Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind

קיצור תולדות האנושות‎, [Ḳitsur toldot ha-enoshut]
Category: World
Genre: History
Publisher: Harper
Published: 2/10/2015
How did our species succeed in the battle for dominance? Why did our foraging ancestors come together to create cities and kingdoms? How did we come to believe in gods, nations and human rights; to trust money, books and laws; and to be enslaved by bureaucracy, timetables and consumerism? And what will our world be like in the millennia to come?

Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind

Key Insights

Through the study of physics, we have learned the story of the Big Bang, which occurred about 13.5 billion years ago in the skies.

And within the last 70,000 years, Homo sapiens appeared. Since their appearance, humankind has gone through three dynamic revolutions:

  1. The Cognitive Revolution
  2. The Agricultural Revolution
  3. The Scientific Revolution

“Culture tends to argue that it forbids only that which is unnatural. But from a biological perspective, nothing is unnatural. Whatever is possible is by definition also natural. A truly unnatural behavior, one that goes against the laws of nature, simply cannot exist, so it would need no prohibition.”― Yuval Noah Harari

Currently, we are in the scientific revolution which started about five centuries ago. It is progressing at rapid speeds, but we are still unsure of the final outcome.

Key Points

  • The Cognitive Revolution

We, as a species, are not the only humans to have walked the face of the earth. All of our ancestors were the genus Homo. Homo sapiens, however, appeared and disrupted the natural order by bringing in advances of language, cognition or thinking, and technology.

Now, we are currently at another turning point in humankind with our own existence, as humans are being rivaled by the introduction of artificial intelligence.

For over two million years, we lived with our thinking processes and capacity for learning without advantages to match. Homo sapiens were for a long time in the middle of the food chain. Now, we are at the top so our advantages now match our intellect.

For thousands and thousands of years, Neanderthals were superior to Sapiens. When Sapiens first encountered Neanderthals in the Middle East, they were quickly overpowered and the Sapiens fled back to Africa, where they came from.

But 70,000 years passed, and Sapiens once again decided to leave the comfort of Africa. On their way to Asia and Europe and even Australia, they overpowered Neanderthals.

The Cognitive Revolution is documented through the appearances of sewing needles, boats, oil lamps, and art throughout history. But, the greatest development that resulted from the Cognitive Revolution, was language.

Language helped to communicate danger to other beings and it also helped to keep information stored safely in the brain.

For example, an animal can warn its species that there is an enemy approaching. However, only a human can warn their tribe of the possibility of danger based on an enemy’s signs, such as footprints or tree rubs. Humans can store the information they have seen and present it to their tribe later, whereas animals can only warn against immediate danger in the present to the animals around them.

“You could never convince a monkey to give you a banana by promising him limitless bananas after death in monkey heaven.”― Yuval Noah Harari

The Cognitive Revolution and language also brought humankind the gifts of spirituality, religion, and the supernatural. Or in other words, it gave us the ability to understand and think about things we cannot see or touch.

But, with more intellectual thinking came war, hierarchies, and politics.

By understanding our hunting-and-gathering ancestors, we are better able to understand ourselves. For example, as modern-day humans, we tend to binge on sugary foods. That’s because if our ancestors came across a high-calorie sweet, which was rare, they would maximize the find by eating as much of it as they could or foraging it for their tribe.

Now that sweets are available to us whenever we want, we eat them more regularly. This started when we began harvesting food ourselves.

  • The Agricultural Revolution

The Agricultural Revolution changed the way we consume food. Now, we can grow food in designated areas through farming, but before that was a concept, humans had to forage for their food. Our ancestors dedicated their lives to giving us our current method of planting, growing, and consuming our foods.

Agriculture, against popular previous belief, did not start in the Middle East and spread from there. Instead, it started independently in different areas around the world around the same time.

Early farmers did not have a great understanding of the earth, except for survival purposes. Plants, in a way, helped humans to become domesticated. That’s because without humans nurturing them, many plant species would not have survived the times.

Tending to crops was intensely laborious. Ancient skeletons reveal the consequences of this work, including arthritis and hernias.

Although there were many challenges with resources and territories, the promise of sustainable food was worth the effort. It allowed the species to feed their offspring and reproduce more.

Foraging ancestors were mainly concerned with the present, while the farming humans were thinking of the future. This led to the design of cities, villages, and towns.

