Book notes #6- Sapiens

A continuation of concise book reviews, with original context here.

Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind — by Yuval Noah Harari

Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind — by Yuval Noah Harari

Stream of consciousness review:
I finally got around to Sapiens. As someone who has always been more math/science than history/english-inclined, this one was on my virtual bookshelf for a while. I’d heard the endless praise about how Yuval Noah Harari somehow condensed the entire history of humanity into 443 pages and had to see (read*) it for myself.

I’ll admit, it took me a while to get through this one. 3 parts textbook per 1 part novel made this less of a page-turner than the latest Dan Brown, but still one that I highly enjoyed reading and re-reading — the “highlight” function on my Kindle was my saving grace. I enjoyed the book as I got through it, but the more I revisited, the more I enjoyed, and ultimately, appreciated it. Reading this book felt like waking up early and going on a run —tough at first, but feels great after it’s over. With every page, I learned something new and found my biggest struggle was committing it all to memory.

I’d recommend Sapiens to anyone who wants to challenge themselves and think more about big picture questions and themes that got the collective “us” to where we are today.

Given the length of this book and density of factoids, I decided to spend a bit of time and share my highlights in a different way. Instead of pasting chronologically, I’m pasting thematically — not only is this a more proactive way to unify some of the major concepts of the book, the categories themselves also paint a picture of the major trends we encounter as sapiens. Let me know what you think!

Neanderthals, Racism, and Classism
Homo Sapiens
Language, Science, Mathematics, and Education
Civilization, Society, Imperialism, and Politics
Myths, Storytelling, & Religion
Behavior, Relationships, and Family
Migration and Environmental Impact

To end with a quote from Sapiens, it is clear that we “are more powerful than ever before, but have very little idea what to do with all that power”.

— — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — —

Categorized highlights (directly from the book):


  • The Cognitive Revolution kick-started history about 70,000 years ago. The Agricultural Revolution sped it up about 12,000 years ago. The Scientific Revolution, which got under way only 500 years ago, may well end history and start something completely different.
  • The most important thing to know about prehistoric humans is that they were insignificant animals with no more impact on their environment than gorillas, fireflies or jellyfish.
  • Yet the real meaning of the word human is ‘an animal belonging to the genus Homo’, and there used to be many other species of this genus besides Homo sapiens.
  • It is doubtful whether Homo sapiens will still be around a thousand years from now, so 2 million years is really out of our league.
  • It’s a common fallacy to envision these species as arranged in a straight line of descent, with Ergaster begetting Erectus, Erectus begetting the Neanderthals, and the Neanderthals evolving into us.
  • It’s our current exclusivity, not that multi-species past, that is peculiar — and perhaps incriminating.
  • It takes a tribe to raise a human. Evolution thus favoured those capable of forming strong social ties.
  • Just as woodpeckers specialise in extracting insects from the trunks of trees, the first humans specialised in extracting marrow from bones.
  • It seems that about 50,000 years ago, Sapiens, Neanderthals and Denisovans were at that borderline point. They were almost, but not quite, entirely separate species. As we shall see in the next chapter, Sapiens were already very different from Neanderthals and Denisovans not only in their genetic code and physical traits, but also in their cognitive and social abilities, yet it appears it was still just possible, on rare occasions, for a Sapiens and a Neanderthal to produce a fertile offspring.
  • The last remains of Homo soloensis are dated to about 50,000 years ago. Homo denisova disappeared shortly thereafter. Neanderthals made their exit roughly 30,000 years ago. The last dwarf-like humans vanished from Flores Island about 12,000 years ago.
  • Whatever advantage Einstein had over a parrot, it wasn’t vocal.
  • The most commonly believed theory [during the Cognitive Revolution] argues that accidental genetic mutations changed the inner wiring of the brains of Sapiens
  • The currency of evolution is neither hunger nor pain, but rather copies of DNA helixes. Just as the economic success of a company is measured only by the number of dollars in its bank account, not by the happiness of its employees, so the evolutionary success of a species is measured by the number of copies of its DNA. If no more DNA copies remain, the species is extinct, just as a company without money is bankrupt.
  • Unfortunately, the evolutionary perspective is an incomplete measure of success. It judges everything by the criteria of survival and reproduction, with no regard for individual suffering and happiness.
  • This discrepancy between evolutionary success and individual suffering is perhaps the most important lesson we can draw from the Agricultural Revolution.
  • Around 10,000 BC, before the transition to agriculture, earth was home to about 5–8 million nomadic foragers. By the first century AD, only 1–2 million foragers remained (mainly in Australia, America and Africa), but their numbers were dwarfed by the world’s 250 million farmers.
  • the ancient horizon of possibilities was much broader, and most of it is hidden from our view.
  • This is the basic lesson of evolutionary psychology: a need shaped in the wild continues to be felt subjectively even if it is no longer really necessary for survival and reproduction.
  • For billions of years, intelligent design was not even an option, because there was no intelligence which could design things.
  • the replacement of natural selection by intelligent design could happen in any of three ways: through biological engineering, cyborg engineering (cyborgs are beings that combine organic with non-organic parts) or the engineering of inorganic life.
  • Tinkering with our genes won’t necessarily kill us. But we might fiddle with Homo sapiens to such an extent that we would no longer be Homo sapiens.
  • Cyborgs are beings which combine organic and inorganic parts, such as a human with bionic hands.
  • Even the field of bioethics prefers to address another question, ‘What is it forbidden to do?’
  • 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?’
  • the great debates of history are important because at least the first generation of these gods would be shaped by the cultural ideas of their human designers.

