December 26, 2017

Sapiens - A brief history of humankind by Yuval Noah Harari

Sapiens - A brief history of humankind by Yuval Noah Harari

[A great book to read and study]

The cognitive revolution:

Three important evolutions shaped the history: Cognitive revolution about 70,000 years ago. Agricultural revolution about 120,000 years ago and scientific revolution about 500 years ago.

Humans evolved in East Africa about 2.5 m years ago from an earlier genus of apes called Australopithecus. They spread to different parts of the world and transformed into different types - humans in Europe and West Asia evolved into Homo Neanderthals (aka Neanderthals). The more eastern regions of Asia were populated by Homo erectus, who survived for 2 m years. Some of the Eastern Africa  into Homo Sapiens, who existed 150,000 years ago.

Despite their many differences, all human species share several defining characteristics. They have extraordinarily large brains compared to other animals. They walk upright on two legs. Standing up, it is much easier to scan the area for food and enemies and arms are unnecessary for locomotion for other purposes. They domesticated fire and with fire, they ate cooked food which shorten time to eat and more time for other things.

When Sapiens spread to other parts of the world, other human species cease to exist in the world. How did Sapiens became the only human species, what was their success, The book alluding to the fact that Sapiens have been very good in cognitive knowledge

Compared to other animals limited communication skills, Sapiens improved their communication skills with which they could convey more meaningful information. They can not only pass information about the facts of life, but also talk about entities that they have never seen, touched or smelled. Secondly, Sapiens are social animal and the social cooperation is our key for survival and reproduction.

Even today, a critical threshold in human organization is around 150 people. Beyond that number, to keep people connected requires common belief system. The ability to create an imagined reality out of words enabled large numbers of strangers to cooperate effectively. Under the right circumstances, myths can change rapidly (e.g. French revolution) , which opened a fast line of cultural evolution, which helped Sapiens to outstripped all other human and animal species in its ability to cooperate.

Dog was the first domesticated animal from about 15,000 years ago. Dogs are most attentive to the needs and feelings of their human companions.

When Sapiens spread, mammoth mammals who inhabited the earth cease to exist. There are three reasons that are commonly agreed among researchers.

First - Large animals breed slowly, their pregnancy is long and offspring per pregnancy are few and there are long breaks between pregnancies.  If Sapiens cut down one female of the mammoth species, it is enough to bring down their numbers and in the long run, they cease to exist. Considering their huge size, these species never considered humans as a threat, but by the time they realized, it was too late in the game.

Second - Sapiens mastered agriculture which needed to fire down large area, which resulted in smaller forest for these species to survive. When Sapiens burned down forest, the fire incinerated larger areas of forest than needed (due to wind and other matters), which reduced areas for other mammals to stay afloat.

Third - change in climate change devastated these species due to their inability to co-op the change in the environment.

The agricultural revolution:

The transition to agriculture began around 9500-8500 BC in the hill country of south eastern Turkey, western Iran and the Levant. Cultivating wheat provided much more food per unit of territory and thereby enabled Sapiens to multiply exponentially.

The currency of evolution is neither hunter nor pain, but rather copies of DNA. If a species boasts many DNA copies, it is a success and the species flourishes. The essence of agricultural revolution was the ability to keep more people alive under worse conditions.

The second phase of settlers after the agricultural revolution was the domestication of other species for their needs (sheep, pigs, and chickens). Aggressive animals (e.g. sheep) that are greatest resistance to human control are slaughtered first and with passing generation, the sheep became fatter, more submissive and less curious.

The pursuit of easier life resulted in much hardship and it happens even today. One of the human’s few iron laws is that luxuries tend to become necessities and to spawn new obligations. Once people get used to a certain luxury, they take it for granted. Then they begin to count on it. Finally, they reach a point where they cannot live without it.

Peasants were worried about the future not just because they had more cause for worry, but also because they could do something about it. The stress of farming had far reaching consequences. It was the foundation of large scale political and social systems  Everywhere rulers, and elites sprang up, living off the peasants’ surplus food and leaving them with only a bare subsistence. These fortified food surpluses fueled politics wars, art and philosophy.  

Until the modern era, 90% of the humans were peasants and the extra they produced fed the tiny minority of elites, kings, gov. Officials, soldiers priest, thinkers who fill the history books.
Voltaire said about God that “there is no God, but don’t tell that to my servants, lest he murder me at night”. It is impossible to organize an army solely by coercion. At least some of the commanders and soldiers must truly believe in something, be it God, honor, motherhood, manhood or money.

