“ A brief history of humankind ”

by Yuval Noah Harari

Book Cover

What I really enjoyed about that book is the modern aspect it projected upon our ancestors. It contains a few interesting philosophical points. I’ve had issues understanding the point it was trying to make. I think it is just trying to present a relatively non-linear vision of history instead, which is interesting in itself. A good easy read.


These are my main take aways:

  • Sapiens didn’t use to be the only species of human but drove the other to extinction.

  • It’s hard to tell if the modern life is happier or not than it used to be because we are projections our expectations on our ancestors, but life wasn’t as we know it and they might have liked it.

  • Sapiens created myths that let it grow beyond small communities. These myths are social constructs (companies, laws, states, money) and religions of various forms, be it christianity, Islam and such ; or capitalism, liberalism, democracy, etc.

  • Sapiens broke itself out of natural selection, as well as species that were useful for it. The irony being that this makes intelligent design proponents right about the future. Its presence has been too short to predict the future, but it is certainly going to be forged by itself, the philosophical and ethical aspects are still unclear.


Humans went through 3 revolutions:

  • Cognitive
  • Agricultural
  • Scientific

Humans contain all species of Homo that existed. At some point, sapiens cohabited with other species, like Neanderthal or Denisovans

  • Humans used to be low on the food chain, scavenging bone marrow.
  • Sapiens has driven all other homo species to extinction
  • The same set of genes have made sapiens successful in arctic climates, and in tropical climates,
  • Sapiens has driven a lot of dominant animal species to extinction when it arrived.
  • Why the human brain evolved to be so big is still a mystery

Up to 150 people, communication can be maintained

  • Gossip is a very essential tool of a tribe community, to know who to rely on, who to talk to
  • Past 150, sapiens had to create common myths to organize - gods, laws, states, kings, hierarchies, etc.

When sapiens were hunter gatherers, life wasn’t so bad

  • Were working on average 35h a week
  • Life expectancy was rendered low because of high child-death rates, but on average an adult could expect to live to 60, some even to 80
  • Days were varied as well as activities
  • Brains have evolved to support this way of life- spatial orientation, identifying causality, recognizing berries, etc.

The benefits of the agriculture revolution are overplayed

  • Wheat domesticated humans more than the opposite
    • Forced people to do hard labor to tend to it
    • To locate themselves close to it -> domesticate themselves
  • Brain was less used than when hunting/gathering, doing back-breaking activities, with outcomes less certain, and with less food diversity
  • Supported more humans in denser areas, which made going back to hunting / gathering impossible
  • Sapiens with power started benefiting from the work of others, the opposite isn’t so true.

Civilization organized itself around myths.

  • Common beliefs are essential to larger group, else trust cannot be established
  • Gods, laws, states, companies, etc. Are myths
  • Writing appeared first to represent notions that weren’t compatible with a hunter gatherer brain - numbers and math

Then evolved towards more complex concepts

  • Myths of former civilizations are always discarded, but we have a tendency at overestimating the logic of our own myths
    • Example: the American declaration of independence. What is equal? If anything evolution tells that we’re not equal at all, or we wouldn’t be there? And then, equal was limited to white men in the beginning, then included women, then Blacks. But now there is still a divide between poor and rich, and it’s viewed as normal.
    • “Everyone is created equal” but biology states that no-one is equal.
      • Evolution has selected the fittest
      • Even today, people born in riches are more likely to be rich than people born in poverty.
  • What’s natural? Everything is natural, but not everything is natural as per culture. Homosexual relationships are natural since they can happen. In some cultures they were a good way of socializing. Natural in Christian culture means “as intended by god”, but it’s not natural, it’s just part of the myth.
  • Everything in culture is usually brought back to “god given”, dismissing any alternative. “There is no alternative to being equal”. “there is no alternative to capitalism”, etc.