Neanderthals, Racism, and Classism

  • According to the Interbreeding Theory, when Sapiens spread into Neanderthal lands, Sapiens bred with Neanderthals until the two populations merged.
  • The opposing view, called the ‘Replacement Theory’ tells a very different story — one of incompatibility, revulsion, and perhaps even genocide.
  • It turned out that 1–4 per cent of the unique human DNA of modern populations in the Middle East and Europe is Neanderthal DNA.
  • It may well be that when Sapiens encountered Neanderthals, the result was the first and most significant ethnic-cleansing campaign in history.
  • Perhaps this is exactly why our ancestors wiped out the Neanderthals. They were too familiar to ignore, but too different to tolerate.
  • Homo sapiens evolved to think of people as divided into us and them. ‘Us’ was the group immediately around you, whoever you were, and ‘them’ was everyone else.
  • Many of those who signed the Declaration of Independence were slaveholders. They did not release their slaves upon signing the Declaration, nor did they consider themselves hypocrites.
  • They are shocked by laws prohibiting blacks to live in white neighbourhoods, or to study in white schools, or to be treated in white hospitals. But the hierarchy of rich and poor — which mandates that rich people live in separate and more luxurious neighbourhoods, study in separate and more prestigious schools, and receive medical treatment in separate and better-equipped facilities — seems perfectly sensible to many Americans and Europeans.
  • If you want to keep any human group isolated — women, Jews, Roma, gays, blacks — the best way to do it is convince everyone that these people are a source of pollution.
  • Biologists argued that blacks are less intelligent than whites and their moral sense less developed. Doctors alleged that blacks live in filth and spread diseases — in other words, they are a source of pollution.
  • You might think that people would gradually understand that these stigmas were myth rather than fact and that blacks would be able, over time, to prove themselves just as competent, law-abiding and clean as whites. In fact, the opposite happened — these prejudices became more and more entrenched as time went by.
  • Clennon King, a black student who applied to the University of Mississippi in 1958, was forcefully committed to a mental asylum. The presiding judge ruled that a black person must surely be insane to think that he could be admitted to the University of Mississippi.
  • History is something that very few people have been doing while everyone else was ploughing fields and carrying water buckets.
  • The famed Roman amphitheatres were often built by slaves so that wealthy and idle Romans could watch other slaves engage in vicious gladiatorial combat.
  • King Hammurabi decreed that people are divided into superiors, commoners and slaves. Unlike the beehive class system, this is not a natural division — there is no trace of it in the human genome.
  • In the century following the Cook expedition, the most fertile lands of Australia and New Zealand were taken from their previous inhabitants by European settlers.
  • The native population dropped by up to 90 per cent and the survivors were subjected to a harsh regime of racial oppression.
  • An even worse fate befell the natives of Tasmania. Having survived for 10,000 years in splendid isolation, they were completely wiped out, to the last man, woman and child, within a century of Cook’s arrival.
  • The few survivors were hounded into an evangelical concentration camp, where well-meaning but not particularly open-minded missionaries tried to indoctrinate them in the ways of the modern world.
  • Just as the Atlantic slave trade did not stem from hatred towards Africans, so the modern animal industry is not motivated by animosity. Again, it is fuelled by indifference.
  • Our late modern world prides itself on recognising, for the first time in history, the basic equality of all humans, yet it might be poised to create the most unequal of all societies.
  • Indeed, the future masters of the world will probably be more different from us than we are from Neanderthals. Whereas we and the Neanderthals are at least human, our inheritors will be godlike.
  • We like to tell the story that way because it implies that we are the best of all beings, that there never was and never will be something better than us.
  • We would have a hard time swallowing the fact that scientists could engineer spirits as well as bodies, and that future Dr Frankensteins could therefore create something truly superior to us, something that will look at us as condescendingly as we look at the Neanderthals.

Homo sapiens

  • In Homo sapiens, the brain accounts for about 2–3 per cent of total body weight, but it consumes 25 per cent of the body’s energy when the body is at rest.
  • Genus Homo’s position in the food chain was, until quite recently, solidly in the middle.
  • Since the biological distinctions between different groups of Homo sapiens are, in fact, negligible, biology can’t explain the intricacies of Indian society or American racial dynamics.
  • A male Homo sapiens is one who has one X chromosome and one Y chromosome; a female is one with two Xs. But ‘man’ and ‘woman’ name social, not biological, categories.
  • To make things less confusing, scholars usually distinguish between ‘sex’, which is a biological category, and ‘gender’, a cultural category.
  • In the year 1500, there were about 500 million Homo sapiens in the entire world. Today, there are 7 billion.


  • By about 300,000 years ago, Homo erectus, Neanderthals and the forefathers of Homo sapiens were using fire on a daily basis.
  • The period from about 70,000 years ago to about 30,000 years ago witnessed the invention of boats, oil lamps, bows and arrows and needles (essential for sewing warm clothing).
  • The appearance of new ways of thinking and communicating, between 70,000 and 30,000 years ago, constitutes the Cognitive Revolution.
  • Following the Cognitive Revolution, Sapiens acquired the technology, the organisational skills, and perhaps even the vision necessary to break out of Afro-Asia and settle the Outer World.
  • Stonehenge dates to 2500 BC, and was built by a developed agricultural society. The structures at Göbekli Tepe are dated to about 9500 BC, and all available evidence indicates that they were built by hunter-gatherers.
  • Around AD 1500, history made its most momentous choice, changing not only the fate of humankind, but arguably the fate of all life on earth. We call it the Scientific Revolution.
  • The last 500 years have witnessed a phenomenal and unprecedented growth in human power.
  • A common saying among European soldiers facing African enemies was, ‘Come what may, we have machine guns, and they don’t.’
  • About 600 years passed between the invention of gunpowder and the development of effective artillery.
  • You burn some kind of fuel, such as coal, and use the resulting heat to boil water, producing steam. As the steam expands it pushes a piston. The piston moves, and anything that is connected to the piston moves with it.
  • If you could burn coal in order to move textile looms, why not use the same method to move other things, such as vehicles?
  • Two centuries ago electricity played no role in the economy, and was used at most for arcane scientific experiments and cheap magic tricks.

