Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind by Yuval Noah Harari

Summary

Absolute must read. Harari provides a refreshingly comprehensive, engaging, and scientific account of history. By the end, you will understand the broad strokes of history and be able to contextualize modern concerns and questions.

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Key Takeaways

The power of the human imagination

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

“Large numbers of strangers can cooperate successfully by believing in common myths. Any large-scale human cooperation – whether a modern state, a medieval church, an ancient city or an archaic tribe – is rooted in common myths that exist only in people’s collective imagination.”

As humans, we have the unique capacity to imagine. We can imagine groups, myths, companies, and all of the real and imaginary struggles that can bring us together and tear us apart. It’s this ability to imagine that separates humans from the rest of animals.

Culture forbids

“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 behaviour, one that goes against the laws of nature, simply cannot exist, so it would need no prohibition.”

While biology enables, culture forbids. Culture is what convinces us that certain things or actions are unnatural, often to serve the needs of a particular group, society, or structure. But from a biological perspective, nothing is unnatural.

A classic trap

“How many young college graduates have taken demanding jobs in high-powered firms, vowing that they will work hard to earn money that will enable them to retire and pursue their real interests when they are thirty-five? But by the time they reach that age, they have large mortgages, children to school, houses in the suburbs that necessitate at least two cars per family, and a sense that life is not worth living without really good wine and expensive holidays abroad. What are they supposed to do, go back to digging up roots? No, they double their efforts and keep slaving away.”

After joining a high-powered firm and subsequently breaking free from its chains shortly after, I see how easy it is to fall into the trap that Harari discusses. The problem is that many of us can’t see that it’s a trap until we’ve built the empire around you that requires us to continue playing the game.

Be cautious of luxuries

“One of history’s few iron laws is that luxuries tend to become necessities and to spawn new obligations.”

Do you really need the better sweater or the trendier socks? Do you really need the more expensive bottle of wine? Once you acquire a taste for luxuries, they become necessities. And those necessities create new obligations, such as needing to make a certain amount of money or needing to spend more time maintaining your possessions.

The downside of the Agricultural Revolution

“This is the essence of the Agricultural Revolution: the ability to keep more people alive under worse conditions.”

“We did not domesticate wheat. It domesticated us.”

While the Agricultural Revolution promised to feed more people, it also led to more people living under terrible conditions. New structures and demands on individuals reduced the quality of life for many people.

Hierarchies

“Hierarchies serve an important function. They enable complete strangers to know how to treat one another without wasting the time and energy needed to become personally acquainted.”

While hierarchies are often criticized, they are both natural and helpful structures that can facilitate interactions among people.

Meaning, happiness, and expectations

“A meaningful life can be extremely satisfying even in the midst of hardship, whereas a meaningless life is a terrible ordeal no matter how comfortable it is.”

“But the most important finding of all is that happiness does not really depend on objective conditions of either wealth, health or even community. Rather, it depends on the correlation between objective conditions and subjective expectations.”

Even a hard life can be satisfying when it has meaning. But without meaning, even the most comfortable of lives can be a terrible experience. And expectations play a big role in both scenarios.

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