How do you cause people to believe in an imagined order such as Christianity, democracy, or capitalism? From the moment they are born, you constantly remind them of the principles of the imagined orders, which are incorporated into anything and everything. They are incorporated into fairy tales, dramas, paintings, songs, etiquette, political propaganda, architecture, recipes and fashions.

Three main factors prevent people from realizing that the order organizing their lives exists only in their imaginations.

  1. The imagined order to embedded in the material world. Kids living up in the modern world (where they have private room in their house) cannot help but imagine himself an individual his true worth emanating from within rather than from without. In the medieval world, a man’s true worth was determined by his place in the social hierarchy and by what other people said of him.

2.      The imagined order shapes our desires. A wealthy man in ancient Egypt would never have dreamed of solving a relationship crisis by taking his wife on holiday to Babylon. Instead, he might have built for her the sumptuous tomb she had always wanted. Like the elite of ancient Egypt, most people in most cultures dedicate their lives to building pyramids. Only the names, shapes, and sizes of these pyramids chanted from one culture to the other. They may take the form, of a suburban cottage with a swimming pool, and an evergreen lawn, or a gleaming penthouse with an enviable view. Few questions they myths that cause us to desire the pyramid in the first place.

3.      The imagined order is intersubjective. In order to change the imagined order, I must convince millions of strangers to cooperate with me. For the imagined order is not a subjective order existing in my own imagination, it is rather inter-subjective order existing in the shared imagination of thousands and millions of people.  Similarly, dollar, human rights, exists in the shared imagination of billions and no single individual can threaten their existence. A change in such magnitude can be accomplished only with the help of a complex organizations, such as political party, an ideological movement, or a religious cult.

All societies are based on imagined hierarchies, but no necessarily on the  same hierarchies. Why did traditional Indian society classify people according to cast, Ottoman society according to religion and American society according to race/. In most cases, the hierarchy originated as the result of a set of accidental historical circumstances and was perpetuated and refined over many generations as different groups developed vested interested in.

For instances, many scholar’s sunrise that the Hindu caste system took shape when the Indo-Aryan people invaded the Indian subcontinent about 3000 years ago, subjugating local population. The invaders established a stratified society, in which they occupied the leading position (priests and warriors), leaving the natives to live as servants and slaves. The invaders, who were few in number, feared losing their privileges status, unique identity. Too forestall the danger, they divided the population into castes.

Similar story is true with American race.
  • Chance a historical event
  • White control blacks
  • Discriminatory laws
  • Poverty and lack of education among blacks
  • Cultural prejudices

The vicious circle - a chance historical situation is translated into a rigid social system.

The unification of humankind:

Prior to the age of European exploration, earth still contained a significant number of human worlds. 90% of humans lived in a single mega world: the world of afro-Asia. Most of the Asia, most of the Europe, and most of the Africa were already connected by significant cultural, political and economic ties. Most of the remaining 10% of the world population was divided between 4 worlds of considerable size and complexity:
  1. The Mesoamerican world, which encompassed most of Central America and parts of North America
  2. The Andean World, which encompassed most of the western South America
  3. The Australian World, which encompassed the continent of Australia
  4. The Oceanic World, which encompassed most of the islands of the southwestern Pacific Ocean, from Hawaii to New Zealand.

Over the next 300 years, the Afro-Asian giant swallowed up all the other worlds. It consumed Mesoamerican world in 1521 (When Spain conquered Aztec empire), Andean world in 1532 (Spaniards conquered Inca), Australia in 1606 and the Oceanic world by 1788.

Today most human share the political system (into countries & states), same economic system (capitalist market), same legal system (human rights and international law), same scientific view

The sum of total money in the world is around $60tn, but the total money in coins and banknotes are only about $6tn and the rest are in computer servers. As long as people are willing to trade goods and services in exchange for electronic data, it is even better than exchanging coins and back notes.  

Money is not a material construct, it is a psychological construct. It works by converting matter into mind. Trust is the raw material from which all types of money are minted.
Why should Chinese, Indians, Muslims and Spaniards started believe in gold? Economists have an answer: Once trade connects two areas, the forces of supply and demand tend to equalize the prices of transportable goods.

Money is based on two universal principles:

  1. Universal convertibility: with money, as an alchemist, you can turn land into loyalty, justice into health  and violence into knowledge.
  2. Universal trust : with money as a go-between any two people can cooperate on any project.