Language, Science, Mathematics, and Education

  • Homo sapiens conquered the world thanks above all to its unique language.
  • The most common answer is that our language is amazingly supple. We can connect a limited number of sounds and signs to produce an infinite number of sentences, each with a distinct meaning.
  • A green monkey can yell to its comrades, ‘Careful! A lion!’ But a modern human can tell her friends that this morning, near the bend in the river, she saw a lion tracking a herd of bison.
  • Our language evolved as a way of gossiping… According to this theory Homo sapiens is primarily a social animal. Social cooperation is our key for survival and reproduction.
  • No forager needed to remember, say, the number of fruit on each tree in the forest. So human brains did not adapt to storing and processing numbers. Yet in order to maintain a large kingdom, mathematical data was vital.
  • The data-processing system invented by the Sumerians is called ‘writing’.
  • There were signs for 1, 10, 60, 600, 3,600 and 36,000. (The Sumerians used a combination of base-6 and base-10 numeral systems. Their base-6 system bestowed on us several important legacies, such as the division of the day into twenty-four hours
  • Between 3000 BC and 2500 BC more and more signs were added to the Sumerian system, gradually transforming it into a full script that we today call cuneiform.
  • liberal humanism, which believes that ‘humanity’ is a quality of individual humans, and that the liberty of individuals is therefore sacrosanct.
  • Socialists believe that ‘humanity’ is collective rather than individualistic.
  • The only humanist sect that has actually broken loose from traditional monotheism is evolutionary humanism, whose most famous representatives are the Nazis.
  • In contrast to other humanists, the Nazis believed that humankind is not something universal and eternal, but rather a mutable species that can evolve or degenerate.
  • Constantine, looking back on a fractious century of civil war, seems to have thought that a single religion with a clear doctrine could help unify his ethnically diverse realm.
  • Chaotic systems come in two shapes. Level one chaos is chaos that does not react to predictions about it.
  • Level two chaos is chaos that reacts to predictions about it, and therefore can never be predicted accurately.
  • We study history not to know the future but to widen our horizons, to understand that our present situation is neither natural nor inevitable, and that we consequently have many more possibilities before us than we imagine.
  • Prior to the sixteenth century, no human had circumnavigated the earth. This changed in 1522, when Magellan’s expedition returned to Spain after a journey of 44,000 miles.
  • Modern science is based on the Latin injunction ignoramus — ‘we do not know’.
  • The willingness to admit ignorance has made modern science more dynamic, supple and inquisitive than any previous tradition of knowledge.
  • This was true of the public as well as the private sector. Whereas modern states call in their scientists to provide solutions in almost every area of national policy, from energy to health to waste disposal, ancient kingdoms seldom did so.
  • Instead of studying old traditions, emphasis is now placed on new observations and experiments. When present observation collides with past tradition, we give precedence to the observation.
  • In 1687, Isaac Newton published The Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy, arguably the most important book in modern history.
  • Newton presented a general theory of movement and change.
  • Only around the end of the nineteenth century did scientists come across a few observations that did not fit well with Newton’s laws, and these led to the next revolutions in physics — the theory of relativity and quantum mechanics.
  • The leading project of the Scientific Revolution is to give humankind eternal life.
  • A few serious scholars suggest that by 2050, some humans will become a-mortal (not immortal, because they could still die of some accident, but a-mortal, meaning that in the absence of fatal trauma their lives could be extended indefinitely).
  • If these particular geniuses had never been born, their insights would probably have occurred to others. But if the proper funding were unavailable, no intellectual brilliance could have compensated for that.
  • Science can explain what exists in the world, how things work, and what might be in the future. By definition, it has no pretensions to knowing what should be in the future. Only religions and ideologies seek to answer such questions.
  • The Scientific Revolution and modern imperialism were inseparable. People such as Captain James Cook and the botanist Joseph Banks could hardly distinguish science from empire.
  • When the Muslims conquered India, they did not bring along archaeologists to systematically study Indian history, anthropologists to study Indian cultures, geologists to study Indian soils, or zoologists to study Indian fauna. When the British conquered India, they did all of these things.
  • In his spare time Rawlinson travelled around Persia and one day he was led by local guides to a cliff in the Zagros Mountains and shown the huge Behistun Inscription.
  • King Darius I sometime around 500 BC. It was written in cuneiform script in three languages: Old Persian, Elamite and Babylonian.
  • Human history was consequently dominated by two main cycles: the growth cycles of plants and the changing cycles of solar energy (day and night, summer and winter).
  • All the world’s plants capture only about 3,000 of those solar exajoules through the process of photosynthesis.
  • All human activities and industries put together consume about 500 exajoules annually, equivalent to the amount of energy earth receives from the sun in just ninety minutes. And that’s only solar energy.
  • Yet the Industrial Revolution was above all else the Second Agricultural Revolution.
  • Mapping the first human genome required fifteen years and $3 billion. Today you can map a person’s DNA within a few weeks and at the cost of a few hundred dollars.

