Sapiens | Yuval Noah Harari

Summary of: Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind
By: Yuval Noah Harari


Embark on a captivating journey through the history of humankind with ‘Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind’ by Yuval Noah Harari. This book explores the astonishing transformation of our species from insignificant apes to the rulers of Earth. Delve into the myriad factors that led Homo sapiens to outlive their early human cousins, the essence of the Cognitive Revolution, and the role of myths and language in our societal evolution. As we investigate the Agricultural Revolution, trace the development of writing, money, and hierarchical societies, and examine the consequences of globalization and the pursuit of happiness, we will unravel the surprisingly interwoven tapestry of human history.

The Rise of Homo Sapiens

Homo Sapiens coexisted with at least six other human species, making us not so special. The two conflicting theories to explain how we prospered and spread around the globe – The Interbreeding Theory and The Replacement Theory – are discussed in this passage.

Human beings first arrived on the earth around two and half million years ago. Even though we had large brains, walked upright, used tools, and had highly social behaviors, we were still not so special back then. This was because we were not the only ones. Other human species existed contemporaneously, including Homo floresiensis, Homo denisova, and Homo neanderthalensis. Although we call ourselves Homo sapiens, which means ‘wise man’, early humans show that humans were hardly different from other animals like cheetahs, parrots and jellyfish.

Neanderthals were more sophisticated hunters than us, with larger brains than ours. They had even been hunting mammoths and barbecuing long before we came along. Therefore, the question arises as to how we managed to prosper and spread around the globe while other human species died out. There are conflicting theories that existing human beings and other humans interbred resulting in gradual merging of these species. On the other hand, the ‘replacement theory’ states that Homo sapiens, because of their slightly superior skills and technology, pushed other human species toward extinction. As to which theory is true, the jury is still out. However, as new evidence continues to pour in, there is a higher probability that both theories are correct to some extent.

The Cognitive Revolution

About 70,000 years ago, Sapiens experienced a remarkable change in their cognitive abilities that led to their domination over other human species. This evolutionary leap, known as the Cognitive Revolution, is believed to have been triggered by an accidental genetic mutation that improved human ways of thinking, learning, and remembering. Sapiens began building boats, oil lamps, bows and arrows, and formed more sophisticated communities. The most significant benefit of the Cognitive Revolution was the gift of language. The development of intricate language played a vital role in the domination of Homo sapiens over other human species. The influence of the Cognitive Revolution was so profound that it led to the extinction of all other human species and no one knows exactly how it came about.

The Power of Language and Fiction

The only reason humans have dominated the planet is because of our unique ability to share stories about things that exist only in our imagination— things like gods, history, and human rights. These shared myths are the cornerstone of human culture and are what makes us so effective at collaborating. Language allows this information to flow freely between individuals within communities, creating common understanding and giving us a distinct advantage. It also helps us adapt flexibly, and in large numbers. Through language, we can collaborate in vast numbers and work towards common goals.

The Agricultural Revolution

Humans transitioned from hunting and gathering to farming through the Agricultural Revolution around 12,000 years ago. This new way of life was initially puzzling since it required much more labor and provided a narrow range of food. However, farming allowed for an increase in food supply per unit of territory, leading to larger populations. Despite worse conditions, more people could be sustained. This increase in population created new challenges that we still face today.

The Evolution of Barter and Money

Life once functioned under the economy of favors. But with the rise of agriculture, bartering became the norm. When bartering proved to be insufficient, Homo sapiens developed writing and money. The Sumerians of Mesopotamia were the first to develop writing and using barley money as a standardized method of pay. Currency allowed for easier trading, and transactions could easily be recorded and held to one’s promise later.

Laws, Authority, and Religion in Ancient Societies

The invention of writing and money facilitated economic transactions and led to the development of laws and systems of authority in ancient societies. The Code of Hammurabi, which established uniform laws and customs, was legitimized through religion to ensure obedience to the emperor’s authority. As empires grew, the religions they promoted became powerful tools for assimilation and control.

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