Alex BespoyasovAuthor's photo

Sapiens by Yuval N. Harari

The book describes humanity from its beginnings to the present day. The author speaks of our sociality, our ability to cooperate, our economy, social arrangements, routines, religion, philosophy, and much more.

It was a bit hard to condense it to a summary, so there will be many shortened quotes. The italics are all mine.

Humans Are Animals

The author begins by explaining that a human is first and foremost an animal:

...When we discuss prehistoric humans: they were the most common animal and had no more impact on the ecological environment than gorillas, light beetles, or jellyfish

And tells us why we have a devastating effect on nature and the environment:

Other animals that ended up at the top of the pyramid—lions, sharks—have been going at it for millions of years, while humans got to the top almost instantly. Many historical disasters, including devastating wars and ecosystem violence, stem from our too hasty break into power

Our Organism

At the same time, the book tells about the human body, how imperfect and fragile it is, and how easy it is to break. It explains the compromises nature had to make to create such an organism:

Homo sapiens has 2-3% of its total weight in the brain, but at rest the brain consumes up to 25% of all the energy the body uses. ...In other primates the brain at rest is content with only 8% of the total reserves. Ancient humans paid dearly for an enlarged brain: first, they spent more time searching for food, and second, their muscles weakened

To this day, mankind pays for the ability to see into the distance and for skilled hands with neck pain and migraines

About food and the conflict between the gut and the brain:

Chimpanzees spend five hours a day eating dry, while humans eat a mountain of thermally processed food in less than an hour

A long intestine, and a large brain requires a lot of energy, and therefore it's difficult for the body to maintain them both

The author focuses on the agrarian revolution. He talks about the changes it brought about in the body and their consequences:

Evolution has adapted man to climb the apple tree and chase the gazelle, not to clear the fields of stones and carry water there. The spine, knees, necks, and feet paid a high price. Studies of ancient skeletons showed that with the emergence of agriculture also came many diseases: dislocated discs, arthritis

Humans Are Social Animals

There is a lot about sociality in this book because the community (tribe, family, environment) determines our behavior and world view:

Only a tribe or a community can raise a human being. Evolution has favored those who have learned to form strong social bonds

Family and community have a greater influence on happiness than money and health

The ability to build social ties directly affects people's ability to come together to solve some problems. The author compares cooperation between humans and other species:

In wolves and chimpanzees, cooperation is based on much more flexible principles, but only with a small number of closely related relatives. Sapiens, on the other hand, can cooperate easily with any number of strangers

The reason for all these catastrophes is that sapiens do not have an innate instinct to cooperate with large numbers of strangers. For millions of years, humans lived in small groups of a few dozen individuals. In the few millennia from the agrarian revolution to the rise of cities, kingdoms, and empires, the instinct for mass cooperation had not had time to develop sufficiently

The large collectives created by some species of living things... remain stable because almost all of the information necessary to sustain them is encoded in the genome

And, separately, about tolerance, intolerance, empathy, and empathy:

Sapiens have never been distinguished by tolerance. In modern history, the slightest difference in skin color, dialect or religion was enough for one group of sapiens to start exterminating another

Homo sapiens began to divide humans into “us” and “them”. “We” are the immediate environment of “me,” whoever “me” is, and “they” are everyone else

And here's the important thing: we empathize more with the suffering of individuals than we do with the suffering of people


There's a lot about economics in the book, too: how it developed, how money came to be, why it came to be, and so on.

...The economy of hunting and gathering, by its very nature, prevented long-term planning. And this... saved the nomads a lot of worry. What's the point of worrying about what's not in your control?

Here's about the division between rich and poor:

...The hierarchy of rich and poor still exists today—with the rich living in isolated luxury neighborhoods, their children attending prestigious boarding schools, they being treated in the best, most equipped hospitals—all of which seems perfectly reasonable to most Americans and Europeans. And it is a proven fact: most rich people have merely inherited wealth, and most poor people are condemned to poverty simply because they were born into poor families

About barter that only works under certain circumstances:

The system of reciprocal services and obligations ceases to work when a large number of people who don't know each other enter into it. It's one thing to help your sister or neighbor, and quite another to help strangers from whom... you can never expect a favor in return. One could again resort to bartering. But barter is effective only as long as a small quantity of products is involved in the exchange

In an economy based on barter, the shoemaker and the gardener have to compare the relative values of dozens of different goods every day

From there we come smoothly to the concept of money, the reason for its appearance and its usefulness:

Money is not necessarily coins and banknotes. It is anything that people have agreed to use systematically to exchange for goods and services, in which they calculate the value of all other things