Civilization, Society, Imperialism, and Politics

  • The alpha male usually wins his position not because he is physically stronger, but because he leads a large and stable coalition.
  • Sociological research has shown that the maximum ‘natural’ size of a group bonded by gossip is about 150 individuals. Most people can neither intimately know, nor gossip effectively about, more than 150 human beings.
  • Below this threshold, communities, businesses, social networks and military units can maintain themselves based mainly on intimate acquaintance and rumour-mongering. There is no need for formal ranks, titles and law books to keep order.
  • Large numbers of strangers can cooperate successfully by believing in common myths.
  • We have grown so used to them that we forget they exist only in our imagination. In the US, the technical term for a limited liability company is a ‘corporation’, which is ironic, because the term derives from ‘corpus’ (‘body’ in Latin) — the one thing these corporations lack.
  • The human collective knows far more today than did the ancient bands. But at the individual level, ancient foragers were the most knowledgeable and skilful people in history.
  • When agriculture and industry came along people could increasingly rely on the skills of others for survival, and new ‘niches for imbeciles’ were opened up. You could survive and pass your unremarkable genes to the next generation by working as a water carrier or an assembly-line worker.
  • The forager economy provided most people with more interesting lives than agriculture or industry do.
  • They were extremely generous with their few possessions, and were not obsessed with success or wealth. The things they valued most in life were good social interactions and high-quality friendships.
  • All this changed about 10,000 years ago, when Sapiens began to devote almost all their time and effort to manipulating the lives of a few animal and plant species. The transition to agriculture began around 9500–8500 BC in the hill country of south-eastern Turkey, western Iran, and the Levant.
  • the Agricultural Revolution left farmers with lives generally more difficult and less satisfying than those of foragers.
  • The average farmer worked harder than the average forager, and got a worse diet in return.
  • This is the essence of the Agricultural Revolution: the ability to keep more people alive under worse conditions.
  • In the years following 9500 BC, the descendants of the Natufians continued to gather and process cereals, but they also began to cultivate them in more and more elaborate ways.
  • But, by 8500 BC, the Middle East was peppered with permanent villages such as Jericho, whose inhabitants spent most of their time cultivating a few domesticated species.
  • With the move to permanent villages and the increase in food supply, the population began to grow. Giving up the nomadic lifestyle enabled women to have a child every year. Babies were weaned at an earlier age — they could be fed on porridge and gruel.
  • The average person in Jericho of 8500 BC lived a harder life than the average person in Jericho of 9500 BC or 13,000 BC.
  • Neither did the early farmers understand that feeding children with more porridge and less breast milk would weaken their immune system, and that permanent settlements would be hotbeds for infectious diseases.
  • One of history’s few iron laws is that luxuries tend to become necessities and to spawn new obligations.
  • A series of trivial decisions aimed mostly at filling a few stomachs and gaining a little security had the cumulative effect of forcing ancient foragers to spend their days carrying water buckets under a scorching sun.
  • It may well be that foragers switched from gathering wild wheat to intense wheat cultivation, not to increase their normal food supply, but rather to support the building and running of a temple.
  • Finally, people began to make a more careful selection among the sheep in order to tailor them to human needs. The most aggressive rams, those that showed the greatest resistance to human control, were slaughtered first. So were the skinniest and most inquisitive females. (Shepherds are not fond of sheep whose curiosity takes them far from the herd.)
  • With each passing generation, the sheep became fatter, more submissive and less curious.
  • In 3100 BC the entire lower Nile Valley was united into the first Egyptian kingdom… The Babylonian king most famous today was Hammurabi.
  • Like Hammurabi’s Code, the American founding document promises that if humans act according to its sacred principles, millions of them would be able to cooperate effectively, living safely and peacefully in a just and prosperous society.
  • It is easy to accept that Hammurabi’s Code was a myth, but we do not want to hear that human rights are also a myth.
  • Homo sapiens has no natural rights, just as spiders, hyenas and chimpanzees have no natural rights.
  • In contrast, an imagined order is always in danger of collapse, because it depends upon myths, and myths vanish once people stop believing in them.
  • The ideal modern house is divided into many small rooms so that each child can have a private space, hidden from view, providing for maximum autonomy.
  • If a single individual changes his or her beliefs, or even dies, it is of little importance. However, if most individuals in the network die or change their beliefs, the inter-subjective phenomenon will mutate or disappear.
  • There is no way out of the imagined order.
  • These ideas are entirely imaginary, but if everyone shares them, we can all play the game.
  • This network of artificial instincts is called ‘culture’.
  • A good rule of thumb is ‘Biology enables, Culture forbids.’ Biology is willing to tolerate a very wide spectrum of possibilities.
  • It should be stressed that an empire is defined solely by its cultural diversity and flexible borders,
  • ‘We are conquering you for your own benefit,’ said the Persians.
  • most famous example of Cyrus’ innovative efforts to gain the approbation of a nation living under the thumb of his empire was his command that the Jewish exiles in Babylonia be allowed to return to their Judaean homeland and rebuild their temple.
  • imperial ideology from Cyrus onward has tended to be inclusive and all-encompassing.
  • This person or family then rules over All Under Heaven (Tianxia) for the benefit of all its inhabitants.
  • Today many Americans believe that the solution to terrorism is technological rather than political.
  • Science, industry and military technology intertwined only with the advent of the capitalist system and the Industrial Revolution.
  • Poverty is increasingly seen as a technical problem amenable to intervention.
  • They [the East] lacked the values, myths, judicial apparatus and sociopolitical structures that took centuries to form and mature in the West and which could not be copied and internalised rapidly.
  • France and the United States quickly followed in Britain’s footsteps because the French and Americans already shared the most important British myths and social structures. The Chinese and Persians could not catch up as quickly because they thought and organised their societies differently.
  • What potential did Europe develop in the early modern period that enabled it to dominate the late modern world? There are two complementary answers to this question: modern science and capitalism.
  • The key factor was that the plant-seeking botanist and the colony-seeking naval officer shared a similar mindset.
  • In contrast, European imperialists set out to distant shores in the hope of obtaining new knowledge along with new territories.
  • The ship’s captain, who was an amateur scientist, decided to add a geologist to the expedition to study geological formations they might encounter on the way. After several professional geologists refused his invitation, the captain offered the job to a twenty-two-year-old Cambridge graduate, Charles Darwin.
  • The empty maps were a psychological and ideological breakthrough, a clear admission that Europeans were ignorant of large parts of the world.
  • He called the people he found there ‘Indians’ because he thought he had landed in the Indies — what we now call the East Indies or the Indonesian archipelago.
  • He was convinced he knew the whole world, and even his momentous discovery failed to convince him otherwise.
  • In 1507, convinced by these arguments, a respected mapmaker named Martin Waldseemüller published an updated world map, the first to show the place where Europe’s westward-sailing fleets had landed as a separate continent.
  • Having drawn it, Waldseemüller had to give it a name. Erroneously believing that Amerigo Vespucci had been the person who discovered it, Waldseemüller named the continent in his honour — America.
  • There is poetic justice in the fact that a quarter of the world, and two of its seven continents, are named after a little-known Italian whose sole claim to fame is that he had the courage to say, ‘We don’t know.’
  • The Europeans were drawn to the blank spots on the map as if they were magnets, and promptly started filling them in.
  • It took them 400 years to get from Rome to London. In 350 BC, no Roman would have conceived of sailing directly to Britain and conquering it.
  • Had the Aztecs and Incas shown a bit more interest in the world surrounding them — and had they known what the Spaniards had done to their neighbours — they might have resisted the Spanish conquest more keenly and successfully.
  • In the years separating Columbus’ first journey to America (1492) from the landing of Cortés in Mexico (1519), the Spaniards conquered most of the Caribbean islands, setting up a chain of new colonies.
  • Most of the native population soon died, either because of the harsh working conditions or the virulence of the diseases that hitch-hiked to America on the conquerors’ sailing ships.
  • The Aztecs were convinced that they knew the entire world and that they ruled most of it.
  • Some Aztecs thought these must be gods. Others argued that they were demons, or the ghosts of the dead, or powerful sorcerers.
  • Cortés kept Montezuma captive in the palace, making it look as if the king remained free and in charge and as if the ‘Spanish ambassador’ were no more than a guest. The Aztec Empire was an extremely centralised polity, and this unprecedented situation paralysed it.
  • Cortés used the knowledge he had gained to prise the cracks open wider and split the empire from within.
  • Within a century of the landing at Vera Cruz, the native population of the Americas had shrunk by about 90 per cent, due mainly to unfamiliar diseases that reached America with the invaders.
  • Ten years after Cortés landed in Mexico, Pizarro arrived on the shore of the Inca Empire. He had far fewer soldiers than Cortés — his expedition numbered just 168 men! Yet Pizarro benefited from all the knowledge and experience gained in previous invasions. The Inca, in contrast, knew nothing about the fate of the Aztecs. Pizarro plagiarised Cortés.
  • The Chinese just weren’t interested.
  • For 300 years, Europeans enjoyed undisputed mastery in America and Oceania, in the Atlantic and the Pacific.
  • When the Ottomans, Persians, Indians and Chinese woke up and began paying attention, it was too late.
  • The defeat that little North Vietnam inflicted on the American colossus was based on a similar strategy. These guerrilla forces showed that even superpowers could be defeated if a local struggle became a global cause.
  • The European empires believed that in order to govern effectively they must know the languages and cultures of their subjects.
  • in its extreme form, belief in the free market is as naïve as belief in Santa Claus. There simply is no such thing as a market free of all political bias.
  • In a completely free market, unsupervised by kings and priests, avaricious capitalists can establish monopolies or collude against their workforces.
  • Shortly after factories imposed their time frames on human behaviour, schools too adopted precise timetables, followed by hospitals, government offices and grocery stores.
  • In 1847, British train companies put their heads together and agreed that henceforth all train timetables would be calibrated to Greenwich Observatory time, rather than the local times of Liverpool, Manchester or Glasgow.
  • Village life involved many transactions but few payments.
  • Romantic literature often presents the individual as somebody caught in a struggle against the state and the market. Nothing could be further from the truth.
  • Markets and states do so by fostering ‘imagined communities’ that contain millions of strangers,
  • In the last two centuries, the intimate communities have withered, leaving imagined communities to fill in the emotional vacuum.
  • They exist only in our collective imagination, yet their power is immense.
  • This sounds very strange, but we are surrounded by examples. Madonna fans, for example, constitute a consumer tribe.
  • In the last two centuries, the currency of politics is that it promises to destroy the old world and build a better one in its place.

