We tend to think of mankind as the unique and inevitable masters of this Universe. In reality, we were not the only human species that existed on Earth, and most of our progress happened only in the recent past. In “Sapiens”, Yuval Noah Harari gives a detailed account of human history, presenting the facts and myths of how mankind has dominated the planet, the driving forces shaping our lives and how we can think about our impact on Earth and our collective future. In this summary, we’ll outline some of the key ideas in the book.
All humans alive today are Homo sapiens; we’re part of the Homo genus (in the same family as chimpanzees, gorillas and orang-utans) and we’re of the species Sapiens (which means “wise”). In reality, Sapiens’ existence on Earth is just a speck on its evolutionary timeline.
Summary of Homo Sapiens’ Evolutionary Timeline
• About 13.5 billion years ago, the Big Bang brought matter, energy, time and space into this Universe. Around 300,000 years later, matter and energy fused into atoms, which then combined into molecules.
• About 3.8 billion years ago, some molecules combined to form organisms on Earth.
• Around 6 million years ago, human/ape-like traits emerged, and the first Homos appeared in Africa 2.5 million years ago. Around 100,000 years ago, there were at least 6 Homo species co-habiting Earth, including the Homo erectus and Homo neanderthalensis. They looked like us (especially the Neanderthals), with big brains and moved on 2 legs.
• The first Homo sapiens appeared in East Africa about 200,000 years ago, but only started to spread outside Africa 130,000 years later. This was the start of human history, which Harari classified into 3 key revolutions: the Cognitive Revolution (70,000 years ago), the Agricultural Revolution (12,000 years ago) and the Scientific Revolution (500 years ago).
We’ll now take a quick look at each of the 3 revolutions, and some of the thought-provoking perspectives presented by Harari. For more details, do get a copy of the book, or get a detailed overview with our full 17-page summary.
The 3 Key Human Revolutions
Homos started out like other animals, foraging for plants, small insects/animals, carrion from carnivores, and occasionally hunting larger game. Initially, all Homo species were living on the Afro-Asian landmass. Around 70,000 years ago, Homo sapiens started to break away from other species; about 45,000 years ago, we flooded to other continents and caused massive extinction globally, including all other Homo species. This was the first of the 3 revolutions.
THE COGNITIVE REVOLUTION
Why did Homo sapiens suddenly flood the planet when our ancestors didn’t do so after millions of years? Harari attributes it to our language–we’re the only species that can imagine and communicate about things that don’t exist. An ape may be able to communicate to another ape that there’s a lion by the river, but only a Sapien can imagine and convey that the lion is the guardian spirit of his tribe. This frees us up to invent philosophies, religions, trade networks, and political institutions, without being limited to our genetic evolution or current environment. Our myths and common beliefs—e.g. God, imperial glory, human rights—also allow us to get large numbers of strangers to work together in ways that other species can’t. In the book and our full 17-page summary, we elaborate on the vital role of our language/imagined orders in Sapiens’ rise to the top of the food-chain, how our hunter-gatherer lifestyle shaped our biological, psychological and social traits, and why/how Sapiens wrought mass-destruction and extinction to every continent we settled in.
THE AGRICULTURAL REVOLUTION
About 10,000 years ago, we completed the transition from foraging to settle down permanently in farms. Farming supposedly gave us a better life, but Harari calls it the biggest fraud in history. Indeed, farming led to more food per unit area (which allowed us to multiply exponentially) but it also led to poorer nutrition, more diseases, much longer working hours and a tougher life for Sapiens and other animals. In the book / complete summary, we explain why this is so. We also look at the new imagined realities and orders (e.g. kingdoms, nobility, and gods) that emerged, how they justify mass oppression and exploitation, and how these realities become so deeply indoctrinated and entrenched that we mistake them to be the absolute truth. Moreover, since our systems are based on imagined truths, we cannot encode them in DNA–in the book / full summary, we also look at the instrumental role of writing and numbers in helping us to preserve vital data like laws, tax payments, debt and property ownership.