World is moving towards unity

  • There are no real boundaries
  • All cultures have been more or less standardized towards afro-eurasian
  • Best example is “traditional” cuisine that has nothing traditional - e.g. tomatoes and potatoes are not European


  • Originated from something that had intrinsic value (bags of barley) - easier than bargaining
  • Has been the most effectively propagated myth, people with radically opposed views both trust the myth of money
  • Is trusted, marked by authority.
    • This is why counterfeiting money is always considered a grave offence - forging the signature of authority
  • Global market means things tend to be valued the same everywhere
  • Is universal - violence can buy knowledge, sex can buy redemption
  • Should not replace fundamentals of society - parents raise kids, spouses are loyal, people defend their tribes
  • And yet has perverse effects
    • Parents have sold their children
    • Trust moved from tribal to money, I trust you as long as you have money


  • Are defined by a single state governing a large number of peoples, have been small in size
  • Have had some positive intents, “educating barbarians”
  • Have standardized peoples, both to “educate” and to make ruling easier
  • Sapiens has always been xenophobic, “us and them”, so colonization was usually very exploitative by nature
  • But empires have shaped the world, their changes remaining long after their disappearance - unification of people, of languages, introduction of common laws and governing bodies, of culture, etc.


  • Polytheist have many gods
    • sometimes local, usually imperfect and temperamental
    • Usually believe in another entity above all
    • by nature are more tolerant of other religions, no need to disseminate the religion
  • Monotheist have one god
    • Usually less tolerant, need to disseminate the one true god.
    • Christians have exterminated each other based on slightly diverging interpretations
    • Are usually more or less polytheist - e.g. Saints and angels in Christianity.
  • Buddhism and such don’t intrinsically believe in god
    • Believe that suffering is caused by cravings
    • Therefore being free of cravings is being free of suffering
    • Most Buddhist cultures either also believe in other religions (e.g. Hinduism) or slapped deities into Buddhism
  • Other forms of beliefs can be considered religions - communism, capitalism, humanism, etc. Even though they don’t reflect belief in a deity, they still shape a large portion of a large groups of people.


  • Premise to scientific endeavor is admitting that we lack knowledge
    • But in early myths (religion, capitalism, nationalism) the myth was sufficient.
    • Myth was explaining things related to human life
    • Everything else was just the way it was
  • Most of the financing of science was done to maintain the status quo in the beginning
  • Science wasn’t linked to technology until recent times.
  • Technology wasn’t applied to warfare until canons were invented, and even then, WW-I was the first really tech-driven war.
    • Until then superiority was mostly due to organization and civilization. E. G. Gun powder was used for fireworks only
  • Capitalism and personal gain boosted science through technology (gadgets)
  • Science is slowly making humans amortal (immortal, barring a trauma)
    • Death was a central part of religions
    • New religions (except for nationalism) don’t really care about death


  • When technology craze started out, capitalism and science/thirst for knowledge were already common myths in Europe, and so the fire caught easily
  • Other empires (Persia, China,…) weren’t believing those myths, and got distanced
  • Conquest happened with the intent to protect land - conquering the neighboring land to protect the land we have, and the next, and the next, etc. (Rome)
  • European dominance was asserted because of quest for knowledge
  • The quest for knowledge and desire to explore led to discovery of America - Columbus looking for a passage to the indies through west
    • He didn’t realize he discovered something new. Amerigo Vespucci was the first to say “It’s new, we don’t know” -> discovery was attributed to him
  • Asians heard about America but didn’t send anyone. At that time, culture was dictating that Asia was central for the world, so why going to America?
  • Conquest was driven by science, sending historians, archeologists, biologists, etc.
  • It’s hard to label empires as good or bad because they certainly did wrong by the locals (exploiting them) but also shaped the world we live in, introduced agriculture, medicine and … to the large.