Myths, Storytelling, & Religion

  • You could never convince a monkey to give you a banana by promising him limitless bananas after death in monkey heaven.
  • There are no gods in the universe, no nations, no money, no human rights, no laws, and no justice outside the common imagination of human beings.
  • Telling effective stories is not easy. The difficulty lies not in telling the story, but in convincing everyone else to believe it.
  • Unlike lying, an imagined reality is something that everyone believes in, and as long as this communal belief persists, the imagined reality exerts force in the world.
  • Animism (from ‘anima’, ‘soul’ or ‘spirit’ in Latin) is the belief that almost every place, every animal, every plant and every natural phenomenon has awareness and feelings,
  • It is difficult to prove that preliterate people were motivated by faith rather than economic necessity.
  • Despite the lack of such biological instincts, during the foraging era, hundreds of strangers were able to cooperate thanks to their shared myths.
  • Stories about ancestral spirits and tribal totems were strong enough to enable 500 people to trade seashells, celebrate the odd festival, and join forces to wipe out a Neanderthal band, but no more than that.
  • When the Agricultural Revolution opened opportunities for the creation of crowded cities and mighty empires, people invented stories about great gods, motherlands and joint stock companies to provide the needed social links.
  • Most human cooperation networks have been geared towards oppression and exploitation.
  • stone stela inscribed with the Code of Hammurabi, c.1776 BC.
  • According to the code, people are divided into two genders and three classes: superior people, commoners and slaves. Members of each gender and class have different values.
  • The Americans got the idea of equality from Christianity, which argues that every person has a divinely created soul, and that all souls are equal before God.
  • Voltaire said about God that ‘there is no God, but don’t tell that to my servant, lest he murder me at night’.
  • A single priest often does the work of a hundred soldiers — far more cheaply and effectively.
  • You always insist that the order sustaining society is an objective reality created by the great gods or by the laws of nature.
  • Most people do not wish to accept that the order governing their lives is imaginary, but in fact every person is born into a pre-existing imagined order, and his or her desires are shaped from birth by its dominant myths.
  • Americas wanted to be seen not only as economically successful but also as pious, just and objective. Religious and scientific myths were pressed into service to justify this division.
  • In truth, our concepts ‘natural’ and ‘unnatural’ are taken not from biology, but from Christian theology.
  • 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.
  • Religion can thus be defined as a system of human norms and values that is founded on a belief in a superhuman order.
  • The attempt to answer these needs led to the appearance of polytheistic religions (from the Greek: poly = many, theos = god). These religions understood the world to be controlled by a group of powerful gods, such as the fertility goddess, the rain god and the war god.
  • Animists thought that humans were just one of many creatures inhabiting the world. Polytheists, on the other hand, increasingly saw the world as a reflection of the relationship between gods and humans.
  • Polytheism thereby exalted not only the status of the gods, but also that of humankind.
  • Polytheism does not necessarily dispute the existence of a single power or law governing the entire universe. In fact, most polytheist and even animist religions recognised such a supreme power that stands behind all the different gods, demons and holy rocks.
  • The only god that the Romans long refused to tolerate was the monotheistic and evangelising god of the Christians.


