Sapiens - A Brief History of Mankind

Sapiens: A Brief History of Mankind by Yuval Noah

Sapiens: A Brief History of Mankind by Yuval Noah totally blew my mind. It is such a revolutionary book that altered what I knew about the evolution of mankind. 

Sapiens: A Brief History of Mankind Part One – Cognitive Revolution

Part one of Sapiens: A Brief History of Mankind talks about the Cognitive Revolution and how it allowed the Homo sapiens to evolve from animals into what we are now. 

I thought that the Homo sapiens species was the only one of its kind but this book says that “there used to be many other species of this genus besides Homo sapiens”. A few of our siblings were  Homo rudolfensis (East Africa), Homo erectus (East Asia) and Homo neanderthalensis (Europe and Western Asia).

The book gave various theories why Homo sapiens survived while the other species of the genus homo didn’t.

The “Interbreeding Theory” tells a tale of attraction, sex and mingling. According to this theory, as Homo rudolfensis spread around the world, they bred with other human populations, and people today are the outcome of this interbreeding.

The “Replacement Theory” tells a story of incompatibility, revulsion, and perhaps even genocide. According to this theory, Sapiens and other humans had different anatomies and they would have had little sexual interest in one another. Even if they did, they could not produce fertile children, because the genetic gulf separating the two populations was already unbridgeable.

According to the “Replacement Theory”, Homo sapiens could have driven the other species to extinction. Sapiens were more proficient hunters and gatherers – thanks to better technology and superior social skills – so they multiplied and spread. The less resourceful species found it increasingly difficult to feed themselves. Their population dwindled and they slowly died out. 

Another possibility is that competition for resources flared up into violence and genocide. 

An accidental genetic mutation changed the inner wirings of the brains of Sapiens, enabling them to think in unprecedented ways and to communicate using an altogether new type of language. This Tree of Knowledge mutation allow Sapiens to connect sounds and signs to produce an infinite number of sentences, each with a distinct meaning. We can thereby ingest, store and communicate a prodigious amount of information about the surrounding world.

Mind-blowing right? There’s more to come.

Sapiens: A Brief History of Mankind Part Two – Agricultural Revolution

Part two of Sapiens: A Brief History of Mankind talks about Agricultural Revolution and the domestication of farm animals.

Agriculture sprung up from different parts of the world between 9500 and 3500 BC. 

People in Central America domesticated maize and beans while Middle East domesticated wheat and peas. South Americans domesticated potatoes and llamas while China domesticated rice, millet and pigs. North Americans cultivated pumpkins while New Guineans tamed sugar cane and bananas. West Africans domesticated African millet, African rice, sorghum and wheat. 

The book Sapiens argues that the Agricultural Revolution was not the “great leap forward for mankind” as scholars proclaimed. Instead, humans became slaves to the domesticated plants and animals.

From a narrow evolutionary perspective, which measures success by the number of DNA copies, the Agricultural Revolution was a wonderful boon for chickens, cattle, pigs and sheep. Unfortunately, the evolutionary perspective is an incomplete measure of success. These domesticated animals may well be an evolutionary success story, but they are also among the most miserable creatures that ever lived. The domestication of animals was founded on a series of brutal practices that only became crueler with the passing of the centuries. 

The Agricultural Revolution turned foragers into farmers. The food surpluses allowed the Homo sapiens population to increase radically. Farming created stress for the farmers because they had to produce more than they consumed to build up reserves. 

Without grain in the silo, jars of olive oil in the cellar, cheese in the pantry and sausages hanging from the rafters, they would starve in bad years. 

These fortified food surpluses fueled politics, war, art and philosophy. They built palaces, forts, monuments and temples. 

Homo sapiens used their advanced cognitive abilities to invent stories about great gods, motherlands and joint stock companies to create the needed social links to cooperate effectively.

According to this book, all religions, government systems, economic systems are imagined order created from the imagination of the Homo sapien’s mind. The way to make people believe in imagined order is to never admit that the order is imagined and educate people thoroughly. 

From the moment they are born, you constantly remind them of the principles of the imagined order, which are incorporated into anything and everything.

The desire to take a holiday, for example, was born from romantic consumerism. 

Romanticism tells us that in order to make the most of our human potential we must have as many different experiences as we can. We must open ourselves to a wide spectrum of emotions; we must sample various kinds of relationships; we must try different cuisines; we must learn to appreciate different styles of music. One of the best ways to do all that is to break free from our daily routine, leave behind our familiar setting, and go travelling in distant lands, where we can ‘experience’ the culture, the smells, the tastes and the norms of other people.

The book also describes the process of how language came about. Ancient Sumerians who lived in southern Mesopotamia invented a partial script by combining two types of signs. One type of signs represented numbers and the other type represented people, animals, merchandise, territories, dates and so forth. More and more signs were added to the Sumerian system, gradually transforming it into a full script that we today call cuneiform. 

At roughly the same time, Egyptians developed another full script known as hieroglyphics. Other full scripts were developed in China around 1200 BC and in Central America around 1000–500 BC.

The next few chapters talks about imagined hierarchies, the birth of racism and the hierarchy of mankind.

Different societies adopt different kinds of imagined hierarchies. Race is very important to modern Americans but was relatively insignificant to medieval Muslims. Caste was a matter of life and death in medieval India, whereas in modern Europe it is practically non-existent. One hierarchy, however, has been been of supreme importance of in all known human societies: the hierarchy of gender. 

