Sapiens – Harari

If you haven’t read Sapiens yet, you definitely should. It gives a beautifully broad coverage of the history of humanity.

After finishing, rather than continuing on with Harari’s sequel, jump across to The Big Picture by Sean Carrol to get depth on everything.

My notes here aren’t worth reading. Sapiens is a light read that doesn’t need analysis. Just read the book.

Notes

  • Principles for creating a new order:
    • Never admit that your order is imagined.
    • Educate people thouroughly from an early age.
    • Incorporate the order into everyday culture (entertainment, work, family, etc)
    • Embed the order into the physical world (architecture, design, cities, etc) to make it feel tangible.
    • Make it inter-subjective – shared across many people.
  • Inter-subjective phenomena are concepts based on communication, agreement, and expectation. They are contractual ideas.
  • Everything past and including the agricultural revolution could really just be called the cultural revolution.
  • Culture has enabled humans to progress faster than their underlying genetic mutations previously enabled them to.
  • Animism didn’t spread like later religions because it was largely local. The spirits, rituals, beliefs were rooted in the local environment (e.g. local landmarks, local animals, etc), so there was no inherent vitality about them, thus they didn’t spread.
  • The Religious revolution was sparked by the agricultural revolution; for the first time people no longer viewed plants and animals as other living things that they used, rather they began to view them as property. In order to protect their propety, they needed something stronger than fences; they needed Gods.