With cities, villages, and towns in place, this brought more people together building alliances based on human rights, wants and needs, and moral virtues.

The Agricultural Revolution made us start to rely on numbers. A forager would not care how many pieces of fruit were on a tree as long as there was some. But, farming became a sign of status and livelihood. The more fruit you had, the better off you were.

Because numbers were of such great importance, the ancient Sumerians were able to calculate sums that have never been heard of and keep records on a scale that no human brain could ever process.

After numbers started playing such a huge role in the species, the art of writing was introduced. Writing led to entire systems of law, religion, and learning, which brought about the agreed-upon natural order.

A lot of modern anthropologists still believe there is a majority of patriarchal societies in the world. However, new ideas seem to disprove this. There is no genetic proof of men being superior to women. Therefore, patriarchy is simply just a self-fulfilling prophecy.

  • Humankind Unified

There is a pattern in human history. It begins with intense growth and then turns to disintegration. However, there has also been a big uprise in unity because there is no country or culture that has grown independently. All of the cultures and societies are intertwined in some way.

The greatest unifying force in our world is money. Money has no value except the value that we give it. This can change depending on the society or the economy at any given time.

Liberalism in our modern-day society suggests that empires are not sustainable because it is impossible to rule over a mass of conquered people for a long amount of time. However, empires have been dominant in our world for the last 2,500 years.

One of the major benefits of empires is the ability to standardize laws and currency under a smaller reign.

Although we tend to think negatively about the British takeovers of countries throughout history, those countries gained a lot through that process. For example, during a British takeover, India gained its legal system, the English language, a railway network, and the game of cricket.

Religion has been argued to be discriminatory. However, religion unifies people by bringing them together under the same moral virtues. Religions are important because they highlight human order and social values.

Early religions often used animal sacrifice to establish dominance and social order.

Religion also made Homo sapiens the focus and center of the world because they were able to reason and give ideas and actions moral consideration.

  • The Scientific Revolution

The Scientific Revolution demands that we understand our ignorances as a species, use observation, use mathematics, and to acquire new skills by putting theories into action.

As humans, we are looking to control the universe in order to fully understand it. Science and technology didn’t always go hand-in-hand. Science used to be more about understanding concepts, than controlling them. But, when science became attached to empires, it also became socially profitable.

Now, there are royal societies and government-funded labs that allow science to go further. However, that’s not all good. Once science got involved with technology, horrors in warfare such as Agent Orange and the atomic bomb appeared.

Many believe that Christopher Columbus sparked the Scientific Revolution because of the data that was required of the new continent in order to conquer it.

The thirst for knowledge made many Europeans learn new languages, geographies, and of course, technologies.

Science has entered a turning point where its creations might actually become the creators. Artificial intelligence is threatening our place in the world.

History repeats itself, but evolution is always growing. If we are not careful we will become superior beings to our technology.

The Main Take-Away

There are three major revolutions in the history of humankind: The Cognitive Revolution, the Agricultural Revolution, and the Scientific Revolution, which we are in right now. By understanding how these revolutions have helped shape our species, we can see the possibility of artificial intelligence threatening our position of top-dog in the natural order.

About the Author

Yuval Noah Harari is an Israeli historian and professor in the Department of History at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. He writes about free will, consciousness, intelligence, and happiness. He focuses on the “cognitive revolution” that occurred 70,000 years ago when Homo sapiens replaced the Neanderthals and developed language skills and structured societies, moving upward as apex predators. The agricultural revolution and scientific method assisted this transition. He also focuses on the consequences of a possible biotechnological world in the future in which intelligent creations are surpassed by their own creations. He believes that Homo sapiens as we know it will disappear in a century or so.

He was born in Israel and grew up in a secular Jewish family,. He practices Vipassana meditation, which he said changed his life. He has published numerous books and articles and now focuses on world history and macro historical processes.

His book, Sapiens is based on 20 lectures of an undergraduate world history class he was teaching. The book was a success and was translated into 45 languages. It looks at human history, from the evolution of Homo sapiens in the Stone Age to the political and technological revolutions of the 21st century.

He won the Polonsky Prize for Creativity and Originality in 2009 and 2012. He won the Society for Military History Moncado Award for outstanding articles in military history in 2011. In 2012, he was elected to the Young Israeli Academy of Sciences.


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