Sapiens is an exciting, challenging, and thought-provoking history of humanity. Author Yuval Noah Harari tells the story of a once insignificant animal that—with the power of stories—is fast attaining god-like powers. Humanity, he says, has been trapped in a cycle of supposed “progress” starting with the sham of the Agricultural Revolution. Yet, we may be the victims of a mind-virus that sacrifices individual happiness and wellbeing for the sake of the procreation of the species.
Through the millenia, humans struggle between concepts of collectivism vs. individuality, freedom vs. equality, Nature vs. Intelligent Design, man vs. woman, moving vs. staying still. However, historians rarely ask the question: Are we actually better off now than we were before? As the Scientific Revolution moves us into uncharted territories, our current problems will all become irrelevant. We will have but one question to answer: What story do we want to want to write?
The story of a certain fruit from a fairly well-known tree
The book is divided into four parts. The first tells the story of the Cognitive Revolution—the time when homo sapiens began to tell fiction. Our ability to tell fiction allowed Sapiens to cooperate on a scale that other species of human—like Neanderthals and Homo Erectus—couldn’t. Prior to the Cognitive Revolution, Sapiens foragers would form break-off groups at around 150 in a group, but thanks to fiction, a much larger group of humans could unite and act together. Since prehistoric times, Sapiens have been reforging our environment to serve our desires. We happily lived as foragers, moving from place to place, lighting fire to the earth and extinguishing species with each step forward. It was paradise for us (mammoths, not so much).
Our growth and movement transformed the environment, but the environment quietly did the same to us. In the second part of Sapiens, Yuval tells the story of the Agricultural Revolution. In a reversal of the common myth told of that revolution, Yuval writes that human culture was reshaped by wheat and our belief that wheat would bring us a happier, easier life. Wheat and our desire for a better future trapped us into serving wheat at our expense. As we planted wheat, wheat planted us. Instead of making our lives better equally, the Agricultural Revolution created an elite and oppressed class. New imagined realities of gods, kings, and law grew around us. Empires expanded, necessitating new forms of data collection, retrieval and communication.
Humanity’s growing numbers and and shared myths came into conflict. Part three of the book tells the story of how Sapiens used new myths to resolve conflicts and unify the species. The story of money, empire, and religion is fraught with contradictions and inconsistencies. Our collective desire to solve the conflicts in our myths fueled change in human societies. As we solved the inconsistencies, we began to trust each other more. But it came at a cost to family and tribe. We put our trust in markets, governments, and deities, unifying us as a species but isolating ourselves as individuals. Again, with an eye towards a better future, we advanced farther from our natural state, designing whole new societies to serve our collective interests. Our new myths took on a life of their own. We wrote stories to serve us, but they had a different idea in mind.
The stories we told blinded us to a whole world around us. The discovery of America by Columbus told us there was more to know than our stories told us already. We saw a brighter future ahead, with science our guide, technology our tool, capitalism our fuel, and empire our motivation. The fourth and last part of the book is about the interconnected relationship of all four of those factors that has given birth to a global empire—the wealthiest, most unified, most equal society in all of history. It is a society born from both nature and nurture. Darwinistic explanations of humanity justified Nazi ethnic cleansing and American Jim Crow laws. Yet, we are compelled by Darwinist forces to keep our eyes on the future and move ahead. For all the progress we’ve made, for all the powers we’ve acquired, we have not yet answered the question: After all we’ve done, after all we’ve accomplished, are we happy yet?
The answer we give to that question will change the future course of history and the human species. Soon, we will have the ability to transform humans and societies in ways we can’t even imagine. Old problems of capitalism and Communism, man and woman, individual and state, equal or free, all will be irrelevant. We will be able to transform ourselves into gods, but if we aren’t sure that we’ve been making things better so far, are we really capable of using our god-powers to advance our real interests? Do we even know what will finally make us happy?