Protestants believed that the divine love is so great that God was incarnated in flesh and allowed Himself to be tortured and crucified, thereby redeeming the original sin and opening the gates of heaven to all those who professed faith in Him. Catholics maintained that faith, while essential, was not enough. To enter heaven, believers had to participate in church rituals and do good deeds. Protestants refused to accept this, arguing that this quid pro quo belittles God’s greatness and love.
In this attack, the St Bartholomew’s Day Massacre, between 5,000 and 10,000 Protestants were slaughtered in less than twenty-four hours.
More Christians were killed by fellow Christians in those twenty-four hours than by the polytheistic Roman Empire throughout its entire existence.
The first monotheist religion known to us appeared in Egypt, c.1350 BC, when Pharaoh Akhenaten declared that one of the minor deities of the Egyptian pantheon, the god Aten, was, in fact, the supreme power ruling the universe.
The big breakthrough came with Christianity. This faith began as an esoteric Jewish sect that sought to convince Jews that Jesus of Nazareth was their long-awaited messiah.
Paul of Tarsus, reasoned that if the supreme power of the universe has interests and biases, and if He had bothered to incarnate Himself in the flesh and to die on the cross for the salvation of humankind, then this is something everyone should hear about, not just Jews.
Christian success served as a model for another monotheist religion that appeared in the Arabian peninsula in the seventh century — Islam.

Monotheism and Dualism

Monotheists have tended to be far more fanatical and missionary than polytheists.
Since monotheists have usually believed that they are in possession of the entire message of the one and only God, they have been compelled to discredit all other religions.
The Christian saints did not merely resemble the old polytheistic gods. Often they were these very same gods in disguise.
Dualistic religions espouse the existence of two opposing powers: good and evil.
So, monotheism explains order, but is mystified by evil. Dualism explains evil, but is puzzled by order.
Sometime between 1500 BC and 1000 BC a prophet named Zoroaster (Zarathustra) was active somewhere in Central Asia. His creed passed from generation to generation until it became the most important of dualistic religions — Zoroastrianism.
Countless Christians, Muslims and Jews have gone so far as to imagine that the good God even needs our help in its struggle against the Devil, which inspired among other things the call for jihads and crusades.


The central figure of Buddhism is not a god but a human being, Siddhartha Gautama.
At the age of twenty-nine Gautama slipped away from his palace in the middle of the night, leaving behind his family and possessions. He travelled as a homeless vagabond throughout northern India, searching for a way out of suffering.
He spent six years meditating on the essence, causes and cures for human anguish.
suffering is caused by the behaviour patterns of one’s own mind.
People dream for years about finding love but are rarely satisfied when they find it.
If, when the mind experiences something pleasant or unpleasant, it simply understands things as they are, then there is no suffering. If you experience sadness without craving that the sadness go away, you continue to feel sadness but you do not suffer from it. There can actually be richness in the sadness.
Gautama grounded these meditation techniques in a set of ethical rules meant to make it easier for people to focus on actual experience and to avoid falling into cravings and fantasies.
Those who have attained nirvana are fully liberated from all suffering.
A person who does not crave cannot suffer.
People are liberated from suffering not when they experience this or that fleeting pleasure, but rather when they understand the impermanent nature of all their feelings, and stop craving them. This is the aim of Buddhist meditation practices.
Buddha’s recommendation was to stop not only the pursuit of external achievements, but also the pursuit of inner feelings.
They never realise that they are not their feelings, and that the relentless pursuit of particular feelings just traps them in misery.
  • If a religion is a system of human norms and values that is founded on belief in a superhuman order, then Soviet Communism was no less a religion than Islam.
  • Theist religions focus on the worship of gods. Humanist religions worship humanity, or more correctly, Homo sapiens.

Behavior, Relationships, and Family

  • One on one, even ten on ten, we are embarrassingly similar to chimpanzees. Significant differences begin to appear only when we cross the threshold of 150 individuals, and when we reach 1,000–2,000 individuals, the differences are astounding.
  • The proponents of this ‘ancient commune’ theory argue that the frequent infidelities that characterise modern marriages, and the high rates of divorce, not to mention the cornucopia of psychological complexes from which both children and adults suffer, all result from forcing humans to live in nuclear families and monogamous relationships that are incompatible with our biological software.
  • The debate between the ‘ancient commune’ and ‘eternal monogamy’ schools is based on flimsy evidence.
  • Free association and holistic thought have given way to compartmentalisation and bureaucracy.
  • They can describe how Christianity took over the Roman Empire, but they cannot explain why this particular possibility was realised.
  • Over time, states and markets used their growing power to weaken the traditional bonds of family and community.
  • Like the nuclear family, the community could not completely disappear from our world without any emotional replacement.
  • The generally accepted definition of happiness is ‘subjective well-being’.
  • One interesting conclusion is that money does indeed bring happiness. But only up to a point, and beyond that point it has little significance.
  • People who are diagnosed with chronic illness such as diabetes are usually depressed for a while, but if the illness does not get worse they adjust to their new condition and rate their happiness as highly as healthy people do.
  • Family and community seem to have more impact on our happiness than money and health.
  • 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.
  • When things improve, expectations balloon, and consequently even dramatic improvements in objective conditions can leave us dissatisfied.
  • If happiness is determined by expectations, then two pillars of our society — mass media and the advertising industry — may unwittingly be depleting the globe’s reservoirs of contentment.
  • Lasting happiness comes only from serotonin, dopamine and oxytocin.
  • Another is that the findings demonstrate that happiness is not the surplus of pleasant over unpleasant moments. Rather, happiness consists in seeing one’s life in its entirety as meaningful and worthwhile.
  • As Nietzsche put it, if you have a why to live, you can bear almost any how.
  • If economic growth and self-reliance do not make people happier, what’s the benefit of Capitalism?
  • Given the proven human propensity for misusing power, it seems naïve to believe that the more clout people have, the happier they will be.

