of a cornucopia of new materials and energy sources, while simultaneously destroying what remains of the natural habitat and driving most other species to extinction.

But it’s not really destruction, it’s change. Nature cannot be destroyed.

Today, humankind is driving many species into extinction and might even annihilate itself. But other organisms are doing quite well.

The Industrial Revolution turned the timetable and the assembly line into a template for almost all human activities. Other notable examples include urbanisation, the disappearance of the peasantry, the rise of the industrial proletariat, the empowerment of the common person, democratisation, youth culture and the disintegration of patriarchy.

the most momentous social revolution that ever befell humankind: the collapse of the family and the local community and their replacement by the state and the market.

humans lived in small, intimate communities, most of whose members were kin. The Industrial Revolution, on the other hand, managed within little more than two centuries to break these building blocks into atoms.

The Collapse of the Family and the Community

The community offered help on the basis of local traditions and an economy of favours, which often differed greatly from the supply and demand laws of the free market.

A person who lost her family and community around 1750 was as good as dead.

The state and the market approached people with an offer that could not be refused. ‘Become individuals,’ they said. The state and the market are the mother and father of the individual, and the individual can survive only thanks to them.

But the liberation of the individual comes at a cost. Many of us now bewail the loss of strong families and communities and feel alienated and threatened by the power the impersonal state and market wield over our lives.

Yet it is amazing that this deal works at all – however imperfectly. For it breaches countless generations of human social arrangements. Nothing testifies better to the awesome power of culture.

Nation and the consumer tribe.

Both are imagined communities because it is impossible for all customers in a market or for all members of a nation really to know one another the way villagers knew one another in the past.

Manchester United fans, vegetarians and environmentalists are other examples. They, too, are defined above all by what they consume.

these days, every year is revolutionary. The only characteristic of which we can be certain is the incessant change. most of us think about the social order as something flexible, which we can engineer and improve at will.

The tightening web of international connections erodes the independence of most countries, It is sobering to realise how often our view of the past is distorted by events of the last few years.

History has still not decided where we will end up, and a string of coincidences might yet send us rolling in either direction.

And They Lived Happily Ever After

THE LAST 500 YEARS HAVE WITNESSED A breathtaking series of revolutions. But are we happier?

though the last few decades have been an unprecedented golden age for humanity, it is too early to know whether this represents a fundamental shift in the currents of history or an ephemeral eddy of good fortune.

we can congratulate ourselves on the unprecedented accomplishments of modern Sapiens only if we completely ignore the fate of all other animals.

We moderns have an arsenal of tranquillisers and painkillers at our disposal, but our expectations of ease and pleasure, and our intolerance of inconvenience and discomfort, have increased to such an extent that we may well suffer from pain more than our ancestors ever did.

But if you are a teenager today you are a lot more likely to feel inadequate. Even if the other guys at school are an ugly lot, you don’t measure yourself against them but against the movie stars, athletes and supermodels you see all day on television, Facebook and giant billboards.

People are made happy by one thing and one thing only – pleasant sensations in their bodies.

our internal biochemical system seems to be programmed to keep happiness levels relatively constant.They can startle it for a fleeting moment, but it is soon back to its set point.

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.

Lasting happiness comes only from serotonin, dopamine and oxytocin. 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. So perhaps happiness is synchronising one’s personal delusions of meaning with the prevailing collective delusions

Does happiness really depend on self-delusion? If happiness is based on feeling pleasant sensations, then in order to be happier we need to re-engineer our biochemical system. If happiness is based on feeling that life is meaningful, then in order to be happier we need to delude ourselves more effectively.

According to Buddhism, the real root of suffering is this never-ending and pointless pursuit of ephemeral feelings, which causes us to be in a constant state of tension, restlessness and dissatisfaction. true happiness is also independent of our inner feelings. Indeed, the more significance we give our feelings, the more we crave them, the more we suffer.

Buddha’s recommendation was to stop not only the pursuit of external achievements, but also the pursuit of inner feelings.

What is important is to get to know as many different approaches as possible and to ask the right questions.

The End of Homo Sapiens

In laboratories throughout the world, scientists are engineering living beings. The Frankenstein myth confronts Homo sapiens with the fact that the last days are fast approaching. We seek comfort in the fantasy that Dr Frankenstein can create only terrible monsters

What we should take seriously is the idea that the next stage of history will include not only technological and organisational transformations, but also fundamental transformations in human consciousness and identity.

the real question facing us is not ‘What do we want to become?’, but ‘What do we want to want?’

Is there anything more dangerous than dissatisfied and irresponsible gods who don’t know what they want?

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Further Reading