Throughout the book, Yuval takes what at first appears to be a middle-of-the-road interpretation of human history. On the one hand, empire is necessary for the successful coordination of humanity and human reproduction. It is a result of Darwinist forces compelling us to work ever harder to improve our condition. Empires have given us many great gifts. Ancient Sumerians began the process of creating written language, without which you would not be reading this review. The Roman Empire built roads that are used to this day. Hammurabi wrote the first set of codified laws and state myths, setting standards for empire building used even by the founding fathers of the American constitution.
On the other hand, empires conquer, kill, and destroy. Ancient Sumarians developed written language to collect taxes. Romans killed and oppressed people with the help of their roads. Hammurabi used the law codes to solidify his political position by backing his government with the authority of the gods. America enshrined the freedom of every individual human while excluding blacks from the definition of “human”. Empires have many things to be both proud and ashamed of. It all depends on your point of view.
However, don’t be deceived. At first, it’s just a smell, but later, you can taste the agenda. Yuval is not a lukewarm moderate. His eyes are set on his target, enemy of happiness and humanity: the future.
We have been addicted to carbohydrate-packed fruits and grains for literally thousands of years
Yuval repeatedly reminds the reader that there was both good and bad in our lives throughout our existence as humans. The essential questions of humanity haven’t changed, nor have they been seriously addressed. We seem possessed of an addiction, a parasitic mindset that forces us to continue in our error and dissatisfaction. Our fictions helped us prosper, but our fictions have moved us further from the path of enlightenment.
It happened gradually, with every step along the way appearing to be the right choice at the time. We wanted more leisure and comfort, so it made sense to plant wheat and work the land. But new problems arose: with leisure came bored, ambitious strongmen that could gather resources to themselves at the expense of everybody else. Those strongmen imposed taxation and discriminatory laws, and told stories that we all acted on and believed.
The fact that our actions appear to be the right choice at the time yet have the net effect of harming us is alarming. The possibility that the true enemy of our collective happiness and freedom is in our minds and not outside of us should shake us to our souls. The forces of evolution tell us that reproduction is the ultimate good. The more life, the better. The actions that produce life feel right. Those who oppose life oppose humanity. Their voices are slowly silenced by the natural selection of those who believe human life is sacred. The very forces of nature appear to tell humanity that more humans are good. Yet, with more humans come more problems, hurting some at the expense of others. We never seem to attain the paradise that we aim towards. In fact, our actions may actually be pushing paradise further into the distance.
Many of the stories told in Sapiens will sound familiar to many readers. The Bible tells many of the same stories in different ways. The first man, Adam, eats the fruit from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good (the things that serve the purposes of life) and Evil (the things that serve the purposes of death). God forbid him to eat it, but as punishment for eating it, God kicked him out of paradise and cursed him with a life of working the land by the sweat of his brows. That about sums up the fraud of the Agricultural Revolution that Yuval writes about. And he, of course, is well aware of the story. Chapter two is titled The Tree of Knowledge. I’ll bet the fruit was in the shape of a donut.
And it is our addiction to knowledge that has pushed us into the chaos of the unknown. At first, we thought we had the whole story. Sargon the Great, king of the Akkadian Empire, arrogantly thought he ruled over the entire world. In reality he only ruled a sliver of what we call the Middle East. A couple thousand years later, the Persian empire believed that they, too, ruled the whole Earth. Yet again, they ruled over a blotch on the world scale.
However, when we discovered how much we could manipulate nature with math and science, and when Columbus discovered America, humanity came to realize that there was a massive expanse of knowledge we had yet to attain. Possessed by our addiction to that forbidden fruit, cursed by God or nature to desire more land to tend to, we pressed onward to the four corners of the Earth, created world-destroying nuclear bombs, and reached even as far as Mars. We may be knowledge-oholics, but we’re high-functioning.