Migration and Environmental Impact

  • The journey of the first humans to Australia is one of the most important events in history, at least as important as Columbus’ journey to America or the Apollo II expedition to the moon.
  • Of the twenty-four Australian animal species weighing 100 pounds or more, twenty-three became extinct.
  • There are three pieces of evidence that weaken the climate alibi, and implicate our ancestors in the extinction of the Australian megafauna.
  • In these cases Sapiens guilt is irrefutable. For example, the megafauna of New Zealand — which had weathered the alleged ‘climate change’ of c.45,000 years ago without a scratch — suffered devastating blows immediately after the first humans set foot on the islands.
  • These animals had to evolve a fear of humankind, but before they could do so they were gone.
  • The combination of climate change and human hunting is particularly devastating for large animals, since it attacks them from different angles.
  • For mammoth and man alike, Alaska was a mere extension of Siberia.
  • At first, glaciers blocked the way from Alaska to the rest of America, allowing no more than perhaps a few isolated pioneers to investigate the lands further south.
  • However, around 12,000 BC global warming melted the ice and opened an easier passage.
  • By 10,000 BC, humans already inhabited the most southern point in America,
  • No other animal had ever moved into such a huge variety of radically different habitats so quickly, everywhere using virtually the same genes.
  • within that short interval, North America lost thirty-four out of its forty-seven genera of large mammals.
  • The sabre-tooth cats, after flourishing for more than 30 million years, disappeared, and so did the giant ground sloths, the oversized lions, native American horses, native American camels, the giant rodents and the mammoths.
  • younger dung balls: on several Caribbean islands, in particular Cuba and Hispaniola, they found petrified ground-sloth scat dating to about 5000 BC. This is exactly the time when the first humans managed to cross the Caribbean Sea and settle these two large islands. Again, some scholars try to exonerate Homo sapiens and blame climate change (which requires them to posit that, for some mysterious reason, the climate in the Caribbean islands remained static for 7,000 years while the rest of the western hemisphere warmed).
  • At the time of the Cognitive Revolution, the planet was home to about 200 genera of large terrestrial mammals weighing over 100 pounds. At the time of the Agricultural Revolution, only about a hundred remained.
  • Homo sapiens drove to extinction about half of the planet’s big beasts long before humans invented the wheel, writing, or iron tools.
  • None but a few extremely remote islands escaped man’s notice until the modern age, and these islands kept their fauna intact. The Galapagos Islands, to give one famous example, remained uninhabited by humans until the nineteenth century, thus preserving their unique menagerie, including their giant tortoises, which, like the ancient diprotodons, show no fear of humans.
  • If we knew how many species we’ve already eradicated, we might be more motivated to protect those that still survive. This is especially relevant to the large animals of the oceans.


  • The lives of some domesticated animals could be quite good. Sheep raised for wool, pet dogs and cats, war horses and race horses often enjoyed comfortable conditions.
  • Experts disagree about the exact date, but we have incontrovertible evidence of domesticated dogs from about 15,000 years ago.
  • To ensure that the pigs can’t run away, farmers in northern New Guinea slice off a chunk of each pig’s nose. This causes severe pain whenever the pig tries to sniff. Since the pigs cannot find food or even find their way around without sniffing, this mutilation makes them completely dependent on their human owners.
  • coprolite (the technical name for fossilised turds)
  • puppies throughout the world have the rules for rough-and-tumble play hard-wired into their genes. But American teenagers have no genes for pick-up basketball.
  • tens of billions of farm animals live today as part of a mechanised assembly line, and about 50 billion of them are slaughtered annually.
  • There are about 80,000 giraffes in the world, compared to 1.5 billion cattle; only 200,000 wolves, compared to 400 million domesticated dogs; only 250,000 chimpanzees — in contrast to billions of humans… In 1700 the world was home to some 700 million humans. In 1800 there were 950 million of us. By 1900 we almost doubled our numbers to 1.6 billion. And by 2000 that quadrupled to 6 billion.
  • we can congratulate ourselves on the unprecedented accomplishments of modern Sapiens only if we completely ignore the fate of all other animals.
  • (The mouse genome contains about 2.5 billion nucleobases, the Sapiens genome about 2.9 billion bases — meaning the latter is only 14 per cent larger.)
  • massive increases in human power did not necessarily improve the well-being of individual Sapiens, and usually caused immense misery to other animals.


  • the Sungir children are among the best pieces of evidence that 30,000 years ago Sapiens could invent sociopolitical codes that went far beyond the dictates of our DNA and the behaviour patterns of other human and animal species.
  • If all eighteen indeed died violently, it means that about 4.5 per cent of deaths in the ancient Danube Valley were caused by human violence. Today, the global average is only 1.5 per cent, taking war and crime together.
  • During the twentieth century, only 5 per cent of human deaths resulted from human violence — and this in a century that saw the bloodiest wars and most massive genocides in history.
  • Just as foragers exhibited a wide array of religions and social structures, so, too, did they probably demonstrate a variety of violence rates.
  • Were the Australian extinction an isolated event, we could grant humans the benefit of the doubt. But the historical record makes Homo sapiens look like an ecological serial killer.
  • The late modern era has seen unprecedented levels not only of violence and horror, but also of peace and tranquillity. Charles Dickens wrote of the French Revolution that ‘It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.’
  • This is surprising because these very same decades experienced more economic, social and political change than any previous era. The tectonic plates of history are moving at a frantic pace, but the volcanoes are mostly silent.
  • It turns out that in the year following the 9/11 attacks, despite all the talk of terrorism and war, the average person was more likely to kill himself than to be killed by a terrorist, a soldier or a drug dealer.
  • What nobody can deny is that international violence has dropped to an all-time low.
  • At least some of the praise usually heaped on Mahatma Gandhi for his non-violent creed is actually owed to the British Empire.
  • The Soviet collapse in 1989 was even more peaceful, despite the eruption of ethnic conflict in the Balkans, the Caucasus and Central Asia. Never before has such a mighty empire disappeared so swiftly and so quietly.
  • When its members realised that Communism was bankrupt, they renounced force, admitted their failure, packed their suitcases and went home.
  • With very few exceptions, since 1945 states no longer invade other states in order to conquer and swallow them up.
  • For real peace is not the mere absence of war. Real peace is the implausibility of war.
  • For most polities, there is no plausible scenario leading to full-scale conflict within one year.
  • Nuclear weapons have turned war between superpowers into collective suicide, and made it impossible to seek world domination by force of arms.
  • the few full-scale international wars that still take place in the world, such as the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, occur in places where wealth is old-fashioned material wealth.
  • While war became less profitable, peace became more lucrative than ever.
  • International wars became rare only after 1945, largely thanks to the new threat of nuclear annihilation.