THE SCIENTIFIC REVOLUTION
Since the Cognitive Revolution, humans have sought to understand the universe. However, science brought a massive leap in progress because (a) it admits that any assumption can be proven wrong, and (b) it links observations and mathematical tools into comprehensive theories, which can then be tested and applied to new solutions. Lightning was believed to be a sign of Gods’ wrath, until Benjamin Franklin disproved it with lightning rods. Malnutrition, disease and even death are now seen as problems to be solved by science rather than left to the will of God. However, science is still driven by economic, political, and religious agendas–the people/institutions who provide the funds decide where to focus scientific research and applications. In the book / full summary, we take a detailed look at how how capitalism and imperialism (not superior technology) led to the rise of Western economic powerhouses and colonial masters in the 18th century. We also discuss why credit (and its cousins, Capitalism and Consumerism) are the real drivers for our modern economy, why our global systems will collapse without infinite growth and the roles of science and capitalism in supporting our endless demand for more energy, food and wealth.
Lessons from Sapiens’ History
In less than 50,000 years, mankind has totally transformed how we live. Each revolution brought mass destruction and extinction, new myths, ideologies and imagined orders. Hunter-gatherers lived with a very different set of beliefs and realities from farmers and modern Sapiens.
Harari masterfully presents a wide range of facts, theories and perspectives, (a) zooming into each era to help us understand how Sapiens thought, behaved and lived, and (b) zooming out to show how the key drivers, imagined orders and social structures have evolved over time.
The Unification of Mankind
For the bulk of history, Sapiens lived in isolated pockets, totally ignorant of others’ existence. Over the years, small fragmented cultures have gradually converged into larger, more complex cultures due to 3 unifying factors.
Money acts as a common medium for strangers (and even rivals) to cooperate and transact. People with totally different religions, beliefs and values will accept money from one another, since we can use it exchange anything to anything else. In the book / full Sapiens summary, we look at why money works, how it become the dominant mode of exchange and how it has affected our values and relationships.
Empires were the most common political system in the last 2,500 years. They also brought cultural convergence. After each conquest, locals were killed and oppressed. Over time, the survivors forget their origins and adopt common cultures that’re hybrids of their own and the ruling elites’. In the book / full Sapiens summary, we look at what really happened when Western nations colonized the distant lands, and how our “authentic” cultures today are often no more than a mix of various imperial legacies and other cultural influences.
Religions legitimize imagined realities–they justify certain norms and values by claiming they come from a superhuman entity. In the book, Harari traces the origins and evolution of various religions, including how Christianity and Islam started out as minority sects but became dominant religions. In our full summary, we outline how Sapiens transited from animism to polytheism, dualism, monotheism, and now Syncretism (adopting a mix of ideas and practices) and Humanism (the belief that humans are superior). Today, most of us share certain ideologies and adopt a mix of beliefs and practices like capitalism and liberalism.
A Permanent Revolution
In the book / full Sapiens summary, we also take a closer look at several recent/ongoing changes, many of which are irreversible. These include the degeneration of our ecosystem, how our human activities are bound to modern clock time and timetables, how the traditional roles of the family and community have been replaced by the market and nation-states, why we live in the most peaceful era in human history, and how progress in intelligent design could shape the future of our evolution and even bring an end of Homo sapiens as a species.
Other Details in “Sapiens”
It’s easy to look back with hindsight and think we know why things happened. In reality, history is chaotic and can never be predicted. However, it can certainly broaden our perspectives.
With each revolution, Sapiens have become more productive and powerful. But, has progress brought us greater happiness? Or has our collective evolutionary success brought only more individual suffering to ourselves and other species (like the cows and pigs in their pens and the mice in the labs)?
This book is packed with historical facts, events, research and theories. Harari uses vivid examples that transport you back to the different eras, presents various perspectives and invites you to ponder questions about mankind’s rise to dominance and what it means for our present and future. In our complete Sapiens summary bundle, we outline some of these key ideas, including details of the concepts above. Harari covers many other details in the book, including facts and theories about:
• Sapiens’ biological and cultural evolution; and
• Our key milestones (e.g. writing, territorial conquests, technological progress), imagined orders (e.g. social structures, religions), etc.
Expand your perspectives and understanding of our history and the world.