Somewhere along the way, we appear to take a wrong turn on our path toward paradise. Everything looks fine until it doesn’t. We eventually bare the fruits of our addiction, battered and confused when it takes us off the straight path and on a collision course with a nearby tree. Plant a tree, they said. Save the Earth, they said. This is not the future we expected. Things were suppose to get better. We were suppose to be happy and free. Where did we all go wrong?
Titans and Sapiens
That is the theme of Attack on Titan, a Japanese comic book series. Humans are trapped inside a walled civilization by giants called titans. The human king has pledged to not develop technology to fight the giants and escape the walls that imprison them. The will of the king wants paradise for his people before their final demise. Some people haven’t got a care in the world. Who needs to worry about the outside world? They’re safe inside the walls.
But others see it as hell on earth. They want freedom. The happy, satisfied people are like mindless cattle. The freedom-seekers throw off the kings shackles and take control. They fight off the giants, only to discover that the giants are other people, not simply evil, mindless monsters. Those other people are sending giants purposefully to suppress the “People of the Wall”, ancestors of ancient oppressors. Historical momentum and a lack of trust in The Other cause the people of the wall to commit the same crimes that were committed against them. The murdered become the murderers.
Yet, all along, it seemed like the People of the Wall were doing the right thing. They were being attacked and wiped out. What were they suppose to do? Their king was abandoning them. Were they suppose to follow him into oblivion? The Other declared war. Were the People of the Wall suppose to not defend themselves? It’s depressing to think that using essential survival techniques in the short term might actually harm us in the long term and get us no closer to our goal. Individuals can fight for the group, yet in doing so they sacrifice their own interests. And to what end? Peace only seems ever more unattainable. It shows, in startling realism, the cycle that’s created by the Darwinian mind-virus Yuval writes about. How do we break the cycle? How do we get our freedom? How do we find happiness?
Who are you? The enemy.
Yuval writes that we have several popular answers to our problem. Some say happiness and satisfaction comes from chemicals in our brain. Others say happiness comes from living a purposeful life. Still others say that happiness is the result of synchronizing one’s delusions with the delusions of those around us.
But all of those theories assume the same thing: happiness is a subjective feeling. Christians say that people who build happiness on that premise are no better than heroin addicts. Strangely, Darwinists say the same. Selfish gene theory says that natural selection encourages people to sacrifice themselves as individuals for the sake of the species (in other words, natural selection biases us towards reproduction strategies that Christians would call addictions).
Buddhists, according to Yuval, have dedicated more time to talking about happiness than other religions. How do you obtain happiness, according to Buddha?
According to Buddhism, the root of suffering is neither the feeling of pain nor of sadness nor even of meaninglessness. Rather, 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.
People suffer because they desire. If they stop desiring, then they will finally find satisfaction and everlasting joy. If you let go of the future and live in the present, you will find true enlightenment and happiness. This self-knowledge may very well be the key to a better future, writes Yuval.
Maybe it isn’t so important whether people’s expectations are fulfilled and whether they enjoy pleasant feelings. The main question is whether people know the truth about themselves.
History records the rise and fall of empires, the discovery of the new, and the great ideas of philosophers. Yet, historians have only recently begun to study happiness. It’s too early to say what the truth about happiness is, says Yuval, but we need to take the subject seriously.
All the more so since soon, we may have the ability to manipulate our desires themselves, discover the secret of immortality, and attain the power of gods. How much more force will our stories exert on the universe once we can share the same consciousness and live forever, traveling the universe as ghosts in machines, living side-by-side or in-sync with AI of incomprehensible power? Our future may be returning to a state of chaos, formless and void, but whatever happens, humanity is poised to transcend all of our current natural boundaries. We may soon replace the theory of natural selection with the theory of intelligent design.
What do you want to want?
Sapiens is a compelling read that will make you angry, depressed, excited, and finally freak you out. There is something for everybody in the story Yuval Noah Harari tells of humans since the beginning. I enthusiastically recommend Sapiens.