Quotes

  • “Whereas chimpanzee alpha males use their power to have sex with as many females as possible – and consequently sire a large proportion of their troop’s young – the Catholic alpha male abstains completely from sexual intercourse or raising a family. This abstinence does not result from unique environmental conditions such as a severe lack of food or want of potential mates. Nor is it the result of some quirky genetic mutation. The Catholic Church has survived for centuries, not by passing on a ‘celibacy gene’ from one pope to the next, but by passing on the stories of the New Testament and of Catholic canon law.”
  • “From the Cognitive Revolution onwards, historical narratives replace biological theories as our primary means of explaining the development of Homo sapiens. To understand the rise of Christianity or the French Revolution, it is not enough to comprehend the interaction of genes, hormones and organisms. It is necessary to take into account the interaction of ideas, images and fantasies as well.”
  • “This is the essence of the Agricultural Revolution: the ability to keep more people alive under worse conditions.”
  • “One of history’s few iron laws is that luxuries tend to become necessities and to spawn new obligations.”
  • “This discrepancy between evolutionary success and individual suffering is perhaps the most important lesson we can draw from the Agricultural Revolution.”
  • “History is something that very few people have been doing while everyone else was ploughing fields and carrying water buckets.”
  • “Voltaire said about God that ‘there is no God, but don’t tell that to my servant, lest he murder me at night’.”
  • “Such fears are well justified. A natural order is a stable order. There is no chance that gravity will cease to function tomorrow, even if people stop believing in it. 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.”
  • “How do you cause people to believe in an imagined order such as Christianity, democracy or capitalism? First, you never admit that the order is imagined. You always insist that the order sustaining society is an objective reality created by the great gods or by the laws of nature.”
  • “The Great Pyramid of Giza. The kind of thing rich people in ancient Egypt did with their money.”
  • “It follows that in order to change an existing imagined order, we must first believe in an alternative imagined order.”
  • “The most important impact of script on human history is precisely this: it has gradually changed the way humans think and view the world. Free association and holistic thought have given way to compartmentalisation and bureaucracy.”
  • “Most people claim that their social hierarchy is natural and just, while those of other societies are based on false and ridiculous criteria. Modern Westerners are taught to scoff at the idea of racial hierarchy. 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.”
  • “Culture tends to argue that it forbids only that which is unnatural. But from a biological perspective, nothing is unnatural. Whatever is possible is by definition also natural.”
  • “In truth, our concepts ‘natural’ and ‘unnatural’ are taken not from biology, but from Christian theology. The theological meaning of ‘natural’ is ‘in accordance with the intentions of the God who created nature’.”
  • “There is little sense, then, in arguing that the natural function of women is to give birth, or that homosexuality is unnatural. Most of the laws, norms, rights and obligations that define manhood and womanhood reflect human imagination more than biological reality.”
  • “Unlike the laws of physics, which are free of inconsistencies, every man-made order is packed with internal contradictions. Cultures are constantly trying to reconcile these contradictions, and this process fuels change.”
  • “Just as medieval culture did not manage to square chivalry with Christianity, so the modern world fails to square liberty with equality. But this is no defect. Such contradictions are an inseparable part of every human culture.”
  • “Consistency is the playground of dull minds.”
  • “Cognitive dissonance is often considered a failure of the human psyche. In fact, it is a vital asset. Had people been unable to hold contradictory beliefs and values, it would probably have been impossible to establish and maintain any human culture.”
  • “As long as people trusted the power and integrity of the king, they trusted his coins. Total strangers could easily agree on the worth of a Roman denarius coin, because they trusted the power and integrity of the Roman emperor, whose name and picture adorned it.”
  • “Once trade connects two areas, the forces of supply and demand tend to equalise the prices of transportable goods. In order to understand why, consider a hypothetical case. Assume that when regular trade opened between India and the Mediterranean, Indians were uninterested in gold, so it was almost worthless. But in the Mediterranean, gold was a coveted status symbol, hence its value was high. What would happen next? Merchants travelling between India and the Mediterranean would notice the difference in the value of gold. In order to make a profit, they would buy gold cheaply in India and sell it dearly in the Mediterranean. Consequently, the demand for gold in India would skyrocket, as would its value. At the same time the Mediterranean would experience an influx of gold, whose value would consequently drop. Within a short time the value of gold in India and the Mediterranean would be quite similar. The mere fact that Mediterranean people believed in gold would cause Indians to start believing in it as well. Even if Indians still had no real use for gold, the fact that Mediterranean people wanted it would be enough to make the Indians value it.”
  • “Today religion is often considered a source of discrimination, disagreement and disunion. Yet, in fact, religion has been the third great unifier of humankind, alongside money and empires.”
  • “First, it must espouse a universal superhuman order that is true always and everywhere. Second, it must insist on spreading this belief to everyone. In other words, it must be universal and missionary.”
  • “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.”
  • “Over the last two millennia, monotheists repeatedly tried to strengthen their hand by violently exterminating all competition.”
  • “So, monotheism explains order, but is mystified by evil. Dualism explains evil, but is puzzled by order. There is one logical way of solving the riddle: to argue that there is a single omnipotent God who created the entire universe – and He’s evil. But nobody in history has had the stomach for such a belief.”
  • “So such oppositions eventually became cornerstones of Christian and Muslim thought. Belief in heaven (the realm of the good god) and hell (the realm of the evil god) was also dualist in origin. There is no trace of this belief in the Old Testament, which also never claims that the souls of people continue to live after the death of the body.”
  • “In 1620 Francis Bacon published a scientific manifesto titled The New Instrument. In it he argued that ‘knowledge is power’. The real test of ‘knowledge’ is not whether it is true, but whether it empowers us. Scientists usually assume that no theory is 100 per cent correct. Consequently, truth is a poor test for knowledge. The real test is utility. A theory that enables us to do new things constitutes knowledge.”
  • “Throughout history, societies have suffered from two kinds of poverty: social poverty, which withholds from some people the opportunities available to others; and biological poverty, which puts the very lives of individuals at risk due to lack of food and shelter. Perhaps social poverty can never be eradicated, but in many countries around the world biological poverty is a thing of the past.”
  • “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.”
  • “So it is hardly coincidental that science and capitalism form the most important legacy that European imperialism has bequeathed the post-European world of the twenty-first century.”

sebastiankade

Sebastian Kade, Founder of Sumry and Author of Living Happiness, is a software designer and full-stack engineer. He writes thought-provoking articles every now and then on sebastiankade.com

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