Today religion is considered a source of discrimination, disagreement and disunion. Yet, it has been the 3rd great unifier alongside money and empire. Religion can be defined as a system of human norms and values that is funded on a belief in a superhuman order.  This involves two distinct criteria:

  • Religion hold that there is a superhuman order, which is not the product of human whims or agreements.
  • Base on the superhuman order, religion establishes norms and  values that it considers binding.

A leading theory about the origin of gods argues that gods gained importance because they offered a solution to problems.

In Hindu Polytheism, Atman is the essence or soul of the entire universe as well as of every individual and every phenomenon.  Hindu Sadhus devote their lives to uniting with Atman, thereby achieving enlightenment. Most Hindus, however are not sadhus. They are sunk deep in the morass of mundane concerns, where Atman is not much help. Hindu  approach the gods with their partial powers. Precisely because their powers are partial rather than all -encompassing, gods such as Ganesha, Lakshmi, Sarasvati have interests and biases.

During the Roman era during Christianity’s inception of three centuries, Romans killed no more than a few thousand Christian. In contrast, over the course of the next 1500 years,  Christians slaughtered Christians by the millions to defend slightly different interpretations of the religion of love and compassion.

Historians can describe ‘how’ Christianity took over Roman empire, but they cannot explain ‘why’ this particular possibility was released. The same puzzle is true for the spread of Islam which is difficult to know why it took over Arabian peninsula and beyond.

History cannot be explained deterministically and it cannot be predicted because it is level 2 chaotic. Some of the level 2 chaotic are unpredictability  of market share price,  & tide of political wave.

The scientific revolution

The scientific revolution’s feedback loop. Science needs more than just research to make progress. It depends on the mutual reinforcement of science, politics and economics. Political and economic institution provide the resources without which scientific research is almost impossible. In return, scientific research provides new powers that are used among other things, to obtain new sources, some of the which are reinvested in research.

Modern science differs from all previous traditions of knowledge in three critical ways:

  • The willingness to admit ignorance
  • The centrality of observation and mathematics
  • The acquisition of new powers.

Most scientific studies are funded because somebody believed they can help attain some political, economic or religious goal. Scientific research can flourish only in alliance with some religion or ideology. The ideology justifies the cost of the research. In exchange, the ideology influences the scientific agenda and determine what to do with the discoveries.

The feedback loop between science, Imperialism and capitalism has arguably been history’s chief engine for the past 500 years. European imperialism was entirely unlike all other imperial projects in history. Previous seekers of empire tended to assume that they already understood the world. Conquest merely utilized and spread their view of the world and search of power and wealth - not of knowledge. In contrast, European imperialism set out to distant shores in the hope of obtaining new knowledge along with new territories.  

As time went by , the conquest of knowledge and the conquest of territory became even more intertwined. In the 18th & 19th centuries, almost every important military expedition that left Europe for distant land had on board scientists who set out not to fight but to make scientific discoveries (Charles Darwin was one such scientist in one such expedition).

When Muslims conquered India, they did not bring along archaeologists to systematically study Indian history, anthropologist to study Indian culture, geologists to study Indian soils, or geologist to study Indian fauna. When British conquered India, they did all these things. On 10 April 1802, the Great Survey of India was launched. No one before British took a notice of Mohenjo-Daro site, but British excavated it in 1922.

In 1500, global production of goods and services was equal to $250bn and it is $60tn today, This is where economics played a major role. Following example explains the intricate of money chain.

Mr. Greedy founds a bank and Mr. Stone, a contractor, deposited $1m, his profit from previous work, to the Mr. Greedy’s bank.  Ms. McDoughnet wanted to start a bakery and approached Mr. Stone for the expense of the bakery buildings and the cost of the construction quoted was $1m. Ms. McDoughnut approached Mr. Greedy for $1m loan, which got approved and handed over.  Ms. McDoughnt handed over $1m to Mr. Stone for the bakery construction. Mr. Stone deposited $1m to Mr. Greedy’s bank, totaling his deposit to $2 m, while the Mr. Greedy’s bank had only $1m (the first deposited from Mr. Stone). In economics, there are $2m in transaction happened, but only $1m was actually involved.
Current US banking law permits the bank to repeat the above exercise seven more time (while having $1m in cash, they can lend money up to $7 M, hoping, the initial depositor would not be pulling $1m from the bank)

In premodern times, people believed that production was more or less constant. So why reinvest your profits in production won’t increase much. They spent their revenues on banquets, tournaments, palaces and wars. In today’s world, venture capitalist is not going after conspicuous consumption, but reinvesting the profits again and again.

