Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind

This book was recommended to me last year and unfortunately I wasn’t in the headspace to read it – which was a shame.  There was so much ruminating in my mind about everything that had recently occurred, what life was going to look like moving forward and it’s hard to admit, but it was all so traumatic that at times I found it challenging to even read a book.

Now that I am leaning into things here (as that is the only viable option), and creating plenty of opportunities to read, I decided to dig back into this as a favorite author of mine also recommended it.  I started the book around 6pm on a weekday evening and did not stop reading until after 10pm count.  After that, it consumed me and I was frequently making time to continue reading more.  The writing fluidly and insightfully takes you through history from the dawn of humanity on and gives the reader an unbelievably unique perspective on how we got to where we are today.  It is a journey that is far more in-depth and eloquent than I could have anticipated.

As a child I found history classes lacking in engagement.  Here’s what happened on this date, and this is who was involved, where the event occurred, on and on.  It was an exercise in memorization that involved no introspection.  Harari writes about the evolution of humanity yet also looks deeply below the surface.  He analyzes not only what led us from a to b, but examines the how and why behind that progression as well as looking into many of the horrors of our advancement and whether it all even resulted in humanity being better off.  The reader learns how some of the ‘advances’ we’ve made as humans could, in certain light, be seen as negatives.  He covers a multitude of topics and gives the reader such a wide breadth of thoughts to contemplate that it is challenging to write a book report about Sapiens.  I wish I had read this book earlier in my life, but I’m glad it found me now.

I wanted cover a few of my favorite sections and what I took away from them.  The problem with that, however, is every chapter is good and there’s so much to learn.  However, I will start with a few.

Our ability to cooperate with countless number of strangers is the main reason homo sapiens have progressed to the degree we have.  No other species can do that.  The secret, fiction.  If we all believe in common myths that exist in our imagination we can more easily cooperate and work with those we have never met.  This helped to lead us out of the hunter gatherer phase.  Trade appears to be very pragmatic, but at it’s core it needs fiction to function.  The author provides an example of two lawyers – they can combine efforts because they both believe in laws, justice and human rights.  Those ‘things’ aren’t tangible, they exist only in the shared imaginations of every human who believes in them.  I always thought tool-making was what separated humans.  However, without cooperation, we would still have spears and blunt clubs for weapons as opposed to apache helicopters and battleships.

There is, however, a flip side to this.  For those who know me well, I have said for years that I do not feel evolution has caught up to the way modern society allows us to live.  We transitioned too quickly.  Massive societal changes have occurred in the last 300 years, far to slow a time for evolution to make any headway.  Our minds and our souls are still adapted to hunter gatherer lifestyles; super tight knit communities and nuclear families staying close.  Has our “biological software” caught up to how society enables us to live today?  I don’t think so and that’s a challenge we all have to work through.

As we began to grow into a global society, were able to work with strangers, and trade was expanding what allowed even larger groups of people to unify? Money, imperialism and religion.  One line that caught my attention was “religion asks us to believe in something, money asks us to believe that other people believe in something.”  This correlates with the above idea of fiction uniting us and Harari goes on to share many eye opening ideas about the perils of expansion.

As the book draws to a close Yuval pulls it together in an astounding manner.  He addresses the thought I posed above – have we evolved to actually live in the type of society all our growth and advancement has created for us?  He ties this in with the idea of happiness.  It’s like watching the end of The Usual Suspects.  The Koboayashi coffee cup!! How did I not notice that?!?  It was right in front of me the whole time!

Why did humanity make the decisions they made?  Why do we treat others unfairly?   Do our decisions lead us to what we all seek – happiness?  History books rarely cover this question.  In many historical accounts of events no one is taking it that last step and looking to discover if our progress results in a happier life.  I have been writing about pain & pleasure – two present/now based emotions.  We use all our modern capabilities to achieve one selfish goal – to feel pleasure and avoid pain.  Sometimes, however, our progress as a society doesn’t help with that.  We also look at happiness in ourselves, but what about those around us?  A plantation owner may be happy because his output increases and his costs decrease, but how about the 100 slaves whose lives he has made miserable?  We have more food than ever, but industrial agriculture comes at the expense of the emotional well being, physical discomfort, and inhumane living conditions imposed upon the animals that feed us.  Most of our advancement continues on under the guise of indifference towards other beings and a lack of equality.

Family and community are undervalued while material possessions and wealth are overvalued.  I myself have been guilty of this thinking before and placed importance and that which truly wasn’t important.  We need more gratitude to get out of the never ending cycle of wanting more, because “more” is never enough.  The Stoic philosophers had it right when they said that being content with what you have is more important than getting more of what you want.  Imperialism, constant expansion, wars and the internal struggles we all face can bring us down even if we get what we want.

Humans study history so we can learn from the past.  There is a lot to learn but Harari guides the reader through what parts of history to study, a lens with which to examine them and how to adjust that lens.  This is the history book that should be taught in schools across the country.

My parting thought is this: there is so much insight and provocation when you read this book.  Read it with the people you love, have discussions about how you think, what you place importance on, and where you want your life to go.  If you can take the same approach to your life as he applies to the assessment of the journey of homo sapiens, maybe one day we can all look back and think, “that’s the path I wanted to be on, I’m glad I adjusted course, changed the way I think, and have this new perspective.”

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