  • Capitalism is the reinvestment of wealth in others & development.
  • It’s initial target was progress: if the pie becomes larger, everyone’s slice becomes larger.
  • The invention of the loan= trust in future growth.
  • Colonialization was driven by capitalism. Columbus was a private entrepreneur who had to find funds for his enterprise. The rest of America and “Indies” got colonized by companies, which emitted shares. The riskier the business, the harder to get funds and the larger the return.
  • Wars went through the same, replacing taxation for war by investment, the biggest example being the independence war of Greece, which placed Greeks into an unrecoverable debt.
  • Free market became a religion -> capitalism advocates for capitalism intervening in policy but not the opposite,
  • The logic is that capitalism produces a bigger pie by itself, and therefore everyone’s slice becomes bigger.
    • Is there a limit to that? Not really.
    • Energy is harvested from new sources
    • Discovering new use for materials, extracting chemicals from new sources
    • Exploiting animals and considering them as machines (despite their emotional needs)


  • At some point food started being produced by only 2% of population - this resulted in surplus of production of other goods, that needed to be purchased
  • This gave life to a new ideology - consumerism


  • We leave in a global peace of a scale unknown to humans. Average murder rate in early history was between 40 and 60 death per 100.000 people. Modern society is between 10 for the roughest dictatorships, and 1 for western society.
  • Leaders are notoriously more for peace than in the past. War used to be valued as a proof of strength and honor by chiefs, it’s not anymore.
  • Cost of war has gone dramatically up (nuclear), while profit has gone down with migration of value from land and resources to brains. It’s telling that modern conflict is usually on land that has oil.


Was the late Neil Armstrong, whose footprint remains intact on the windless moon, happier than the nameless hunter-gatherer who 30,000 years ago left her handprint on a wall in Chauvet Cave? If not, what was the point of developing agriculture, cities, writing, coinage, empires, science and industry?

~ Sapiens, Yuval Noah Harari

  • Happiness is hard to define but has been research significantly in the past few years.
  • Happiness was dictated in the past. Religions were defining what is supposed to make us happy.
  • Few main ideas emerge:
    • It is derived from expectations.
      • Amortals might not be happier and might become totally risk-adverse
      • Rich who gets lots of money doesn’t get happier.
    • It is coming from biochemistry - therefore changing the chemistry (serotonin) can “fix” happiness
      • If chemistry doesn’t predict happiness, some see it as the boundaries of the “A/C” happiness system. Some people can have happiness levels between 6 and 10 and are pre-disposed to be happy, some between 3 and 7 and are pre-disposed to be unhappy.
    • It comes from the meaningfulness of life -> fixing just the chemistry doesn’t seem to be a solution if life is meaningless.
    • Liberalism is the mainstream religion of our days, and views happiness as the expression of individual feelings: feeling happy is an interior thing and asking people if they are happy would be the only way to know if they are.
      • On the opposite side, Buddhists think feelings are short-term cravings that disappear, and one should abandon the pursuit of feelings.
  • In our success we also make other animals miserable, do their happiness not count?

The limits of biology

  • Humans have engineered genomes for a very long time - breeding chicken so they’re fat, domesticating plants that grow well.
  • Mortality is being eliminated, and sapiens has pretty much eliminated natural selection for themselves and for the animals they breed.

The biologists are right about the past, but the proponents of intelligent design might, ironically, be right about the future.

~ Sapiens, Yuval Noah Harari

  • Beyond that, sapiens now engineers genes directly,
    • there are experiments to revive dead species (Neanderthal, mammoths),
    • there are experiments on bionic life (replace limbs, restore motion and language)
    • and extend humans to make them cyborgs (connect to brains, connect minds)
  • The philosophical and ethical repercussions are unclear - is gene private? Are we going to have new feelings?
  • In this role of semi-god, hoepfully sapiens will be able to help others (animals) and survive.

About Reading Notes

These are my takes on this book. See other reading notes. Most of the time I stop taking notes on books I don't enjoy, and these end up not being in the list. This is why average ratings tend to be high.