The success story of Dutch Protestant revolt against Catholic Spain kingdom was due to the credit that Dutch had access to. Their famous company VOC built a settlement called New Amsterdam, which got renamed after British took control of it as New York. During the VOC era, they built a wall to defend their settlement, which became known as the famous Wall Street.

When the investors lose trust in a company, something unexpected could happen. The Mississippi Company, chartered in France set out to colonies the lower Mississippi valley. To accumulate money, they sold bond in Paris exchange and it was supportive of the French King. Its price started to skyrocket and more people invested which again skyrocketed the price. Some speculators realized that the share price was totally unrealistic and unsustainable, they started to sell which became an avalanche effect on the share price.

The way Mississippi company used its political clout to manipulate the share price ended up in losing faith in French banking system and king found it more & more difficult to raise credit to keep the banking system intact. This become one of the chief reasons that overseas French empire fell into British hands, which led to French revolution due to increasing debt and resulting tax put on the French people.

Capital and politics influence each other to such an extent that their relations are hotly debated by economists, politicians and general public alike.  When Greek region rebelled against Ottoman empire, London financiers sold Greek bond in conjunction with Greek rebels’ leaders on payment return of the bond. Many Londoners bought the bond and Greek rebels got enough money to fight against Ottoman. During the hefty battle, when Greek was losing the battle, Londoners exert political pressure on the British gov., resulting British got involved in the battle and won against Ottoman for the sake of London investors.

Industrial revolution which was fueled by capitalist involvement, caused many improvements in human’s life and population burgeoned as never before. In 1700, world’s population was 700m, in 1800, it was 950m. By 1900, it reached 1.6bn and by 2000, it became 6 bn. In 2017, it became 7 bn.

The Third World discontent is fomented not merely by poverty, disease, corruption and political oppression, but also by mere exposure to First World standards. The male youth is not comparing himself with his local youths, but with Cristiano Ronaldo and finding happiness when compared.

The average Egyptian was far less likely to die from starvation, plague or violence under Hosni Mubarak than under Ramses II or Cleopatra. Never had the material condition of most Egyptians been so good. Instead, they rose up furiously to overthrow Mubarak. They were not comparing themselves to their ancestors, under the pharaohs, but rather to their contemporaries in the affluent west.

As Nietzsche put it, if you have a why to live, you can bear almost any how. A meaningful life can be extremely satisfying even in the midst of hardships, whereas a meaningless life is a terrible ordeal no matter how comfortable it is.

As far as we can scientifically tell, human life has absolutely no meaning. Our actions are not part of any divine cosmic plan. According to selfish gene theory, natural selection makes people, like other organisms, choose what is good for the reproduction of their genes, even if it bad for them as individuals. Most males spend their lives toiling, worrying, competing and fighting, instead of enjoying the bliss, because their DNA manipulates them for its own selfish aims.

Many scholars began to study the history of happiness only a few years ago and we are still formulating initial hypotheses and searching for appropriate research methods.  

The end of Homo Sapiens

Homo Sapiens is transcending the limits. It is now beginning to break the laws of natural selection, replacing them with the laws of intelligent design. For billions of years, intelligent design was not even an option, because there was no intelligence which could design things. In labs throughout the world, scientists are engineering living beings. They break the laws of natural selection with impunity, unbridled even by an organism’s original characteristics.

Eduardo Kac, a Brazilian bio-artist decided in 2000 to create a new work of art - a fluorescent rabbit. French scientist implanted DNA gene from a green fluorescent jellyfish in white Rabbit, creating a green fluorescent rabbit. It is a product of intelligent design and is also a harbinger of things to come.

The replacement of natural selection by intelligent design could happen in any of the three ways: through biological engineering (implanting genes), cyborg engineering (cyborgs are beings that combine organic with non-organic parts; e.g. bionic arms) or the engineering of inorganic life (e.g. AI based robots).

In 1818 Mary Shelley published Frankenstein, the story of a scientist who tries to create a superior being and instead creates a monster. It warns us that if we try to play God and engineer life we will be punished severely.  Considering the progress of intelligent design, the last days of Homo Sapiens are fast approaching. . On the sake of Gilgamesh project (establishing a-mortality for Homo Sapiens), we are crossing the limits without any direction.

70,000 years ago, Homo Sapiens was an insignificant animal and in the following millennia, it transformed itself into the master of the entire planet and the terror of the ecosystems. Today, it stands on the verge of becoming a god, poised to acquire not only eternal youth, but also the divine abilities of creation and destruction.

We are consequently weakening havoc on our fellow animals and on the surrounding ecosystems, seeking little more than our own comfort and amusement, yet never finding satisfaction.


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