...It is a universal means of exchange which enables people to turn anything into anything

...It is a system of trust, and more than that: money is the universal and most perfect system of mutual trust in the history of mankind

On credit and capital:

People have agreed to express imaginary objects, which for the moment do not yet exist, by a special kind of money—“credit.” Credit enables us to build the present at the expense of the future, on the assumption that we will knowingly have many more resources in the future than in the present. When we do something in the present, attracting the revenues of the future, many new, unprecedented opportunities open up

Capital is money, property and resources that are invested in production. Wealth, on the other hand, is buried in the ground or spent unproductively

Language and Mythology

The author links mythology and the emergence of language, describing the role of language in society and its usefulness:

...The language of fiction enabled man not just to give himself over to the play of the imagination, but to do so as a collective

Common mythology endowed sapiens with an unprecedented ability to cooperate flexibly in large collectives

Justice and Rights

Here's about the fact that there is no such thing as justice:

Both Hammurabi and the American Founding Fathers imagined a world ruled by universal and unchanging principles of justice... But these principles exist solely in the rich imagination of the sapiens, in the myths that people make up and tell each other. Objective truth these principles are not

On the rights of man and other species:

Homo sapiens does not by nature have any inalienable rights, just as spiders, hyenas and chimpanzees do not

On how to impose an order, how to teach that order to people:

The natural order of things is stable by definition. Objective order, on the other hand, is always in danger of collapse because it rests on myths

But the imaginary order cannot be maintained by violence alone. It also needs true believers

An imaginary order lasts only as long as a large part of the population, especially a fairly high proportion of the elite and the security services, genuinely believe in it... American democracy would not have lasted 250 years if most presidents and congressmen had stopped believing in human rights. The modern economic system would not have lasted a day if investors and bankers had lost faith in capitalism

How do you get people to genuinely believe in an imaginary order? The first thing is to never admit that the order is imaginary. And you also have to educate people accordingly

And every “imaginary order” that people have managed to invent has ignored a good part of humanity

The Map isn't the Territory

The author stresses the fact that reality never coincides with our perceptions:

...The order that governs their lives is but a figment of the imagination--for the imaginary order directs and shapes their strongest desires. Everyone from birth falls into the imaginary order established before them, and from early childhood their desires are shaped by the dominant myths of society

This imaginary order is intersubjective, so the only way to change it is to change the minds of billions of people all at once-and that's not easy

A little bit about gender stereotypes:

...Men live in constant fear of not validating their claims to masculinity

On the illusion of obviousness and the chaotic systems that is history:

The iron law of history: that which in retrospect seems inevitable, in its time does not seem so at all

...History is a second-level chaotic system. First-level chaos does not respond to predictions about itself. Second-level chaos responds to predictions about itself, and therefore its development cannot be predicted exactly

On knowledge and how to evaluate its usefulness:

The main criterion of knowledge is not correspondence to the truth, but the possibilities that this knowledge gives a person

Attachments and Consciousness

Where desires and the pursuit of those desires come from:

...Human consciousness responds to almost any experience with a new desire, and desire breeds dissatisfaction. If the experience is pleasant, consciousness wants more. It demands that the pleasure not cease but increase. If the sensation is unpleasant, however, consciousness seeks to get rid of what ails it. This is quite obvious when we experience something unpleasant, like pain: until the pain subsides, we are anxious and try in every way to get rid of it. But pleasure also makes us restless, either because we're afraid it's going to end, or because we're dreaming of more

If you learn to accept things as they are, then the suffering will go away. If you feel sadness but don't want to get rid of it as soon as possible, then the sadness will remain, but you won't suffer from it. On the contrary, you will find in it a treasure. And if, when you feel joy, you don't hurry to do something to increase or prolong that joy, you will rejoice without losing your peace of mind

From a Buddhist perspective, most people attach too much importance to their feelings, equating pleasant feelings with happiness and unpleasant feelings with suffering. As a result, people tend to have as many pleasant feelings as possible and avoid unpleasant ones. But they are deeply mistaken: our subjective feelings actually have no substance or meaning

The source of suffering is the very pursuit of subjective sensations, which keeps us in constant tension, confusion, dissatisfaction

In total, I really recommend this book. With it, you might find interesting my other summaries:

And some other books:

  • Ogilvy on advertising by David Ogilvy
  • Your Inner Fish by Neil Shubin
  • Microcosm by Carl Zimmer
  • The Blind Watchmaker by Richard Dawkins
  • The Selfish Gene by Richard Dawkins
  • Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman
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