There are various theory for the patriarchal nature of our society such as Muscle Power, Aggression, Evolution but none of them can really explain the patriachal views. 

During the last century, there has been revolutionary changes in gender roles. Women are not only given equal legal status and political rights, they now also have equal economic opportunities. 

Sapiens: A Brief History of Mankind Part Three – Unification of Mankind

Part three of Sapiens: A Brief History of Mankind talks about the unification for mankind in terms of geopolitical, economic, legal and scientific systems and how they laid the foundation for the united world of today. 

Over the millennia, small, simple cultures gradually coalesce into bigger and more complex civilisations, so that the world contains fewer and fewer mega-cultures, each of which is bigger and more complex.

The first millennium BC witnessed the appearance of three potentially universal orders: economic system, political systems and religious systems. 

Sapiens: A Brief History of Mankind Part Four – Scientific Revolution

Part four of Sapiens: A Brief History of Mankind talks about the Scientific Revolution. 

The Scientific Revolution started when mankind was willing to admit its ignorance. Modern science aims to obtain new knowledge by gathering observations and then use mathematical tools to connect these observations into comprehensive  theories. These theories are in turn uses to acquire new powers and develop new technologies. 

The leading project of the Scientific Revolution is to give humankind eternal life. The average life expectancy jumped from well below twenty-five to forty years, to around sixty-seven in the entire world, and to around eighty years in the developed world. 

Science, like all other parts of our culture, is shaped by economic, political and religious interests.

Most scientific studies are funded because somebody believe 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 determines what to do with the discoveries.

The Industrial Revolution created more efficient ways of exploiting existing resources and completely new types of energy and materials. Steam engines, petroleum, electricity are a few examples. 

At heart, the industrial Revolution has been a revolution in energy conversion. 

The modern capitalist economy started promoting consumerism so that people bought whatever new stuff industry produces. 

Consumerism sees the consumption of ever more products and services as a positive thing. It encourages people to treat themselves, spoil themselves, and even kill themselves slowly by overconsumption.

The Industrial Revolution also bright about adjusting to industrial time, urbanization, disappearance of peasantry, rise of the industrial proletariat, empowerment of common person, democratisation, youth culture and disintegration of patriarchy. But the most monumental social revolution was the collapse of family and local community and their replacement by the state and the market. 

Imagined communities such as the nation and consumer tribe fills in the emotional vacuum left by collapse of intimate community. 

We are living in a peaceful era due to decline of violence due to rise of the state. 

As kingdoms and empires became stronger, they reined in communities and the level of violence decreased. In recent decades, when states and markets have become all-powerful and communities have vanished, violence rates have dropped even further. 

The British, French and Soviet empires fell without much bloodshed. With very few exceptions, since 1945 states no longer invade other states in order to conquer and swallow them up.

There is at last real peace, and not just absence of war. For most polities, there is no plausible scenario leading to full-scale conflict within one year.

A few factors contributes to this happy development:

  • price of war has increased dramatically 
  • profits of war declined
  • peace became more lucrative 
  • domination by peace-loving elites 
  • tightening web of international connections erodes the independence of most countries

The second-last chapter of this book concludes that material wealth is only one part of what makes us happy. Social, ethical and spiritual factors have a great impact on our happiness too. Money bring happiness, but only up to a point.

Family and community seem to have more impact on our happiness than money and health.

People with strong families who live in tight-knit and supportive communities are significantly happier than people whose families are dysfunctional and who have never found (or never sought) a community to be part of. Marriage is particularly important. Repeated studies have found that there is a very close correlation between good marriages and high subjective well-being, and between bad marriages and misery. This holds true irrespective of economic or even physical conditions.

Happiness depends on the correlation between objective conditions and subjective expectations. Mass media and the advertising industry May unwittingly be depleting the globe’s reservoir of contentment. 

So maybe Third World discontent is fomented not merely by poverty, disease, corruption and political oppression but also by mere exposure to First World standards.

Biologists believe that our subjective well-being is determined by a complex system of nerves, neurons, synapses and various biochemical substances such as serotonin, dopamine and oxytocin.

Some scholars believe that some people are born with a cheerful biochemical system while others have a gloomy biochemistry. External stimuli does not change our biochemistry, they can startle it for a fleeting moment, but it is soon back to its set point. 

A famous study by Daniel Kahneman, winner of the Nobel Prize in economics, demonstrates that happiness consists in seeing one’s life in its entirety as meaningful and worthwhile.

As far as we can tell, from a purely scientific viewpoint, human life has absolutely no meaning. Humans are the outcome of blind evolutionary processes that operate without goal or purpose. Our actions are not part of some divine cosmic plan. Hence any meaning that people ascribe to their lives is just a delusion.

The last chapter of this books talks about how mankind is now beginning to break the laws of natural selection, replacing them with the laws of intelligent design. 

Sapiens started this during the Agricultural Revolution. By mating the fattest hen with the slowest cock, they produced the fat, slow birds that we now know as chickens. 

Today, in laboratories throughout the world, scientists are engineering living beings. The replacement of natural selection by intelligent design could happen in any of the three ways: 

  • biological engineering – modification through manipulation of genes 
  • cyborg engineering- combining organic and inorganic parts 
  • engineering of inorganic life e.g. computer programs that can undergo independent evolution

The only thing we can try to do is to influence the direction scientists are taking. But since we might soon be able to engineer our desires too, the real question facing us is not ‘What do we want to become?’, but ‘What do we want to want?’

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