  • How did money succeed where gods and kings failed?
  • People today spend a great deal of money on holidays abroad because they are true believers in the myths of romantic consumerism.
  • Even if you manage to calculate how many apples equal one pair of shoes, barter is not always possible. After all, a trade requires that each side want what the other has to offer.
  • the Soviet Union, and it failed miserably. ‘Everyone would work according to their abilities, and receive according to their needs’ turned out in practice into ‘everyone would work as little as they can get away with, and receive as much as they could grab’.
  • Money was created many times in many places. Its development required no technological breakthroughs — it was a purely mental revolution.
  • The sum total of money in the world is about $60 trillion, yet the sum total of coins and banknotes is less than $6 trillion.7 More than 90 percent of all money — more than $50 trillion appearing in our accounts — exists only on computer servers.
  • Trust is the raw material from which all types of money are minted.
  • The real breakthrough in monetary history occurred when people gained trust in money that lacked inherent value, but was easier to store and transport.
  • Christians and Muslims who could not agree on religious beliefs could nevertheless agree on a monetary belief, because whereas religion asks us to believe in something, money asks us to believe that other people believe in something.
  • we must take into account the role of gold and silver, but we cannot disregard the equally crucial role of steel.
  • The total value of goods and services produced by humankind in the year 1500 is estimated at $250 billion, in today’s dollars.2 Nowadays the value of a year of human production is close to $60 trillion.
  • (Take a second look at those figures — human population has increased fourteen-fold, production 240-fold, and energy consumption 115-fold.)
  • In 1775 Asia accounted for 80 per cent of the world economy.
  • The global centre of power shifted to Europe only between 1750 and 1850, when Europeans humiliated the Asian powers in a series of wars and conquered large parts of Asia.
  • In 1950 western Europe and the United States together accounted for more than half of global production, whereas China’s portion had been reduced to 5 per cent.
  • Behind the meteoric rise of both science and empire lurks one particularly important force: capitalism.
  • For most of history the economy stayed much the same size. Yes, global production increased, but this was due mostly to demographic expansion and the settlement of new lands. Per capita production remained static.
  • More importantly, in 1500, annual per capita production averaged $550, while today every man, woman and child produces, on the average, $8,800 a year.
  • Banks are allowed to loan $10 for every dollar they actually possess, which means that 90 percent of all the money in our bank accounts is not covered by actual coins and notes.
  • But if it’s a fraud, then the entire modern economy is a fraud.
  • What enables banks — and the entire economy — to survive and flourish is our trust in the future.
  • Credit enables us to build the present at the expense of the future.
  • The problem in previous eras was not that no one had the idea or knew how to use it. It was that people seldom wanted to extend much credit because they didn’t trust that the future would be better than the present.
  • You could cut the pie in many different ways, but it never got any bigger.
  • Over the last 500 years the idea of progress convinced people to put more and more trust in the future.
  • Yet Smith’s claim that the selfish human urge to increase private profits is the basis for collective wealth is one of the most revolutionary ideas in human history — revolutionary not just from an economic perspective, but even more so from a moral and political perspective.
  • What Smith says is, in fact, that greed is good, and that by becoming richer I benefit everybody, not just myself. Egoism is altruism.
  • In Smith’s story, people become rich not by despoiling their neighbours, but by increasing the overall size of the pie.
  • ‘The profits of production must be reinvested in increasing production.’
  • Capital consists of money, goods and resources that are invested in production. Wealth, on the other hand, is buried in the ground or wasted on unproductive activities.
  • Nobody wants to pay taxes, but everyone is happy to invest.
  • This was the magic circle of imperial capitalism: credit financed new discoveries; discoveries led to colonies; colonies provided profits; profits built trust; and trust translated into more credit.
  • Capital trickles away from dictatorial states that fail to defend private individuals and their property. Instead, it flows into states upholding the rule of law and private property.
  • Better to do business with merchants than with kings,
  • And it was the Dutch merchants — not the Dutch state — who built the Dutch Empire.
  • The remains of the wall built by WIC to defend its colony against Indians and British are today paved over by the world’s most famous street — Wall Street.
  • They had seen that if a foreign debtor refused to repay loans, Her Majesty’s army would get their money back.
  • This is why today a country’s credit rating is far more important to its economic well-being than are its natural resources.
  • the way to ensure the most economic growth — which will benefit everyone, industrialists and workers — is for the government to do as little as possible. This free-market doctrine is today the most common and influential variant of the capitalist creed. The most enthusiastic advocates of the free market criticise military adventures abroad with as much zeal as welfare programmes at home.
  • From the sixteenth to the nineteenth centuries, about 10 million African slaves were imported to America.
  • Throughout the eighteenth century the yield on slave-trade investments was about 6 per cent a year — they were extremely profitable, as any modern consultant would be quick to admit.
  • This is the fly in the ointment of free-market capitalism. It cannot ensure that profits are gained in a fair way, or distributed in a fair manner.
  • between 1885 and 1908 the pursuit of growth and profits cost the lives of 6 million individuals (at least 20 per cent of the Congo’s population). Some estimates reach up to 10 million deaths.
  • The human species and the global economy may well keep growing, but many more individuals may live in hunger and want.
  • Today in the United States, only 2 per cent of the population makes a living from agriculture, yet this 2 per cent produces enough not only to feed the entire US population, but also to export surpluses to the rest of the world.
  • Each year the US population spends more money on diets than the amount needed to feed all the hungry people in the rest of the world.
  • Consumerism sees the consumption of ever more products and services as a positive thing.
  • Consumerism has worked very hard, with the help of popular psychology (‘Just do it!’) to convince people that indulgence is good for you, whereas frugality is self-oppression.
  • The supreme commandment of the rich is ‘Invest!’ The supreme commandment of the rest of us is ‘Buy!’
  • Liberal politics is based on the idea that the voters know best, and there is no need for Big Brother to tell us what is good for us. Liberal economics is based on the idea that the customer is always right.
  • Yet they say nothing about how all this influenced the happiness and suffering of individuals. This is the biggest lacuna in our understanding of history.